Holy Scripture for the Advent Preacher: Part 2

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The Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles to put God’s Word into human language has guided and guarded their transmission in the course of human history preserving them for the sake of the Gospel.

The father of modern Christian liberal theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), spoke of the Holy Scriptures as a mausoleum of the Spirit in that they give evidence of the Spirit’s work in the past. In the twentieth century, Karl Barth (1886-1968) compared the Bible to the Pool of Bethesda. Just as an angel would occasionally stir the waters so that the lame were cured, so the Spirit would stir the pages of the Bible so the reader might encounter God there and, hence, the Scriptures would become the Word of God in this encounter. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, give the impression that the canonical Scriptures are given from Heaven in a way which differs little from the Islamic version of the origin of the Koran. Lutherans, by way of contrast to the above-mentioned view, receive the Holy Scriptures as the Spirit’s Word which delivers Christ sent from the Father to reconcile the world to Himself through the blood of the cross. The Scriptures are true and trustworthy because Christ is the Truth and His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit of truth (see John 16:13; 17:17). Lutherans trust the Holy Scriptures because they trust Christ.[1]

The Bible is neither an artifact of the Spirit’s past work nor is it a place where, under proper conditions, the Spirit might be expected to drop in from time to time. The Holy Scriptures are inspired, that is, God-breathed and the Spirit continues to breathe on us through them. The Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles to put God’s Word into human language has guided and guarded their transmission in the course of human history preserving them for the sake of the Gospel. Because they are His Word, they alone are the “rule and norm” for Christian believing, confessing, and living.[2]

We receive the Scriptures as the Word of God not because the Church has made them such, but because they are the Word of the Triune God. One of the Lutheran church fathers of the sixteenth century, Martin Chemnitz, put it like this, “...the Church does not have such power, that it can make true writings out of false, false out of true, out of doubtful and uncertain, certain, canonical and legitimate.”[3] Or as John Webster has more recently stated, “Scripture is not the word of the Church; the Church is the church of the Word.”[4] The process of “canonization” was not so much the Church deciding some books are the Word of God and others are not, but rather confessing that these books inspired by the Spirit are the Word of God. Knut Alfsvåg observes: “The first generation of Christians maintained the integrity of this faith [faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Lord] by listening to the apostles as its original proponents. When the apostles died, their writings, or the writings closely associated with them, came to be seen and used as sacred text on par with the Old Testament. The apostles thus were seen as theological authorities on the same level as the Old Testament writers and Jesus, as the One who gave the apostles this authority, was then by implication considered equal to God as the One who authorized the prophets. Through the canonization of the New Testament, the Church thus established and maintained itself as the community of those who believed in Jesus as the Lord.”[5] The Church has never been without the Holy Scriptures. New Testament writings were recognized as the Word of God and used liturgically alongside of the Old Testament scriptures, as both testified to Christ Jesus.

The inspiration of the Holy Scriptures is attested to in II Timothy 3:14-17 and II Peter 1:16-21. The inspiration of the Holy Scriptures is not to be understood psychologically[6] nor in a mystical manner whereby the writers became nothing more than lifeless instruments overtaken by the Spirit.[7] Nor is inspiration to be played off against the evangelical content of the Scriptures as that which “promotes Christ.” Inge Lønning rightly observes: “The attribute of inspiration is indissolubly linked to the attribute of ‘that which promotes Christ’ insofar as the Holy Spirit is the only agent in this world capable of ‘promoting Christ.’ That is, communicating Christ and His consummated salvific work of faith.”[8] It is from the standpoint of this linkage to Christology that we rightly understand Luther’s assertion in The Bondage of the Will: “Take away Christ from the Scriptures – and what more will you find in them?”[9] Without Christ, the Scriptures have no function. This is behind the oft-quoted dictum of Luther, was Christum treibet, what pushes or promotes Christ. For Luther this is not a selective or reductionist principle but a way of reading the Scriptures so that the saving work of Christ is always in view as Luther says in his “Preface to the Old Testament” (1523/1545): “If you would interpret well and confidently, set Christ before you, for He is the man to whom it all applies, every bit of it” (LW 35:247).

Take away Christ from the Scriptures – and what more will you find in them?-Martin Luther

In the II Timothy text, Paul exhorts Timothy to continue in the faith which he learned from those who taught him the sacred writings from his youth. Immediately, Paul moves to his central affirmation regarding the authority of the inspired Scriptures: They have the ability to, “make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15). This capacity of the Scriptures is attached to the fact that they are “breathed by God,” that is inspired by God.[10] Therefore, they are utterly reliable for doctrine (teaching), reproof, and correction, for training in righteousness, “that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17). The inspiration of the Scriptures cannot be separated from their causative power to create and sustain saving faith in Christ. Scripture has its usefulness in shaping the life of the believer, out-fitting those who have faith in Christ for a life of love lived in creation according to God’s commandments.

Likewise in II Peter, inspiration is tied to the truth of Christ Jesus and His redeeming work. In a manner which parallels I John 1:1-3, Peter testifies, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (II Peter 1:16), as he connects the inspiration of the Scriptures with the Transfiguration. Having witnessed the glory of God the Father revealed in the Son, Peter assures his readers of the certainty of the prophetic Word fulfilled in Christ to whom the apostles now join with Moses and Elijah as witnesses. Prophetic words are not the product of human impulse but are breathed by the Spirit. Their inspiration determines how they are to be interpreted. They are not given for subjective and speculative renderings molded to fit categories acceptable to human reason and sentiment. Their wisdom, like the wisdom of the cross itself, overthrows human wisdom rendering it foolishness (see I Corinthians 1:18-25). Like the Christ whom they carry, they are not devoid of human weakness yet in their weakness, they make manifest the power of God as they are preached.

It is recognized that for Luther, the oral Word enjoys a certain priority over the inscripturated Word.[11] The Reformer’s comments in his postil for the First Sunday in Advent (1521) are well-known. Preaching on the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9), Luther says: “This agrees with the word ‘Bethphage,’ which means, as some say, mouth-house, for Saint Paul says in Romans 1:2, that the Gospel was promised afore in the Holy Scriptures but was not preached orally and publicly until Christ came and sent out His apostles. Therefore, the Church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house, for since Christ’s advent that Gospel is preached orally which before was hidden in written books.”[12] Yet, there is a circularity at work here, as the oral Word chronologically comes before the written Word, yet the oral Word is dependent on the written Word and normed by it. Thus, we affirm sola Scriptura. It is Scripture alone that is the pure fountain of Israel and the singular “rule and norm” for the proclamation of Christ.[13]

While the Holy Scriptures stand in service of proclamation, they are not robbed of their normative character because they are written. They are no less the Word of God because they are written rather than oral. Hermann Sasse helpfully explains: “All proclamation that is to be preserved must be written down. The written Word may lack the freshness of the oral proclamation, but its content remains the same, and it gains the advantage of remaining unchanged and being preserved for future generations.” [14]

Where the Scriptures are not recognized as the Word of God, there can only be what Luther called “Enthusiasm” in the Smalcald Articles. The Enthusiasts cannot help but seek some other authority in one’s reason, experience, or a selective reading of tradition for, “They boast that the Spirit has come to them without the preaching of the Scriptures.” [15] One will look behind, beneath, or above the text for an answer to the question, “What does this really mean?” Instead, we are content with the Holy Scriptures in the way God has given them to us for they give us Christ Jesus in whom we have certainty and confidence. We trust the Scriptures because we trust the One to whom they bear witness, and He does not lie or deceive. Therefore, we confess the Holy Scriptures to be both the inerrant and infallible Word of God.[16]

We trust the Scriptures because we trust the One to whom they bear witness, and He does not lie or deceive.

While the Epitome to the Formula of Concord uses neither the terms “inerrant” or “infallible” to describe the Holy Scriptures, its authors work with the presupposition that the prophetic and apostolic writings are utterly reliable and without error. How else could they be confessed as, “The only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged” (Epitome 1, K-W, 486)? This is reaffirmed in the Introduction to the Solid Declaration, “First, we confess our adherence to the prophetic writings of the Old and New Testaments, as the pure, clear, fountain of Israel which alone is the one true guiding principle by which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated” (Introduction 3, FC-SD, K-W, 527).[17]

The trustworthiness and truthfulness of the Holy Scripture stands in service to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.[18] Our confession of the Holy Scripture does not stop with the affirmation of its inerrancy and infallibility. Rather, we press toward God’s purpose in inspiring the Scripture, that is to make us wise to the salvation which is through faith in Christ alone. We do well to attend to the wisdom of Martin Franzmann: “What of ‘verbally inspired, infallible Word’? This is Biblical and Lutheran and not to be surrendered. But it does not say enough: It does not in itself say the essential thing. It says: ‘The Word of God is an arrow with a perfect tip and a shaft without flaw, check, or blemish, feathered and balanced as no other arrow is. There is no arrow like it under the sun.’ The Lutheran res says ‘This perfect arrow is aimed at you. It will kill you, in order that you may live.’ The Lutheran res will not permit the Church to become the Society for the Preservation of the Perfect Arrow.”[19]

Erasmus could assign to the Scriptures a particular formal authority, yet for the Dutch humanist it still remained a dark and foreboding book. Concealing Christ, it lacked an ecclesial interpreter who could crack the code. For Erasmus, the Spirit inspired the Scriptures, but the Spirit cannot be trusted to open them through faith in Christ’s promises. Over and against Erasmus, Luther confesses, “The Holy Spirit is no skeptic.” The Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, “remains unrelenting in the use of the Scripture to bring God’s hiding to an end and reveal Christ who forgives sins.”[20] The offensiveness may be expressed with objections to their time-bound nature or their historical unreliability but these objections are a covering for a deeper scandal that these human words are indeed the Word of God through which the Spirit who gave them to ancient prophets and apostles is on the attack against all that is not of Christ. It is then through the Spirit’s words that Christ Jesus is delivered as the Lord who is the Savior of all who trust in Him. Advent proclaims a King who comes in the form of a beggar. In Luther’s words, He is a “Beggar King.” Yet, in that humility and lowliness, He comes to save. His Scriptures share in His humility and lowliness even as they make us wise to the salvation He brings and delivers.[21] The Scriptures which He has inspired also take the form of a servant.[22] It is by faith that we recognize the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God, but the object of this saving faith remains the Savior who they proclaim.

[1] Thus, Norman Nagel: “Faith’s primary apprehension is Christ; the consequent apprehension is Scripture. To apprehend Christ is to be placed under Scripture. The recognition of this is the basis of how we listen to what Scripture says. Scripture has spoken Christ to us, and therefore, when Scripture speaks, we receive and accept whatever it says, for whatever it says is heard in relationship to Christ.” - “The Authority of Scripture” Concordia Theological Monthly (September 1956), 963.

[2] Here see Jeffrey Silcock: “The Holy Spirit in His freedom has bound Himself to the letters of the Bible so that any demonstration of the Spirit and power today (I Corinthians 2:4) will happen in no other way than ‘in and through the prophetic and apostolic Word that is sure, certain, and utterly reliable’ (Bayer)” - “Luther on the Holy Spirit and His Use of God’s Word,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, edited by Robert Kolb et al (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 306. Also note Werner Klän: “Within the horizon of Lutheran theology on the means of grace, the (external) Word and God’s Spirit are attached inseparably to the ‘lettered’ word, as the Holy Spirit binds Himself this Word”- “God’s Word as the Place Where God Dwells,” in From Wittenberg to the World: Essays on the Reformation and its Legacy in Honor of Robert Kolb, edited by Charles Arand et al (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018), 265.

[3] Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, translated by Fred Kramer (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1971), 181.

[4] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 44.

[5] Knut Alfsvåg, “‘These Things Took Place as Examples for Us’: On the Theological and Ecumenical Significance of the Lutheran Sola ScripturaDialog: A Journal of Theology (Fall, 2016), 203. For a helpful treatment of “canon,” see Oskar Skarsaune, “Which Books Belong in the Bible? The Question of the Canon,” in In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 279-299.

[6] Hermann Sasse affirms that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God in human speech, not simply that the Bible contains the Word of God. It is from this perspective he then says, “Now we begin to understand the intent of our warning against the psychological misunderstanding of inspiration. Because it is psychologically impossible for one and the same book to have two authors in this sense, the psychologizing of inspiration necessarily led to either the divine side of Scripture being absorbed by the human side, or the human side being absorbed by the divine”- “On the Doctrine of Scriptura Sacra,” in Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol I: 1948-1951, edited by Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013), 269.

[7] Here see Sasse: “Among the theories put forward in the past in order to explain the nature of Inspiration of Scripture have been such which regarded the holy writers as a sort of writing utensil or as mere secretaries writing on dictation. Whilst such theories are general rejected today, there are still different opinions as to how far the divine authorship of Holy Scripture which is based on the fact of Inspiration may be reconciled with the human authorship which is claimed by these writings themselves (Psalms, Pauline Epistles, Luke 1:1ff; Acts 1:1; Revelation 1:ff) even in the way which the trustworthiness of their authors is emphasized in support of the truthfulness of their content (John 21:24)” - “Suggestions for Theses on Holy Scripture,” 539.

[8] Inge Lønning, “No Other Gospel: Luther’s Concept of the ‘Middle of Scripture’ in Its Significance for Ecumenical Communion and Christian Confession Today,” in Luther’s Ecumenical Significance: An Interconfessional Consultation, edited by Peter Manns and Harding Meyer in collaboration with Carter Lindberg and Harry McSorely (Philadelphia: Fortress Press/New York Paulist Press, 1984), 235. Timothy J. Wengert articulates one side of Luther’s understanding of the authority of the Scripture in his Word of Life: Introducing Lutheran Hermeneutics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019). However, there is another dimension to Luther as he also argues the Scriptures are authoritative because they are the very Word of God. For a corrective, see Cameron Mackenzie, “The Source of Biblical Authority: Gospel or God?” in Defending the Reformation, edited by John A. Maxfield (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 93-121. Also see Robert Kolb, “In the Beginning God Said: Luther’s Understanding of the Word of God,” 35-74, and “Nowhere More Present than in Scripture: Luther’s Perception of What the Bible Is,” 75-97, in Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and Its Scripture-Centered Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2016). Especially helpful is the corrective which Kolb provides to the trend among certain twentieth century theologians to drive a wedge between the Word of God and the Bible, often invoking Luther as an ally: “Twentieth-century neo-orthodox interpreters properly pointed to the Wittenberg professor’s focus on Christ as the center of Scripture but thereby sometimes obscured his insistence that the Holy Spirit was speaking through the prophets and apostles in all they wrote. Discomfort with seventeenth-century doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture influenced this view more than what Luther actually said or wrote” (76). Kolb demonstrates Luther had no hesitation in calling the Bible “the Word of God,” recognizing it as inspired by the Holy Spirit and its pages as the dwelling place of the same Spirit. For Luther, the Scriptures are sufficient for the purposes of the Spirit who gave them. Also, see Kolb’s “The Relationship between Scripture and the Confession of the Faith in Luther’s Thought,” in The Way of Concord: From Historic Text to Contemporary Witness (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2017), 99-110.

[9] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I Packer and O.R. Johnson (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), 71.

[10] Here see Robert Preus: “It is only by virtue of the fact that God is in the Word that this Word has the power to accomplish anything spiritual. The Word is powerless if God is not present in it. Any Word that proceeds from God brings God with it. All this is very important. If the Spirit is separated from the Word of God, it is no longer the Word of God. And because God is always with His Word, the power of the Word is the power of God” - The Inspiration of Scripture: A Study of the Theology of the 17th Century Lutheran Dogmaticians (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), 184.

[11] Here see the extended discussion in Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 47-50. Especially: “Luther reads, hears, and understands the Bible as witness to the living Word and as itself a living Word which addresses us bodily, ‘externally’ – I can hear it, and therefore sing and speak of it. For Luther everything depends upon the Bible; hearing, using, and preaching it as the living voice of the Gospel (viva vox evangelii).” (47).

[12] Martin Luther, “Church Postil for the First Sunday in Advent,” in Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. I: Sermons on Gospel Texts for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, edited by John Nicholas Lenker (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 44.

[13] Thus, Steven Paulson observes: “The heart of Luther’s sola Scriptura is not simply that tradition, or the teaching hierarchy, must yield to Scripture’s text but that Scripture is God’s ‘thing’ or place in which He reveals Himself wholly and completely, withholding nothing. Of course, this is not without the inner and outer clarity of Scripture, the preaching office, and the Holy Spirit’s hearing, but Luther is saying – against all convention –that God is conveyed absolutely in a created thing, through a creature to a creature. Scripture is God’s going public, revealing and so a gushing fountain so that humans are not left with partial revelation oscillating between hidden and revealed God. The reception of this Word grasps the whole God without remainder – not equivocally, or univocally, but unequivocally.” - Luther’s Outlaw God, Volume I: Hiddenness, Evil, and Predestination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018), 110-111.

[14] Hermann Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” in Accents in Luther’s Theology, edited by Heino Kadai (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 71-72.

[15] SA III.8.6, The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 322.

[16] The confession of Scripture’s inerrancy is a confession of faith. It is made in light of the mystery of God’s revelation in Christ but not because it can be demonstrated by human reason. Faith receives Christ as He gives Himself to us. Nagel reminds us we cannot make of Jesus a “Docetic Christ” by limiting inerrancy only to spiritual matters: “To take geography and history out of the words of Jesus is make a docetic Christ who is not our Brother and Savior” - Norman Nagel, “The Authority of Scripture,” 702.

[17] For a helpful study of how the Formula of Concord understands and uses Holy Scripture, see Robert Preus, “The Hermeneutics of the Formula of Concord,” in Doctrine is Life: Essays on Scripture, edited by Klemet Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 215-242, and Harry Huth, “Rule and Norm of Doctrine in the Formula of Concord,” in A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord, edited by Wilbert Rosin and Robert Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 95-102.

[18] Here see Robert Preus: “Only when I understand that the Scriptures and Christ are pro me will I understand the Scriptures (or the inerrancy thereof).” – “Notes on the Inerrancy of Scripture,” in Doctrine is Life: Essays on Scripture, 120. This essay is a valuable contribution to the discussion of what inerrancy does and does not mean.

[19] Martin Franzmann, “Seven Theses on Reformation Hermeneutics,” Concordia Theological Monthly (April 1969), 244.

[20] Steven D. Paulson, “Internal Clarity of Scripture and the Modern World. Luther and Erasmus Revisited,” in Hermeneutica Sacra: Studies of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, edited by Torbjörn Johansson, Robert Kolb, and Johann Anselm Steiger (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 97. Also see Hermann Sasse, “Erasmus Luther, and Modern Christendom,” in The Lonely Way, Volume I, edited by Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002), 373-384. Sasse sees Erasmus as the prototype of the modern advocate for an undogmatic Christianity. For Erasmus, the Scriptures were fundamentally unclear. “Here the deep difference between Luther’s and Erasmus’ understanding of the Bible becomes evident. It is in this discussion with the great humanist that Luther developed his profoundest thought on Holy Scripture and its authority and perspicuity. The entire argument of Erasmus writing is based on the assumption that Holy Scriptures must be interpreted in the light of the church fathers and the teaching authority of the Church. Only thus had he been able to reconcile the various Bible passages. Without this necessary commentary, the Bible would be to Erasmus a dark book, full of irreconcilable statements” (182).

[21] Again Nagel: “We may not apologize for God and try to help Him to a more intellectually respectable procedure by lifting Him out of His humbling Himself to us so utterly. If He does not have to come so far to save us, then of course some of the distance is our achievement, and then is our salvation shaken. In God's humbling Himself to us is our salvation, and therefore we shall not wish to diminish it or spiritualize it away. And there is a yet greater reason, for therein is God's honor. It is of His honor that He graciously humbles Himself, that He speaks our language with all that entails. The untidiness of Scripture and its recalcitrance to our notions and logic are the measure of God’s outreach to us. It is of a piece with us and our world. Through this creatureliness and muddle God comes to us. What a God.” – “The Authority of Scripture,” 703-704.

[22] On the humility of the divinely given Scriptures in their form as a servant, see the work of Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788): “How has God the Father abased Himself, when He not only formed a lump of clay but even ensouled it with His breath. How has God made the Son abase Himself? He became a human, the humblest among beings, He took the form of a servant, became the most unfortunate of beings. He was made sin for us. In God’s eyes He was the sinner of the whole people. How has God the Holy Spirit humbled Himself? When He became the historian of the smallest, most despised, most insignificant events on earth, to reveal to humans, in their own language, their own history, their own paths, the counsels, the mysteries and the ways of divinity.” Cited in Oswald Bayer, A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as Radical Enlightener, translated by Roy A. Harrisville and Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 55. John Betz aptly succinctly states Hamann’s approach: “The transcendent God is kenotically hidden within language-just as He is kenotically hidden within human history, just as He is kenotically hidden within in the humanity of Christ, and just as the Holy Spirit is kenotically hidden within in the ‘rags’ of Scripture” - After the Enlightenment: The Post Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 340. Also see Roy A. Harrisville, “Johann Georg Hamann, Biblische Betrachtungen,” in Promising Faith for a Ruptured-Age: An English-Speaking Appreciation of Oswald Bayer, edited by John T. Pless, Roland Ziegler, and Joshua C. Miller (Eugene: Pickwick, 2019), 17-36.