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.