Monday, March 28, 2011
The Bible is a dangerous book
So what of Henry's conclusion? Is he right? Is the Bible a dangerous book when read by those unschooled in the faith? Is the Bible a book that should be restricted -- available only to those who have been trained to read it or who read it from the vantage point of that place within the assembly of God's people? Lutherans have, historically, followed Luther's suggestion of the primary value of the catechism and the hymnal to the Christian home. It is not that Luther or the Lutherans are opposed to the reading of Scripture -- far be it -- but at the same time, we do understand what has happened since the Reformation and how we have found the Christian marketplace crowded with tens of thousands of different "Christian" Churches all claimed to be Biblical, all insisting that their interpretation of Scripture is authentic and true. How do we know and judge all manner of doctrine and interpretation? Must the layman in the pew be a "Doctor" of the Scriptures in order to distinguish truth from falsehood, the catholic faith from a sectarian viewpoint? Or could we say that this is precisely the reason why we have written Confessions, catechisms, the hymnal, etc.?
The clarity of Scripture as taught most famously by Luther in On the Bondage of the Will has been imported into the Lutheran Confessions. We do not deny this. However, the clarity of Scripture is not to be confused with simplicity or comprehensibility. Were the subject matter of Scripture, God's revelation of Himself, truly simple, it would not need to be revealed. That which is revealed, the peace of God and all that belongs to the Gospel, transcends human understanding and is profound at the very heart of it. [Quoting Erling Teigen] In other words, Scripture is clear and its meaning plain. It is not obscure nor its meaning hidden and it must be mediated, spiritualized, or rationalized. Yet it is also true, as Luther asserts, "There is, therefore, another, an external judgment, whereby with the greatest certainty we judge the spirits and dogmas of all men, not only for ourselves, but also for others and for their salvation. This judgment belongs to the public ministry of the Word and to the outward office, and is chiefly the concern of leaders and preachers of the Word . . . This is what we earlier called 'the external clarity of Holy Scripture.' " [LW, vol 33, p 91] As Teigen concludes; simply to repeat the words of Scripture, without dearly expressing their meaning, is to fail to assert a clear Scripture...
The Bible is a dangerous book -- most dangerous -- when it is subject to the authority of personal reason or when it is mined as a spiritual vein of hidden truth inaccessible to most. In this way Lutherans have carefully navigated between the fault of the Radical Reformers who would spiritualize its words and those in Rome who would make it an obscure book. The vehicle of this via media is the Confessions, whose exegesis is doctrinal and whose doctrine is founded upon exegetical pillars. Every doctrine necessary for faith and life is clearly taught in Scripture. This does not mean that every verse or word of Scripture is clear or that either in whole or part Scripture is easy to understand. The key to understanding is faith worked by the Spirit. The legacy of the Church is the faith and faithful teaching of the orthodox and catholic fathers, of creed and confession -- all working to answer the question "what does this mean?" Not what does this mean to me or what does this mean now but what does this mean -- Christ being THE message and highest authority of the Word of God. Outside this heritage of teaching and exposition, the Bible can, indeed, be a dangerous book.
Last week someone taped a jump drive to our church door. On that drive was a 250 page manifesto of this person's faith, something of his history, and a call to repentance. It was ever so Biblical in reference but it was entirely flawed in perspective and application of that Scripture. For this man, the Bible was a dangerous book. He read it subject to his own reason and understanding but without the advantage of creed, confession, and catechism. We who are Lutherans should not be embarrassed by our creedal, confessional, and catechetical perspective and heritage. These become the guide to help us see what Scripture clearly teaches and to reign in the great temptation let our reason and experience stand in authority over what Scripture says.
I think of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The man read what the Scripture said but did not know what it meant. As Philip illuminated and unfolded its meaning to that reader so long ago, we as Lutherans enjoy the benefit of the Office of the Ministry, creed, catechism, and confession to guide us to its full and clear meaning in Christ.
Some closing words from Teigen: Paradoxically, the clear revelation of God in the external Word demands a dogmatical examination of the words of Scripture and an outward confession of what the words mean.To believe that the Scriptures are clear is meaningless without such a confession. The task of exegesis for Luther and the Confessions is to ask "What does it mean?" of any Scripture. [CTQ Vol 36, No. 2-3].