Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Where does the authority lie? In Scripture or in one part of Scripture?
Some have described the Gospel as the "canon within the canon" that is the ultimate authority and Word of God and Scripture as having authority because the Gospel is part of that Scripture. These tend to be those who shy away from words such as inerrant or infallible. The direct history of this in the LCMS is part of what led to the schism of the 1970s. Those known as Seminex held that it is the Gospel that gives Scripture its authority and not vice versa. Now I am not at all sure that their opponents (who prevailed in this struggle) were saying that Scripture is what gives the Gospel its authority as much as they were saying the Scripture is authoritative and the Gospel is authoritative -- not in competition with each other or as one derived from each other. For the Gospel is one word of Scripture just as the Law is the other word of Scripture. The Law is not without its authority and neither is the Gospel. They work not as separate and distinct words from God but together as the complete voice of God that is His Word.
In contrast to this, the catholic faith maintains that Scripture is the voice of God. The voice of God speaks two distinct words. The genius of the Lutheran Reformation is to distinguish between these two words. The voice of the Law lays upon us the requirements under which we were created and which our first parents broke with, thus incurring the wrath of God and the imposition of death, decay, and disorder upon us and all of God's creation. The voice of the Gospel also speaks of what the conscience does not and cannot know and what cannot be observed from nature -- that God determined to save His fallen creation from their sin and restore them to life from the domain of death. This Gospel word is ours only be revelation and not by observation or reason. This is the work of the Spirit. In many and various way God spoke to His people of old but now He has spoken through His Son. He did this through the Word made flesh, His Son, who as the innocent took on the burden of our guilt, paying its penalty with the currency of His own blood, and bestowing upon us unworthy sinners forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Law speaks to protect us and order our lives in safety, to prepare the heart of the sinner for the Gospel, and finally to guide the redeemed to that which is good and right and true for life in Christ. Thus both words work in concert for us and for our salvation.
The point is that we remain locked in the same dispute that was once part and parcel of the conflict in Missouri. There are those who would say that the first and second readings are only the Word of the Lord in an incomplete way. However guided by the Spirit, they remain a mix of our words to God and some of His Word to us. The Gospel alone is the Word of the Lord without such equivocation. As one writer put it, "much of the Bible could be described as (very helpful) words about God rather than 'the Word of the Lord.'" (Ralph Klein)
This remains the great divide among Lutherans. When we say "the Word of the Lord" are we declaring and affirming that Scripture is the voice of God (both Law and Gospel) OR do we mean that only such words contain words from God intermixed with human words that lack such divine authority? The latter has been the justification for many church wide decisions (I am thinking in the ELCA) to depart from what Scripture says in favor of a conclusion that fits with the principle of the Gospel (most clearly meaning freedom and that which is new, no longer bound to Biblical order, tradition, or the catholic principle).
Fortunately the minutiae of this is often lost because of the liturgical tradition in which we respond instinctively "Thanks be to God" to "the Word of the Lord." In this way the liturgy may help to slow the decay but it surely cannot keep it from doing its destructive work. Within the ELCA people continue to hear on Sunday, "the Word of the Lord" even though the actions of the church wide assemblies and the leadership at Higgins Road mean "well, not exactly." In fact, there are those voices in the ELCA that have concluded that at times positions taken by the Biblical writers are just plain wrong or unhelpful or irrelevant to the contemporary issue or situation.
Those who hold to the Gospel as that which gives authority to Scripture complain that the alternative is fundamentalism. They lament the "easy answers" that Scripture seems to give to complex questions and insist that the word of Scripture must not be allowed to trump the word of the Gospel. In the end such leads us not to clarity but ambivalence, not to objective truth but relative truths, not to confidence but a puzzle. They insist that the only place where the Bible is clear is the Gospel -- that which is necessary for Christian faith and life is clear -- and the rest of it relative and maybe even obscure. What was part of the debate in the 1970s continues to frame the differences between Lutherans in America today. Some things never change...