Full Text for An Evaluation of the Law-Gospel Principle as a Hermeneutical Method (Text)

An Evaluation of the Law-Gospel Principle as a Hermeneutical Method* Different systclns of hermeneutics are currently in usc among hn~erican Lutheran professors and pastors and different systems of hernlener~tics are eillployed in the intcrpretation of the Lutheran Confessions. The probleni in hermcncutics Elas been nlcll stated by Dr. Jahsnlann in his introduction to Slayer's I~zterpreti11.g the Scrip- tures, when the former wrote : Present-clay interest in princil~lcs of Biblical intcrprctation has been "provokecl" largely by contro17ersies of one kind or another. Far more important IS the neecl of the application of sound prin- cil-tlcs in the personal usc 2nd teaching of the Bible. All of us know how others (if we have failed to sec the bean1 in our own cyes) have nlisused Biblical texts or have alloi~ed false or un- ~varrantcd teachings to take on the authority of God's iVord." Dr. Jahsn~nnn correctly stated in his introduction to AIaycr's volumc that all tcachers of Scripture, be thcy pastors, teachers or laymen, have the obligation to rightly disccrn and interprct the Scriptures. Rightly does he claim: "rl concern for a truc intcrpretation and use of the Bible is a concern for the truth of God. i17ithout this concern one cannot truly serve God, no mattcr 210~ nluch one might quote or refcr to the Bible.'li The new hermcneutic of Fuchs, Ebeling, Iublicly pro- claimed and every where heard . . . tllercfore, if one shoulcl ask what the Gospel is, the sophists of the higher schools ~vould answer; it is a book which teaches a good thing. They do not know what it is because they (10 not unclerstand it. Gospel means good messago.'" Faith conles out of hearing of the gospel proclanlation \vllen the law has destroyed all self-conficlence in man. Faith can ask no securer basis that this. From this perspective it is possible to allow for crrors in the Biblc; they do not affect faith which is created by the Gospel. The JVord of God is living and active and needs no theory of inspira- tion. "The \l;ord of God is something qunlitntivelp different froin man's word, not jrist c~~~antitativcly, and it makes its own wdy in the world. It is nuthoritativc because it established its own authority."'" Another group of theologians found xcpresentcd in different synods of Luthcranisn~, who use the law/gospel principle of interpre- tation, arc thosc who arc calling themselves "evangelical Lutherans" and those adhering to the older position as "Lutheran scholastics." Dean Luclnt with thc I_uthcran Confcsslolls wc affirm that the right understanding tflc Gospel (inclr~cling tltc proper distinction of Law ancl Gospel as grounded in the article of Justification) is the key that finally unlocks the meaning of Sacred Scriptures (Apol. IV : 2-5, German; 1:. C. SD, V. 1 ) . \Vc therefore hold that all theological clucstiorls raised by any intcr- pretation must be posecl and ans~vcrecl wit11 rcfercnce to this central concern of the Scriptures. We holct that tIlosc tccl~nical cpcstions involvcd in interpretation which neither aid nor im- p;~ir the right of undcrstantling of tbc Gospel (in its fullest sonsc) ougilt not to becolnc a matter of controversy in the church (Cf. Apol. VII, 20f .; FC, SD Sun~mary, 15). Not that the technical cjuestions as such may hc clismisscd in advance ;ic trivial. On the contrary, thc Christian ii~tcrprctcr is bound to clcal seriously and soberly with all qucstions that arise in connection wit11 the in tcrpretation of any part of Scrip tnres, prcciscly to enat~le hinl to judge corrcctfy id-ietl~er thcy aid, imlx~ir, or arc irrdcvant to thc right understanding of thc Goslwf .?' Unlcss the essayist is completely ~~~isunclerstandi~~g this para- graph of t21c Stnlzce Docz~nzcnt, it claims that an interpretation of a Scripture passage or passages is permissible, even though it may question ciear- statements of thc text, as long as it ciocs not violate the law/gospel pri~~ciplc. Since thc Stance Docunze~zt has not clefined what is meant by those technical cjucstions involvcd ii? interpretation rvhich ncithcr impair the right unclerstal~ding of the Gospel (in its fullest sense), it is difficult to know what in the text is urlesscntial for not rejecting or ;lcccpting a given jnterprctation that does not deal f;litllfully with a verse, ii paragraph, a chapter or seg~llent of Scripture. Thcrc arc Lutheran in'terpreters who reject the mlraclcs of the Bible, repudiate prophccy when it yredicts futurc events, reject clear isagogical statements of thc Ole1 and New 'rcstaments, cluestion the fact~lality of evcnts rccordetl in thc historical books of the Bible as unirnl>ortant and assert that if their rejections ancl repudiations of Scriptural teaching do not 1:ioIrtte the law-gospel principle, this nay bc cloilc ~vithout objections legitimately being raised against such interpretations as I~eing erroneous because they violate the hermencuticnl principle that the text is to be understood according to the sense intended by the original author. There are those who reject thc cxistcnce of Satan, the existence of gooci :lnd erril angels, belief in the Virgin Birth, the nliracles of Christ, a visible second return of Christ, n corporeal resurrection anci other dearly revealed teachii~gs ancl still contend that the lion-acceptance of these teachings is not serious becausc it docs not violate the law-gospel principle. I'rofessor Schrocder as a member of Valparaiso's Kclig!on Depnrt- merit wrote that it is possible within the law-gospel principle to prac- tice literary criticism, forin criticism, tradition criticisln and Sachkritik and be sounclly Luther and Bihlicnl.2Tvolution, an errant Scriptures, 11 7 tne ncvv morality" and "situatio~~ ethics" arc all possible by this sirxple devise af asserting that the distinction between law-gospel is not ~~iclated. 'The Dean of Gettysburg Seminary claims that it is pos- sible to intcrprct the Lutheran position in Barthian, Niebuhrinn, Tillichian or JVhitel~eaclian terms." This would only he possible by thc cspousai of a hermeneutics that claims that 2s lono as thc r' law-gospcl principl~ is not violatecl, the interpreter call Interpret accoiding to any of the accepted positions of current theology. 'I'hc position of those Lutheran theologians who claim that the basic principlc of 1,utheran hernlcneutics is the la\v-gospel principle and that all passages in Scripture must be evaluated according to it are establisl~ing a new hermenc~~tics. To be ablc to deny cIcar explicit statenlents of ;i biblical test, repudiate doctrines held by the liistoric Christian Church and apply types of criticisnl that makc the body of Scriptx~re uncertain leads to a hcrrneneutic that is destructive of the IVorcl of God. A nuinber of demurers must be entered against the la1~7-gospcl proponents. I. Tlw question must bc asked: "Is this position in harmony with the view that the Holy Scriptures hold of themsel.c~es?" X'rofessor Forde has raisccl the cluestion of the ~crbal and plenary inspiration of the Olct ancl Xclr. Testaments. Lutheran ant1 Protestant scholars bclicvc that there are ;I number of Biblical passages that clearly teach thc verbal inspiration of the Old Tcstarncnt, hfatthenr 5: 18, spoken by Christ, ;is reported in i\4atthe.c\l's Gospel reads: "For verily I (Christ) say unto you, Till I-Iea.t?cn and earth pass away, one jot (the s1ua1Icst lcttcr) or one tittle (the distinguishillg projection of the Hebren~ letters) shall in 110 wise pasc from the law (i.e, the Old Testament), till all be fulfilled." This passagc indicates that not only the thoughts conveyed by Scripture, but also thc individual words themselves, are valicl vehiclcs of thosc thougllts and as spclled out by individrial lcttcrr are posscsecl of infallible truth and will surely find their fulfillment ancl ~.eali~ation. To cite another passage: John 10 : 3 5, "the Scripturc cannot be broltcn." In the cstinlation of Dr. Carl Henry, this Johannine passage indicates son~ething of the intensity of inspiration and at the same tilnc enables the Christian to contelnplate the ~?ie.i.il of our Lord concerning thc Old Testament. An cxamination of thc content of John 10: 34f. shonrs that Jcsus singlccl out an obscure passage in the Psallns ("yc are gods," Ps. 82: 6) to reinforce the point that "thc Scripture callnot be broken."" 'Henry contends that this passage "is doubly significant because it also discredits thc modern bias against identifying Scripture as thc Word of God, on the ground that this asserteclly dishonors the suprcme revelation of Gocl 111 thc incarnate Christ. in John 10 : 3 5 Jesus of hTazarcth \vhile spealciilg of him- self as incleeci thc one "the Fathcr consecrated anci sent illto the world," nonetheless rcfcrs to thosc in a past dispensation "to n.llom the Ti'ord of God came (and scripture cannot be brokcn)." The truth and thus allow for error to inhere in matters pertaining to history or science, 'Those who clainl that one need only not violate the proper distinction betnrecr~ law-gospel to interpret how one desires are even going farther than did Sinith and Briggs. As long as tllc exegete does not deny the gospel he is free to lnterpxet the Scriptures accord in^ to thc most recent vierss of current scllolarship. Hoxve.r~cr, to thc posltion that there are clifferent typcs of truth ill the Biblc there are two fatal objections that must bc made. First, the New Testament does not distinguish between the historicity of the literal Adam and Ere as itnplied in I Tinnothy 2 : 13, 14 as also in I Cor. i 1 : 8, 9; the literal stay of Jonah in the stomach of the whale is absolutely essential if it is to serve as a11 analogy for Christ's three days in the ton~b (Matt. 12:40). It is inlpossiblc to reject the his- toricity of these two passages, g1:catIy contested today, ~vitho~it rcjcct- ing the authority of Christ and the apostle Paul. I11 these passages it is very ilifficult to separate between the theology-ethics and science- history classification. The historicity of the Ada111 passages in Genesis is the basis for Paul's cloctrine of original sin and also of the unity of the human race. In this instance one cannot permit error in history-science witllout e~l~ling LI~ in error in doctrine."0 it is diffic~~lt to h;rrloni~.e the concept of a Scripture inspired by Gotl the Holy Ghost with the idea that Gocl's kYord should be unrc- liable ancl not truthful or tlepenclable. The distinction between lnw- gospel as binding IS over against other clearly revealed statements woulcl appear to the essayist as being out of character for a volume that claims divine inspiration. Iffhen Jesus on hlaundny Thursday evening in the Highpricstly l'raycr asked His Heavenly Father to preservc his disciples anc1 asscrtey the fVord of Gocl." "Scripture alone is the true ovcrlorcl ancl master of all ~vritings and doctrines on cart11,""hnd the Lutheran Cor~fessioils demand this positioil of all pastors and teachers of the Church. Thrrs the Fo~~~zz~la of Concol-ci states: "Dr. Luther himself . . . has expressly clrawn this tlistinction, viz. that God's Tf70rd alone is ancl should remain equal, but to it everything should be subordinatecl (Solid Declaration, Sum- nlary Formulations, 9). This position of Luthcr am1 the Lutheran Confessions has been the historic position of our 1,C-R.IS for over 2 century. Lutheran herinenentics has operatccl with the principle of the unity of Scriy- tures, holding that the sixty-six 11ool;s of the Old and New Testa- lllcnts haire one Author, thc Holy Spirit. TIle Holy Spirit, 1.c~ho spofte through the Prophets, E~angelists, and Apostles, not only does not contradict Himself, but Hc offers a message which should bc regarded as an essential unit and orgaaism. Like the human body the Bible is a unit, a body which normally functions when all the component piirts are active in bringing thc full revelation to manlroceed through the Bible and selcctirely declare: "This is kerygma" and "This is not I. 61. 17. Ihid., 13. 61. 18. As q~rotcd l)y f;ordc. on pagc 63. 19. ]hid. 20. !)can I..uciting, ~l~fissioi.~ ilr ilzc !lIr?lzilzg (St. .I:20uis: Concordia l'ublishing TIausc, 1963.) 21. IYnltcr I?. TJountan, "11 '~hcological Analysis," John S. Damm, cditor, 'I'hc 7cncJzi~g of IoL~is: Co~~cordia P~il~lishing Housc), XX, 775, 28. 38. D. ;lJ.3rrrfirr I,zL~~~cI.s lYo.1:~ (T;1'cim;!r: IIcrmann I36hla11, 1897)) VSI, 308ff. 39. (;. Ernst IYright. "History and Reality: 'l'hc Importance of Israel's 'His- torical' Symbols for thc Christian Faith," Bcrnhard W. rlndcrson, editor, :I']jc Old 'I'csia7~rc1zt n7zd t,11~ CJ7risf;(riz Is'nifl;, (XCW SorIi: Harpcr & I~~IT, l'ublishcrs, 1963), 17. 179. 40. John i47;l.r.i.i;icic hlol?tgorncry, Ci-isis iir LzL~/~L'T(~IL Z71z(?0l0g?. (Grant1 napids; Baltcr f!oolc IIotrse, 1967), 1, 17. 120. A 1701Cl~ FII0A.l -rI-ll! 1'iIS-r IValtcr F. Eriinn, a layman, with cspcricncc jn 110th thc busincss \\.or10 (U.S. Steel) anti church, has performed a scrxicc for the 3'Ijssouri Synotl by translating his great-grandfather's cstechctical studies. l'farrcr Fricdrich Erunn's mastrrpiccc of dcrotional-confessjo~~al litcraturc comes to lifc at a most s~~itaI)lc tinlc whcn many of our problems arc the same as they wcrc a century ago. I3att'ling rationalism, this courageous confessor and fathcr of thc Missouri Synod hact to hidc ill the ~\.oods to survi5.e pcrscc~ition from ci\.il ant1 theologi- cal authorities. Still hc carried o~it his pastoral d~~tics jn Stecticn (Saxon);), Germany, and trained 24 2 pastors for ilincrican congrcg;ltions. ~Imong liis stuclcnts was Dr. F. Yfotenhaucr, who latcr xvo~~ld bccoxne LCMS prcsidcnt. His colorful carcer is cclipsed only by his writings. Herc is a truly bravc man, spcaking out on issues such as Holy Scripturc and inspiration, lan. and gos17el, thc threefold purpose ot- the lax\.. Lct the ~.endcr juclgc for himself. ":l:hc sccontl pattern is a bit morc subtlc, but just as dangerous . . . Thesc pcoplc sccnlingl!. pcrcci\,c ant1 rccognizc God's 'Iirortl, thc clivinc rcvelntion, as thc solc basis and scurcc of Christian faith, Jn spite of this, ho~r.cver, the), arc unwilling to acccpt all of Holy \l7rit outright as God's Wortl. Indceti, in a sinlilar nlanner to thc other oldcr ant1 coarser I