Full Text for The Outside Limits of Lutheran Confessionalism in Contemporary Biblical Interpretation [Part 1] (Text)

THE SPRINGFIELDER September 1971 Volume 35, Number 2 The Outside Limits of Lutheran Confessionalism in Contemporary Biblical Interpretation I 1 \. 1~ i .\ 1) 1 1 11 4 SI'L DY ;is solnc\\ llnt of a scquel to 111y ~ilrlirr orlc. 011 thc \:!IIW :c.nc.ral topic. '.17hc\rcforc, I do not \\-is11 to rcl~i.ii!'\i, ,111 tl\~* tllc~o,-ctic',~T poi~lts made in them, hut \\.ill oftcn sirnl~lp pL-c3IlI11C' tllt'l?!.: I \\o~ild I1oi1c tl~iit it ~vould bc clcal- that \\-hen I sped; of "outside linlith." I illc,!ri i LI~L that -11ot \\llat is nc.c.c.ssaril\. dclsirable, or cB\.en \\-11,1t 1 ~~cO l)r;irs cnlph;~sis that neither are 11.e speaking of' the- oi~t\i(lc limit3 of s;~\,ing faith, as such. but 1-nthcr of corifc.ssiol1al ~II ~~olog! . I f: I\ C' ~1?i';lli of the nlinillluill rcq~~ired for s;ll\.;ltioil, tllat, of co111-sc, iS \el-\- little-and is finall!,, Cod's to judge, not ours. Sinlilnrl\-. \\.IIC~II \\ c s17e;lk of soiirces of faith or of tlie basis of cer- taint\-, no OIIC 11 ill tlcn\- that oric call come to and rem~lin in faith \\.irhout ;ill, ~ICI-SOI~~I~ cintact \\.ith thc IJible, as, no cloubt, cour~tless 1111 I~I~)c'I.> 1111\.~. 130\\.e\.cr. formal, professional tlicolog\. \\.ill surely ji;t\.c t'i~r \\ ic1c.r intci-ests than iiicrcl!. an elcmentarv statelllent of the C;ospc.ll OIIC ~C;ITS that these tj1.o arc oftcn confusec? (espcciall\. urlder t2ic ir~flucncc of csi~t~ntialisni, 11s I accent belo\\.). and th'at here lics tllc root of nian! of our problems. 'Thus, it seems to 111c that ;~sscrtiorls SLIC.~~ :IS that Luther's faith \vas based on Christ 2nd the C;ospc'l. not- tllc Bible, are usuall~~-at best-hesiclc tIic poi~~t. Si~ilil;~rl!., onc must I)r careful not to o17er-correct biblicistic formula- tions such its, "Scripture is inspired; hence I can believe thcm." In kt. orlc recurrcXnt refrain of this papa will bc the coricern that sul)pIemcnts (or nlinor corrccti~es, or different manners of espres- sio~i in ne\\- circunistances) do not, in effect, displace and replace thc subst'incc.. iYcr\. easilv, l~articularlv \\-hen the fashions are else~vliere, the tradi tio11n1 conicrns arc, in * effect, denied by default rather than desig~l. The default mav occur on any side: if accent on Bible and confessions mav c\ispIack Gospel, the reversc is s~irely also true that one-sitled "~ospcl'' accents readily begin to saw off the branch on which they rest. The danger is that l~otlt "conservative" and "libcral" -- EDI~.OH'S SOTE: Dr. Hzctnmel has ser17ed ot1 setsera1 tkeol~~gical foc~~lfies: Concordia Senlinnr!.. St. Louis: Il'artburg Srnrinnry, Dubuqtce; Lttiherntr Scltool of Tlreology in CJricago; nnrl Sotre Dame C~~ircrsity. D~te to the csscry's leitgth, onl!( the first portion is being printed ntrlc.. sides may take solnething for gralttcd, 'inrl as tfic! i)t,tll .~(ju;ii~c off as chaii~pions of the Gospel, one susl~ccts th;~: Irotil 11t111I:1 ~~JII~C~ILI~CS begin b); remo\,ing the log f'ro~~t their o\\ 11 c~ c)i C:C.I-ti1111 I\ ~ic\ cIoI)- rnents of recent \ears shoultl illustrate ;ln~l)l\ I;()\\. ~.cb;i \\.hc.~t a c,onscio~rs, dctcr-~l~incrl c(il1~ ['I-11 to rc~l1;\iii confessio~~;~ll\ fnitllful, ancl 11c1lcc abo1.c ail c.ult~lt.c>. I)i'l_lir~, to k,lclc.. All seg~ncnts of thcb church, not oltlv tcacl~cl-s of: f!jl>lc. ,!i1<1 c,ot~t'c:hsio~ls. must joi11 ill the concc5rn. The rregntit7e scl~sc. of "\\.o,-lrl" rlrc scrlse of scparatcllcss from ci~lturc, I\-hich is yrofouncll\ I,il)lic;ll, ~llust he l~envily underscorecl agni11 to 111aintain thy III.OPL~~ 11;1111 11r.t:. It is, ;~t best, simply an in\.iclious comp:crison to s~1ggc.s~ 111at co~~cc,-li for "pure tloctrine" is necessaril!? ant1 simpl!. ;I sort of i~~~rci~r-c., sickgc- . ,, mentalit!; type of response, allc~gctll\ 1ikv rigllt~+t /;I\\ ~IIICI 01~1cr" cries in the rcnl~n of politics. At thc same time, fvc ncctl to take cal-cb tll;rt "otrt,iclc' lilllits" arc not clufinccl sitrzpl? 011 a trntlitiollalistic basis. 'Pr;i(!itior~ C~(ICS t~ot cli~ite 11~n.u that status in Lutltcran thcolog!.! IXn cloitl)~, ~io olic \\.ill tlcfc~td an!. absolute thc>oreticaI l)lcil?eiz britrr illtc~c, I~trt \\I. (lo ~lctctl to esplore rn~~tually \vhcn ancl nrhcrc this ma\- 11:1ppet1 tluitc 111i\\ itti:igl\, espclcjdly as a resi~lt of a "guilt by association" ~-casonit~s. III ;lclclition, of coursc, manv things have changer1 drrlstic,;lll\. sinco t llc sirtetbnth century. This paper \\:ill try to accent t.speci;rllv tllC r.olIcLsrtl \\it11 "historv" that differentiates our intellect~~al clirni~c fl-o~ll tll;~t of: the ~ieformation and the ajic of Orthoclos!.. Hcrc,, as t~lsc\\licr-c, \\.ill have to explore together ]lo\\- ~nuch of this is si~l~l~l!. ;I tlitFcr-cnt manncr of espression or a differellt line of attack, ant1 ho\\. ~ll~~cli of' it ~1111- 1-erts and contradicts. .A pnrallcl [\-a!. of putting it \\.ill I)c> to asl; Ilotv much of it is permissiblc exegetical differt.ncc ;itit1 IIO\\. niucll of it doctrillal. \\7c* \\-ill hn\.c to look carefully at thcx i~ntlcl-I\ ills tl~~i)lo~ical pri~z~.iples, 3t the Y~~SOIIS for reaching certair~ coticli~sio~ls. ;~t the total cVo~rte.x-t ill which tht~~ arcB presented, not ~~ic~~.cl!. ;it tlic, conclu- sions thcmsol\-es. ~tl~cr\\.ise, of course, onc (.;in fot-lilal I\. l,c \-cr!. ''orthodos" ;III~ rniss tllc c\.nngelical point, just ;IS lie ~ISO I~JI-jvithin outsiOC lin~its-rcacli certain novel conclusions \I-i tho11 t tl~cologicnl error. This accent itself silrelv belongs under the* ri111l-ic of "j~rstifica- tion by faith," \vht.rebv ~~otl~ing js right c'cirai~j I)c>o ;11);1rt fro111 the covenant of gracc. FIolryi.er, as we shall also emphasize repcatedl!., ctrlrtio~l nust be thu \I-atch\\.ord throughout. If "what this might Icntl to" can oftcn be an alibi for inertia, it certainly cannot hc tliscoitntctl citl~cr. If \re want to argue that, like every good teacher, the c~hurch nlust recog- nize that accents and approaches ha\.cr to change sornc\\.hat with changing generations of students, and that, 1lc.nce. \\.c. \\ill often havr to "pet behind" or at least restate solnc st of the iincient formulac in a \\-a\. faithful to their original intentionalit\., hut ~vliich rvill conlolunicate better today, we will also bc hopclcsslr naive if rye forget that such statements h;we been the alibi for \.irt;allv efer! sort of aberration in church history. KO hcresv c\~r prcser~ Fiti tllfully ;IS pclssiblc is acccl)tal>Ie. "Translation" dare not bcco~ncs ;I cloal, for del~~ythologi/ation, as oftcn happens. That is to S;I\ tll~t 11ei111cr 111). proposals nor those of any othcr "Herr Profes- sor" ;II-c. to l)c ;~c.ccl,tcxl hlintll\. l:nthcr, all \\-ork with the same p~-csi~l~lx)si~ions \\ill lla\-c to n~~~ti~;lll\. test and \\.cigh. Ry the same tokcn. thc I)lintl, \ixw-al obicction .to cver!.thing but the original formt~lae i~lld c.o~lclusio~~s, oftC'11 rcsi~ftill? i11 ~11at sonleone h2s called t11c "ortlloclo\ l,oi~ncc" ivllich casilv , . iudges bcfore it rcally hears, \\:ill ha\-c to 1)c' cilrbctl too." Ij;~\.illg ~ilntlc these preliminnr\ rcrnarks, let rne attempt to :irrangc the h~~lli of this paper around tliree captions: ( 1) Confes- sion;~lisrn ;111cl l;rc.cbclon~; (2) Gosl)cl and Bible; (3) Histor!, and I~c;\~clation. 'r'h is 1x11~~- ;I>SL~I~CS that its rciltlcrs agree in understanding confcssionalisrli ;IS not onlv an ideal, but also as an actual standard \\l~ich siio~~ltl Ilc. disciplined and enforced. One can scarel!; be un- a\\.arc that it ccrtainl!. is )lot n common ideal or standard in most contcnlporar!. l'rotestantism-and often has not been for a \'cry long tinlc. Incrc.:~singl!,, it appears that the same thing wi1I l~a\,e to be sait1 OC the Roman C'atholic con~munion. \Vorld "Lutheranism" cer- tainl! is not exempt either, and even within LChlS it plainly is not (at best!) ;I \.cry fashionable emphasis in many quarters. I, for one, tend to cringe ;it the excessive chauvinism, rigidity, if not even fanaticis111 \vhich appears at times to lurk behind the slogan, "au- tl~r~rtic I_utl~eranism," l~ut the concern, as such, is surely a most lnudi~blc one, ant1 I am convinced that even its extreme expressions arc oftell far closer to "the faith once delivered to the saints" than nliln!, of thc :llternati\.es. The mettle and virility of a confessional psi- tion \\-ill bc dctcrimned precisely \Then it means swimming upstream :lntl lrot si~nplv conforming to the religious Zeitgeist. The Issue can also be ~S~~C'SS'CCI in terms of one's ccclesiological position: whether it shall he thc cssentiaIlv horizotrtal, latitudinarian, and institutionalistic one generally prevailing today, or the vertical one centered about a comnlon confessional position. In a way, it is a matter of what one considcrs the lesser of two evils: the chaos of "every man doing what is right in his own eyes" or the occasional unpleasantness of doctrinal tliscipli~~c.;' In other words, as matters stand today, it is plain that there must bc essential agreement on what "confessionalism" means before any further progress can be made. To urge Lutheran union on the basis of "con fcssionaI" agreement without agreement on what that term itself means is surely less than fully honest. \Ye surely have evcry right to expect full candor from everyone as to which lexicon he is using! (One could also comment on the anomaly of churches as traditional guardians of morals behaving in such studiedly ambigu- ous ways with respect to their alleged doctrinal standards!)-' In general, one may say that there are still two types of "con- fessionalisn~," \vhich o11c ma!; call "non~l;~t~\c" i111t1 "l~isrol-ic;rl." \o doubt, the two t!,pes often o\c.rlnp to one ~leyec 01. tll~. o~ll:.~.. I)ut the basic issue is nhcther the confcssions arc :;till LI~C.LI LO I~o!-11: ,lntl discipline \.c;hat is nctuall) taught ant1 p~-ciicll~~l IJI ?lie c.11~1sci:. or ~vliether they are, in effect, consigned to thc cIus[t,ins (if Jli>!c)r\ :"jf we had been alive then, that's what n.e n.ould Il;i\-c corlf'c>\~ltl loo, . . .\ but today nobotlv is asking the church thosc cl~~r.s!io~li, ctc. :. lo n certain extent, I suspect there is some truth in the ;tssc\l-tlor~ :ii;tt one can judgc which iie\v of thc confcssions is opcrnti\-c. ;tc-c:orilinr: to t~hether they are assigned to historians or to s~.stc~i~icii io t~c taught. Of course, just as \vc will stress bclo\v r\.itl~ rc>l)c.i t. to tlic Bible, we need more, not less, historical stud! of t11c c.orif't-~sio~l.;. Imt it makes a world of-' difference in both instances \\.l~ctIicr. this is 1:n~icr- taken in order to understatld and apply tIit.111 h:tt~%~. ill toti;l\'h cir- cumstances, or in ortlcr to rclati~ii.~ and c~.;itlc: th(:i:~. 111 t':ic.t. ;is i~lrcady stressed, ~lnless thc ideal of confessiuniiiis~~~ I,:,> I~ccn (.o111- pletclv abnndo~~eti, our problems arise precisel! ;it thobc ~)oi~lt\ \\ 11~1-c. new issues are raised-or at least raised in diffcl-e~lt \\.;I\-s- rl~iin in the Kefornlation period. Some of these \\.e 11l;ry ~;I\.I- to ni~lcl(l1c~ OLI~ wa\- through as best \vc can, rvhile praying for thc ITol\- Sl>irith' ell- lightennlent, but we surely will get no\vherc. fiist: if \\c t~c~iii by discarding chart and compass. (Only along these lines, it al>pc.:irs to me, can anv ~neaningful distinction betn;c.c.il "confcssionali~~ll" :uicl "fundalnenthlisn~" or "traditionalism" bc attcnll~tctl, n;ln~el\ [hilt the latter often seen] oblivious to changed circumstances ant1 fail to tlis- tinguish surface and material change, whercbas, it is ;111;1~.111.01listic to jt~dge the confessors on the basis of Fragestrlfzr~lgc~l the!. clicl lot confront.: Conversely, it is precisely for this reason tliirt no mere I~l,lnrl assertion of confessional lovalt!; will sufficc. I\-e arc c:lllecI to be faithful in today's specific hnd concrete thcolngicul circu n~stil~~ccs, i.e., not only ethically, as inany onesidedlv cnlp11:rsirc. i\~tl~iil "con- fessing" is the point of all theoretical talli about "cr,nfcssio~~i~lism," of course, but the question again is whether its s~~bst;lnc.c i> csscln- tially the same confession, or merely analogous j~rlerelj "hc,ing" faith- ful as they were faithful-i.e., in practice, often in primal.il\- political and social aspects). The cor~fessiorls are not eve11 being usctl ;IS gcd "m~~els" if their tlat?r~rnrrizts or negative theological nsscrtions are not follo~ved as well as their positive statements. It is l>rcciscI!. it1 this lack that utter ambiguitv and confusion often ensues-although the point certainIy is not to accent condemnatory and negativistic. postures as such. Or, to use a double negative, it is not cllougll ntcrc.l\. to "not deny" the confessions. (One is reminded that our Lord did not nlcrrlv say "\Vhosoerer shall Trot de~iy me before men . . . "!) \'en. little is usually denied, at least publicly. However, it rcrtninl! is hft~~l not confessed as the substance of the proclamation either! Cndcr the current circun~stances I think that merely "not denying" the confes- sions is often comparable to merely "not renouncingv formal 11lcm- bership in the state churches of Europe. If these two types of "confessionalism" are not carefully clis- tinguished, onlv mutual frustration and fury can foIlonr. Those \vho assilmc t1i:lt tl~e L~I-111 ilnplies nol.liiati\.c disciplirle car1 onIy be crlragc'cl ;it \\ 11:1t \\.ill irlc\;itahl\. appcar to tl~c'ni as the insincerit!. and h\l~(~:ri~~- of thosc \\ho proccecl permissi\.el\-. Like~vise, those w:ho see rhc confcssiol~s on]\ in historical perspecti\.e will scarcelv be p1ci1hct.l ;it cli;illc~igc.s t6 their "op~nness~" and \\-hatever discipline is al)~lic.cl \\-ill 1iLc.l~ bc tlircctetl on11 at those iv11o make such chal- 1cngc.h. It. .;lloulcl I,(. clcnr to ;In\. ohjecti\.e obser\~rl- that American I.utlir~-anis~n is again at that cl-ossroatls, and one cannot hesitate there forc\.cr. Onc hcsit:ltes to specif! precisely when, hut there comes a point \\ 11ut-c. such disparate understandings rcquire separate and i~~ricl>cnclcn t institutional embodiments. The "free" scllolar \\.ill cer- tainl!. not feel ;~t home in a disciplined, confessional framework. Like- \\.isc, tl~erc conics ;L point \\.herc thc confessional scholar can exist ill n cji~;lsi-confessional contest ol~ly at the sacrifice of his integrity or I]\ I-ctl-caring illto thc "neutr;~Iit\" of hccominu, athcological or urlin;.ol\-ccl in the institution's o\.erall program. Of course, if he pl.otcsts, IIC is rllc "apostle of discord'' and "troubler of Israel" rather than it being a caw of othcrs sophisticall! evading their confessional suhscriptior~ .' -1-hc \-er\. glibness of some of the protestations of confessional lovalt!. (at Ica.st \\hen \vithin earshot of those \vith whom it is thought that inight score ;I pint or t11.0, and the last one hears of it until the nust chnllengc) is cnough to arouse suspicion. One must insist upon rcasonnbl\. precise definitions again if the pervasive odor of e\rasi\.c.ness about mabv sllch staten~ents is to disappear. hlany-perhaps aIl-of thcm call be understood satisfactorily, but are they? Are they dis- ingenuous cserciscs in double elrte11dre.i Are the!. those kinds of definitions that \vould make it quite impossible not to be "confes- sional" (and if the ivord can mean everything, it obviously rr~eans nothiny;? Let us 1wk at a few of them brieflg. (1) "Of course, we're confessional; clverything we do and say around here is confessjonal. How could anvoni possibly think otherwise?"--i.e., if nrord-games are not bcing playrl, and if by their fruits we can know them. (2) "\\.elrc not denying the confessions, just adapting them to new situa- tions"-ct cpendin g upon whether the "translation" is really faithful or reductionistic. (3) "The confessions are no longer adequate for all our j~rob1ems"-which, of course, in one sense has always been the case in e\.ery slightly changed circumstance, since they were first ivrittcn, hut the question is whether or not they are still being considcred ?lorrnatit7e. Nor dare we forget that we have precisely the same problem \vith the Bible if it is understood as, in one sense, a product of history. (\'C!hat one often observes, then, in connection with slogans like this one, is that each tradition labors to explain or justify the current fads in terms of its own traditional language, often out of context and understood differently.) (4) "We don't disagree with the confession's intention, merely with their exegesisv--where we must distinguish carehlly between, on the one hand, the mere details of the interpretation and application of isolated passages or precise way in which their thrust is restated, and, on the other hand, such material changes as .tvouJd simply constitute a different "confes- sion" of what we understand the Scriptures to be saying.' (5) "\'(re want an 'evangelical' not a 'legalistic' or 'scholastic' c.o~~t'c~~io~~;ilibl~i." I-lere es~wcially \vc need careful defnitions if \\.e ~11.c. to ,r\.oiil ~!~c.rc sloganecring Ivith code-n.ords. If those phrases i~npl\. C~IICL,~-II tl~at no precise terminolog!-, as such, be sanctificcl, or tikit the \;~rious articles be approachc~cl holistically, not ritomistir~;illv, i.c., ;\J\\.n!.s seen as functions of the Gospel, one c,m onlv sn\ ".\n;c.~~." I lo\\ c\.cr, as we shall also note with respect to the Bible, thcl-c is c.\ust: to fc5ar that the slogans often may irnplv a reliztctiorrisir~ of eont'cssio11- 'I 1' 1~111 to "Gospel" in some miniinalistic stme. \\'hat must be cc~it~-;jl I~cconies the sole survi\.or-if that. Indeed, therc is littlc justilicatio~~ for ,111~ hue and cry about confessionali is^^^," escept in -the con\-iction that it defends, defines, and upholds the Gospel. I-Io\\.c~\-cr, I bcslic\.c tile record ampl? denlonstratcs the fact that \vhcn the> confvssiot~s I;III~ the Bibltr) no longer clefine thc Fulness of the Gosl~c.1 iri '111 its ~cspc'c~s, "Gospel" too tencis rapidly to \-aporize into \x.hatc\ cr one \\ ;i11ts i~ to mean-into the cause of the sveck, into Jcs~is as ;In c\c~~l~l>l;~t- of ;I life-st).le which is "free" and "opcn" to otilcrs, an csistc~~ti;~l ;111tl11.o- pology concerned \\-it11 personal relations rathcr tl1;ln \\.it11 tl~vological and historical facts. iit times one is c\.en tc.111ptc.rl to ask if "gosj~c'l" has not become a sort of magical incan tation ~vhicll is sc~ pposctl to autoniaticallv stop the lnouths of a11 critics.' \Ire shO~11d also take a look at several ot11c.r current tcl-111s \\11ic.l1 neecl careful definition if there is ally serious in tent to conl~~~uniciite. I mean terms like "fundamentalism," "biblicism ," "lcgalisl~l," "1itc.l-ill- ism," etc. There can be little doubt that such ttbrms arc. usccl far r~~ol-c often to intimidate than to conlmunicate cvangclicalI\. l'hc\. ci111 he used meaningfully only xvithin a mutually acccptcltl herm~r~cutical contest. Otherir-ise, b\. cicstro\.ing that context, tl1~1s ol>c~iin:_: tlic. floodgates, they easil\- become code-words for nem-lv :~n!-thir~g ilnt.onc considers objectionable. They are generally uscd il; ridicule of horc conservative positions, but there is no reason unclcr tl~e sun \\.h?. they cannot be used just as readily of a host of "liberal" strlnces: if " hibli- cism" implies preoccupation with a host of biblical c1ct:lils ~LI t 111issing the evangelical centcr, it surely \vould appl!; to a \.ast an~oulit of academic, "critical" study; antl if "literi~lisni" antl 'funda~l~cnti~lisrn" means making individuili points ivalk on all fours, as it \\-crcB, at the expense of the total context, it cmphaticallv also fits thc~ common critical magnification of clifl'ercnt accents or ;7ietvpoints into irrccon- cilable errors or inconlpatible theol~gies.~ Even within 1,utheranisin it is plain that "literalisln" ;rnd "fundamentalism" sometinies imply anyone who takcs the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith "literally," i.e., ivllo does not somcho~v demythologize them into ciphers for ethical values, who is not some sort of universalist, who still believes in a ycrsonal God, a boclily resurrection, etc. Or if those doctrines are not denied, it is l3liii11 that many have been thoroughly cowed by the terms: thcv would apparently rather die than give anyone the slightest cause to suspect that they were "fundies," so much so that the Gospel, cvcn in its most elementary dimensions, is scarcely enunciated at all. (One n~ight also comment on the "illibcral liberals" who wouldn't be caught dead reading anything printed by Eerdmans, Christianity Todny, or any nc\\.sj);~l)ct- bc5iclc.s the XCZI- Yor-1: Tittles.) That there is a real da~lger of "bil)l~c~is~l~" sho~~ltl be nppi~rent to an\onc ~vho has been repcatcdly cxl~~5c"l to "Tllc l3iblcr .\lone is thc \\'ord of God" type of sermon \\-ithot~t ;lrl\ glii11111cr of the Gospcl iwining through (not to speak of 1;1rio~15 ;~to~nistic ;111(1 1110ri11i~tic ~~ro~'e~Iurcs), hut it is p1ai11 that the tern1 is oftc)n ~~sctl of all!-onc \\.ho ~~ndcrstands the Bible as an objec- ti\c, i115pil-ctl Jlorln--~?s though tl~c: Gospcl could profit from cmpha- siring th;it I (cE bclo\\.). "Lcfi.~lism" can easily mean that one t1oc.s 11ot ha\ c. ii "llcrn~cncutics" \\.hlch enables him to make the Bible nicnn \\ hntc\-cr he \\-isllc>s it to mcnn, or to disregard n-hate\.er he