Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pre-understanding Scripture

Imagine how it must have once been. Imagine what it would have been like to have read Scripture thinking it clear, thinking that it gave perspicuous answers to questions. Imagine what it must have been like in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries during the development of Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxies. These theologians understood what the Biblical text meant within their cultural worlds and within the horizon of their experience; they knew that they could trust Scripture because it had authority.

Things are different now. Oh yes, we denizens of the early 21st century can still talk about the importance of Bible reading, of going to church, of participating in a community of faith. But things are different. We find the Bible today still to be a pretty important book to know something about; we think that reading it might help us. We might even think that if we read it enough, we might believe it. Yet for many, at least, there is a fissure between the text and our interpretation of it. We know that we have a wonderful text that has been handed down to us, but we are not at all sure how trustworthy at is - - well, at least on the details, and . . . well, even thought we can't agree exactly on what is a detail and what is not. It is obvious that Scripture no longer is trusted like it once was.

Every interpretation of something presupposes a pre-understanding of it. One cannot unpack the meaning of something if one does not already have some clue to what the thing is. This is true for books, for nature, and for people. I know, for instance, that Paul is in pain because I have experienced pain: I have a pre-understanding of what it is to be a person, to emit sounds, and to speak in certain ways. I, in fact, live my life pre-understanding what my life is all about. To use a famous example from Heidegger, I can tell what a hammer means in my life because I have a pre-understanding of how it connects to other things in life. There is a context of significances in which I live, and the hammer, its relation to nails, lumber, a roof, and to me, are all part of that context. Most of the time I do not think deeply about my dwelling pre-understandingly in my world.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries men and women pre-understood what the Bible meant. They knew it to be a text that one could trust, that had authority, that spoke the Word of God. Accordingly, one can speak about their ontological understanding of Scripture. It meant then, for many people, that upon which the ultimate signifincance for one's life was known. Thus, one was always already related to Scripture because Scripture always displayed itself as that upon which the proclamation of the meaning of our being depended. Given such a pre-understanding of being, it made sense lovingly to collect passages from the text which displayed truth. In those ages, truth came with a capital 'T' and Scripture was pre-understood as that which could proclaim this truth. It was within the pre-understanding of the be-ing of Scripture that the internal clarity of Scripture arose.

Things are quite different today. The pre-understanding of the text is not, for many, a pre-understanding that regards the text as authoritive, that allows that the text can judge the reader much more profoundly than the reader the text. Our pre-understanding regards the text within the context of texts arising from a particular region from which other texts emerged. The text is already known to be a document upon which the application of historical methods are fruitful. While there is a sense that the text has functional authority within certain religious traditions, it is not a document that can reach across these traditions and provide me with answers about my being and the meaning of my being. The text is therefore not understood as the kind of thing that could in principle give rise to the internal clarity of Scripture. There is no reason for the Scripture to be clear because it is not the kind of thing for which clarity is at issue.

The last five centuries have seen a fundamental shift in our pre-understandings of the Biblical text. These pre-understandings are not themselves the kind of thing that can be changed by evidence. In our day, as in former ones, pre-understandings are gifts to enjoy; they cannot be engineered; they cannot be worked up through our own piety or spirituality.

Luther said that we are ridden either by the devil or the Christ. Maybe this is true for pre-understandings. Of course, for Luther, the Word proclaimed brought the agency of the Holy Spirit into action. This agency, of course, could modify or transform the context of pre-understandings. Simply put, for the Reformers, there was always the sense that the Word of God could be spoken, that it could be found in the text, and that it was vouchsafed by the tradition. It is this pre-understanding that is no longer present in our day.

So how can we jump start an ontology of Scripture and Word when that ontology is no longer present? Does saying, "the Word is sufficient unto itself and unto its own interpretation" help us when there is no longer any pre-understanding of a Word that could be sufficient unto its own interpretation? Lutherans must always, of course, come back to the Word. This is true. But what happens when the lights go out on the context upon which the Word qua Word emerges? What happens then?

Here the answer must be firm and unwavering: the hermeneutical helplessness is itself a riding of the horse. No neutrality is possible here. The first question of the temptor, "did God say?" is also the last. We either find the Word or don't. The only thing that changes is where or where not we either find the Word or don't.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Staying Relevant - - Why What is Old is New Today.


There is a popular story that goes like this:

Once upon a time about 500 years ago there was a sincere, superstitious monk who was so overcome by guilt before God that he fell into extended bouts of despair. In the depths of his despair the young man glimpsed the mercy and forgiveness of God. He realized that righteousness is not a property that God has intrinsically, but rather a property God continually gives away to believers. Luther’s spiritual tussle in the monastery eventuated in his ultimate departure and decision to take a university position as a professor. Later this renegade monk married, had children, and led a movement that changed history.

Luther was very disappointed with the Catholic Church of his time, particularly its leadership. He was so dismayed about this that he referred to the pope as the “antichrist,” hardly a term of endearment. A group of people gathered around Luther and together they helped set the theological trajectory of the Reformation. While Luther was a tremendous religious genius, these people were less creative, less spiritual, and zealously interested in getting all the theological facts right. Theological squabbles erupted within Lutheranism, eventuating in the Formula of Agreement, a document putatively quelling the disputes between the “gnesio-Lutherans” and the “Phillipists.” The emergence of this Formula was the ground upon which later Lutheran thinkers attempted to “get it right.” Thinkers like Gerhard, Baier, Hutter, Quenstedt, and Hollazius codified the teachings of the Formula and advanced it in a series of books whose appearance was in profound tension with the new currents of Enlightenment thought emerging. These practitioners of “Lutheran Orthodoxy” became so concerned about the letter of doctrine, that they forgot the living reality of the spirit out of which the Reformation was born. These thinkers wrote books that were heavily read for some years, but then fell into disuse as Enlightenment thought reached dominance. While Lutheran emigrants fleeing Europe sought to read these books in North America, for the most part these books of Lutheran Orthodoxy were considered to be old, out-of-date, and definitely out-of-step with the times.


The first thing to realize about this story is how pervasive it is. Today these books are considered so out-of-date that most students at Lutheran seminaries have never heard of their writers, let alone ever read anything by them. Most Lutheran faculty don’t read them either. Why would anyone read them today? After all, they trifle about things that are quite disconnected from contemporary life and experience. Why would anyone seeking to be Lutheran in our postmodern age want to read those who slavishly wanted to get it right? Don’t Lutherans in the pews today know that there have been thousands of religions in the world, that the veracity of religious claims cannot be proved, and thus that they clearly cannot prove our own? Don’t they know that religious claims are not factual, but rather valuational, that they do not inform us about how the world is, but seek to express something about our self-understanding and religious practice within a community of faith? God-talk talks not about God, but about us. We are religious, this is true, but our religion is only our projected “map against time,” a map that is different for different peoples. We are religious cartographers, unsure of whether our maps are accurate or whether it even makes sense to talk of accuracy. So it is in our age. The voices of the old are irrelevant, while the voices of the new echo about without place.


The story above is how we Lutheran Christians are represented by others. It is the hand we are dealt. How do we with this hand tell again our story? How do we tell a story for today about God’s love for us in Christ when we suspect that the story we tell may be just that, a story? How can we who live on the other side of the Enlightenment and its criticism tell the story with the same vitality that animated those old Lutheran church fathers in their studies, cranking out there compendia and loci?

In addressing this tonight, I want to ask you to do an experiment. Ask yourself this: “What if this Christian stuff is true? What if it is true that there is a God who created the universe, and filled it with all types of living beings? (Set aside questions, for the moment, as to how it is true.) What if it is true that man and woman really are the apex of God’s creation, that they who were given so much have mysteriously, inexplicably, and somehow from their own freedom turned from God? What if it is true that God is just and must distribute justice according to merit? What if it is true that human beings deserve nothing but eternal abandonment from God, an abandonment that is horrible and loveless? What if it is true that the only way for humans to be saved from what they deserve is for God to rescue them? What if it is true that God is so merciful that he abandoned part of Himself, his Son to death so that we might live abundantly now and forever? What if all of this is true?”

I hear the answer: “We believe that already. We already believe these things. Although we have no certain knowledge; we have faith. We believe these things even though others believe other things.”

But I want again to challenge: Do you really believe these things? Socrates taught that a person will do what is right if she knows what is right. Writing five centuries before the western world knew anything of original sin, Plato claims that human beings do bad things because of ignorance: they just do not viscerally know what they sometimes say they know. Analogously, are we sometimes guilty of thinking we believe when we don’t? Do we sometimes just give lip service to believing?

Imagine, if you will, the days of the early church when there were persecutions and martyrs. Or think about the Reformers, about how they spirited Luther about in disguise to avoid detection and death. Or think about those dusty old men in their old studies writing page upon page, documenting the truth of the faith. Do we do anything similar? Would we? Or are we playing a different game? Do we really believe that the story is more than story; do we believe that it denotes events that God has done as well as donates to us a new understanding, a new way of looking at the world, a new sense of what is possible for us?


There are many who talk these days about the virtues of faith without claiming that faith supposes that something is so. They claim that one can have faith in God the creator, redeemer and sustainer without necessarily believing that God creates, redeems or sustains. In other words, many no longer think that ‘believing in’ entails ‘believing that’. They no longer think that trusting in something presupposes a definite ontological contour of that which is to be trusted. But think of how odd it would be to trust in a friend without believing anything definite upon which that trust is based. To trust in a friend clearly presupposes that the friend has certain properties, characteristics on the basis of which the friend is worthy of trust. How could one trust in God if God had no definite contour, if one thought that God possessed no properties on the basis of which He is worthy of trust?

The reason why many want to allow trust without definite belief is that our theological and religious language has been given an interpretation that is noncausal in character. We want to trust in God’s creativity without saying that God actually creates, without saying that things would not have been the way they were without divine causal input. This hits home with the intelligent design issue. While folks in very conservative traditions want to hold on to six day creation, many mainline Protestant folks (including Lutherans) want to allow that assertions about God’s existence and presence are somehow consistent with a denial of intelligent design generally. They want to claim that the universe is not teleological in its constitution, that is, that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory does describe the causal mechanism of the universe, and that no divine input is necessary to bring the universe into the state it is. But what is meant by ‘creates’ if there is no being having a teleological connection to his artifacts?


Those claiming the demise of religion are continually disappointed because it does not seem like religion goes away. The reason for this, I believe, is that there are certain fundamental structures of human existence which call for religion, in whatever guise. I have always liked the phrase of Mircea Eliade: “Religion is a factor within the structure of consciousness, not a stage in the history of consciousness.” Religion does not go away because humans are who they are: anxious beings struggling within the field of time. Religion does not go away because the fundamental anxieties of human existence do not go away: We are anxious in the face of death, in the face of guilt, and in the face of meaninglessness. The fifth century theologian Augustine summed up this basic human deficiency: “My heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in you, O Lord.”

Now the problem over the last two centuries is that our old story of Jesus and his love for creation has been given an interpretation that no longer fully addresses these anxieties. By saying that the divine story is only a story, we have found ourselves stuck. The anxieties remain and are factual, but the response to these anxieties is not: While Jesus’ resurrection did not bring his corpse back to life, proclaiming his resurrection supposedly quickens us in the face of death. Although God has no a wrathful intent towards human beings on the basis of which He would ever abandon them, proclaiming divine forgiveness somehow still makes life better when we feel guilty. While God really does not exist as a being in the world creating and sustaining the universe, proclaiming God’s continuing love supposedly make us feel less empty, less not-at-home in a lonely and foreign universe.

But consider this: What if the factuality of the existential question were answered by the factuality of a Christian response? What if we claimed that the profound existential problems with life could only be adequately addressed by a historically-based response, that is, a response asserting that there was once a God who took on the nature of human being in order to transform human beings into new creatures?


And so we come full circle. What is the relevance of Christ for us today? Christ has the same relevance He always has had because human beings have the same structure of existence they always have had. Admittedly, somehow over the years the relevance of Christ has seemed to abate. I believe that this abatement has been, and is, inversely proportional to the degree that we think the Jesus story true, that is, to the degree that we think it more than a story.

Now you might wonder at this point how early 21st century people could believe in the old, old story when they live in a world that has come of age? Did not even Bultmann ask how contemporary man and woman could believe in Christianity now that there was the wireless? (He asked this about 80 years ago.) The answer is simple: This is how it always has been. When Christianity burst upon the ancient world, it had to establish its plausibility on an intellectual horizon where many thought it preposterous and crude. Christianity found few supporters in the five great schools of philosophical antiquity: The Academy founded by Plato, the Lyceum founded by Aristotle, the school of Stoicism, the Epicurean school, and the skeptical school of Sextus Empiricus. Yet Christianity has always made proselytes out of its critics. From the early days of intellectual rejection, there ensued a long development of intellectual acceptance, an acceptance that gave rise to the universities of Europe.

And how was it that this scandal of a religion could have done such a thing? This answer Lutherans know very well: “I believe by my own reason or strength, I cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by his gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified me in the one true life, even as he calls, gathers, and enlightens the whole Christian church on earth.”

The good news is that we don’t have to believe in things that are incredible or work up faith for things we can’t regard as true. This is God’s work. Our belief is His gift; our faith is His work, and the truth of the gospel is His truth.



Thursday, November 06, 2008

Why the Lutheran Confessions must be read as Witnessing to a Vibrant Tradition


The Lutheran theological tradition began in the university. Some of the fruits of the Lutheran Reformation are the ten confessional documents collected in the Book of Concord: The Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, Augsburg Confession, Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Small Catechism, Large Catechism, The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, the Schmalkald Articles, and the Formula of Concord.

These documents, carved out in the heat of battle, are clearly situational documents. One must know something of the context of their origination in order fully to understand them. Like all documents, these confessions are products of history. Written in the German and Latin of the day, the documents oftentimes argue subtle positions demanding that one have a scholar’s knowledge of the meaning of the technical terms, and a philosopher’s sense of what is ontologically possible.

But, it might be fairly asked, what have these documents to do with us today? Why would we slavishly praise documents emerging in the sixteenth century as somehow getting right scripture and giving us the truth for all time? After all, had not scripture been around for some 15 centuries already when these documents were written? Had it not already sustained countless interpretations, and had not Christendom broken into various traditions of its interpretation? How can we say that Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz et al got it right where all others failed? Is it not a major cultural imperialistic move to claim that one’s take on things is right and everyone else is wrong? Do we really want to be so unmitigatedly ethnocentric?


We know that scripture has sustained multivalent interpretations. Luther and his colleagues knew this as well. But we today seem far more sophisticated than Luther and friends because we realize that the problem of the polyvalency of the text cannot be solved by making one historically-conditioned reading of the text normative (the interpretation that all ought to adopt). We are seemingly jaded in a far deeper way than Luther and friends. They looked at how history had delivered different meanings to scripture, and tried to rectify that problem by fixing an interpretation of scripture that showed that these and only these doctrinal truths were taught by scripture. We seem to have given up on the project altogether.

The result of fixing the interpretation of the text was predictable: others objected and controversy ensued. The Formula of Agreement, the last and longest confessional document, is itself the result of controversy. In steering between warring camps the Formula set the standard for Lutheran subtlety. Calvinists, Catholics, and Anabaptists all clearly disagreed that the Lutherans had the proper interpretation of scripture and the proper view of God and God’s relationship with human beings - - especially as God deals with man and woman in the Church and with the sacraments.

Lutherans did not back down, of course. Armed with the classic distinction between quatenus and quia, Lutherans held that their documents were not simply true in so far as the rightly explicated the Bible, but were true because they so explicated it. On the quatenus reading some parts of the Confessions elucidate biblical truth, but it is possible others do not. However, on the quia interpretation, all of the Confessions are true, for all elucidate biblical truth. So Lutherans were pretty certain they had the right read on scripture. All of their confessional documents were true because they unpacked what was taught in scripture.

So the seventeenth century basically closed with a conflict of interpretations among the reforming traditions and the Catholic Church from which they had emerged. Each thought they were right; each believed that their disagreements with each other were serious, factual, and so important as to threaten salvation itself.


The breeze of the Enlightenment seemingly thawed the frozen interpretations of the disparate traditions. The Enlightenment sought reason as a guide through the unsafe waters of religious superstition, bigotry, and ignorance. It championed tolerance as the highest virtue and sought, in many ways, to undercut the absolute and exclusionary claims of the various religious traditions. For a while the strategy worked. Open-minded and educated people were less likely to cross swords over issues that they could not adjudicate on the basis of reason, or at least, on the basis of a reasonable interpretation of scripture. The result was that committed religious people could disagree with other committed religious people while still remaining respectful of the others’ dignity and right to proclaim contrary views.

But this honeymoon was short-lived. It is but a small step from openness of others’ views on the basis of the underdetermination of the theological theory by the evidence, to a claim that the dispute between rival religious groups really does not constitute a real dispute at all. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion seemed to undermine any religious claim to knowledge, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason placed religious objects, events, properties, and states of affairs outside of the domain of existing things entirely. Kant famously argued that God could not be a substance that could be in principle causally related to other substances, that is, that God could not exist as a being existing apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. God was rather “a regulative ideal of human reason.”

After Kant, theologians struggled to find ways of understanding the claims of theology antimetaphysically. Whatever was going on with theological and doctrinal claims, it is not like the traditions assumed. God was not a special supreme being among other beings that had supernatural powers to affect the distribution of natural properties. Religious and theological language more and more pointed to the depth of human existence itself. In the heady 19th century academic theology environment of the German university, it was natural to think that something profound was being found, or at least pointed to, by theological language. In this environment, the specificity of contrary confessions began even to lose their ability to conflict. Various confessional traditions were thought to talk in different ways about an ultimate dimension at the depth of human existence.

This was, of course, the ultimate triumph in Enlightenment tolerance. Two confessional traditions did not make conflicting claims, but rather gave different interpretations, interpretations that were not in the business of making truth-claims about God at all. Such tolerance spread into the 20th century, where theological claims were put safely on the side of values and thus inoculated from the whole question of truth.

The Lutheran tradition in North America struggled in its “pre-Enlightenment” and “post-Enlightenment” interpretations of theological claims. For those committed to the “old way” the claims of theology were still in principle true of an extra-linguistic domain in which God was a member. Many of those emigrants from 19th century Europe carried the old ways with them.
Others, however, were committed to the “new way” of thinking, a way that understood that theological language was not making the kinds of claims people assumed it did. These “new ways” of thinking did not establish themselves academically in North America as early as did their counterparts in the other Protestant traditions. While practitioners of the old found conflict between their confessional documents, those assuming the new realized that their confessional documents no longer were true - - at least not in the sense that their traditions had always understood. To be a Lutheran was no longer to be a Lutheran because Lutheran theology was true, but rather being Lutheran was simply something given, where one found oneself. Given this, the only option available for those wanting to retain confessional allegiance was simply to adopt the confessional theology as decorative of that Lutheran identity.


We Lutherans have not reflected deeply enough on our plight. If the “new way” is right, then we have the following picture of things: Each of us has, for whatever reasons, found ourselves in Lutheran churches. We are curious as to what has historically defined Lutherans, and we read some Lutheran history and maybe some of our founding texts. We realize the treasury of our tradition and seek to know more. Of course, we realize at the same time that the confessions are the Lutheran “take” on scripture, and that scripture’s sense cannot be discerned once and for all. Some of us even suppose that scripture itself is merely a set of texts to which we are accidentally related by birth. In moments of openness, we might even claim that other foundational religious texts are no more true or false in an absolute sense than are ours.

I think this picture of things is one that resonates with vast numbers of people within ELCA and ELCIC churches. Most attending services are clearly not concerned with the truth-claims of the confessions and whether or not these claims exclude other truth-claims. (Of course, logically to claim that something obtains is to claim simultaneously that many other things do not obtain.) The lamentable thing about this picture is this: It suggests that Lutheran theology only mostly engages people that already just happen to self-identify as Lutheran. The theology thus for them is decorative of their identity as Lutherans. To learn the tradition is simply to learn more about being a Lutheran, it is to learn how one can decorate herself with a Lutheran ethos. Being Lutheran becomes then a possible role that one adopts in the world, a role adopted in the effort of finding meaning and purpose and identity in the universe. The confessions thus become all about “belongingness” to a group; they are important only for diachronic community.

It is this picture of things, friends, that we Lutherans must now reject. We must reject this picture because ultimately it is incoherent, in other words, “this horse don’t run.” Theological language that does not make truth claims, a language that is merely descriptive and ornamental is not a language that the churches can or will long speak. We don’t know how to speak this language for the long term, for we don’t know what difference is made ultimately by speaking it or not speaking it.

I believe the time has come for we Lutherans again to embrace their confessions, not as decorative to our being-as-Lutherans, but as truth-claims about the world in which we find ourselves. Our postmodern situation gives us opportunity directly again to claim that there is a loving God, and that this loving God has justified the lost - - all of us - - even though there is no merit or goodness within us. We can and must go even further. We must assert again that our confessions make truth claims on the basis of a biblical text that is perspicuous. Scripture is clear, and our confessions clearly declare its clarity.

Now some will say that this is repristination; they will say that we just want to bring back the good old days. My response is, “yes, we do want to bring back the good old days when theology was taken as having a subject matter, making truth claims, and being in principle relatable to other kinds of discourse.” It is true that we do want to treat theological claims again in ways more like the “old ways” of the pre-Enlightenment. But while we wish to do this, we want to use all of the tools at our disposal today to recover the old.


It has been said that “tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” We do not want to be traditionalistic but traditionalist. We want to treat the confessions of Lutheranism fairly again; we want to read these texts from a standpoint not ultimately foreign to the standpoint from which they were written. It is for this reason that the Institute of Lutheran Theology talks about recovering theological realism, semantic realism, and theophysical causation.

Luther and many of the Reformers were university professors trained deeply in logic and semantics. They were acutely aware of the meaning of terms, and the importance of specificity and clarity in their theological utterances. They were men aware that theological language was a language that made truth claims and that one had to understand both the significance and the supposition of terms before one understood what the claims were. They were men who believed that there was a divine realm and that it was connected to the earthly order in various ways.
They believed that if God had not acted certain things would not have been, and if God were to act certain things would come to be. The horizon of the confessions is a horizon of the old way.

However, all must realize that the days of the Kantian hegemony are over within philosophy. All must realize that the days of the verificationist criterion of meaning lie behind us. In many ways philosophers at work now, because of their deep sensitivity to logical and semantic issues, are much closer to the horizon of the confessions than philosophers have been for centuries. Analytic methods of philosophy are useful for studying the confessions because they emphasize truth conditions: a statement’s meaning is to be found in how the world would have to be if the statement were true. Accordingly, “God established the office of preaching” is true if and only if God established the office of preaching.

So how are the confessions normative today? If “God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” is true if and only if God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then the claims of the confessions come alive again. After all, what difference would it make to give quia subscription to the confessions if we no longer believed that they said what the Reformers clearly meant them to say? Perhaps the new way was no way at all.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Internal Clarity of Scriptture


I want to talk this evening about a very important notion in the Lutheran Reformation, the idea of the internal clarity of scripture. It is important to discuss this because we live in a time of great hermeneutical confusion, that is, we live in a time where a plethora of divergent methods and approaches to scripture all claim to ascertain the real meaning of the Biblical text. As a result, scripture seems to sustain a different meaning as a function of the exegetical and interpretive method employed in its reading.

What I shall do tonight is briefly review some of these contemporary hermeneutical strategies, compare them with the traditional approaches inherited by Luther and the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and show how the internal clarity of scripture provided the Reformation with the resources to deal with the confusion of hermeneutical trajectories that infected much of the tradition. I will then suggest that just as notion of the internal clarity of scripture operated in the sixteenth century to quell hermeneutical license, so it must be used today by Lutherans, if Lutheranism is to have any response to the contemporary hermeneutical quagmire.


In the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is trying mightily to get clear on what it calls, “the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.” People are particularly interested in whether or not those engaged in homoerotic behavior in the context of a “committed relationship” - - whatever that might precisely mean - - ought to be allowed to serve as “rostered leaders,” that is, as pastors or associates in ministry, etc. Connected with this is the issue of whether or not two people of the same sex should be allowed to receive some type of liturgical “blessing,” a blessing analogous to that given to heterosexual couples who are wedding.

It is not my intention tonight to discuss the homosexuality issue except to make these two general comments:

· It is true that there has been great consensus within Christianity the past twenty centuries about the intrinsic sinfulness of homosexual behavior. In particular, within the Catholic theological tradition that has assumed the existence of natural law, homosexual acts were routinely considered to be deviant from that which ought to obtain, were thought to be not in conformity with God’s primary intentionality for human beings, and were therefore regarded to be sinful.

· It is also true that the theological tradition thought it could find biblical justification for their views on homosexuality. Since the 16th century onward, most Protestant Christians have regarded homosexuality as sinful on the basis of the authority of scripture. Scripture was thought to be clear on the matter of whether or not God’s intention for His creation precluded homosexual behavior.

It is obvious, however, that many mainline Protestants no longer believe that there are clear biblical injunctions against homosexual behavior. Accordingly, if scripture is properly interpreted, then passages putatively debarring homosexual acts are found to do no such thing. By reaching back to recover the original meaning of these passages, interpreters believe they can somehow access the original semantic horizon of the text, a horizon that can be separated from the tradition of its interpretation. In doing so they say that there is nothing in the bible that would entail that homosexual activity is intrinsically wrong.

(I should like to note in passing how the sola scriptura principle gets perverted in this effort. At the time of the Reformation, sola scriptura was used as the primary authority that grounds theological orthodoxy. However, in our day a slavish Protestant adherence to sola scriptura, coupled with hermeneutical license, catapults the interpreter across nineteen centuries of Christian witness and attempts to connect the interpreter’s question to a text whose meaning is no longer clear and whose authority is suspect. I always wonder why it would be important for Christian piety to discern what the bible originally meant if the book is not essentially authoritative, that is, if it is in no way an effect of divine self-communication to us. What fundamental difference should the biblical text make if it is no longer caused by the divine? If it is just a book among books that is accidentally the founding document of the Christian tradition, then why does it matter today what it says in the seven problematic passages putatively prohibiting homosexual behavior?)


When looking at the contemporary hermeneutical landscape, we note the following general interpretative strategies.

Traditionalist approaches: This group of time-honored approaches claims that the text does indeed make particular truth-claims about God and God’s relation to human beings. While there may be internecine conflicts within this class of approaches pertaining to which parts of scripture are metaphorical and/or allegorical, they assume that clear and literal truth claims are made throughout scripture. These strategies are objectivist in spirit, claiming textual objectivity for all readers at all times. Although some of these approaches hold to a verbal plenary theory of biblical inspiration and authority, one need not claim the Holy Spirit as a divine amanuensis to hold that scripture has an objective meaning, and that one can apprehend this meaning by reading it. Traditionalist approaches assume a present objectivity, a present semantic discreteness.

Contextualist approaches: Contextualist proposals seek to ascertain the meaning of the text upon the horizon of its origination, that is, synchronically by comparing it to other documents within the region at the time, and diachronically by comparing it to other texts within the general history of similar documents. Contextualist approaches use various historical-critical methodologies to attempt to find out what the texts meant within the context of their emergence. We might think of these as objectivist as well, but here the objectivity is tied to the original meaning of the text in the context of its origination, and not a present objectivity.

Reader Response: Reader response approaches downplay the importance of what the text may once have meant, in favor of what the text now means for the reader in her reading. Bracketing questions of origination and authorial intent, this approach can be linked to an “enthusiastic approach” generally: the text means what it means to me now as the Holy Spirit guides me in the present. Whereas the traditionalist and the contextual approaches presuppose textual objectivity, the reader response proposal is a subjectivist approach. (I want to qualify this to an “enthusiasm” that, as Luther says, “swallows the Holy Spirit feathers and all.”) This interpretive strategy presupposes that there is no discernible meaning in the text apart from the act of interpretation, that the meaning of the text is constructed in its act of interpretation.

Fusion of Horizons Approaches: Based in post-Gadamerian hermeneutical theory, this way of approaching the text claims that while the text’s meaning is not merely my interpretation of the text (as in reader response), it is nonetheless impossible to ever have an objective reading of the text (as in either the contextual or traditional approach). On this view, the meaning of the text emerges in the back and forth movement between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the interpreter. Because of the “effects of historical consciousness” - - because the horizon of the text has formed historically the interpreter’s own horizon by which she interprets the text (Gadamer) - -, the text’s horizon can be interpreted by the interpreter. The fusion of horizons approach mediates the immediacy of the reader response position by contrasting it with a mediate objectivist interpretation (e.g., the traditionalist and contextualist approaches), such that both are synthesized or “taken up” (Aufgehebung) in a mediated immediacy.

Except for strands within the traditionalist approach, the problem with all of these is that no matter how objective they might pretend to be, they end up looking pretty subjective. Once the text is treated as a document beside other documents, a fissure invariably opens between the text and its interpretation. Unlike some other classic texts, the text of Scripture has sustained widely-divergent interpretations, particularly after it is unhinged from its community of interpretation - - the Catholic Church. In the Reformation, the cry of sola scriptura suggested to many that one could leap frog beyond the tradition and go to scripture for all truth. While this worked when there remained a shared set of interpretive values, after this common ethos faded, the text became helpless in the face of radically different interpretations.

Terry Fretheim, a Professor of OT at Luther Seminary sums up the problem with our present plethora of interpretive methods. He makes the following points in a 2006 Word and World article (26:4):

“The Bible is the Word of God” in that it has a formative and constitutive role through the Holy Spirit, and that it is foundational for shaping and maintaining Christian self-identity. “

People using the same historical-critical methods on the text come to different conclusions.

Authority has often been given to particular interpretations of the text. (This correlates to the traditional hermeneutic on Scripture, I suppose.)

“Hence, we must make a clean distinction between the text and our own interpretation of the text, for whatever we say about a Bible passage is never the same as what the Bible itself says.”

Against the traditional Lutheran view of the internal clarity of Scripture, Fretheim asserts,“ The Bible itself often makes interpretation difficult and contributes to the problem of its own authority. It has been said that the Bible is its own worst enemy.”

“There is . . . no sure move from the “objective” exegesis of the text to its meaning; contemporary issues are in the room at every stage of the process. The effects of our experience upon our study of the Bible mean that readers do not have direct, unmediated access to meanings the author may have intended or to “naked” meanings of the text itself. Recognizing that, we can make no clean distinction between “what the text meant” and “what the text means, . . .”

I have used Fretheim because he speaks this so very clearly. He knows the methods of the academy and knows how to apply them to the text. In doing so, Fretheim notices something that others see as well: the interpretive methods applied to the text not surprisingly determine what meaning the text has. Fretheim’s views are not idiosyncratic, but are fairly standard among reflective ELCA scripture professors.


As is well-known the theological tradition at the eve of the Reformation had in place the “four-fold method of biblical interpretation.” It was thought that all of scripture could be read in four distinctive ways, that is, there were four different senses to scriptural expressions: the literal, allegorical, troplogical, and anagogical. These four senses are summed up in this Latin expression: Littera gesta docet; quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas; quo tendas anagogia.,” (“The letter teaches what happened; the allegorical what you should believe, the moral what you must do; the anagogical where you are going.”) For instance, in a literal sense Jerusalem is the city of David in Judea; allegorically, it is the church; tropologically it is the just and righteous soul; anagogically it is the heavenly city to which the righteous are heading.

Starting with the school of Alexandria, the tradition assumed that literality of the words of Scripture must be transcended in order to encounter the spiritual truths standing behind the words. For instance, Augustine claims that in the parable of the loaves and fishes, the five loaves refer to the five books of Moses; the two fishes refer to the Priest and King pointing to Christ. Further, he claims that the multiplication into many loaves represents the multiplication of the five books of Moses into many volumes; the fragments left over refer to the deep truths that the many could not receive and were thus left for the twelve disciples.

Over and against such fanciful hermeneutics, Luther says that there is but one sense of Scripture, and it can strike us both as law and as gospel. The law is demand, showing us what we have not done or been in the sight of God; the gospel is promise, showing us what God has done and what He is for us.

In offering his “new hermeneutics,” Luther clearly realizes that according to the fourfold method, Scripture can mean almost anything that the interpreter wants it to mean, and that thus, the interpreter becomes lord over God’s Word rather than the Word becoming lord over the interpreter. Therefore, Luther claimed that no external exegetical method can be applied to Scripture in discerning the meaning of the text. In order to make Scripture lord over its interpreter, one must submit to its “clear sense.” This sense establishes what Scripture is about. Here Luther presupposes an internalist interpretive method.


Luther and the Reformers assume that Scripture attests to itself, that it interprets itself. Because of this, it is internally clear. All of the parts of Scripture testify to Christ, and Christ is found in all the parts of Scripture. Just as there is a hermeneutical circle with the parts of Scripture testifying to the whole, and the whole of Scripture illuminating the parts, so too is the Holy Spirit at work in a hermeneutical circle: The Word carries the Spirit who Himself interprets the Word. Luther also calls this clarity a sinceritas or simplicitas.

However, this internal clarity is consonant with Scripture’s apparent obscurity. Human beings are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves. This sinfulness affects one’s standpoint on Scripture; One cannot access Scripture except from the standpoint of one in bondage to sin, one who does not want to let God be God, who does not want anyone to be lord except the self. This perceived scriptural obscurity is fully compatible with Scripture’s internal clarity.

Speaking of these things, Luther writes:

“For what still sublimer thing can remain in the scriptures, now that the seals have been broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, and the supreme mystery brought to light, namely, that Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three in one, that Christ has suffered for us and is to reign eternally? Are not these things known and sung even in the highways and byways? Take Christ out of the scriptures and what will you find left in them? The subject matter of the scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms.” (Bondage of the Will, LW 33:25-26)

”If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart, so that they can recite everything in scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it. They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God.” (Bondage of the Will, LW 33:28)

It is my contention that the notion of the internal clarity or perspicuity of scripture must be regarded as a primitive assertion within Lutheran theology generally. While it cannot itself be proved, its assertion is necessary for Lutheran theology to function properly. If one is to leapfrog back across centuries of tradition to find authority in a single text, then it is requisite that the text is clear. The alternative is to find the authority of the tradition in the development of the tradition itself, i.e., in the development of the church - - something Luther staunchly rejected. It is important to grasp the Catholic counterargument to the perspicuity of scripture.

The argument claims that, from the beginning, the Catholic tradition realized that the biblical texts harmonized only imperfectly. The tradition thus intuitively recognized that the development of doctrine is essential to understanding what scripture means. Accordingly, since there is no fundamental fissure between Scripture and tradition, the tradition thus determines the shape of the canon itself. Moreover, because of the fundamental obscurity of Scripture, a teaching magisterium is necessary to interpret it correctly. This magisterial office functions to interpret questions properly in the light of church teaching, a teaching itself founded in scripture and tradition. While having such a magisterium is a profoundly anti-democratic way of proceeding, such a hermeneutical elitism makes good sense if scripture is not internally clear.


By advocating the internal clarity of scripture, however, Luther and the Reformers put an end to the fanciful interpretations of the tradition, a tradition in which those “in the know” could always claim to discern a specialist-like deeper “spiritual truth” behind the shallow vulgar letter of the biblical text.

Lutherans face a similar situation today. The fissure between the text and its interpretation seemingly guarantees that text will always be spun by the interpreter. As in the sixteenth century, so today, the Lutheran response to the notion that there is a yawning abyss between the text and its interpretation must be the assertion of the perspicuity of scripture. Listen again to the voices of our Lutheran theological ancestors, people who understood how anti-elitist and democratic Lutheran hermeneutics is:

“But the articles of faith and the moral precepts are taught in scripture in their proper places, not in obscure and ambiguous words, but in such as are fitted to them, and free from all ambiguity, so that every diligent reader of scripture who reads it devoutly and piously, can understand them” [Quenstedt (1617-88), Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 81].

This clarity is, of course, always related to the Holy Spirit which, while carried on the wings of the Word, is nevertheless necessary for understanding that Word:

“If you speak of the internal clearness, no man understands a single iota of the scriptures by the natural powers of his own mind, unless he have the Spirit of God; all have obscure hearts. The Holy Spirit is required for the understanding of the whole of Scripture and all of its parts” [Gerhard (1582-1637), DTELC, 83-4].

At work in this interpretation is the “hermeneutical circle” where the parts interpret the whole and the whole interprets the parts:

“The more obscure passages, which need explanation, can and should be explained by other passages that are more clear, and thus the scripture itself furnishes an interpretation of the more obscure expression when a comparison of these is made with those that are more clear; so the Scripture is explained by Scripture” (Quenstedt, 86).

But, this hermeneutical circle presupposes the agency of the Holy Spirit:

“For no other source than the sacred scriptures themselves can a certain and infallible interpretation of scripture be known. For scripture itself, or rather the Holy Spirit speaking in scriptures or through it, is the legitimate and independent interpreter of itself” (Quenstedt, DTELC, 86).

As in the sixteenth century, so in our day, the only way to claim that we are not guilty of finally constructing the text which supposedly presences the Word that saves us, is to assert that there is an objectivity to the text over and apart from human being, an objectivity which is an artifact of the divine, an objectivity that controls its own interpretation. This is the barely-remembered doctrine of the internal clarity of scripture.