Authority: A Dialogue

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Professor,South Dakota State University, WordAlone board member)

June 3, 2003

I heard them talking in the corner of the room at the South Dakota Synod Assembly. While I didn’t catch all that they said, the conversation seemed to go something like this.

“See,” she said, “it says so in the Bible. It is plain as day.”

>He replied patiently, “Have you ever considered that the phrases you point to may not really mean what you think they mean? photo of Dr. Dennis BielfeldtYou must understand them in the light of their historical context. Study the social, political and economic beliefs and practices of the time and you will gain insight as to the true meaning of a phrase.”

“Where can I learn about this?” she asked. “How can I find out what my Bible ‘means’?”

“Well,” he began, “there are several fine places where one can study the New Testament. Tübingen has a good program. In America we have Princeton, Harvard, Duke, Chicago and Yale. They are excellent.”

She answered with obvious excitement, “Will I know what my Bible means after I go to these places? Which courses must I take? I am really interested in all of this.”

“Well, not exactly,” he responded. “You will know how different people have understood the historical context, and how they believe that context applies to particular phrases. But this is not something one can learn in one course. One must really work toward a Ph.D.”

She was incredulous: “You mean I must get a Ph.D. to know what my Bible means, and then I really won’t know what it means, but will only know what various people applying various standards have thought it might mean?”

“It’s a little better than that,” he replied, “You will in the course of time come to see that certain arguments about context and application are more persuasive to you than others. Over your years of study, you will develop your own position about what particular verses might mean.”

“But I want to know what it really means,” she said.

“I am not at all sure I understand what you are asking,” he replied. “You will come to an understanding of the biblical text in a similar way that you come to an understanding of any written text. Meaning is not something just sitting somewhere in a book waiting to be decoded. You are involved in all of this.

“There are different ways to read things, some more sustainable than others. To come to know the meaning of the text is not to know ‘what it really means’, but rather to know what it means in a context.”

“What?” She eyed him suspiciously, “I thought I was going to find out what it really meant when I came to understand the social, political and economic context.”

He looked at her kindly and explained, “Our understanding of any social, political and economic context depends, of course, upon the canons of scholarship applied by our time. Really, we only understand the past within the context of the present. Each age asks of the past different questions and adjudicates answers to these questions according to different standards.”

She was obviously deflated, “You mean that I won’t find out what the social, political and economic context really was? I will only find that this is the likely context given a number of assumptions.”

“Well, you might say it that way,” he replied. “There are scholarly opinions and arguments about context that affect how one might read particular passages. Oh, did I say that social, political and economic context itself cannot finally establish the meaning of a passage. One must know the literary context, the rhetorical and semantic assumptions of the culture. I may have forgotten to say this.”

Her head was swimming. “But the Bible says ‘x.’ Now you say in order for me to know what ‘x’is, I must know the social, political, economic and But then you admit that this context is a reconstruction given the canons of historical research of ‘our own time.’ How can I ever encounter the voice of God, when I must spend all my time trying to clarify, given my own best lights, what it is that these verses attributed to Him might say.”

“Oh, now I understand your concern,” he said. “But don’t you know that to come to understand what God says in the Bible one needs the ‘Church.’ Only within that institution do we find the requisite authority that can help us find what God says to us.”

She was bewildered, “But if I cannot find the authority in the text, why would I find it in the church? What is there about the church that makes ‘it’ a better authority than the text itself?”

Again, he looked at her kindly: “The church is a community of love, an association of the faithful in union throughout time and space. It is the primary locus of the Holy Spirit. The Church is a divine institution with leaders, laws and standards grounded in the activity of the Holy Spirit. Christians animated together by divine love find in scripture the Word of God.”

“But what if the church is wrong?” she muttered.

He stared at her for a long time before he answered. “But don’t you understand? That is simply impossible.”

One of the traditional rallying cries of the Reformation is sola scriptura. For Luther, a simple peasant with scripture can learn the Word of God as easily as (or more easily than) a learned theologian who has read all of Tertullian, Clement, Origin, Augustine, Cyprian, Gregory of Nyssa and John of Damascus, who also has read and absorbed the canonical documents of the Roman Catholic theological tradition.

Lutherans have always thought that scripture as the witness of the Word is that which norms the church, norms the beliefs and actions of those who gather around Word and Sacrament.

But times are changing. What happens to a theological tradition built upon sola scriptura when the authority of scriptura is challenged?

For us in the ELCA, the story is clear. We drift from contemporary concern to contemporary concern. A church that sets norms by scripture alone is in deep trouble when there is no longer basic agreement on assumptions about what scripture says. If there is one norm, and it doesn’t stand, then all is up for grabs.

Despite the argument of the man in the dialogue, the Catholic position seems not to be an option for Lutherans. The genius of the Catholic Church has always been to recognize the part that tradition plays in the proper interpretation of scripture. While Lutherans are scurrying looking for a passage or two to legitimate or prohibit committed same-sex relations, Catholics point to the tradition of the church. Eighteen centuries of practice cannot be overlooked so easily, and 18 centuries of practice attest to the very meaning of scripture. But how can Lutherans embrace the position of the Council of Trent regarding the priority of tradition while still remaining Lutheran?

Some have pointed to a great irony in the position of many in the WordAlone movement. While tradition is rejected when it comes to accepting the historical episcopate, it is accepted when it comes to rejecting any basis for Christian same-sex relations. “You can’t have it both ways,” they say.

So what does one do?

Not surprisingly, the answer must stress the Word. Lutherans must always emphasize the principle of scriptural clarity. We really can’t lose the belief that lay people can read scripture rightly, that they really don’t need advanced degrees to know what scripture means.

Scripture confronts us with the Word that carries the Holy Spirit who interprets scripture. The Holy Spirit must be regarded as a concrete, living, animating reality. The problem is, of course, how to conceive the Spirit as living without falling into the morass of what Luther called “enthusiasm,” the notion that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to the human hearts of different people in different ways. The problem with such a view is that it always confuses the voice of God with one’s own voice.

In addition, we must emphasize “our” traditions. The Lutheran movement arose as a critique of Roman structure and abuse. It has always emphasized the theological truth that sin is part of all earthly institutions—including the church. It always has taught that human beings always will try to be their own gods, that they will constantly try to rewrite scripture in their own image.

Lutheran tradition is now almost 500 hundred years old. This tradition attests to a particular way of understanding scripture and the grace of God. It is a tradition that recognizes that there really is no foundational point upon which all else depends except the anti-foundation of the death of Christ on the Cross.

Ours is a difficult truth. While many run to find the point of authority in infallible ecclesiastical ordering or infallible text, we run to find authority hidden in the shadow of the Cross and the Word proclaimed by and through this event. Perhaps all of us need to work on how the dialogue might be extended to allow for the statement of this, our position.