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Christ's Scripture or Scripture's Christ—Is It an Either-Or?

By Rev. Dr. George H. Muedeking Editor, FOCL

Date unknown

Beginning in the 18th Century, "Higher Criticism" became the politically correct way to think and speak in the Theology departments of European universities. It was a new way of looking at the Bible. It essentially understood the Scriptures to have been written by humans who were using their own experiences to try to understand God's ways.

Higher Criticism was imported to the U.S, and infected most of the mainline churches. Except the Lutherans. They were too ethnically bounded to be aware of how desperately American Protestants were wrestling with the issue, or of how these new ways of interpreting the Bible conflicted with their own belief system. For the Lutheran conviction was — and still is so confessed — that the words of the Bible are, instead, essentially the effort of God to help us understand our experiences. It was basically the issue of the authority of the Bible — does it come from God's initiative or man's?

The issue of where to rest our faith is always critical. As the preeminent Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard said, "Anyone who sews has first to tie a knot in the thread somewhere." Only then can you keep your work from unraveling.

That was precisely the basic struggle of the Protestant Reformation. Is the knot of ultimate authority for our faith to be tied at the Scriptures, and stop there, punkt !! Or should we rather tie the knot at the place where qualified men opine on the meaning and reliability of the words of Scripture, that is, interpret the Scripture for us? This might be Tradition, the Pope, or the seven Universal Church Councils. This is where the Roman church and the Orthodox catholics tie the knot so their doctrinal system might not unravel. The so-called "liberal" theologians tie the knot of authority at another place in the thread-the latest findings and hypotheses of science, as mused upon by learned professors.

A Counter-Movement

That inclination in the Western Protestant world to give up the Bible as its ultimately accepted authority, gave rise to a counter-movement, however. It was actually a reaction to the evident deconstruction of Christianity as a religion which, because of the authority of the Bible for it, is to be distinguished from all other faith-systems. Budding out around the time of World War I, and shortly thereafter in the US, that reaction became known as the "Fundamentalist" Movement. Its most able advocate in the U.S., the theologian who gained intellectual leadership in this criticism of Higher Criticism, was Gresham Machen at Princeton University. This movement's supporters offered their theological repositioning in a series of brochure responses. They named 10 articles of the Christian faith that were agreed to be essential, i.e., "fundamental" to maintaining the unique identity of Christianity. These "fundamentals," like the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, His return as Judge of the Earth, etc., were said to be extracted from the Bible — period! The place to tie the knot in Protestantism was once again, the Holy Scriptures. The knot was re-tied at the same place it had been in the days of the Reformation.

The confidence of these "fundamentalists"in the Bible's presentation of the Christian faith, was widely impugned. It was charged that Fundamentalists were "literalists"-readers who took the Bible "literally." It is of course impossible to find anyone on earth who takes the Bible "literally," that is, word for word as written. No matter how "literalistically" the Bible is read, nobody will ever be uncovered, for example, who thinks that King Herod ran around on four legs with a bushy tail, even though Jesus called him, "that fox." Consequently it was more plausible to challenge this confidence in the words of the Bible with the aspersion that it was a form of idolatry — these Fundamentalists actually put their trust in the Bible itself! Imagine! Our trust should be in God, not in pages of bound paper. Surely Higher Criticism, with this easy dismissal, would now and forever be able to blow such reliance on the Bible as God's peculiar revelation out of the water, wouldn't it? It became the coin of the Protestant theological realm then to speak of faithful adherence to the Bible as "bibliolatry," said not infrequently, with curled lips of disdain.

A Cradled Christ

In the US. a number of Lutheran theologians, to keep up with the times, began to invoke Emil Brunner's intriguing picture of Christ and the Manger. Brunner was a pioneer "Neo-orthodox" Swiss theologian of the 1930s and 40s, a first direct disciple of Karl Barth. This latter, a decade earlier, had become the acknowledged flag-bearer for those who refused to be converted by proponents of the Social Gospel who believed that the Kingdom of God had finally arrived in a prosperous Western world. Barth and Brunner insisted that the "liberal" quest to find certainty for our religion in anything except the Word of God could never succeed.

Brunner said that Christians do not worship the manger (the Bible), but they worship the Christ whom the manger contains. They worship God's Word made flesh, not pen scratches on paper.

This simplistic aphorism is still widely bandied about among certain Lutheran students of religion. They are not quite ready to throw all of their church's doctrines overboard, hoping thereby yet to quell the storms which our culture is mounting against the faith. "We do not worship the Bible," they aver loudly, "but only the God of the Bible — not the manger, but the Christ in the manger." Even Martin Luther knew that difference, they insist. So his writings are minutely screened to find any statements that might reflect his distrust of the Scripture's words, in favor of his having found his faith from his relationship with Christ Himself. This search has been largely unfruitful, however, due to Luther's frequently expressed personal gratitude for the revelation which the Scripture itself and alone gave him about how a person is made right with God.

Is There an Answer?

So how can we pick our way through these varied and often contradictory appreciations of the place the Bible should occupy in our Lutheran faith?

TRY THESE STEPS: Visualize this telephone message to you at your workplace, "Man, your house is on fire. Better get home quick!!"

  1. In order to believe in any message like this one given over the phone, you most certainly must believe in the messenger who is sending it. This is the unconditionally held doctrine of the Lutheran, as well as of all other professed Christian churches, namely, that it is Jesus Christ Himself who "authenticates" the words of the Bible. We trust them because we trust the messenger. He is the Authority for the authority of the Bible over us.
  2. Then, quite separately, to believe "Your house is on fire," you must certainly also believe the message itself, that the words themselves are valid.
  3. Both these acts of confidence must be present at the same time. For a person can believe in a messsenger without believing in the words he brings. For example, when the message comes over the phone, while fully believing in the messenger, I may still think that what he is telling me so urgently, is not to be believed: the house he's talking about has to be the one next door; he's dreaming and woke up thinking it was really happening; or he may be pulling an "April Fool" joke on me. Whatever.
  4. So we must at the same time believe in both the Message and the Messenger, both in the words of the Bible and the Christ who so graciously offers them to us for a wholesome life and eternal salvation.

The Lutheran Both-And

Note then: Lutherans do not "believe in the Bible," just exactly as you do not "believe in the telephone" that told you your house was burning up. Rather, you believe in BOTH the message AND the messenger.

Lutheran faith and doctrine express this difference quite aptly. Our faith says, Lutherans believe that the Bible is a "Means of Grace." The Bible is the means, the instrument, if you will-the telephone — for sending us the words of God. We tie the knot of authority for the Lutheran faith at that place in the thread. The Messenger and the Message are the object of our faith- -both at the same time. Both must be present in our hearts if we are to live responsibly as Christian believers.

Consequently, the struggle in our Church, prompted by the rise of Higher Criticism, is not hopeless for Scripture-bound believers. We are not mythical Bible literalists, of which there are none. We are not Bible idolaters. We do know that it is Jesus Christ who is Lord, Lord also of the Scriptures. But we know also that to find that Lord, there is only one infallible place to start and finish our quest, the Prophetic and Apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments, more commonly called THE BIBLE. It is both Christ's Scripture, and Scripture's Christ that are the foundation of our confidence that Eternal Life awaits the Christ-ian who trusts in Him whom the Scripture offers to our heart.