A Response to Jack Kilcrease

The following is a response to Jack Kilcrease's article:

Evangelical and Catholic?: The ‘Conservative' Reformation's Scriptural Principle and the Catholicity of the Gospel

Response by Paul R. Hinlicky, Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies, Roanoke College, Salem VA  

I should be flattered by the extravagant attention Dr. Kilcrease has paid to my article from 1999.[1] It is in any case interesting for me to be criticized from the theological Right-an uncommon experience for me in the ELCA. Thanks to the editor's gracious invitation to respond, I have a precious opportunity to offer amplifications and clarifications on my theological project to friends in Lutheranism outside my own troubled denomination.


Since Kilcrease makes such a big to-do about my supposed affiliations, readers deserve to hear straight from the horse's mouth. First, I don't know if the theologians around Pro Ecclesia would so confidently count me as one of their fellow travelers, as does Kilcrease.

Truth be told, I have found myself less inclined in recent years to use the party slogan, "evangelical catholic," even though I do not renounce it. As for "gospel-reductionism," that accusation takes me back thirty years-though I would be lying to say it fills me with nostalgia for my youth when my church imploded. I suspect that certain Elertians and Fordeans today-who really are guilty of this reductive move-would likewise not be happy to regard me as one of their own. I hold in distinction from them the primacy of the gospel narrative concerning Jesus Christ, not the primacy of an existentially moving contemporary word of liberation. For what it is worth, in short, I don't have any other purpose in my theological thinking than to be a catholic or ecumenical theologian in the tradition of Luther, let the chips fall as they may.

Personally speaking, the unkindest cut of all is Kilcrease's allegation of my "ignorance" of the theological tradition of Lutheran Orthodoxy. I have just published with Dennis Bielfeldt and Mickey Mattox a book on Luther's late disputations on the Trinity,[2] and before that a major study under the editorship of Oswald Bayer on Luther's Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi.[3] I am about to publish a major study, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibniz.[4] I trust that upon a careful study of these more recent efforts Kilcrease's premature judgment about my "ignorance" (not to be confused with my critical reception) of Lutheran Orthodoxy will be rectified. In any event, the "perplexity" Kilcrease experiences in interpreting my 1999 article results from his own polemical procedure, as we shall see, not my alleged "ignorance."

I want to get to the heart of the matter Kilcrease has raised-my proposed revision of the Lutheran doctrine of Holy Scripture away from the general Protestant teaching of "Bible alone." Kilcrease gets the gist of this: sola scriptura, understood as an unmediated Word from God (thus operating monergistically) yet expressed through the many human words of the biblical authors. This all self-destructs in the sense that it generates multiple, contradictory readings; thus rendering Scripture itself incoherent and producing the corresponding Protestant sectarianism. What is controversial about that? It was, I recall, Hermann Sasse who noted that for Lutherans it is not the Bible, but the Bible rightly interpreted which bears authority in the Church, as the norm by which fidelity to Jesus Christ and his gospel is tested. If one grants the latter, it is not "Bible alone," but the Bible with the tradition of its right interpretation to which the Lutheran Confessions make claim. I agree with this.

What I propose (prima Scriptura) is professedly an innovation within the tradition of Lutheran theology, which had come in the course of anti-Catholic polemics to speak like the Reformed of sola Scriptura. This happened by extending the "exclusive particle" from soteriology to epistemology, that is, from the original use to modify grace, faith and Christ in the doctrine of justification to the Bible as the written Word of God in a general doctrine of revelation or inspiration. With this move the Bible became the sole and miraculous source of information about all sorts of things, such that the gospel cannot be discussed, let alone set the agenda for discussion, until the credibility of the Bible is first determined. Couple this move with further borrowing of the correct teaching of monergism in regard to salvation, and the credibility of the Bible has to be gained by sheer fiat: The Bible is true because God says it is true. End of discussion.

This question-begging move skewers everything. Kilcrease, as it seems to me, comes perilously close to the logic of Protestant fundamentalism: "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." He simply jettisons the entire problem of hermeneutics in dogmatic theology: "Yes, God has said it, but do you understand it? Why has God said it? To whom has God said it? What kind of literature is this? How can you understand it to be God's Word when it is manifestly the human words of Peter, John or Paul, etc. handed on in the church?"

My proposed revision, then, is a needed and legitimate one, not only because it retrieves Luther's more original conception of the authority of the Scriptures in the church as the Spirit-designated canon of the gospel, but also because it requires under the conditions of our times renewal of the theological task of interpretation of the Bible in the church in dogmatic theology.

I cannot in passing do other than protest Kilcrease's caricature of my 1999 article and the method by which he comes to it.

It ought to discomfit readers to learn that I simply do not recognize what I wrote ten years ago in the portrait Kilcrease provides them. I urge readers to study the article for themselves. They will learn that its goal-admittedly Quixotic in hindsight-was for the Lutheran World Federation to adopt an ecclesiology of communion. They will also discover that the eventual unity with Rome which I envisioned in 1999 would have to come at the cost of Rome's renunciation of Obermann's Tradition II-a cost that has hardly escaped the notice of Roman Catholic readers of the article!

But one would never know such things from Kilcrease's account, with the result that my statements are torn out of context and interpreted apart from the guiding light of express authorial intention. In spite of his announced desire "to give a fair exposition of the perspective of our opponents," we are instead treated to an exercise in the Procrustean Bed Method of polemical theology: a preconceived framework (the "Conservative Reformation's Scripture Principle") is deployed to weigh and find wanting statements ripped out of context. So a straw man is erected and slain, but the real target is missed.

It would be tedious to itemize all Kilcrease's misrepresentations, so let these few stand for the whole: I am said to argue:

"the rejection of the scriptural principle" (not the revision of it)


to regard "the canon [as] a mere invention of the church" (not the Spirit-guided reception of the apostolic and prophetic books)

to follow "the meta-narrative of Neo-orthodoxy...that Luther's principle of ‘gospel authority' was betrayed by the Lutheran scholastics" (not that the "Bible alone" doctrine proved incapable of sustaining Luther's gospel authority in the passage to modernity)

to hold that "the Word...is an inert object" (not that the Incarnate, proclaimed and written Word is vulnerable to abuse and misinterpretation-the very reason why we need dogmatic theology!).

In sum I am found guilty of a "rather exaggerated attempt to make up for [a] low view of Scripture" (not trying, in good faith, to resolve a paralyzing confusion in Lutheran theology of the Word, who is the second person of Trinity, incarnate for us and for our salvation and proclaimed in the church through the gospel, with the text of the Bible taken by itself as a miraculous statement of God's opinion about all sorts of things). I could go on. It ought to come as a relief when Kilcrease acknowledges that "not all that Hinlicky has said is necessarily wrong," but alas, since I have not said and do not hold most of the things which Kilcrease imputes to me, instead of relief I sense only waves of confusion on top of confusion.

I teach my students this principle: "You are not allowed to criticize the opinion of an opponent until you can state the opinion with such clarity, insight and sympathy that your opponent, upon reading your account, would exclaim, ‘That's it! I couldn't have said it better myself!' Then and only then may criticism begin, because then and only then are you engaged with the real opponent and not a convenient fiction of your own imagination." I submit this principle to Dr. Kilcrease for his earnest consideration.

At the same time, I am grateful to my opponent for provoking me to defend the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the "prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments, as...the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which alone is the one true guiding principle, according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated."[5] The metaphor of the fountain here is the telling one. Christians do not, or should not, hold an Islamic theology of inspiration, in which the angel instructs Mohammed to set aside all human thoughts and simply recite the divine words. Instead, the actual human, historical testimony of prophets and apostles engaged in the history of their own times in speaking the word of the Lord are written down, preserved, collected, and tested against other writings claiming similar revelation or inspiration in a process of holy paradosis. It is "holy" in that, as a better doctrine of inspiration would rightly teach, the work of the Spirit is to be discerned in, and not apart from, this canonical process of handing on the word of the Lord from one generation to the next amid the claims of false prophets and false messiahs (Mk 13:22). So understood, everything depends on grasping the criteria by which the Spirit rules one writing in and another out.

In this light we would see that the particular books of the New Testament together form a Christological decision against Docetism; that the union of the New and Old Testaments together form a monotheistic decision against Gnostic dualism; that the perception of the one divine economy of salvation engendered by the emerging Genesis-to-Revelation canon form a Trinitarian decision against Arian Unitarianism; that the cross of the Incarnate Son at the center of the canonical narrative therefore teaches against Nestorianism the unity of the Person of Christ such that "one of the Trinity suffered" (that is the teaching of the 5th Ecumenical Council).

The hermeneutical function of the Reformation doctrine of justification likewise makes sense in light of this continuing canonical process under the Spirit's promised guidance to lead to all truth by recalling the word of Jesus. The Reformation brings a new insight, not into what the gospel is, but rather how it is to be rightly used: to tell (or receive) Christ (as identified in the ecumenical dogmas' interpretation of Scripture) in such a way that self-entrusting faith suffices to have him with all his blessings.[6]

The foregoing conception of the process of Scriptural tradition in the light of the gospel makes a definite correlation between the Spirit's first (prima) formation of the Holy Scriptures and the Spirit's on-going formation of God's holy people in the course of time: it is here in the church that the Scriptures are received and recognized.[7] This location of the Scripture in the church as formative of the church is hermeneutically decisive. This is how I mean prima. The canonical Scriptures are the primal fountain, but the fountain flows! Indeed, the flowing is the Spirit's point!

Who then has a low view of Scripture or thinks the Word "inert"? I certainly do hope that the "church grows to become Church in a more full sense!" I don't mind invoking the Puritan divine who held "that God has yet more truth to break out of his Holy Word." None of us have arrived; we are all still on the way.

Given this location of our theological work among the pilgrim people of God between the already and the not-yet, Kilcrease is forced to concede that I would hold that "the ‘gospel' and the Scriptures which witness to it have a regulating effect on what can be regarded as legitimate." But Kilcrease dismisses this correlation of the Holy Scriptures with the Holy Church by the Holy Spirit, however, as a "circular argument." How, he asks, "would one be able to criticize the bishops and subsequent traditions of the visible Church on the basis of the gospel?"

Good question! And he is right to infer that in one sense any such criticism would be "like sawing off the branch on which we are standing." I do think that the kinds of radical criticism of church tradition that have evolved into liberal Protestantism "saw off the branch." I do think that right kind of criticism of the bishops and subsequent traditions are pruning operations on a common root and tree and branch of faith, neither the radical reinvention of Christianity in liberalism, nor the radical repristination claimed by Kilcrease's sola scriptura conservativism.

What matters is that the Scripture principle is not made into a blind appeal to arbitrary authority, but rather that one can and should give good reasons theologically why the particular books of the Bible are included in the canon and how they are accordingly to weigh in judging doctrine. For theology in Luther's tradition the reasons which count as good derive from canonical Scripture's chief content, the good news of Christ the Crucified's Easter victory. This is God's authoritative Word, which authorizes the Christian community, calling God's people out of the world and into the coming kingdom, making them by faith the ek-klesia.

That this is Luther's teaching in the Latin Preface to his collected writings, to which the Formula appealed, seems to me undeniable. As such it specifies the sense of the claim that "God's Word alone ought to be and remain the only guiding principle and rule of all teaching," which, as the Solid Declaration immediately goes on to clarify, "does not mean that other good, useful, pure books that interpret Holy Scripture, refute errors and explain the articles of faith are to be rejected."[8]

I hold this position, but I hold it critically at the beginning of the 21st century. That means that I have to hold it under certain conditions that did not obtain for the historical Luther or Lutheran Orthodoxy. Among these conditions are inescapable cultural facts, such as the rise of the scientific world-view, including the historical criticism of the Bible. I do not invest a lot theologically in this fact, as theological liberals do. Historical criticism is in fact under a lot of pressure today from post-modernist critiques of its pretensions to objectivity and neutrality. Yet it remains a fact that we cannot read the Bible after historical criticism (if ever we could have) like Muslims read the Holy Quran: as only, uniquely, miraculously a word directly from God without human mediation. Any such theory of "recitation" is impossible for us after historical criticism.[9]

Instead we today have to read the books of the Bible first of all as Paul's, or Mark's, or John's historically specific words to their own communities, and only then with all the others together in the grand narrative constructed by the Spirit through the church of the world's course from Genesis to Revelation; that is, in the perspective of the divine economy of salvation, bearing unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ as the good reason for the church's existence. Other uses of the Bible, including putatively orthodox ones for arbitrary, authoritarian proof-texting of opinions about anything under the sun, are abuses of the Bible as the Spirit's book "from faith for faith" in the light of the gospel.

Kilcrease takes offense when in this context I say that the word of Scripture is "vulnerable," even though after a lot of rhetoric, he concedes the substance of my point and then comments: "one can do very little about that." I very much beg to differ. Dogmatic theology is what we can do about that, the renewal of which as a contemporary task under contemporary conditions (not the repristination of some favored 17th century authors) is an urgent need in the confused world of American Christianity.

[1].          I wrote this article on the basis of my Habilitation study on the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue while teaching in Bratislava and had it published there as Buducnost Cirkvi: Co by pre nas malo znamenat rimskokatolicky-evanjelicky dialog? ("The Future of the Church: What the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Ought to Mean for Us," Tranoscius, 1999).

[2].             Paul Hinlicky, Dennis Bielfeldt, Mickey L. Mattox, The Substance of the Faith: Luther's Doctrinal Theology for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).

[3].          Oswald Bayer, Creator est Creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation, Benjamin Gleede, ed., (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007).

[4].          Paul Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibniz (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

[5].          Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 527.

[6].          I am in negotiation now with Fortress Press for a new book, The Theo-logic of Creedal Christianity, which will make the argument sketched in this paragraph in detail.

[7].          Thanks, in part, to the ministry of oversight which aims to teach in continuity with the prophets and apostles, that is the kind of "evangelical episcopacy" that Melanchthon envisioned in Augustana XXVIII. Kilcrease makes a big deal about my supposed embrace of apostolic succession, when I have repeatedly endorsed the highly qualified language of the Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue to speak of apostolic succession as a "sign, not a guarantee." I no more hold to a superstitious view of apostolic succession as a guarantee of doctrine than I hold a superstitious view of Scripture as a guarantee of doctrine-both for the same reason, namely, a blind appeal to arbitrary authority not theologically warranted by the evangelical criteria.

[8].          The Book of Concord, 527 (emphasis added).

[9].          In my view, notions of recitation or dictation were constructed during the Middle Ages in response to increasing knowledge of the Quran's criticism of Jewish and Christian Scripture for being corrupted by human additions to a pristine, original revelation.