Book Review: Confessing the Scriptural Christ against Modern Idolatry

Confessing the Scriptural Christ against Modern Idolatry: Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Truth in Scientific and Biblical Conflict. By Philip Hale. Omaha, NE: Mercinator Press, 2016. Click here.

The Rev. Philip Hale, pastor at Zion West Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE, takes on a problem that may suggest itself to anyone keeping up with exegetical theology produced in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at present, and that is—for want of a better way of putting it—turning the Gospel into a wax nose of the exegete’s own making (see pages 208, 211). If the authority of Scripture does not stand or fall with inspiration and inerrancy, Hale avers, the theological position—no matter how learned or cutesy—has nothing to commend it. This could apply to hermeneutical approaches grounded only “in Christ” rather than his words (202-03, 205, 206, 209, 211, 213, etc.), or those approaches that find undefined “sacraments” under every scriptural rock (245). In Hale’s opinion, historical criticism still dogs the LCMS even though the conservatives prevailed at St. Louis forty-some years ago (229, 248). Hale’s solution is to return to so-called “propositional revelation” (23; cf. 29-30, 75, 105, 163, 196, 206, 218, 227, etc.).  Faith in Christ is created by “static, meaningful words” (231). The Scripture’s “it is written” trumps everything else, so “why do we demand more?” (285). Only the “bare words” of God avail (179); everything else is an idol, one’s “own personal cathedral” (179; cf. 181, 205, 217). Hale makes plenty of other points as well, though the ideas identified here provide a reasonably accurate picture of what this book is about.

Clearly Hale is on to something, though his solutions are nearly as problematic as the errors he identifies. The Kloha-Montgomery debate reveals that there are important parallels between the current situation and the Seminex debacle of yesteryear. Still, there are important differences also, and the tendency of some to look askance at all teachers of theology—just because they hold higher degrees—is not helpful. One may always quote an orthodox teacher out of context or even at an unguarded moment (e.g., 74 n. 43; 87 n. 24; 124 n. 12; 156 n. 13; 184 n. 22, etc.), but the way Hale links all seminary professors together—both “pre-walkout” and “post-walkout”—is unsettling to say the least and could deceive the laity. He repeatedly chides historical critics for their “arrogance” (66, 68, 83, 97, 139, 216, etc) yet rather high-handedly opines that theological degrees and scholarly tools are “not required” (180, 181). Oh really? Did Pastor Hale himself not receive his M.Div. in 2007 from Concordia Theological Seminary? Did he not learn anything during the years he was privileged to study theology at the seminary? Are all LCMS seminary professors suspect because they learned “critical methodology from pagan professors to become professors themselves” (184)? Such unfortunate thinking is unfair to the many teachers of Synod who labor faithfully in the seminaries, universities, and institutions of our church. Hale, though, endorses a hermeneutics of suspicion against anyone who may have gone on for further study. He does not realize that specialization could be among God’s gifts to the church, the way pastors themselves are (Eph 4:11). Of course, God in Christ Jesus will bless one’s use of the Word of God, even when treated ham-handedly; but exegetical theology has for a long time coexisted peaceably with other useful arts and disciplines—such as, classics, papyrology, ancient history, philosophy, text criticism, and the like. Such outside disciplines cast a bright light upon Holy Scripture and contribute mightily to the theological enterprise. Hale seems not to realize that by growing as a young pastor—by becoming more adept in Greek, let us say—it is sometimes possible to beat the hostile critics at their own game. Moreover, a careful read of his book reveals his positive citation of several theologians who stood opposed to the Lutheran Confessions—for example, Johann Major (138 n. 13), Matthias Flacius (161 n.4; 163 n. 16; 171 n. 27; 173 n. 35; 289 n. 17), and John Calvin (296 n. 21). Granted, sometimes substandard theologians contribute something positive, and that is why Hale cites them in his book. In general, however, Hale’s writing is not carefully nuanced and so can be picked apart by checking the facts. The book was painful to read on account of the author’s mixing of fact and fiction—multiple times, on many pages. Indeed, Hale would benefit immensely from the rigors of further theological training, even though “critical thinking” is something he routinely condemns.

I concede that many of the matters Hale takes up constitute real problems in our church at present and require attention—such as the current flap over text criticism. Still, today’s problems are not the same as those over which our church agonized in the 60s and 70s. The candidates of theology our seminaries produce must contend not only with the errors of yesteryear, but be in a position to wrestle carefully with the problems of today and tomorrow (when new heresies shall emerge). Which is to say that critical thinking remains a necessary part of the theological task, not knee-jerk reaction. Of course, historical criticism should be not be permitted back into our church, the way it was enthusiastically endorsed at St. Louis prior to 1974; nevertheless, the historical grammatical method could help interpreters to submit to Scripture as the Word of God while allowing the useful arts that inform scripture studies to flourish. How should that be done? Carefully, humbly, being ready always to beg forgiveness for perhaps having caused offense, and ever mindful of the fact that Holy Scripture is pre-eminent to which all outside documents and methodologies submit. On the use of historical methods of biblical interpretation our own church body provided guidance many years ago that seems quite pertinent now:

Since God is the Lord of history and has revealed Himself by acts in history and has in the person of His Son actually entered into man’s history, we acknowledge that the historical framework in which the Gospel message is set in Scripture is an essential part of the Word.

Furthermore, we recognize that the inspired Scriptures are historical documents written in various times, places and circumstances.  We therefore believe that the Scriptures invite historical investigation and are to be taken seriously as historical documents.  We affirm, however, that the Christian interpreter of Scripture cannot adopt uncritically the presuppositions and canons of the secular historian, but that he will be guided in his use of historical techniques by the presuppositions of his faith in the Lord of history, who reveals Himself in Holy Scripture as the one who creates, sustains, and even enters our history in order to lead it to His end.[1]


John G. Nordling

Department of Exegetical Theology

Concordia Theological Seminary

Fort Wayne, IN


[1] A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1973; reprinted November 2000) 8.