Fundamental Theology: A Protestant Perspective. By Matthew L. Becker. New York: T & T Clark, 2014). Click here.
Matthew Becker’s Fundamental Theology is a textbook designated for college undergraduates. “Fundamental theology” refers to theological subjects that Protestants commonly associate with the prolegomena to dogmatics. As Becker explicates these various subjects, he reveals his theological views on a variety of issues that have made him a controversial figure within the LCMS.
That said, the first few chapters of Becker’s book are relatively uncontroversial. Becker does an excellent job describing the history of the early Church and the development of theology (44–59). He discusses how a series of major theologians (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Gerhard, Schleiermacher, etc.) have defined theology is as a discipline (59–102). A few more chapters discuss the question of natural theology and various post-Enlightenment philosophical challenges to theism. Enlightenment thinkers, such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, are discussed. Becker also engages contemporary figures such as Richard Dawkins and the other so-called “New Atheists” (131–40). Becker does a good job demonstrating the problems with scientism and metaphysical materialism. Becker also deftly summarizes the work of contemporary Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne (198–9) and Alvin Plantinga (202–3) who defend theism.
Overall, Becker is convinced of the reality of natural revelation. However, as with most Protestants theologians, he emphasizes that such knowledge is law and not gospel (186–200). Natural reason therefore cannot reveal God’s true heart of grace. Likewise, in this section there is also a fairly good summary of Luther’s theology of the cross and the dialectic of the hidden and revealed God (205–18). There is little that is problematic about Becker’s interpretation at the point. He captures Luther’s understanding of God’s hiddenness very nearly perfectly. These sections of the book are well written, informative, and accurate.
This being said, Becker begins to move in a more controversial direction in the chapters dealing with revelation and then Scripture. In the chapter on revelation, Becker employs Avery Dulles’ fivefold delineation of the various Christian approaches to revelation. The first is the notion of revelation as propositional truth, a concept shared by conservative Catholics and “Protestant Fundamentalists” (225–6). Becker frequently uses the term “Fundamentalist.” He seems to define a “Fundamentalist” as a Protestant committed to creedal orthodoxy and a high view of Scripture. This would seemingly encompass all Protestant Christians outside the current American Mainline establishment.
Becker argues that these conservative theologians, who view revelation in propositional terms, wrongly assume that infallible authority is necessary to establish the true propositions of the faith. For such propositionalists, this necessary authority could either be an infallible Pope or an inerrant Bible. Becker is of course critical of this approach for a variety of reasons that we will discuss below. It never seems to occur to Becker that, given the historic Lutheran definition of faith as unconditional trust in the content of revelation (“This is most certainly true!”), it is difficult to see how one could unconditionally trust revelation if it were a mixture of truth and error. As we will later observe, Becker partially solves this problem through a form of Gospel-Reductionism.
Becker then takes a not-so-veiled swipe at the LCMS’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations, stating that many conservative Protestant denominations claim that Scripture alone is the supreme authority, but in practice make the denomination’s interpretation of Scriptures the supreme authority. This is a rather odd remark on a number of levels. First of all, it rather significantly misconstrues what the magisterial Reformers meant by the principle of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura did not mean (as it has come to in later forms of Protestantism) a free-for-all regarding the meaning of the biblical text. The Reformers held that Scripture was to be read within the context of the Church, while remaining the supreme authority within the Church. Moreover, the principle of Scripture alone did not render a lack of public teaching authorities (See Augsburg Confession XXVIII). Rather, the Reformers held that those teaching authorities should be held accountable to the Word of God. This made the magisterial Reformers’ understanding quite different than that of Rome, in that the latter refused to set up any mechanisms whereby public teaching authorities could be held responsible to Scripture.
In any case, one could very well reverse Becker’s argument (or better yet, his insinuation). Mainline Protestants have often rejected the notion of formal limits on acceptable teaching, but nevertheless covertly apply limits through national assembly votes and the persecution of more conservative members by denying them academic or otherwise influential positions. Ultimately, since this procedure eventually comes to appear arbitrary and tyrannical, ecclesiastical authorities begin to attribute divine inspiration to denominational voting assemblies with familiar slogans such as, “the Spirit is doing a new thing.” An example of this may be readily found in Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s election speech to the ELCA assembly. Having rejected a divinely inspired, infallible Bible, there is an inevitable drift to an infallible and divinely inspired Church.
It should also be observed that Becker’s argument makes very little sense in light of what the LCMS and other conservative Protestant denominations claim with regard to their official statements on various doctrinal issues. LCMS pronouncements on various theological matters represent the official position of the denomination on a given issue. The LCMS and other conservative Protestant denominations would accept that everyone (including Matthew Becker) is free to test the all official statements against the teaching of Scripture.
In this, ecclesiastical authorities are held accountable to the teaching of Scripture in a number of ways. First, they are either directly or indirectly elected by the priesthood of all believers, who have the right to test their teachings on the basis of Scripture. Secondly, it should also be observed that no one is under any obligation to continue to be a member of the LCMS if he does not believe the denomination’s official teachings agree with Scripture. In light of both these mechanisms of accountability, Scripture does indeed remain the final and supreme authority, since no one is forced to join, or submits himself to the authority of the denomination and its doctrinal statements, without first accepting its teaching as scriptural. In any case, the real issue is not that Becker thinks that the LCMS has misinterpreted the Bible, but rather that Becker simply chooses for a variety of reasons to reject portions of Scripture.
In the end, the real question is whether or not any denomination will have official positions that they enforce on those who hold ecclesiastical offices. Just as no one is obliged to be a member of a particular denomination, likewise, no one is entitled to hold an official position or membership in of a given denomination if he does not agree with its teachings. For this reason Becker’s implicit argument about the actual limits of acceptable teaching in a given denomination is simply illogical. Ultimately, beyond the New Testament’s repeated admonitions about fleeing from false teachers and the necessity of imposing church discipline on those promoting heretical beliefs, there is the rather commonsensical point that it is illogical to expect any organization to tolerate members who do not want to obey its rules. If a Church body cannot hold members and teachers accountable to the core tenets of the faith, then what is the point of having such an organization in the first place? If no one expects the American Communist party to tolerate members who promote capitalism, why should the LCMS (or any Church body) tolerate ministers or professors who reject its core teachings?
Returning to Fundamental Theology, the next theory of revelation is that of salvation history (226–9). This theory of revelation sees God as revealing himself through the historical process of the history of Israel culminating in Jesus Christ and the Church. As Becker correctly observes, this model does not contradict the propositional model per se. Rather, for theologians adhering to this paradigm, the emphasis lies on the fact that Bible is revelatory because it is a witness to the process of God’s self-revelation in history. It is less a list of ahistorical propositional truths to which Christians must give their assent to, than it is a description of God’s character as revealed through his dealing with his people over time. Among the varieties of salvation history models, Becker notes his preference for Hofmann’s and Ebeling’s version over against that of Pannenberg (228). This is mainly because Hofmann and Ebeling recognize the need for a proper interpretation of salvation history as it is presented by the Word of God, found in the Scriptures. On the other hand, Pannenberg typically tends to argue that the divine purpose in salvation history is simply transparent to human reason. On this point, Becker is quite correct (228–9). Moreover, Becker is right to not play off the propositional model off against the salvation history model. By not doing so, he recognizes necessity of a propositional dimension to Christian doctrine. He is similarly correct to acknowledge that God’s truth is never abstract, but necessarily embedded in concrete history.
This being said, what is problematic about Becker’s use of this model is his insistence that it allows one to discard revelations proved to be inauthentic in later eras of salvation history. Among these supposedly inauthentic revelations, he cites the Old Testament’s acceptance of slavery, polygamy, and the subordination of women (228). Such a theological perspective presupposes that on some level God bungled the communication of his revelation in some earlier eras of salvation. Then later on, he somehow became more competent, as time went on, in communicating it. Becker’s procedure also comes off as extremely arbitrary, since the discarded revelations seem to consistently correlate to things that upper-middle class, white Americans would find objectionable.
Such a notion dovetails with Becker’s conception of scriptural authority. Much like Barth, Becker sees Scripture as a witness to the Word of God rather than the Word of God itself. The Bible can be called “the Word of God” in an indirect sense, not because it is verbally inspired and inerrant, but because it is a primary source for the Church’s witness to the gospel (272–3). The most he will grant to a notion of inspiration is that this witness possesses the existential force to inspire faith (273).
According to Becker, since the central mission of the Church is the proclamation of the gospel, it is only minimally necessary to believe the content of Scripture to the extent that it makes the gospel capable of being proclaimed. Implicitly, this means that in Becker’s mind scriptural doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation are still necessary, insofar as it would be impossible to proclaim the gospel without them. Nevertheless, one may also infer that Becker sees little need to maintain male-headship, a literal reading of Genesis 1–11, and the biblical strictures against homosexuality in order to logically maintain a belief in justification by faith alone. In this, Becker largely affirms the version of “Gospel-Reductionism” articulated by the late Erlangen school (notably in Althaus and Elert).
Since the perspicuity and validity of revelation progresses throughout the scriptural witness, there is a hierarchy of scriptural normativity within the canon. The gospel is the actual norm of all revelation (285). Consequently, the writings in the apostolic witness that most directly relate the historical Christ are the clearest and most noble witnesses to revelation. These can be found in the homologoumena, that is, those books of the New Testament universally attested as apostolic and authoritative in the early Church. Below these rank contested books of the New Testament, the antilegomena. Still lower in the hierarchy rank the books of the Old Testament, in large part a superseded revelation, since they contain practices and norms rejected by Jesus and the New Testament authors, and only indirectly witness to Christ and his gospel (285–292, 296–99).
If Becker were merely suggesting the homologoumena have interpretative priority over both the antilegomena and Old Testament, he would be on fairly solid ground. Such a position is not only in keeping with the logical unfolding of salvation history, but also the historic Lutheran tradition as taught by Luther and the subsequent fathers of scholastic orthodoxy. This is not what Becker means. Under the principle that the Bible is not actually the Word of God (or perhaps only in a very qualified sense!), Becker posits that those earlier eras’ written witness to revelation can, in many cases, be discarded altogether in favor of the better human apprehensions of God and his ways during later stages of salvation history (289–90).
Becker cites in favor of this conclusion the fact that Jesus and Paul reject portions of the Old Testament revelation as being no longer authoritative. Two points should be made about this. First, the idea that aspects of the Old Testament are no longer authoritative (for example the ritual laws of Leviticus) does not mean that they are any less divinely inspired—something repeatedly implied by Becker, though never directly stated. It merely means that within the historical development of his relationship with humanity, God placed persons and peoples under the authority of different revelations for a variety of purposes. This fact is recognized by Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews. Secondly, the portions of Scripture which Jesus and Paul assert are no longer binding on the New Testament Church are nevertheless the Word of God. Jesus and Paul use scriptural arguments in favor of this abrogation. In Jesus’ cases, Moses’ allowance of divorce (and implicitly also such practices as polygamy) lack binding force because they were concessions to sin and not in keeping with God’s original creative purposes expressed in Genesis 2. Likewise, for Paul, the Abrahamic covenant promised Christ and communicated salvation through faith long before the curses of Deuteronomy (which were exhausted in the cross of Jesus) were put into place. Hence, Jesus and Paul’s teachings do not so much represent a criticism of Scripture as the recognition that certain portions of Scripture relativize others in light of God’s variegated purposes within the economy of salvation.
What is perhaps even more disturbing is that Becker asserts that Scripture can be criticized on the basis of what he calls “contemporary experience” (295, 310). The scriptural authors lived in a different environment where slavery, polygamy, the subordination of women, and anti-democratic political structures were the norm. According to Becker, now that we have “discovered” human rights (an odd claim, in light of the present philosophical crisis of foundations of secular modernity), as well as eliminated slavery, the portions of Scripture that seemingly validate slavery or the subordination of women can be eliminated or rejected. Indeed, the conflict between Scripture and “contemporary experience” (read: upper-middle class white American values) is one of the reasons that Becker cites for rejecting the notion of scriptural inerrancy (309–10).
There are a number of problems with these remarks. First, in keeping with his notion that revelation is both progressive and imperfectly received by human beings, Becker seems to be positing that the values of contemporary American upper middle class whites are essentially on par with the scriptural revelation—indeed, superior to the Scriptures, insofar as they can serve as a basis and criterion for the criticism of the Scriptures. In this Enthusiasm of historical progress, one hears echoes both of Hegel’s concept of the Geist, as well as the tagline of the United Church of Christ’s cable ad campaign from the mid-2000s: “God is still speaking.” Secondly, as noted above, Becker’s “contemporary experience” privileges a particular kind of contemporary experience, namely, that of upper-middle class American whites. Indeed, later on in a discussion of how to interpret Scripture, Becker also posits the necessity of taking into consideration the perspective and experiences of oppressed minorities and the poor of the Third World. This is of course in keeping with various Liberationist and Feminist interpretative schemes. Nevertheless, the value of Third World perspectives is limited to economic issues which promote governmental redistributionist schemes that contemporary upper-middle class whites are often all too ready to embrace (Read: David Brook’s so-called Bobos or Charles Murray’s New Upper Class). With regard the status of women, or sexual morality, Becker’s interest in affirming the consciousness of contemporary minorities and the inhabitants of Third-World nations (the latter being fairly notorious for their rejection of both women’s rights and homosexual behavior) completely fizzles.
This is one reason why “contemporary experience” cannot be revelatory. Not only does it represent a form of Enthusiasm, which Luther identifies as the oldest of all heresies, but it is ultimately a dead end. On the one hand, “contemporary experiences” contradict one another, as the aforementioned examples of differing ideas regarding human rights and sexuality demonstrate. Moreover, if one attempts to overcome this aporia by appealing to a particular group’s experience of reality (as Becker seemingly does), then theology degrades into a sort of ploy to deify that particular group’s set of values. Indeed, as Karl Barth correctly noted, this was the ultimate problem with both the Liberal Protestant support for World War I, as well as the “German Christians’” exaltation of volkish consciousness above the Word of God. The result of both forms of Enthusiasm were ultimately a divine mandate for German imperial ambition and, later on, genocidal racism. Though Becker would of course reject all of this, one cannot help but see that his reliance on contemporary experience results in a critical mechanism insufficient to counteract such destructive theologies.
Indeed, that being said, it is perfectly compatible with a doctrine of verbal inspiration and inerrancy to say that slavery, polygamy, and the like do not embody God’s ideal purpose for creation. Nevertheless, one comes to recognize this by listening to Jesus when he tells the Pharisees that God made many concessions to sin (as indeed do all civil codes) in giving the law to Moses. In doing this, Jesus does not appeal to some now-discredited High-Modernist concept of “the Progress of Man,” but rather goes back to the Edenic harmony of the first man and woman (Mt. 19:3–9). Unfortunately for Becker, although the words of Jesus serve as a basis for the rejection of slavery, polygamy, and divorce, they also keep intact male-headship and heterosexual marriage as God’s plan for humanity.
Indeed, in the past, Becker has appealed to the protological humanity as posited by evolutionary biology in order to discredit the male/female relationship as suggested by Genesis 1–3. Becker has stated that biological evolution proves that there was no Eve derived from Adam as her head. There is thus no reason to assume that male-headship is valid. Nonetheless, Becker must certainly recognize that, as Jane Goodall showed many years ago, apes are patriarchal, and presumably our supposed hominid ancestors would have been as well. Likewise, homosexuality (which Becker also believes is acceptable) possesses no evolutionary value (Stephen Jay Gould’s claims notwithstanding) and therefore stands in contradiction of what Becker considers to be the law of nature. It would seem that in any appeal to the protological situation (either theistic evolution or the Bible), one ends up getting more or less the same results.
For Becker, “contemporary experience” trumps the Bible with regard to science as well. Francis Pieper’s rather eccentric position (at least for the early-20th century) that scriptural inerrancy entails the rejection of heliocentricism is the object of derision by Becker (268–9). For those familiar with Becker’s writings, this is a point repeatedly brought up, presumably to demonstrate the backwardness of the LCMS and its formative theologians. Beyond this, Becker seems implicitly to be suggesting that if earlier generations of LCMS theologians eventually caved on heliocentricism, then why not also cave on evolution? Becker states that Pieper’s position makes Scripture supreme, even when it contradicts science. Nevertheless, Pieper’s position is unsustainable unless free scientific inquiry is interfered with by authoritarian theological norms, and, by implication, Church leaders (269). For Becker, one should simply accept that the Bible is in error with regard to many things scientific (such as references to the “pillars of the earth”, etc.). Indeed, Becker argues, the Bible contains many minor errors and contradictions, and consequently cannot be judged to be inerrant at all.
A couple of points should be made here. First, Pieper’s position was a rather eccentric one, even for the Age of Orthodoxy. As Robert Preus notes, the Lutheran Scholastics accept a notion of inerrancy compatible with idea that Scripture often described things as they appear (“the sun is setting”) rather than in literal scientific descriptions of the world. This does not undermine inerrancy or the scientific accuracy of scriptural statements any more than contemporary people lie when speaking in the same manner (“the sun is setting”). They are not speaking a falsehood, but using a turn of phrase. It should also be noted that this hermeneutical principle was by no means a desperate attempt to shore up inerrancy in the face of Copernicus, but rather one taken over directly from the Church Fathers, who lived long before any supposed crisis caused by heliocentricism. Interestingly, there is currently a historical debate about whether heliocentricism caused a theological crisis at all!
In any case, one can view references to the “pillars of the earth” in a similar fashion. Much as contemporary poets do not base their descriptions of nature on quantifiable scientific descriptions of the universe, neither did the Biblical poets (notably in the Psalms, or Job). Indeed, as Peter Leithart has pointed out, language like “pillars of the earth” has the very specific theological/poetic function of describing creation in non-literal terms as cosmic temple. Ultimately, trying to take poetic descriptions of nature by the Biblical authors as scientific propositions of the era is a highly questionable procedure. The Biblical poets did not use literal cosmological language for describing the world any more than contemporary ones do.
Secondly, the claim that the issue is matter of free inquiry vs. ecclesiastical authoritarianism is highly naïve. As Thomas Kuhn has shown, the scientific community operates with its own paradigmatic communal lens through which reality is interpreted authoritatively. Such a lens consists of the dogmatic commitments of the scientific community. Hence, for Scientists to do science they must accept certain dogmas. Such dogmas are enforced by a magisterial authority in some cases far more powerful and vindictive than contemporary ecclesiastical ones, as the persecution of advocates of scientific beliefs outside the current paradigm (such as of Intelligent Design) clearly demonstrates. Hence, the question of teaching evolution at a Christianity university is not really a matter of free inquiry vs. arbitrary Church authority, but rather whose dogma and whose magisterium one will accept.
However, this does not mean that theologians should not strive to find agreement between contemporary science and the teaching of Scripture. All truth is one, and one should expect that when humans investigate nature and other fields of inquiry with right reason, then there should ultimately be no conflict with Scripture. Moreover, it should be noted that, contrary to Becker’s misrepresentations, Pieper actually shared this sentiment. In the passage in Christian Dogmatics in which he rejects heliocentricism, Pieper also expresses hope that Einstein and the theory of relativity would in fact vindicate geocentricism.
Obviously, although human beings are finite and have damaged noetic capacities due to sin, regarding that which is below them, they are still competent to gain some knowledge of the created world. Moreover, in that our noetic capacities are damaged, human beings are likewise capable of misinterpreting Scripture when they resist the Holy Spirit and do not follow the literal sense and the analogy of faith. Consequently, just as Scripture can expose the errors of science, scientific truth when pitted against a particular interpretation of Scripture may prompt the interpreter to rethink his interpretation. Perhaps a particular traditional interpretation and not the genuine teaching of Scripture itself may be the barrier to seeing agreement between certain historical or scientific facts and the text. That being said, if there is no way of reconciling certain scientific claims to the text understood on the basis of the literal sense and the analogy of faith, then Scripture must rule supreme. Damaged and finite human reason cannot place a priori limitations on what the Word of God can and cannot say.
In a later section on science and theology, Becker protests against this perspective. He asserts that our knowledge of scientific facts must, generally speaking, almost always be correct. If it were not, then God would be attempting to fool us by giving us access to faulty data through our minds and senses (440). Becker states at one point that he would like to see mutuality, cooperation, and dialogue between theology and science. His example here is the reality and moral impact of man-made global warming (446–7). However, ultimately he asserts that if science says that Scripture is wrong, Scripture must simply bow to the superior wisdom of science and modify its claims. For example, Becker tells us, that we can no longer believe that the wages of sin is death, since the theory of biological evolution presupposes that death is simply another cog in the cosmic machine of life.
Such a perspective is problematic for several reasons. First it presupposes that raw scientific data simply reveals the inner structures of reality to rational and autonomous human beings in an absolutely transparent manner. Nevertheless, although humans have access to the data of reality, their finitude means that such data is always incomplete. Moreover, such data is always interpreted within a scientific paradigm, or interpretive lens, that organizes the information. Since these lenses are always provisional and not infrequently wrong, humans cannot claim any scientific judgment is infallible.
Hence, if a scientific theory, or piece of historical or scientific datum seems to contradict Scripture, there is no particular reason to think Scripture is wrong. Many scientific theories have turned out to be wrong. These incorrect theories and discredited paradigms included many that contradicted Scripture. In these cases the error was in the minds of the interpreters and not in Scripture itself. If we follow Becker’s suggestion, we would operate under the assumption that the Word of God is fallible, but human reason is not. In light of history, this is an untenable position.
Indeed, if Christians of the past had followed Becker and his seeming faith in the near infallibility of science, they would have been proven wrong in the long term on numerous occasions. One wonders how Becker would answer such a challenge. Should Thomas Aquinas have simply rejected creation ex nihilo because Aristotle and the Arabic philosophers posited the eternity of the universe? What about scientific racism and eugenics? Should early-20th century Christian have simply rejected the scriptural teaching of a common origin of humanity and gone for what was then considered to be a highly scientific theory of polygenesis and racial gradations? To this latter point, Becker would likely say that scientific racism and eugenics were simply junk science, whereas macroevolution is not. Nonetheless, just as contemporary macroevolution is taught at all major universities and forms the basis of many governmental policies, so too was scientific racism and eugenics. Secondly, in light of the paradigmatic anomalies of irreducible complexity, gene entropy, and the lack of transitional species in the fossil record, macroevolution is not exactly the scientific slam-dunk that Becker seems to think it is.
Beyond his claim that modern science contradicts the Bible, Becker offers a few other criticisms of verbal inspiration and inerrancy. Becker suggests that verbal inspiration and inerrancy erase human agency in the production of the Scriptures (305–6). Becker claims that Johann Gerhard taught that divine inspiration makes the inspired author like a “flute” played by God (305). Becker does not provide a citation for the flute remark, and the author of this review was unable to find any passages in which Gerhard uses the flute analogy. In any case, recent scholarship on the subject has clearly demonstrated that this view of inspiration was quite specifically rejected by the Lutheran Scholastics. In fact, the Protestant Scholastics in general inherited a strong aversion to the notion of inspiration as a kind of mania from the late Patristic and Medieval theologians. This manic concept of inspiration would be more characteristic of the Ante-Nicene Fathers than it would be of the Protestant Scholastics.
Secondly, Becker also posits that prior to affirming scriptural inerrancy and verbal inspiration one would have to thoroughly examine every jot and tittle before believing that Scripture was true on every point (307). Instead, we are converted by the gospel and acknowledge God prior to believing in any theories of inspiration. Seemingly Becker wishes to prioritize the centrality of the gospel in his concept of theological authority.
Nevertheless, if understood properly, acknowledgment of the primacy of the gospel necessarily and logically leads to an acknowledgment of the authority of the whole of Scripture. If I come to believe in Jesus and that his promises are trustworthy, the trustworthiness of Jesus will also necessarily including his promise that the prophets and the apostles are infallible in all they teach (Luke 10:16; John 10:35, 15:26). I can directly affirm that what they teach is true because Jesus tells me that it is, and because God the Father has placed his stamp of approval on all that he has said by vindicating him through his resurrection from the dead. In the same manner, I can believe that his body and blood are present in the Lord’s Supper because he promises that they are, not by rationally verifying them.
Lastly, Becker argues that affirming verbal inspiration and inerrancy has a flattening effect on the content of Scripture (307). If every word of Scripture is divinely inspired, then even the most innocuous historical facts become as important as the chief article of the gospel. First, among the many points that might be made here, Becker seems to be unaware of the steady drum beat of “all theology is Christology” from major proponents of inerrancy in the LCMS, such as David Scaer and Robert Preus. Obviously, whatever he may say about the flattening effect, it does not work out that way in practice!
Secondly, Becker’s concern here represents an obvious category confusion, wherein the category “truthful” is being confused with the category “important.” To illustrate this with a thought-experiment, theoretically, if we posit a husband who was programmed to be utterly unable to tell a lie to his wife, every truthful utterance he made would still not be equally important. For example, the statement “I got gas on the way home from work” would be both equally true and nevertheless, considerably less important than his wedding vows. Moreover, to take another example, if our spouses regularly lied to us about petty things, then we might also begin doubt their general veracity, even perhaps when it came to their love and loyalty to us. Indeed, often people come to suspect an affair when such small lies are told on a regular basis, often with considerable justification. Becker would probably say in response that all couples lie to one another in small measures, and it does not disrupt the relationship or call into question the love present. Likewise, he would probably argue that the gospel could still be true, even if there are small errors in the biblical reports.
Like Hofmann and later Althaus (perhaps in a more limited way, also Elert), Becker seems to implicitly make a distinction between certain historical facts in Scripture that need to be true to make the gospel true (Jesus existed, died and rose, etc.) and others that do not. The difficulty with this that it is impossible to draw the line clearly between “essential” and “non-essential” facts in order to differentiate them from one another.
Ultimately though, the gospel does in fact depend on certain historical facts being true and infallibly so. To say that we can only believe them to be true insofar as they are verified by historical science would be to assert that the gospel is only probably true since all secular historical knowledge is merely probable. Nonetheless, since the gospel gives full assurance (“this is most certainly true”), then the history that it narrates must also be fully assured and not merely highly probable. Similarly, since the gospel makes no sense apart from the whole scriptural narrative of creation and redemption, to say that the gospel is certain and true logically entails that the whole of Scripture is inerrant and without falsehood.
Overall, Becker’s book is extremely illuminating. It is a clear and consistent exposition of his theological agenda. It reveals his rationale for rejecting key doctrines of historic biblical Lutheranism. At its heart, Becker’s theological vision is essentially provisionalist. Because history is one long sequence of ever greater and greater degrees of divine self-communication, no truth can ever be eternal and final for Becker. Moreover, the progress of secular history and science have the power ever to qualify what is credible in Scripture and what is not. Belief in any historical truth taught in Scripture must also be provisional, since belief in that truth may or may not be falsified at some point in the future. Likewise, the moral teaching of Scripture is ever capable of being revised by Western cultural trends. At the heart of this theological vision is the recognition that, as human beings, we live within the dynamic finitude of history and creation.
That human beings are the products of finitude and situatedness within creation and history cannot, of course, be denied. Nevertheless, the Lutheran claim is that the “finite is capable of the infinite” (finitum capax infiniti). Those of us who adhere to the historic biblical, creedal, and confessional faith of Church know that the infinite has definitively appeared in the finite in Christ. By his eschatological act of death and resurrection, he ended all provisionality and vouchsafed the goal and purpose of creation in the unconditional promise of the gospel. In this, he sums up all things in himself (Eph 1:10). Moreover, he promised that the perfection and infinity of his truth would be present in the finitude of the Scripture and the sacraments. In light of the Lutheran capax, Becker’s provisionalist approach to fundamental theology is largely sterile.
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