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.

Book Review: Biblical Authority after Babel

The “solas” are at the forefront, appropriately so, of a lot of Reformation jubilee discussion and literature as October 31, 2017 approaches. Because they can be seen as providing a content-rich but extremely compact summary of the Reformation movement, Reformation teaching, or of the motivations of the Reformers, even the fact that they’re in Latin is overlooked. I myself find, as I pastor in a setting where Lutherans are one of the rarer breeds of Christianity, that a short reference to sola gratia,sola fide, and sola scriptura can go a long way, not only to describe who we are, but also to garner some respect among those who otherwise suspect me of having a shrine to Martin Luther in my house.

Read More

Convention Notes from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

Editor's Note: This information has been compiled from official information and reports coming out of the WELS convention. The reporter was not on site to observe the convention.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) held its biennial convention on the week of July 29–August 1. The convention was held at Martin Luther College, the synod's pre-seminary and teacher training college in New Ulm, Minnesota. The convention establishes programs, fiscal policies and goals, and broadly directs the synod's ministry and outreach plans.

According to pre-convention memoranda and news, this convention has several major issues before it in addition to its regular business and duties, but by far the issue that has generated the most interest and discussion is on the matter of which English Bible translation—if any—should be adopted for use by the synod particularly in its publications and educational resources.

The NIV 1984, the official Bible translation currently used in WELS publications, is being phased out and replaced with a new version, the "NIV 2011." A WELS' "Translation Evaluation Committee" (TEV) was created to research the NIV 2011. The same committee has also researched many other versions, including the English Standard Version (ESV) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

In the report it prepared for the convention, the TEV outlined two options that it sees for deciding which Bible translation to use in WELS publications going forward. Option 1: WELS adopts NIV 2011 for use in materials produced by Northwestern Publishing House. Option 2: WELS does not adopt a single Bible version for use in its publications at this time. NPH uses whichever version of these three (ESV, HCSB, NIV 2011) seems best for the passage cited and the publication in which the biblical text will appear ("eclectic approach").

The 2011 convention also resolved that, as a possible alternative, the synod should consider producing a new translation by Lutherans. A "Translation Feasibility Committee" (TFC) was created to research the legal, technical, and economic feasibility of WELS creating a confessional Lutheran translation of the Bible and/or producing a study Bible with notes to accompany the translation that WELS chooses to use in its publications.

The report that the TFC submitted for the 2013 convention concludes, "Perhaps the question should not be, 'Can we do it?' but, 'Must we do it?' If the people of our synod believe that there is no existing translation of the Bible that can serve our preaching, teaching, and publishing needs, then we'd trust that the Lord would help us find the resources and overcome the obstacles to carry out what is sure to be a very challenging project. But if an existing translation or translations can serve our needs, it would save the time and expense, not to mention the potential disruption to our ministerial education system, to use an existing translation."

A Response to "The Story"

—By Ryan Ogrodowicz

Upon receiving Zondervan’s publication The Story, its subtitle “the Bible as one continuing story of God and his people” suggested I was about to encounter another diluted translation made palatable for the masses. Instead it’s a compilation of various pericopes organized in a narrative format free from chapter-verse divisions. It literally reads like a story, providing readers with an overall feel for the contour and message of Holy Scripture. It uses one translation throughout, the NIV, and finishes with an epilogue followed by study questions relevant to the particular chapters.

Concordia Publishing House published something similar when it released its beautifully illustrated The Story Bible. With clear wording in simple yet faithful grammar, The Story Bible contains select scriptural texts in an easy-to-read format, but also achieved the rare feat of being edifying for both children and adults, a gap few books successfully bridge. The method of selecting certain texts and using a particular translation in order to better communicate a message is worthwhile and can be faithfully done. That said, we should expect our children eventually to grow into a deeper understanding of Scripture, probing its depths and learning to handle the entire Word of God. The Story contains more Scripture and study questions than the normal children’s book; so for adult neophytes and any Christian seeking to understand the outline of Scripture, a book structured like The Story has its benefits. I especially liked how some of Paul’s epistles were inserted into the Acts narrative to give the reader a sense of continuity between the mission work of Acts and the Pauline corpus.

Unfortunately the few benefits offered by The Story’s structure and form cannot compensate for other looming issues.

Setting aside the translation problems intrinsic to the NIV and the fact mature readers receive only a fraction of Scripture, the main problem with The Story is its doctrine. The Story provides its own commentary on the texts. Woven into the text are footnotes with definitions to particular biblical words and phrases that should concern any Lutheran. For example, consider the hint of modalism in The Story’s definition of the Holy Spirit, defined as the “manifestation of God . . . God is one God but acts in three ‘persons’ of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Also, the righteous person is the one who “values God above everyone and everything. A righteous person lives a life of obedience to God” (230). The Scriptures teach a strikingly opposite doctrine: righteousness is imputed upon the unbeliever by God through the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. In contrast to Lutheran teaching, baptism is defined not as the work of God in water and his Word, but a “symbolic act demonstrating that new believers have abandoned their former ways and have embarked on new life” (322). The true colors of decision theology become fully revealed in the definition of the gospel, “the message that Jesus has come to reconcile humanity to God and that each individual can accept this underserved gift . . .” (354). Perhaps the most egregious is the definition of justification, the core article of the Christian faith, defined as “the process by which one is made acceptable in the sight of God” (409). Consider the stark contrast to the Lutheran definition: God declares the sinner to be justified for the sake of Christ, a gift apprehended by faith. These definitions are in bold on the bottom of the pages, and the reader is bound to see them.

Most of the study questions are fair, without answers, but indicative of The Story’s Baptist-mystical-works righteous doctrine. While explicitly denying the means of grace elsewhere, some passages in The Story implicitly deny them when it calls us to seek communication from God in the manner of Elijah: “God revealed himself to Elijah in a gentle whisper. What does this tell you about God’s character and methods of communication?” (479).

The Story is more than just a compilation of biblical texts organized in an easy-to-read, narrative format. It promulgates a clear doctrinal position akin to much of that pouring out of the camps of American Evangelicalism. It undermines justification and the means of grace, meaning the doctrine it puts forth is incompatible with Lutheranism. In the context of a Bible study focused on comparing and contrasting different theologies led by faithful pastor or layman, The Story would make for a good study.

As the Word of God exhibiting sound biblical doctrine it comes with no such endorsement.

 

The Rev. Ryan Ogrodowicz serves as pastor of Victory in Christ Lutheran Church in Newark, Texas.