Pointing sinners to the simple word of Scripture

The first and foremost duty of the exegete consists in holding the flighty spirit of man to the simple word of Scripture and, where he has departed from it, to lead him back to the simple word of Scripture.

—F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, 360

The fathers lead Lutherans to rest on Scripture alone

The deep respect of the Wauwatosa theologians for previous Lutheran teachers did not cross the line into the idolatry of interpreting Scripture in light of tradition (Mark Braun, “The Wauwatosa Gospel,” in Lord Jesus Christ, Will You Not Stay: Essays in Honor of Ronald Feuerhahn on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, pp. 131-152, 2002, available from Concordia Publishing House, reprinted in Charis, p. 25):

Offering what amounts to a position statement of the Wauwatosa Gospel, Pieper concluded his 1913 retrospective: “We intend in the future to pursue scriptural study even more faithfully than before. . . . We submit in advance to the least word of Scripture that opposes us, no matter from whom it may come. But we submit to no man, be his name Luther or Walther, Chemnitz or Hoenecke, Gerhard or Stoeckhardt, so long as we have clear Scripture on our side. . . . We esteem the fathers highly, far higher than ourselves as far more learned and more devout than we are. Therefore, we want to use them, particularly Luther, as guides to Scripture, and to test their doctrines a hundred times before we reject them. But authorities equal to Scripture or opposed to Scripture they may never become for us, or we shall be practicing idolatry. . . . We renounce this authority-theology anew. It causes so much damage to the church. It is unfaithfulness to the Lord; slavery to men; it brings errors with it. But it also makes the mind narrow and the heart small. . . . Dogmatic training perhaps makes one orthodox, but it also easily makes one orthodoxist, intolerant, quarrelsome, hateful, and easily causes division in the church. . . . Scripture is at once narrow and broad. The study of it makes the heart narrow to actual false doctrine and heresies, but broad toward various human expressions and presentations. It does not accuse of false doctrine unnecessarily; it teaches us to bear and suffer in love the mistakes of the weak. It keeps the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. Therefore we want to entirely do away with this dogmatic authority-theology, and to sink ourselves ever deeper into Scripture and to promote it above all else. We know that in doing so we will best serve the church.”

This approach to Scripture is not at all novel. Here are some excepts from a recent conference paper that traces the history of the essentially Lutheran approach to Scripture from Tertullian to Wauwatosa (H. H. Goetzinger, “The Pastor & His Seminary Training: The Pastor as Exegete,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Symposium, 16-17 September 2013, pp. 2, 7, 15):

The Lutheran church came into existence by God’s grace using the external means of Luther clinging to the Scriptures as the infallible, saving Word of God. Our church’s most striking characteristic is binding itself to the Word, without which our other chief characteristic “By Grace Alone” would be unthinkable. For the Confessional Lutheran church, the Scriptures truly are the living speech of the almighty God. And so, you and I, every time we open our Greek or Hebrew texts, sit in fear of the Word that causes the enormity of our task and the weight of our responsibility to cause our stomach to churn and our skin to shiver. And so it should be. We have been convinced by the Spirit that the Word is the only power of God for salvation. We say along with Luther, “God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and Sacrament.” Woe to us if we adulterate the Word of God. Yes, the work of an exegete is weighty business . . . As admirable and respectful of the Scriptures as it sounds, we do not, because we cannot, approach the Word of God tabula rasa. We come pre-wired with a sinful nature that wants to make all the world bow at our feet and when it doesn’t, we exercise revisionist history and re-write the text so that it reflects us as the king of the universe. We have the same inclination toward Scripture, if it were not for the gift of faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. And so, we approach the Scriptures with a presupposition of faith which the sacred text itself has worked in us: that it is what it claims itself to be, the very Word of God. Our entire hermeneutic is based upon the presumption that the Bible is divinely inspired, as such it is without error, can be trusted in all it says, and is to be taken literally (not literalistically).

. . .

Luther further elaborates on the attitude of the exegete: “That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it pleases God to accomplish something for His glory – not for yours or any other person’s – He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine word exists except the Author of these words, as He says: “They shall all be taught of God” (John 6:46). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit.”

. . .

Koehler, along with Walther and Pieper, Stoeckhardt and Hoenecke, and later Schaller as well, wanted to let Scripture and not human reason be the interpreter of Scripture. Koehler comments, “We say, the assignment of the exegete is simply nothing else than to say: Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” Koehler taught hermeneutics while at the Wauwatosa seminary. An outline for his course has been preserved and lends valuable insight into the development of the “Wauwatosa Theology.” Koehler asserts that the rules of biblical exegesis form a “Doctrine of Holy Scripture in its Importance for Exegesis.” His outline can be found as Appendix A. Koehler echoes the principles of Tertullian, Luther, and the “golden age.” It is from a sermon preached for the 1925 seminary school year that we first hear the term Zusammenhängendes Schriftstudium. The term means a connected, or systematic, study of the Scriptures on the basis of the original languages with constant attention to the larger context. This is the exegetical kernel of what we today call the “Wauwatosa Theology.” Keep the whole of a biblical book in mind during the exegesis of the individual phrase and sentence.

Lutheran traditions tested by Scripture

Some have attempted to discredit the WELS statement on the ministry by implying that its Wauwatosa theologians rejected the theology of the fathers and treated them with disrespect. That is a distortion of church history. We have seen that what they actually rejected, while maintaining deep reverence for the fathers, is the practice of relying on them in place of Scripture for proofs of articles of faith. The fathers would surely approve.

Some Lutherans spend considerable amounts of time debating who is really following Sasse, Walther, Luther, or Melanchthon more closely. While somewhat interesting, such questions need not be resolved to understand the clear passages of Scripture. In fact, those questions can only be thoroughly answered by experts and can distract believers from the word of God. Why not concentrate exegetical efforts on the Scriptures rather than on what Walther really meant by some German word? The word of God itself brings clarity to areas of controversy such as that of church and ministry.

No human authority is needed. It really is possible to learn what Scripture says without uncritical submission to what Pieper says Walther says Luther says Scripture says. God grant that we hold his word as highly as they did, putting it above the opinions of all men, “no matter what their names may be.”

It is possible to learn doctrine on the authority of Scripture alone because all doctrine is found in the passages of Scripture that are so clear that they need no interpretation. The unclear passages are interpreted by the clear ones according to the analogy of faith (“Scripture interprets Scripture”).

The analogy of faith

The Lutheran Church is unique in that it believes, teaches, and confesses all clear passages of Scripture even in the face of apparent contradictions. Tensions present in the clear Scriptures are not resolved according to human reasoning but rather are held without wavering. Christ is fully God yet fully man. Christians are justified because God chose them, and yet those who perish do so by their own will.

In fact, several clear Scripture passages appear to contradict others or even themselves. God in Christ reconciled the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), and yet those who do not believe will die in their sins (John 8:24). Answer a fool according to his folly; do not answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4-5). Christians sin and yet do not sin (1 John 1:8; 3:9). God gave an old commandment, not a new commandment, a new commandment, not an old commandment (1 John 2:7-8). Not all those holding the office of pastoral oversight labor in teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-19; Titus 1:5-9). Apparent contradictions between clear passages of Scripture do not license “Reason” to mitigate or otherwise modify the truth taught by any passage in order to remove the appearance of a contradiction.

That mistaken approach to the word of God is often defended by an appeal to “the analogy of faith.” The analogy of faith acknowledges that clear Scripture passages interpret unclear Scripture passages. The analogy of faith does not apply when the passages under consideration are perfectly clear. To make the interpretation of every passage of Scripture subject to revision in light of other passages of Scripture is disastrous, as Franz Pieper explained in his Christian Dogmatics (quoted in footnote ii of my paper entitled, “The Lord’s Supper and the perspicuity of Scripture: If the Bible is perfectly clear, why do Protestants still disagree?”).

The analogy of faith is misused when a clear passage of Scripture is not taken for what it says. It is also misused when an unclear passage is reinterpreted in light of a human interpretation of Scripture or, even worse, in light of an interpretation of non-canonical writings.

God is not the author of such confusion. The Holy Spirit speaks so clearly that every article of faith is stated in a “simple word of Scripture.”


I am indebted to Pastor Rolf Preus for helpful discussions.