Faith is clear, not defined in terms of good works

Many evangelical Christians tend to think they disagree with each other only on what they consider minor issues such as whether to baptize infants and whether the gift of tongues is for today, but that they agree on how the forgiveness of sins is received: by grace, through faith alone. This illusion is dispelled upon the realization that different evangelical churches mean very different things by the word faith. Here are some of the most common examples:

  • Faith really means deciding to accept Jesus as Savior by sincerely saying a sinner’s prayer.
  • Faith really means making the decision to accept Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord.
  • Faith really is not just belief in God’s promise that his Son died for our sins and rose from the dead, but includes a benevolent love for God, a pious hatred of sin, covenant faithfulness, an obedient heart, or some other commendable quality.

With all the differences of opinion, can anyone know with certainty what faith means? Does it matter?

More: Does faith really mean faith, or did James redefine it?

Justification by faith alone as the hallmark of Lutheranism

Ongoing controversy between even some of the most conservative followers of John Calvin surrounding what has become known as “the new perspective on Paul” dispels the illusion that professing evangelicals, though disagreeing on minor points of doctrine, at least agree on justification by faith alone. Among the more influential denominations involved, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently commended for study a report that explains many of the points of contention, some concerning seemingly harmless definitions of terms. Noting that words in the phrase “justification by faith alone” mean different things to different people, the report criticizes what it calls “the Federal Vision” for redefining faith to include faithfulness, obedience, or other good works. On the other hand, the same document condemns baptismal regeneration as contrary to the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith. That regeneration by baptism as God’s visible word as well as by his spoken word was integral to Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith suggests that those who formulated the confession’s underlying system of doctrine may have, ironically, redefined justification by faith centuries before the Federal Vision.

More: Calvinistic modification of justification by faith alone: Does God save all who believe the good news of Christ crucified?

Christ’s spoken and visible words give life

In 1531, the first Protestants clarified some fundamental similarities between the preached word of God and the sacraments, the rites instituted by Christ:

Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), “Faith comes from what is heard.” As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible Word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Tappert, 2000a)

The Lord’s Supper was called the visible word, used in contrast to audible word by Augustine in an age of general illiteracy, when words were only written to be read out loud. However, in today’s culture of silent reading, visible word may convey no more than written word, whereas the concept of nonverbal communication, conveying thought by means other than words heard or read, is quite familiar.

More: Ways the Son of Man calls forth life: Seeking the kingdom of God in word and sacrament

Scripture is clear enough to interpret itself

Lutherans confess the prophetic and apostolic faith as it has been handed down throughout the generations, but not because they see that earlier Christians did so. Interpreting Scripture in light of what earlier Christians say is a very dangerous procedure, for Arianism preceded the Nicene Creed, and first-century false teachers preceded both.

For Lutherans, Scripture interprets Scripture, that is, clear passages shed light on unclear passages. Otherwise, Scripture would be so unclear that it would require interpretation by human reasoning, whether that be one’s own reasoning or the reasoning handed down in one human tradition or another.

The word of God as the sole source of doctrine: Sola scriptura & the perspicuity of Scripture

Shall we be perpetually enslaved and never breathe in Christian liberty, nor sigh from out of this Babylon for our Scriptures and our home? Yet you say they were saints and illuminated the Scripture. Who has shown that they made the Scriptures clearer—what if they obscured them? . . . But doesn’t obscure Scripture require explanation? Set aside the obscure and cling to the clear. Further, who has proved that the fathers are not obscure?

—Martin Luther*

Scripture alone

As Franz Pieper explains in his Christian Dogmatics, Scripture interprets itself, being so clear that it needs no theologian or council to interpret it. Were Luther and countless believers before him deluded to take Christ as promising to give them his true body and true blood, the fault would not be with them but rather with Christ for breaking his promise to them. He could not break his promise to those who simply took him at his word, “This is my body . . . This is the blood of the New Testament” (Bickel, 2005, pp. 5-6).

Those who reject the Lutheran confessions thereby reveal that they submit to the authority of some “father” or “teacher” other than the Christ as heard in the simple word of Scripture (see Matthew 23:8-10). For confessional Lutherans, “All dogmatics must be exegesis; and all exegesis must be systematic and dogmatic. Our work, our confession, is exegesis. This is our confession of the clear Word of God” (Teigen, 1982, p. 164).

Creedal confusion

Indeed, it is Lutherans who have fixed their eyes on the bronze serpent lifted up, not on any strength of their own to heal them of their sins. Now, Lutherans are starting to bow down to the very serpent used to heal them. Given the history of the Israelites, it should not be completely baffling that some now turn to the Lutheran confessions to clarify the Scriptures, seen as lacking the clarity to be understood without some authoritative lense through which to view them.

That undermines the foundation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, for the confessions constitute a statement of what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess on the sole basis of clear passages of the prophetic and apostolic writings. That is why any article of faith that cannot be proven from Scripture alone cannot be proven from the Lutheran confessions or from any other true exposition of Scripture.

As a twofold solution to the problem of leaning on the confessions as if the Scriptures needed clarification, Naumann (2005, p. 25) suggested a greater study of both Scripture and the confessions:

There are two main steps involved in reaching and holding on to the right view of Scripture and the confessions. First and most important, is to study Scripture so that we recognize its unique authority, clarity, and sufficiency. If our confidence is solid there, we will not feel a need for another norm to prop up or supplement Scripture. The second step is to read the confessions regularly and in their entirety. Most of the problems with the interpretation of the Confessions today come from failing to hold on to the confessors’ view of the confessions as displayed especially in the beginning of the Formula of Concord. People cannot claim to be “confessionals” unless they agree with the confessors’ understanding of the confessions. To make the confessions a norm along side Scripture or to use them as a second source of doctrine is not confessional. The sad irony is that this is a Romanizing tendency, which feels the need to supplement Scripture and turn to the authority of the church to resolve doctrinal issues. There is, in fact, a high degree of correlation between this view of the confessions and Romanizing views of church and ministry and the sacraments. One rarely encounters one problem without the other.

A second source of trouble is reading the Confessions selectively without considering all pertinent statements in the whole context of the confessions. To cite but one example, pulling out the passages in the Confessions in which Predigtamt refers to the pastoral ministry and ignoring all those in which it refers to the means of grace. The solution to this is regular reading of the confessions in their entirety.

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Ministry statements of LCMS, WELS & ELS

The 2001 adoption of Walther’s Church and Ministry by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) may be an important step toward its recovering unity in Scripture’s teaching on the ministry of God’s word. The synod’s continuing need for a movement back to Walther is explained by John Brug.

Would official adoption of Walther’s Church and Ministry also have been advisable for other former members of the Synodical Conference? In the discussions of the twentieth century Synodical Conference, the meaning of Walther’s theses taken in isolation was controversial, with some participants even concluding from them that the parish pastorate was the only divinely instituted form of the office. In that setting, it would not have brought clarity for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) to simply affirm Church and Ministry without affirming other writings by Walther, including those regarding school teachers. It better served expository purposes for the WELS to formulate its own Waltherian theses.

Similarly, the fact that the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) formulated its own ministry theses rather than adopting those of the WELS does not indicate doctrinal disagreement within the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference. To be sure, there are definite differences between the WELS and ELS statements on the ministry. Judging solely on the basis of the texts as opposed to their historical origin, they have different concerns and perspectives, somewhat like the First Gospel compared to the Fourth Gospel or like Luther compared to Chemnitz.

Roughly speaking, the WELS statement is more concerned with what is true everywhere, at all times, and under all circumstances. As Brug’s ministry book points out, the gospel ministry could be authorized in the multiple-teacher form found at Corinth as opposed to the parish-pastor form that is more effective today.

By contrast, the ELS statement, with its focus on apostolic directives, is more concerned with the settings in which the directives apply. The ELS can correctly say that such directives must be obeyed whenever they are applicable, for they are correct applications of the Decalogue, and the WELS can correctly assert Christian freedom in other settings. Each synod thereby emphasizes an essential aspect of Sola Scriptura.

This sketch does require some qualification. For more on the ELS statement and on the need to distinguish doctrinal differences from those of wording and emphasis, see David Jay Webber’s “Small Contribution to the Ongoing Discussion concerning the ELS Ministry Statement,” his “Walking Together in Faith and Worship: Exploring the Relationship between Doctrinal Unity and Liturgical Unity in the Lutheran Church,” and his book Spiritual Fathers.

When WELS theologians affirm what the 1932 Brief Statement says about the ministry, they affirm the Waltherian theology it reflects, not the above misunderstanding of Waltherian theology, which was held by some in the LCMS in 1932. The distinctives of that misunderstanding were not held universally in the LCMS, nor were they specified in the Brief Statement. Otherwise, the WELS theologians would not have affirmed the Brief Statement’s section on the ministry.

The ministry of the word (Augsburg Confession V) is the same ministry of all pastors, including, but not limited to, the form it takes in the parish pastorate. That is how WELS theologians read the Brief Statement. It is genuinely Waltherian, not Walther-lite.

When believers leave the new LCMS fellowship to join the WELS fellowship for doctrinal reasons, they thereby join the fellowship of the old Synodical Conference because its teachings are those of Scripture. Indeed, even non-historians with the simple word of Scripture can judge doctrine, even concerning church and ministry.

Discussions with Rolf Preus are gratefully acknowledged.

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.”

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Pastor Rolf Preus for helpful discussions.

Doctrinal differences between LCMS & WELS: A concise comparison

What happened to the Arians in that trope by which they made Christ into a merely nominal God? What has happened in our own time to these new prophets regarding the words of Christ, “This is my body,” where one finds a trope in the pronoun “this,” another in the verb “is,” another in the noun “body”? What I have observed is this, that all heresies and errors in connection with the Scriptures have arisen, not from the simplicity of the words, as is almost universally stated, but from neglect of the simplicity of the words, and from tropes or inferences hatched out of men’s own heads.

—Martin Luther
Bondage of the Will, J. J. Pelikan, Oswald, H. C., Lehmann, H. T., ed.;
Luther’s Works, Vol. 33: Career of the Reformer III; Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1999, p. 163

Major differences between Missouri and Wisconsin

Doctrinal divisions between the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) include two long-standing differences in official statements:

Other possible differences are either more recent or less clear.

Church and ministry

For an example of what may be another long-standing difference between the two synods, many within the LCMS hold the WELS doctrine of doctrine of church and ministry to be in conflict with the position adopted by the LCMS. The differences between their interpretation and the WELS doctrine of church and ministry arise from different ways to understand a few passages of Scripture.

Acknowledgement: Much of the material of the posts on church and ministry arose from discussions with Daniel Gorman, Paul Jecklin, Rolf Preus, and David Jay Webber. The opinions expressed are my own.

Evaluation

As Luther observed, doctrinal divisions do not arise from ambiguity in Scripture but rather from insufficient regard for the passages that teach on the topics of controversy. Every article of the faith is directly derived from perfectly clear passages of Scripture. That is why the history of theology is only helpful to the extent that it points back to the word of God.

It does not follow that no preparation is needed. In evaluating doctrinal differences, prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, and the cross are essential.

Shining the lamp on church & ministry scatters the darkness of human interpretation

Whoever stands on Scripture no longer needs any man as interpreter; he has enough in the Holy Spirit, even if he is a simple child. If that is not established as fact, then the witness of Scripture about its own clarity and efficacy falls down. If we necessarily use the fathers to acquire the correct understanding of Scripture, then it is no longer true that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet, that it makes wise the simple, and makes us more learned than all our teachers; then consistency demands that we become Catholic and take the pope as our sole infallible interpreter of Scripture.

—August Pieper

Christ’s teaching about the sacrament of the altar would be too complicated for most Christians to know whether they were eating his true body, at least if all the disagreements over the issue were any indication. Reformed theologians have sown the confusion with myriads of arguments against the plain meaning of Christ’s simple words, “Take, eat; this is my body.” The problem is not that the words are so unclear that an interpreter is needed. The problem is an unwillingness to listen to a clear word from God.

Similarly, the doctrine of church and ministry appears very confusing, with various arguments about how to interpret the Lutheran confessions and other writings of influential Lutheran fathers. For example, some look to the confessions to shed light on the Scriptures instead of first attending to what the clear Scriptures say and then using that doctrine to ask whether the confessions agree. Since the Lutheran confessions were written in the latter spirit, that is the best way to interpret them. The word of God really is the only lamp needed for our feet.

That does not mean all passages of Scripture are equally clear. Indeed, some passages require an infallible interpreter to be understood. The clear passages of Scripture play that role by illuminating many of those that are less clear.

For another example of confusion arising from appeals to the traditions of the elders, although some claim that Walther’s understanding contradicts the teaching of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), theologians of that fellowship have seen him in essential agreement. Does believing what the Scriptures say about church and ministry require the Christian to sort out those issues by specializing in historical Lutheran dogmatics, or does Scripture ever speak clearly on the subject?

What Scripture teaches about church and ministry is actually much simpler than it first appears. That is because completely clear passages of the New Testament say that Jesus gave the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom to believers, not to any organization or corporate entity (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:17-20; John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9), as will now be seen from the texts themselves.

The gift of the keys, the authority to condemn and forgive sinners in the name of Christ, is given to each individual believer with the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, the communion of believers (Matthew 16:16-19). Christ gave the same authority to every communion of two or three believers joining for worship in his name (Matthew 18:17-20). That church of two or three is not an external organization to which the authority is given but rather a communion of believers possessing the keys, consistent with Matthew 16:16-19. When two or three believers gather somewhere to pray in Christ’s name, they constitute the church in that location, and Christ is there in the midst of them.

Jesus’ concept of a church as a communion of believers this contrasts sharply with attempts to view churches as visible gatherings that include unbelievers. The Reformed see churches as visible organizations, complete with legal status and property. Such organizations, including unbelievers as well as believers, are only churches in a figurative sense. In the literal sense, the only sense in which the word is used in the New Testament, a church is a communion of believers. It cannot be a visible organization since it does not include unbelievers. That the New Testament uses the word “church” to mean “communion of believers” is confirmed by comparing the above passages with clear passages teaching that, without using the words “keys” or “church,” the keys of the kingdom are given to the believers (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9).

The fact that the “you” is plural in John 20:21-23 and 1 Peter 2:9 entails that the keys and priesthood of the kingdom are given to believers, not to any organization. The plural “you” must be heard as in usual language, not as somehow implying an organization that can only act as a unit. Ordinary usage is readily understood: just as you husbands are to love your wives (Ephesians 5:25), those of you receiving the Holy Spirit are to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21-23) and proclaim the saving works of the God who called you out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9). There is no more an idea of an organization consisting of recipients of the Holy Spirit than there is an organization consisting of husbands.

There are many opportunities for believers to announce God’s excellencies privately and publicly, with degrees of organization varying with the circumstances. Since Scripture nowhere specifies rigid church structures or rules of order for using the keys and the priesthood, believers are free to organize themselves however is most expedient in their current environment for the proclamation of the gospel. The Spirit leads believers to come together in Christ’s name not only as local churches but also as synodical churches in some cases (Acts 15).

These churches, as communions of believers, are not the organizations that they correspond to since such organizations also include unbelievers. On the basis of the way the New Testament uses the word for “church,” Pieper teaches that in the strict, literal sense, a church, whether local or synodical, being a community of believers, contains no unbelievers. However, the visible gatherings of a church include unbelievers who hypocritically claim to be believers. Pieper explains that Lutherans call such visible gatherings “churches,” not in the literal sense but only by synecdoche.

Just as the local churches must not be confused with local organizations, synodical churches must not be confused with synodical organizations. The churches, whether local or synodical, are communions of believers, but the corresponding organizations also include unbelievers. Believers retain the freedom and responsibility to use the keys and the priesthood regardless of how they come together as local or synodical churches.

Anyone who would impose restrictions on how believers use the binding key of the law and the freeing key of the gospel has the burden to prove the restrictions are clearly required by Scripture. Piling up historical arguments and quotations of the Lutheran fathers falls far short of that. For instance, to prove that a synodical church may not choose seminary professors to publicly teach the gospel or district presidents to publicly supervise pastors, what would be needed is a passage of Scripture that clearly forbids believers from joining together as a synodical church for calling ministers to retain and forgive sins on their behalf.

Teaching on church and ministry becomes hopelessly complicated once we leave the words of the above passages to make our own rigid definitions and judgments on what is and what is not a visible church, as if the keys were given to an organization as opposed to the communion of believers. For example, some Lutherans outside of the WELS fellowship have claimed that synods cannot be churches because they do not administer the sacrament of baptism. In asserting that synodical communions of believers are not churches, they reveal that their concept of a church differs from that of the New Testament. That is because the  strict, New Testament definition of a church as a communion of believers rules out the possibility of unbelievers in synodical churches in exactly the same way that it rules out the possibility of unbelievers in local churches. Baptism and other marks of the church help us distinguish churches from congregations of unbelievers but do not define what the church is.

Other errors about church and ministry are also corrected by the passages of Scripture clearly stating that the keys and priesthood of the kingdom are given to the church (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:17-20), in other words, to the believers (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9). Indeed, “As long as we keep the truth that the Church is the communion of saints in mind, everything that Scripture tells us about the Church will fall into its proper place and can be readily understood. At the same time all the false notions which men have entertained and still entertain concerning the Church are readily exposed” (WELS statement on church and ministry).

21 August 2014. Missing link added 13 November 2014.

Stand on Scripture, not on an interpretation of Scripture

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

Psalm 119:9-16 (ESV)

Was the original purpose of the Lutheran confessions to serve as the lens through which the Scriptures must be understood? Are the Scriptures so ambiguous that they require authoritative human interpretation? No, the Lutheran confessions were derived directly from the light of the Scriptures, not from previous confessions or from quotations of church fathers. In fact, the Lutheran confessions do not offer yet another interpretation of Scripture, as Franz Pieper pointed out (Christian Dogmatics, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 1950, Vol. 1, p. 367):

The thought common in our day that all church bodies stand on Scripture and differ only in their interpretation of it is not in accordance with the facts. The Roman Catholic Church does not stand on Scripture, but on the papal interpretation of Scripture. The Reformed Churches, as far as they differ from the Lutheran Church, do not stand on Scripture, but on Zwingli’s, Calvin’s, etc. interpretation of Scripture. The Lutheran Church, however, does not stand on interpretation of Scripture, but on Scripture itself. This is not a mere assertion. It can be proved by induction in the face of universal contradiction.

The reason no human interpretation is needed is that Scripture interprets itself (ibid., pp. 363-364):

Luther is unalterably convinced that God gave Holy Scripture such a form that the entire Christian doctrine is revealed and submitted in passages which need no ‘exegesis’ (exegesis in the sense of removing obscurities). He who would determine the meaning of the clear passages through still other passages engages in a work of interminable adjustments, makes the entire Scriptures uncertain and obscure, and converts them into an inextricable chaos. Yes, there is the rule: ‘One passage must be explained by another,’ but, as Luther adds immediately: ‘Namely, a doubtful and obscure passage… must be explained by means of a clear and certain passage.

An author of the Formula of Concord similarly explained what it means for Scripture to interpret Scripture (Chemnitz, M., J. A. O. Preus, trans., The Lord’s Supper, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 1979, pp. 68-69):

For Scripture, especially when it treats of dogmas, because it is not of private interpretation, interprets itself either in the same passage or in other passages were the same dogma is touched on. Because of this, the same dogma is fully treated and repeated in various passages of Scripture in such a way that no one can dream up his own personal interpretation but must derive it from Scripture itself. For the same dogma is repeated on the basis of either the same or similar words which have the same meaning and set forth the same teaching, so that the simple, proper, and natural meaning of the passage may be confirmed… Or if something in one passage is too brief or obscure because of the puzzling nature of the figures of speech, Scripture will explain and interpret it in other passages where the same doctrine is repeated more fully, clearly, and openly, using proper, clear, natural, and commonly understood words.

With confessions derived from the word of God alone, it might be thought that Lutherans would not cite human authorities as proof texts instead of clear passages of Scripture. However, these words of August Pieper are as true today as they were in the beginning of the twentieth century (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, p. 24 of this Charis article):

This caused people to think that the point that was presented or discussed was sufficiently established by the quotations from Luther and the fathers without a study of Scripture itself.  It even led to this that later one did not stop with quoting Luther and the old fathers, but now one also quoted Walther and other celebrities for proof of the correct doctrine. The subject of study for new essays became not so much Scripture as the essays in the old synodical reports, and quotations from them were frequently used instead of proof from Scripture.

As August Pieper warned, implicit trust in any human authority for the correct interpretation of Scripture is idolatry leading to additional errors (ibid., p. 25):

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.

For extreme examples of inappropriate appeals to human authority, some say the Lutheran confessions require believing in the Perpetual Virginity and practicing communion weekly even though they cannot provide anything resembling Scriptural proof. They believe aspects of the confessions that are not expositions of any Scripture, on the direct authority of the confessions. That indicates severe misunderstanding of the historical context and purpose of the confessions as solemn affirmations of Scriptural teaching. A proper response is, “Where does the Bible say that?”

A less extreme but more common example is assuming the Lutheran fathers must have based their teaching about some topic on Scripture instead of carefully examining what the Scriptures actually say on the topic. Taking Luther’s or the synod’s word for it is never acceptable when it comes to doctrine, not even on a busy day.

The fathers should not be cited as final authorities, saying something like, “August Pieper said so, so you should believe it, too.” At the same time, they can be cited profitably, for instance, “See August Pieper for the exegetical details” or “I realized this thanks to Chemnitz’s insistence on the clear meaning of those Scriptures, which I had somehow overlooked.”

In discussions with other Lutherans, there is a time to appeal to the confessions as secondary authorities: when there is mutual agreement about their meaning. When there is not, it is usually counterproductive to spend much time arguing about what they really say, especially since we have no promise about their perspicuity. It is then time to say, “Look, the Teacher himself said so in clear language, so it’s not really up for interpretation.” He promises to enlighten us with his own words.