The Bible is a gift to the Church from the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The “good pleasure” (cf. Ephesians 1:9-10 NIV) of the Triune God is to free His fallen human creatures from the wrong and corruption of sin, the tyranny of the devil and the threat of death, draw them into communion with Himself and, in the end, fill the created universe with His glory. Coming from God, the Bible not only makes known this holy, loving purpose, it is also a means by which God achieves His purpose. (Read more…)
With these words, the newly released letter on Holy Scripture, prepared by the NALC Commission on Theology and Doctrine, affirms the strong commitment of the North American Lutheran Church to the Bible as God’s gift to the Church. It also affirms that “the Bible not only makes known this holy, loving purpose … to free His fallen human creatures from the wrong and corruption of sin, the tyranny of the devil and the threat of death, draw them into communion with Himself,” the Bible is also “a means by which God achieves His purpose.”
From well before the formation of the NALC, it has been clear that the chief issue leading some Lutherans in North America to stray from faithful, historic Christian teaching has been, at its core, a departure from God’s Word, the Bible, “the Word of God written, which accompanies and makes known the gift of the Word of God incarnate, so that the world may believe in Him and have eternal life.”
Writing of this situation, NALC Bishop Emeritus and former chair of the CTD, the Rev. Paull Spring states,
When the North American Lutheran Church was formed, much emphasis was given to the doctrine of marriage and sexuality. This was understandable, given the controversial decisions on these matters within some churches, Lutheran and non-Lutheran alike. In reality, the presenting issues went deeper than marriage and sexuality, striking at the heart of the nature of biblical authority in the church.
For this reason, being clear and unequivocal with regard to the NALC’s understanding of the Holy Bible has been at the forefront of conversations in meetings of the Executive Council, the Commission on Theology and Doctrine and every ecumenical and inter-Lutheran conversation. While not wanting to question the commitment of our pastors and congregations, providing pastoral and educational guidance regarding the Bible is necessary and helpful as we seek to be faithful to our constitution, which states,
The North American Lutheran Church confesses:
2.03 The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith and life, “according to which all doctrines should and must be judged.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Part I)
Already, each of the NALC’s ecumenical consultations has prepared common affirmations regarding Holy Scripture, as those affirmations have been foundational for our ongoing conversations. The “Initial Statement on the Ecumenical and Inter-Lutheran Commitment of the North American Lutheran Church,” approved at the constituting convocation, asserts,
We intend to engage in ecumenical and inter-Lutheran endeavors at the international, national, and local levels, in accordance with our commitment to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (Emphasis added.)
To ensure that ecumenical endeavors with the Anglican Church in North America are “in accordance with our commitment to the Scriptures,” a joint “Pastoral and Educational Pastoral Affirmation” on Holy Scripture was prepared and shared with the ACNA and the NALC as a common study document for use by congregations.
Similarly, the NALC’s inter-Lutheran consultation with the Lutheran Church—Canada and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod prepared a common statement to guide the ongoing work of the consultation. It is titled, “‘God’s Word Forever Shall Abide’: A Guiding Statement on the Character and Proper Use of the Sacred Scriptures.” This led to the joint “Three Year Bible Reading Guide,” with weekly readings from Johann Michael Reu’s book Luther and the Scriptures.
Since its May 2014 meeting, the NALC Commission on Theology and Doctrine has been developing a document on Holy Scripture with the intention that it have a somewhat “different angle,” aimed at practical questions such as: what kind of a book is the Bible, how did the Bible come to be, how may we profitably and faithfully read the Bible?
Bishop Emeritus Spring continues, reflecting on the process,
Responding to numerous requests, the Commission on Theology and Doctrine has prepared a “Letter of Counsel and Advice” to the church on the subject of biblical authority. The Commission presents this “letter” as a carefully nuanced and creative reaffirmation of the classic Lutheran understanding of the Bible. This letter, with the title, “The Bible as the Word of God,” was received with gratitude by the Executive Council of the NALC and authorized its distribution to the church to provide much needed guidance, reflection and encouragement.
The statement is now complete and available on the NALC website. A study guide is also being developed and will be released in the near future.
In keeping with the intention of the CTD, major headings of the statement are: “Where Does the Bible Come From?”, “What Kind of Book is the Bible?”, “How May We Understand the Bible?”, “What Is the Authority of Scripture in the Church?” Sub-headings are equally practical and helpful: “The Bible is a book of Holy Scriptures,” “The Bible is both clear and deep, straightforward and complex…”, “The Bible is the powerful Word of God, which both kills and makes alive…”, “The Bible baffles human wisdom and challenges our habits of understanding,” “The Bible is a transforming book…”, “The Bible is a truthful, reliable book that will not lead us into error and falsehood…”
For all who may struggle with reading and comprehending Holy Scripture, “How May We Understand the Bible” provides profound, yet simple guidance. It suggests, “Approach the Bible with Hopeful Prayer,” “Be Guided By the ‘Rule of Faith’ in Creed and Catechism,” “Read Scripture in the Fellowship of the Church,” “Interpret Scripture by Scripture,” “Pay Attention to the Words.”
Also profound is the section on “What is the Authority of Scripture in the Church.” It states,
According to the Formula of Concord, Scripture is the “pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true guiding principle by which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated” (Book of Concord, Kolb-Wengert translation, 527). Two distinct but interrelated roles are assigned to Scripture by this confessional statement.
The document makes clear these two distinct roles as Scripture is both the “pure, clear fountain of Israel” and “the only true guiding principle.” It states, “Only Scripture (sola Scriptura) can play these roles of ‘fountain’ and ‘guiding principle’ in the Church.”
Of particular relevance is the assertion, “The Church and its teachers may not say that God requires what Scripture does not require, nor may they encourage or approve what is not in harmony with Scripture.” A quote from Martin Luther addresses this directly, as he wrote:
The Church also has no power to establish new divine promises of grace, as some prate, who hold that whatever is decreed by the church is of no less authority than what is decreed by God, since the church is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For the church was born by the word of promise through faith… That is to say, it is the promises of God that make the church, not the church that makes the promises of God. For the Word of God is incomparably superior to the church, and in this Word the church, being a creature, has nothing to decree, ordain, or make, but [is] only to be decreed, ordained and made (“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Luther’s Works 36, 107).
Every pastor, congregation and informed member of the NALC acknowledges the struggles, trials and challenges presented by Lutherans and Lutheranism which has departed from the Bible as the Word of God. And yet, the statement concludes,
Amidst these trials and troubles, however, the promise endures: ‘The word of God will stand forever’ (Isaiah 40:8 ESV).
This utterly reliable and unshakeable Word of God is not hidden from us. By God’s merciful gift, by the work of His Spirit, the Word of God abides in our midst in stable, written form. God’s powerful and life-giving Word accompanies us on our pilgrimage, and through it His Holy Spirit continually stirs up faithful witness and faithful worship.
Speaking on the need for such a statement, Rev. John Bradosky, NALC Bishop, asserts,
It is critical for the NALC to be clear regarding our understanding and use of Holy Scripture. It should be obvious that without clarity regarding the authority and interpretation of Scripture we would be bound to repeat a past we have left behind. While honest open dialog regarding the complexities of the Bible and its proper interpretation is critical in our life together, we begin with the words of Scripture, ascribing to them the authority that norms all matters of our faith and life. We do so recognizing the faithful interpretation of those same texts from those who came before us and believed that they were true even when they were not easily understood or were in opposition to cultural trends. This teaching statement on Holy Scripture helps us to avoid the destructive mitigation of the Word of God in favor of human wisdom and the relativistic notion that every person has the right to determine truth for themselves negating any possibility of absolute truth. The Word of God is absolute and true!
Bishop Emeritus Spring wishes to express a final word of invitation:
It is the hope and prayer of the Commission on Theology and Doctrine that individuals, congregations, and pastors’ gatherings will study and reflect on the content of this letter. The Commission further hopes that this letter will strengthen and enhance the NALC’s commitment to the Bible as the Word of God.
Rev. Dr. David M. Wendel, Assistant to the Bishop for Ministry and Ecumenism