Reading the Bible as Lutherans in the Twenty-First Century

Ralph W. Klein

Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor of Old Testament

            The forthcoming ELCA five-year initiative entitled Book of Faith:  Lutherans Read the Bible responds to a number of real or perceived needs in our church body.  The discussion and debates about sexuality and how the Bible relates to that issue led the North Carolina Synod to memorialize the ELCA churchwide assembly in 2005 to give renewed attention to Lutheran principles of hermeneutics and to encourage more frequent and focused use of the Bible throughout the ELCA.

            The predecessor church bodies that came together in the late 80s to form the ELCA had by and large moved past the fights over inerrancy that bedeviled many Christian denominations throughout the 20th century.  But as we have lived together in the ELCA over the last two decades and addressed a series of ecumenical and ethical issues, it has become clear that the Bible is read among us in different—and sometimes divisive—ways.  Secondly, is it just a question of different methods, or are there different attitudes toward Scriptural authority among us?   The “Word Alone Network” makes that suspicion explicit in its very name, a name that implies that some do not subscribe to the Word alone.  All this comes at a time when the academy itself is deeply divided on how the Bible should be read although there the debates are much more about method than theology. 

Finally, there is widespread lament about biblical illiteracy in both church and society.  There was a time when allusions could be made even in political speeches to biblical passages, with the assumption that hearers would recognize familiar words..  In Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he condemned slavery in the following sentence:  “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.  He was alluding to a reading of Gen 3:19:  “In the sweat of thy [own] face shalt thou eat bread.”  And then he added, echoing Matt 7:1 “But let us judge not that we be not judged.”

            Later in this speech Lincoln cited Matt 18:7:  “Woe unto the world because of offenses!  For it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!”  He continued:  If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”

Or, to cite a more recent example, how many people among Americans in general would get the biblical allusions of Martin Luther King’s speech on the eve of his assassination in 1968:  “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

The Bible in previous decades, often in now antiquated King James language, has had an enormous influence.  Alistair McGrath has written:  “Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address.”

As I listen to the first and second readings in church every Sunday, I often wonder what sense people derive from these isolated outtakes from the Bible given the general level of biblical knowledge in our midst.   And of course, what sophistication can we expect from these same people when they turn to the Bible when faced with gut-wrenching ecumenical or ethical decisions?

I’m not going to address the question of how to roll back biblical illiteracy, although I note that a well-placed comma after the word Lutherans could dramatically affect the ELCA  initiative:  Book of Faith: Lutherans, read the Bible!

            The Word of God

As we address the question of interpretation, let’s start at the beginning:  What is the Word of God, and how does it work?  The Constitution of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod holds that all matters of faith and life are decided by the Word of God and all other matters, the so-called adiaphora, are decided by majority vote.  Doctrine is decided by the Bible, but whether you have a red or green carpet—or no carpet at all—is decided by Roberts Rules of Order.  But in the 1960s and 1970s that clear distinction led to a considerable church squabble in the LC—MS.

What does one do if there is no agreement on what the Word of God means in our time?  Well then we vote, and some win and some lose.

The constitution of the ELCA is far more sophisticated on this issue, and acknowledges that the term Word of God has at least three meanings and the order of their listing is not accidental. 

  1. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate (2.02 a.)
  2. The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed….(2.02 b.)
  3. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God.  …Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world (2.02 c.; causative authority).  “The Bible has a unique capacity to mediate God’s word of law and gospel, which can bring about life and salvation for individuals and communities.”[1]

Things get a bit murkier in 2.03 of the ELCA constitution:  “This church accepts 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.  The Formula of Concord, too, identifies the Scriptures as the “only rule and guiding principle according to which all doctrines and teachers are to be evaluated (Epitome, 1).    I have no desire to contest this constitutional provision, but I would note two glaring ambiguities.  While the Scriptures are a source of determining our life together, they are hardly our only source since in so many ways we are shaped by the way brothers and sisters in the faith have previously understood the Christian life, that is, we are shaped also by tradition.  Tradition has surely played a major role in such central topics as infant Baptism, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and ordination to the pastoral office, to name only three.[2] And secondly, how one interprets the authoritative source and norm makes all the difference in the world.  The Methodist quadrilateral describes the bases of our actions quite helpfully when it states that we draw on Scripture, tradition, advances in human knowledge, and our own experience.

Our liturgical customs send out uncertain and potentially misleading affirmations about this “Word of God.”  When we say at the end of the first or second readings, “The Word of the Lord,” we are stating at best an incomplete truth.  For these words just read, however much guided by the Spirit, are also written or spoken by finite men and women, children of their times, with their own limits, presuppositions and even biases, and they addressed the people and the questions of their own times.  Many of these words are spoken to God, not by God, and the Old Testament prophets often distinguish quite clearly their own words from divine oracles.   St. Paul himself also makes this distinction.  “Now concerning virgins,” he writes, “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Cor 7:25).  He then urges them not to get married.  When he gives advice elsewhere is that a word of the Lord, or it is an opinion of one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy?

Tradition probably will have us continue to say “The Word of the Lord” after the first and second readings, even in the era of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, together with “Holy Wisdom Holy Word,” but in fact much of the Bible could be described as (very helpful) words about God rather than “the Word of God.”  The constant liturgical repetition that these words are the Word of the Lord explains some of the fundamentalist-sounding opinions about the Bible that Kenneth Inskeep has documented among Lutheran lay people.  The liturgical sentence “The Word of the Lord” makes the Bible sound like a series of verbatim divine oracles.  ELCA clergy have answered Inskeep’s inquiries with far more discrimination about the nature of Scripture, perhaps offering proof that good theological education makes a difference.  I know it doesn’t sound right, nor would it play in Trenton, if we were to say the following after the first and second lessons:  “The Word of the Lord that has just come to us in an earthen vessel.”  What is the significance of this dual characterization of readings from Scripture as both human and divine?

The Basis of Scriptural Authority

The affirmation of the gospel, which our predecessors referred to as the material principle, is finally what gives the Scriptures their authority.  Others might call it a canon within the canon,[3] and Philip Melanchthon in Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession urged us to ADD the gospel to the text if we did not find it there.[4]  This gospel-centered authority of Scripture provides a historical and theological rationale for why there is no official list of the canon in the Lutheran confessional writings.  Luther’s negative attitude toward books like Esther, James, and Revelation is well known, even though many of Luther’s followers, also today, see far more value and authority in James and the Apocalypse than the Reformer did.  The canon itself, finally, is not nearly so important for us Lutherans, as what many of the canonical books contain.

Lutheran Orthodoxy at times attempted to bolster and support this central message by backing it up with a series of propositions about Scripture itself, its purity, perfection, verbal inspiration, and inerrancy, almost as if the authority of the Gospel rested on the demonstrable authority and perfection of Scripture itself.  In the church struggle in which I participated in the 60s and 70s, which resulted in the creation of Seminex, we insisted that it is the Gospel that gives the Scriptures their authority, and then we added quietly, “and not vice versa.”

Even the word “authority” is capable of multiple understandings.  On the fundamentalist side, one thinks of the bumper sticker that says:  “God said it; I read it; that settles it.”  But a word search on “authority” in Matthew’s Gospel turns up the following significant evangelical insights:  “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"-- he then said to the paralytic-- "Stand up, take your bed and go to your home."  Matt. 9:6 or “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  Matt 28:18-20.

            As Harold H. Ditmanson wrote many years ago, “Redemption is itself the revelation.  Later generations are in touch with the revelatory activity through the documents that describe and interpret the saving events.”[5]  The Scriptures point us without fail to the revelatory saving events.  Therein is their authority.


Luther as Interpreter

Students of Luther have often observed and even complained that Luther was no systematic theologian.  Luther scholar and now professor at Princeton, Scott Hendrix has observed that “Luther’s exegesis reads more like a sermon than a commentary because the legitimate meaning of a text included for Luther its application to the present.”  Luther chose “the meaning of the text which best fit the significance of the words, the historical circumstances, and his own theological perspective (italics added).”[6]   “[Luther] did not expect his interpretation to exhaust the possibilities of Scripture for all time but to speak the crucial, liberating word for his ‘today.’”[7]  Biblical exegesis was for Luther a matter of life and death.  Mickey Mattox remarked this about Luther’s views on exegesis:  “Christian exegesis presumes as its point of departure the believer who is caught up in this battle, engaged in a struggle between faith and doubt, truth and error, God and the devil.”[8]  As Luther described the task of exegesis in 1539, he used those three famous words as the necessary milieu of the exegete:  oratio, meditation, and tentatio – prayer, deep reflection, and the experience of the trials of life.  As Luther worked out his hermeneutics, however, he often did it on the fly.[9]  Hendrix remarks that Luther and his colleagues decided ad hoc how to apply Scripture as they faced two distinct tasks—to define and defend the gospel and to construct an evangelical Christianity once they were separated from the Roman Catholic Church.[10]

As I read various Lutheran essays in preparation for this address, I was often struck by how clear the essays were about the central, gospel-based authority of Scripture and how ambiguous they were when talking about the Bible’s authority on other matters, such as ethics and church orders.     When it came to construct an evangelical view of ordained ministry, Luther himself wrote as follows in 1539:  “It is, however, true that the Holy Spirit has excepted women, children, and incompetent people from this function [of ordained ministry].”  He cites 1 Cor 14:34 where Paul writes, “The women should keep silence in the churches.”  Luther then adds:  “In summary, it [the pastor] must be a competent and chosen man.  Children, women, and other persons are not qualified for this office…Even nature and God’s creation make this distinction, implying that women (much less children or fools) cannot and shall not occupy positions of sovereignty, as experience also suggests and as Moses says in Gen 3:16:  ‘You shall be subject to man.’”[11]

Luther was willing to accept a literal meaning of 1 Cor 14:34 as a divine description for how the office of ministry is to be filled even when that meaning has no relationship to the gospel.  Second, Luther identifies the exclusion of women from the office of ministry with natural law and the ordinance of creation as he read it out of Gen 3:16.[12]  Clearly, the predecessor bodies of the ELCA came to a different interpretation of the significance of the biblical texts cited by Luther.  This was in part because of a different exegesis of this passage and the profound certainty that Paul’s words in Gal 3:28 make such distinctions “in Christ” a thing of the past.  But I suspect it was also because of a different understanding of how the “normative authority” of the Bible functions among us on questions like this.

Interpreting the Bible Today

            Christians over the last two millennia have employed a wide range of methods  to interpret the Scriptures.[13]  Until the time of the Reformation, a fourfold method of interpretation was widely practiced:  literal, allegorical, tropological (ethical), and anagogical (eschatological).  While the allegorical method rightly held that the spiritual meaning was of the essence, its procedures allowed the interpreter flights of fancy that virtually removed the text itself as a control on exegetical imagination, and no one would recommend its reinstitution today.  Yet, it has to be admitted, that for over half of church history, the faithful were nurtured and preserved by just such allegorical exegesis.  The literal or historical sense has prevailed since the Reformation.  I would prefer to call this the contextual sense to distinguish it from the rigid literalism characteristic of Fundamentalism.  That is, we take the text of Genesis 1 as a literal description of the way creation and science were understood in ancient times and thus we recognize that our context and our science are much different.  Mark Allen Powell has written:  “Readers [of the Bible] search for relevant meaning in their world that would be analogous to the meaning that the author hoped to convey to the text’s original audience.”[14]  When the Psalmist states,

            Indeed, I was born guilty,

                        a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Ps 51:5)

I would not take this as a proof text for guilt inherited from Adam and Eve, let alone as an imposition of sin on sexual intercourse and the human reproductive process, as it was taken in the Middle Ages, but I take this passage as a poetic confession of the Psalmist that from the very beginning of his conscious existence he has been rebellious against God.[15] 

            For the last several centuries, many Christians, including the exegetical faculty of the ELCA seminaries and probably the vast majority of the people in this room, have read the Bible “critically.”[16]  That is, our reading of Scripture resembles in many ways our reading of any other human document—we seek evidence for its time and place of composition, we seek to recognize how writers’ points of view and cultural presuppositions have shaped their account, and we recognize the potential gap between what Scripture might have meant back then and there, and what it might mean for the world, the church, and ourselves today.[17]  This method of interpretation is known generically as the Historical Critical Method.[18]  Yet, as we read the Scriptures “critically” we also read them devotionally and with the expectation that we will find there clear and authoritative expressions of the gospel.  That is, we read as critical believers.[19]

            While historical criticism has always had its critics on the right, the last two decades have seen increasing nervousness about historical criticism from within the scholarly critical guild because historical criticism has too narrowly focused on history as the genre of Scripture, because it has magnified the gap between then and now by uncovering the meaning of the passage in its setting in antiquity, and because it has overestimated the objectivity of the modern interpreter and the advantages of dispassionate exegesis.[20]  Some of the new exegetical methods are in my judgment merely extensions of historical criticism’s reach (social science criticism, rhetorical criticism, and even narrative criticism to a degree).  Other approaches such as feminist and womanist criticisms and post-colonial criticism note the importance of understanding who the interpreter is in terms of age, class, gender, and racial and ethnic identity.  But feminists, womanists and even post-colonial scholars use many aspects of historical criticism in their approach.  In my judgment the new critical tools and the insights of feminists, womanists, non-western exegetes, and post-colonial scholars have greatly expanded our understanding of the meaning and significance of the biblical text.  But even those who polemicize against historical criticism remain “critical” scholars.

            Reading the Bible critically conforms to the sea change in the attitude that took place among many American Christians in the 20th century.  Grant Wacker called this “The Demise of Biblical Civilization.”[21]  People came to realize that there was not a seamless connection between the biblical world and the world of their experience—the age of the earth, the non historical character of the story of Adam and Eve, the time-bound character of cultural and moral suppositions in the Old and New Testaments.[22]

Some current challenges to Biblical Exegesis

I.  The role of the subjectivity of the interpreter

One of the goals of historical criticism was to seek “objective” knowledge about these ancient texts, unencumbered by the restraints of church doctrine, the magisterium of the church, or even the biases of the interpreter.  But our generation has emphasized that interpreters bring with them unique experiences, known and unknown presuppositions, and differences due to their social location:  gender, age, race, class, economic level, political position, religious affiliation, education, and ethnicity.  In a sense the reader’s point of view has claimed a role parallel to or competitive with the author’s point of view, and of course that author too had a specific social location as well.   The book edited by my colleague David Rhoads, From Every People and Nation:  The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective[23] seeks to make explicit that every interpretation is a cultural interpretation and it offers ten examples of colleagues interpreting the Book of Revelation self-consciously out of their own cultural location.  It surely does make a difference if one reads any text as a woman, as a black woman, as an Asian, as a male U. S. citizen, as a person from a formerly colonized country, and the like.  As Scott Hendrix has observed, even Luther “joined the interpretation of Scripture to the experience and theological orientation of the interpreter.”[24]  There are of course restraints to this, and we do not want to succumb to a notion that the Bible can mean just anything because I say that is what it means to me.  The restraints of the text itself, philology and logic, and arguments that are publicly presented and publicly accountable still apply.  Through the tools of philology and logic, we can eliminate certain interpretations with a reasonable level of probability and we can accept others with a similar probability.”[25]

As David Rhoads points out, we who interpret the Bible, whether in a seminary or in a parish, are often unaware of how much our understanding of Christianity is culturally conditioned.  Lutherans, for example, proclaim a gospel that announces forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake through faith as the gospel for all people.  As one of my own teachers used to say, however, “The Gospel is God’s good news for our bad situations,” and the bad situations we bring to the table may be sins and feelings of guilt, but they also may be doubt, discouragement, loneliness, a fatal illness, experiences of oppression, and countless other maladies.  Many people in suppressed cultures may be primarily victims of the sins of oppressing powers.  God’s good news for their bad situations, therefore, must mean liberation from the effects of the sins of the oppressing power.  This does not mean, of course, that these oppressed people are not themselves sinners and in no need of forgiveness in their personal lives and family relationships.  But it does surely mean that a message of forgiveness does not exhaust the dimensions of the Gospel that must be proclaimed.   Another of David Rhoads’ books, The Challenge of Diversity, provides illustrations of the diverse definitions of the gospel in the New Testament documents themselves.[26]  And Carol Miles has recently pointed out that the canon within the canon that is typical of Lutheran hermeneutics can be a terribly limiting approach.  She writes:  “The diversity of Scripture…honors and addresses the complexity of the people of God.”  “Preachers must be willing to take up texts representing the full range of…theological voices comprising the biblical canon.”[27]

II. The Social Location of the Biblical Writers and the Diversity of their Perspectives

There is also in our age an increased recognition of the social location of the biblical writers.  For more than two decades I have been working on a two volume commentary on the books of Chronicles.  The author of those books, called the Chronicler, was a Levite, or at least a person very positively disposed toward the Levites.  He lived at a time when the Persian Empire totally dominated the ancient Near East, stretching from Libya to India, and his own little country of Yehud, about the size geographically of the city of Chicago, was no match militarily or economically for the Persians.  He—and his support group-- made a choice therefore that entailed collaboration with the Persian powers provided that these Persian authorities would grant the Jews freedom to worship in the temple in Jerusalem.  Despite the small geographic size and small population of the province known as Yehud, he saw his little country as potentially “all Israel,” and invited that wider Israel to find meaning and freedom in the worship life of that temple.  So unwilling was he to see his community as only an insignificant remnant, that he began his book with nine chapters of genealogies, in which the families and clans of each of the twelve tribes were traced back to a common ancestor among the sons of Jacob, whom, by the way, he always calls Israel.  One would surely not want to generalize the theological position of the Chronicler as the only good one for all time, but, given the contours of his social location, that may have been the only realistic alternative for freedom possible at his time. 

Two centuries later the author of Daniel made another significant choice that no doubt betrays his own social location.  Faced with Syrian oppression, he could imagine three choices for his fellow Jews:  the first and most repugnant choice was to become collaborators with the oppressors or even converts to their religion.  A second choice, which he also rejected, was to join the Maccabean guerrilla fighters, who were intent on liberating the Jews and their temple from the Syrian oppressor by pitched battles and terrorist activities.  The third option the author of Daniel favored was to assure God’s people that sovereignty had already been transferred by God from the Syrians to the archangel Michael and to the people of the saints of the most high, that is, to the Jews.  This was banking everything on the surety of God’s promise and considering the arrogant Syrians as so many burnt out cases.  Daniel advocated for a patient and faithful waiting for God to manifest his saving power.  In this case, the Maccabees were the winners, at least according to worldly standards, but their victory was a violent one and they eventually became parade examples of the generalization that “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  If I had lived in the second century BCE, I am sure I would not have denied my Jewishness by collaborating with the enemy or converting to the Syrian religion, or at least I hope that would have been my decision.  But would I have joined the Maccabees in acts of freedom fighting, or would I have banked on God to topple the oppressors by demanding that God fulfill God’s promises?  How to be faithful is never an easy choice.  And there is often more than one way to be faithful.

Certain aspects of the social location of the biblical writers present enormous challenges to us today.  The patriarchy of the biblical world is pervasive, and many of the biblical writers devalued or silenced the voices and the roles of women. There were exceptions of course, and a number of liberated women can be identified in the biblical record:  Eve, Ruth and Naomi, Huldah, Deborah, Judith, Hagar, the anonymous woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, the early apostle Junia (Rom 16:7), and the women at the tomb.  But these wonderful exceptions do not change the fact that patriarchy was presupposed and practiced by many/most of the biblical writers.  The marriage metaphor for the divine-human relationship in both testaments has become increasingly problematic, perhaps for its intrinsic hierarchical structures in the New Testament and for the violence toward women in many Old Testament examples.  Why is it that the wayward spouse is always the woman, and even if we were to overlook that for the moment, does that legitimize the violent fate or degrading treatment of these “wayward women” at the hand of God?  We need to identify such violent behavior as wrong and preach in this case against the text, or at least against these aspects of these texts.

The danger is that we might throw out the baby with the bath water.  Some have tried to rescue these metaphors by saying that in an honor-and-shame culture, the male audience of the prophets was being thoroughly shamed by saying “You men are that harlotrous woman.”  That is at best a partial solution to the problem.  But I think it would be a significant mistake to throw out the prophets who use metaphors that have become perceived as violent toward women, or always were violent toward women. 

I have sometimes referred to Hosea  as “My (least) favorite prophet.”  The parenthesis expresses my discomfort with some of his metaphors that resemble the abusive husband glossing things over with flowers or a box of candy (Hos 2:14-15).  But Hosea, despite all his rough edges, expresses eloquently for me what is at the heart of God’s good news for my bad situation.  As God reviews her long history with God’s people, beginning already with the Exodus, the behavior of Israel has been that of an irascible teenager, rejecting every benefaction bestowed by God and doing everything in teenage immaturity to evoke divine anger.  That is the picture of human activity we see in many episodes of church history and which I see staring back at me from the bathroom mirror on all too many mornings.  Even God, especially God, has the right to say enough is enough, your wickedness is complete, damnation is the only alternative.  But Hosea’s God suffers:  “How can I give you up Ephraim, How can I hand you over, Israel.  How could I make you like Sodom and Gomorrah?”  Answer:    Because I am God and not a human being.  I am not hung up on your—my?—doctrine of retribution.  I am the Holy One in your midst, and I will not destroy. 

We have these treasures in earthen vessels, Paul says in 2 Cor 4:7.  We need to retain the treasure as we discard the flawed flower pots. 

III.              Passages that seem out of touch with our world today.

A number of biblical passages seem insensitive to or at least undifferentiated toward modern issues like divorce and remarriage, war, and disagreement about the meaning, relevance, applicability and implications of passages about sexuality and homosexuality, or the relationship of Christianity to other world religions.[28] 

Omit? One of the women in my current home parish is married to a very thoughtful Jewish man.  He shows up for social events of the parish and attends services at the high festivals, but he remains Jewish.  Last Christmas Eve David and I were talking after the service, and he told me he had recently resolved to read through the entire New Testament.  He had only made it up to Luke, but was bothered already by passages in the Gospels where Jesus states that anyone who divorces a spouse and marries another commits adultery by that second marriage.  Both my Jewish friend David and his wife had been previously married.  “Am I really committing adultery?” he asked.  I suspect that many of us wrestle with these divorce texts with particular difficulty when they come around in the Lectionary.  There is no question, I suppose, that divorce always represents failure and sin, but we all could certainly cite cases where divorce is the lesser of two evils.   And most of us could cite cases where remarriage is hardly adultery.

While there are helpful passages in Scripture about marriage and sexuality, the gap between then and now and changes in marital practices make some of the biblical comments beside the point, not helpful, or even harmful.  When one married routinely at fourteen or fifteen, and when one married the person whom one’s parents had chosen, and when there were no reliable forms of birth control, the challenges of our ancestors in antiquity and ours today in regard to our sexuality are in fact quite different.  Is the disagreement in the ELCA about homosexuality really about a different attitude toward the authority of Scripture?  Fretheim has pointed out that historical critics like Richard Hays and Robert Gagnon, on the conservative side, and Robin Scroggs and Marti Nissinen, on the side advocating change in the church’s attitude toward homosexuality, have come to diametrically opposite understandings about the significance for our time of the few biblical passages dealing with homosexuality.  Personal convictions about the matter by the interpreters—on both sides—largely explain the different interpretations of the texts.   Something of who we are as interpreters will inevitably be part of any meaning we claim to see in a text.  Such differences do not imply a different definition of Scripture’s authority.

Part of a Lutheran approach to hermeneutics that locates the authority of the Scriptures in their central saving message means that at times we must accept the possibility that a position taken by a biblical writer is wrong or unhelpful.  We need to make sure in these cases that we have heard and read the text clearly and sympathetically, and not reject them just because a superficial reading conflicts with our 21st century notions or our own theological or political positions, which also stand under need for judgment and critique.  But there are such passages that offer little help and no little harm.  I would cite as a case in point the Bible’s recommendation for distinguishing between a woman who has falsely claimed to be raped and a woman whose accusation of rape is to be believed.  Our own society does not do particularly well here either since truth is often sought in the contentious arguments of prosecution and defense attorneys that often replicate the violence of the rape itself.  But the biblical recommendation is both naïve and biased in favor of the male.  The engaged woman who is caught having sex with a man who is not her fiancé is not to be believed when she alleges it was not consensual because she did not cry for help in the town (Deut 22:24) while her country cousin who claims similar violation is to be believed because no one in the open country would have heard her cry (Deut 22:25-27).  Obviously a knife at the throat could have prevented  the city woman from crying out.  I cite this example because I believe most of you would agree with my judgment against this passage.  It tosses out unfairly a city dweller’s cry for justice, and makes one wonder whether this policy was formulated by an assembly consisting exclusively of males.  Anyone who would use this passage as a guide for addressing the issue of rape in church or society today would render untold harm on women.  As Elisabeth Schüessler Fiorenza notes, “[The responsibility of biblical scholars] must include the elucidation of the ethical consequences and political functions of biblical texts in their historical as well as in their contemporary sociopolitical contexts.[29]  Once the possibility of such critique is conceded, as in this passage on rape, one cannot oppose it in principle when it is raised in other cases.  Such passages might include the divine mandate to exterminate the Canaanites, Ezra’s forced divorce of over 100 men who had married foreign women, the violence modeled by God in regard to wayward women, and passages in Scripture which suggest that women be silenced. 

In my discussions around the ELCA of passages dealing with homosexuality, I have pointed out that a) they are very few, b) that in every case there are extenuating circumstances, such as homosexual rape in Genesis 19, or that Paul and we do not share a number of presuppositions and these create a disconnect between what he wrote in Romans 1 and the ethical choices that confront us today.  It seems to me that Paul has a culturally conditioned idea of what is natural, that he presupposes that people who participate in homosexual actions do so because they choose to do so, not recognizing that some folks have sexual orientation toward people only of their own gender, and that he projects that homosexuals are unduly controlled by sexual passions.  Given these alleged presuppositions, is Paul giving us a command of the Lord or only the opinion of one who by the Lord’s mercy is “trustworthy,” but not necessarily normative in our time?

But responsible exegetes will always try to dialogue with the text, to make sure they have not missed something, and they will dialogue with other interpreters and invite open criticism of their own views.  My own views as interpreter may need to be challenged by the Scriptural text.  That is the risk of every kind of dialogue.

OMIT? In reading the Bible I may see things that others do not see, and they will surely see things that I do not see.  That goes also for what we see as the center of Scriptures.  Lutherans will no doubt continue to find that center in a gracious God, whose love contradicts divine wrath, and without whose help none of us could ever believe or please God.  But that center can be enriched by readers who find other aspects of God that merit or evoke human faith and life, or who resist or even resent our universalizing this evangelical insight.  My colleague Richard Perry, for example, has suggested that the canon within the canon for the African American community is “the Exodus to Jesus paradigm.”[30]  And a similar point was recently made by Lewis V. Baldwin and Stephen L. Murphy, who wrote:  “In the stories of liberation of the Hebrew scriptures and in the actions and teachings of Jesus, African-American Christians assert the special concern God has always had for the oppressed in this world.”[31] 

Exegesis, it is said, is among the most ecumenical of all the theological disciplines.  In large part most members of the Society of Biblical Literature or the Catholic Biblical Association read the Bible with a commonly accepted bevy of methods.  Ecumenical conversation means a willingness to bear witness to what we have seen from our particular locations and to hear what exegetes from other Christian or Jewish bodies have discovered in these same books.  That means a willingness to have our views modified or expanded, and even to have them identified as misleading or wrong.


            I don’t remember many speeches or sermons more than a week later, and the world will little note or long remember what I have said here.  But one speech I do remember from my Missouri Synod college days in 1958.  The late Elmer Witt, long-time creative campus pastor and later director of Holden Village, was speaking.  It was six years after the publication of the complete RSV, and Concordia Publishing House, after much hand wringing, had finally decided to include the RSV in its catalog, but with a proviso.  On the page where these Bibles were listed, there was a small box, much like the warning box on the side of a cigarette pack that read:  “These Bibles must be read with extreme care.”  That’s exactly right, Elmer Witt observed.  These Bibles talk about selling all that you have and giving it to the poor, about God breaking down dividing walls of partition, about seeking justice and only justice in the world, about God laughing in derision at the security offered by the military industrial complex, and about a coming time when swords and spears would be transformed into I-pods and laptop computers (I’ve updated his speech a bit). These Bibles, Elmer warned, can get you into trouble with yourself and with your God.  These Bibles too can astonish you with the audacity of their promises.  When Abram and Sarai struggled with issues of infertility, God took them outside and changed the simple promise of a child into a promise of descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:1-6).  When Abram asked how he could know if God would ever come through with his promise of space and place, God invoked a curse on Godself to make the promise credible.  “May I be cut to pieces,” she said, “if I do not fulfill my promise to you.” (Gen 15:7-21)

            If we understand the full dimension of challenges facing Christians today, we would not want to give easy answers.  Complex questions call for the full resource of the Christian gospel and the variety of Scriptural viewpoints, the best of human knowledge, and the wisdom of the tradition, articulated with pastoral compassion and not a little humility.  Easy answers are an insult to those whom we would serve and do not reflect the diversities of the Scriptural witness.  Answers sufficient for the challenge come through prayer and hard work, through risk and through constant dialogue with the text and the Christian community.  Answers sufficient for the challenge facing Christians today presuppose the authority of the Scriptures and locate the basis for such authority in their central, clear, and saving message.  Answers sufficient for the challenge will not hide the limits of Scripture, let alone the limits of its interpreters.


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Authority of the Bible and Churchly Debates regarding Sexuality,” Word and World 26 (2006), 365.

[2] As Mattox notes, p. 107, “Even as [Luther] appealed to Scripture alone as a court of last resort, he gladly received much that he found valuable in Catholic tradition and practice, even when it could not be established by the Bible alone, so long as it did not flatly contradict the clear teaching of Scripture as he understood it.

[3] For Luther himself John’s Gospel, Paul’s epistles, particularly Romans, and 1 Peter were the “true kernel and marrow of all the books.”  LW 35, 361-362.

[4] See Edward H. Schroeder, “The Augsburg Aha!  The Gospel is a Promise, an Honest-To-God Promise.  A Second Look at the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4. In Apology IV, 257, Melanchthon writes:  “For the law works wrath; it only accuses….Therefore it is necessary to add the Gospel promise, that for Christ’s sake sins are forgiven and that by faith in Christ we obtain the forgiveness of sins.”

[5] “Perspectives on the Hermeneutics Debate” in Studies in Lutheran Hermeneutics, ed John Reumann (Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1979), 80.  Ditmanson is here summarizing the insights of Duane Priebe in the same volume.

[6] Scott H. Hendrix, “Luther against the Background of the History of Biblical Interpretation,” Int 37 (1983), 234.

[7] Hendrix, “Luther,” 238.

[8] Mickey L. Maddox, “Martin Luther,” p. 97 in Christian Theologies of Scripture, ed.. Justin S. Holcomb  (New York:  New York University Press, 2006).

[9] Scott H. Hendrix, “The Interpretation of the Bible according to Luther and the Confessions” pp. 13-31 in Hearing the Word, ed. David C. Ratke (Minneapolis:  Lutheran University Press, 2006).

[10] Hendrix, “The Interpretation of the Bible,” 28.

[11] See Luther’s Works 41:154-155.

[12] Hendrix, “The Interpretation of the Gospel,” 27.

[13] See Robert Grant with David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible.  Second Edition.  Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1984.

[14] Mark Allen Powell, “The Social-Cultural Context of Biblical Interpretation Today” in Hearing the Word, 60.

[15] Similarly, people with modern understandings of the origin of humans can recognize that the chief errors being combated by the Confessors in their discussion of Original Sin were Pelagianism (that is, that we can achieve our own salvation) and Manichaeism (this is, that God’s creation is not good),  See Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article I, Original Sin.  That relevant meaning can be affirmed by those who read Genesis 1-3 or Psalm 51 from a historical critical viewpoint.

[16] After citing familiar Luther quotations, such as, “If my opponents have urged Scripture against Christ, we urge Christ against Scripture,” and You urge the slave, that is, Scripture—and only in parts….I urge the Lord who is King of Scripture,” Brian Gerrish remarks: “Such utterances as these show that Luther was emancipated—at least in principle—from the medieval understanding of the Bible’s content:  for him Scripture is authoritative insofar as it bears witness to Christ.  For this reason, Brunner is correct in saying the ‘Luther was the first to represent a biblical faith which could be combined with biblical criticism.’”  See B. A. Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1982), 65.  Still, as Mattox concludes, p. 108, “[I]t seems clear today that as an exegete Luther was more medieval and catholic than modern and critical.”

[17] Krister Stendahl, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” IDB.

[18] Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975..

[19] Patrick R. Keifert, citing Martin Buss, has criticized the divide between “critical description and capricious faith,” and seeks to overcome this divide by following several current philosophers of rhetoric.  See his “The Bible and Theological Education:  A Report and Reflections on a Journey” in The Ending of Mark and the Ends of God.  Essays in Memory of Donald Harrisville Juel, ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Patrick D. Miller (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2005), 166.  While recognizing the importance of his critique, I do not believe that the solutions he offers are the only ones possible nor that my reading as a critical believer is capricious.

[20] No one has expressed this critique more passionately than Walter Brueggemann.  See his discussion in Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.  Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1997, passim.

[21] Grant Wacker, “The Demise of Biblical Civilization” in The Bible in America:  Essays in Cultural History, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (New York:  Oxford, 1982).

[22] See Erik M. Heen, “The Interpretation of the Bible among Lutherans in the Twentieth Century” in Hearing the Word, 44-45.

[23] David Rhoads, From Every People and Nation.  The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2005).

[24] As quoted by Kathryn A. Kleinhans, “The Word Made Words:  A Lutheran Perspective on the Authority and Use of the Scriptures,” Word and World  26 (2006), 406.  Hendrix 15

[25] Fretheim, 373.

[26] David Rhoads, The Challenge of Diversity.  The Witness of Paul and the Gospels.  Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1996.

[27] Carol Antablin Miles, “A Canon within the Canon?  No:  Proclaim the Whole Counsel of God,” Word and World 26 (2006):439.

[28] We could also mention the anti-Judaistic passages in the New Testament that were born out of the controversies between early Christians and the Judaism of their day.

[29] Elisabeth Schüessler Fiorenza, “The Ethics of Interpretation:  De-Centering Biblical Scholarship,” JBL 107 (1988), 15.

[30] Richard J. Perry, Jr. “What Sort of Claim Does the Bible Have Today?” in Hearing the Word, 74.

[31] Christian Theologies of Scripture, 297.   James H. Cone emphasized the Jesus side of this hermeneutic when he wrote:  “In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed.  Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair.  Through Christ the poor man is offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes him other than human.” Black Theology and Black Power (New York:  Seabury Press, 1969), 36.