Book Review: Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings

 

Westminster Seminary California has just published another one of my book reviews:

Martin Luther is perhaps the most popular figure of theological study, outside secondary literature on the life of Jesus Christ. As the foundational character of Protestantism, to control Luther is to control the reformation. For this reason, some historians have done their best to create a Luther after their own theological image. Today it seems the Luther of faith governs the Luther of history seen with the Luther Renaissance and the Finnish School of interpretation. The former made Luther the German idealist and the later the product of Eastern Orthodoxy. Both camps removed Luther from his actual writings and the 17th century confessional scholastics, who carried on his reform.

Modern schools of interpretation fail to understand that Luther’s theology developed over time. He was an “occasional theologian.” He did not write a single summary of theology but wrote as he had “concrete struggles for the gospel in the context of the sixteenth century church and society.” No single tower experience caused Luther to pen, “If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost”—such conclusions came after years of study. Reading Luther’s early works may impress a medieval mold. Further reading, however, produces the Protestant Luther. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings 2nd Edition was “prepared with the special hope that it might be useful in making the writings of Martin Luther available as a resource for contemporary work in theology,” and in so doing will allow the real Luther to stand up. This book comes highly recommended for those who want to know the man and not the myth…continue.

Advertisements

Sola Scriptura: Critique of Tradition 0 (Part 2)

Solo scriptura’s creed, “The whole Bible and nothing but the Bible” is lost in the sea of Christian history. It has surfaced in the past with heretics like Arius, with the Radical Reformers, Rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the Democratic Populism of early America. The Radical Reformers, rationalism and democracy all have the same underlying position of autonomy. The assumption is that all one needs is individual conscience and reason to survive, whether in religion or secular disciplines. Continue reading

Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Understanding of the Authority of Tradition

Does tradition have any value in the church or for the Christian? Roman Catholicism believes tradition carries an authority equal or superior to Scripture. What about Protestants: during the Reformation, the Magisterial Reformers came up with sola scriptura in response to Rome. There is, however, a division within Protestantism over sola scriptura. Many Protestants, against Rome, fear any sign of tradition, whereas others are not so frightened by tradition. The result is two views of sola scriptura. The two positions have been labeled: tradition 0, which detests tradition as authority, and tradition 1, which affirms tradition as a subordinate authority. I plan with these posts to discover the position that correctly handles the doctrine of sola scriptura. For a sneak peek, I believe tradition 0 ends in autonomy, relativism and therefore skepticism. Whereas tradition 1, held by the apostles, the early church, and the Magisterial Reformers, preserves doctrinal truth, the church, and Scripture as the supreme authority.

Why Be Confessional?

As Protestants, who would want to apply anything to the Bible?  Who does the Bible belong?   Well, the Reformed state that it as well as interpretation belongs to the whole church, as a community.  Think about it, Jesus set up an ecclesiastical authority to be obeyed (Heb. 13.7) and Paul pointed to a continuing, special teaching ministry after his death (cf. 1 Tim 3.1-7; 2 Tim 4.2; Titus 1.5-9), why?  The point is that Christians do not interpret individually; the body as a whole with gifted leaders guides the church and interprets Scripture jointly as the Body of Christ.  The Jerusalem church is a great example.  It set up a council to find the underlying cause of a problem within its ranks.  After the decision on the matter, it related the conclusion to other churches to follow.  The Bible proves that men come together and interpret Scripture in community, one cannot read the Bible alone, individually; it needs the community as a whole past, present, and future.  The Bible even actually has many positive statements about tradition (Luke 1:1-4; Mark 7:5-13; 2 Thess 2.15).

Taking away creeds and councils from the church disrupts hermeneutics. Having been a Christian for some time, you have heard Christians arguing over contrary theological problems.  Each side appeals to Scripture.  Who is right, whose interpretation is correct?  Appealing to Scripture to justify a position is an appeal to an interpretation of Scripture, and the question is begged, “Whose interpretation?”  The position of “The whole Bible and nothing but the Bible,” adheres to individual reason and conscience as the supreme interpreter, which leads to solipsism.  One’s mind stands alone as the absolute judge.  Any claim to absolute authority results in circular reasoning. This is unavoidable, for any secondary premise for or against the first claim of authority results in a new absolute, which begs the question again.  The Bible is the authority, but it does not interpret itself, it needs an interpreter.  If the interpreter claims neutral individual reasoning in the interpretive process, he claims autonomous reasoning.  His reasoning then stands as the absolute standard in interpretation.  Therefore, autonomous reasoning becomes an equal or supreme authority over Scripture.  In addition, no one comes to Scripture void of presuppositions.  The idea of neutrality is the product of the Enlightenment with its doctrine of tabula rasa.  This rationalistic approach to Scripture is neither biblical nor valid.

History displays the problems with this approach.  The heretic Arius appealed only to Scripture to denounce the deity of Christ. The early wishes of the Council to use only biblical language to counter his claims changed.  They realized they needed extra-biblical language based on proper, holistic interpretation of Scripture, which considered tradition to combat this heretic. Improper individualistic interpretation was the problem—Arius used Scripture alone.  The Anabaptists called for interpreting Scripture using reason and conscience alone.  However, this led many like Sabastian Frank into extreme individualism and the denial of key doctrines like the Trinity.  The creeds and councils of the historic church with its interpretation keep individuals from heresy.

The Bible alone approach finds its roots in the Radical Reformers, rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the democratic populism of early America.  The Radical Reformers, rationalism and democracy all have the same underlying position of autonomy.  The assumption is that all one needs is individual conscience and reason to survive, whether in religion or secular disciplines. The Reformers did not cohere to autonomy; they sought to prove a historical link through tradition to the apostolic age to fix their pedigree.  The Reformation was not a movement based on Scripture verses tradition but rather between Rome’s idea of tradition and the early Churches idea of tradition.  The Reformers agreed to distinguish true tradition from corrupt tradition.  They did this by testing tradition according to its faithfulness to Scripture.  Thus, Scripture became the standard for identification of true tradition, rather than tradition the standard for interpretation of Scripture.

Lastly, the Bible alone tradition needs an anachronistic reading of modern conditions back into periods of history.  Many in the ancient church did not have access to a Bible.  They relied on the church and its interpretation.  Even today, there are parts of the world where men do not have Scripture.  These churches and those of antiquity relied on church leaders and tradition to guide them, there was no individuality.

Without creeds, there would be no certain doctrine because each individual would be responsible for fixing his own doctrinal boundaries.  In the end, the catholic church is seized by a plethora of autonomous churches.  The local church in reality would consist of a community of doctrinal mini-individual churches under one roof.   If there is no authority to check one’s interpretation then any doctrine can be tossed to suit one’s interpretation.  The examples above of Arius prove this premise.  The least of the problems for Bible alone tradition is that individualism, which results in subjectivism leading to skepticism, is the result.  The gravest problem is self-condemnation.

The Bible alone Tradition carries with it some practical problems.  When the sole authority of interpretation lies only with individuals apart from the church, division is the result.  During the Reformation, this was one of Rome’s critiques of Luther’s doctrine of private interpretation.  They said if every person was able to read scripture alone there would be many interpretations dividing the Church.  There is truth to this statement, obvious today with all the different splits within Protestantism.  If there is no outside source to say who is right or wrong, the church may split with no solution.  Luther’s doctrine of private interpretation did not mean individual interpretation apart from the church.  If this was true, which the Bible alone tradition holds, there would be no church authority.  If Christ’s disciplinary authority remains in the church and the churches authority is taken away, then Christ’s authority is demolished.  Christ did not set up a democracy; he set up a church with different gifts and elders with responsibilities and authority or else Scriptures call to believers to submit to church authority would be vain (Heb 13.17; Acts 20.28).  Scripture does call Christians to submit because God has gifted leaders with authority.  These men only have authority in so far that they submit to church doctrine.  Church doctrine has authority in so far that it represents Scripture.

The doctrine of sola scriptura does not mean “Bible Alone” or “Me Alone.”  Nevertheless, this is where this tradition inevitably leads; the individual becomes the final authority.  This theology pervades much of the church today because of the Enlightenment.  This approach matured during the Enlightenment, which was an act to free itself from the restraints of tradition.  Modern thought developed in a crisis of authority, wishing to flee from authority, founding itself on autonomy from all traditional influence.  Today’s worldview sees autonomy as king and this has pervaded the church.  When one believes he approaches the Bible without bias, which is what autonomy assumes, that person is the most bias.

Nowhere in Scripture is there a single hint that every individual believer is free from bias, and able to decide for himself and by himself what is and is not the right interpretation.  American Evangelicals must do away with John Locke’s doctrine.  No 21st century Christian is free from his heritage.  Only with a historical confession in hand, might we find purer catholicity of the church.