ON THE VERBAL INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE
SOME ASPECTS FROM THE PERIOD OF THE LUTHERAN ORTHODOXY
Pastor Hannu Lehtonen, Karstula, Finland.


Föredrag vid Nordeuropeisk Lutherakademis (NELA) teologiska symposium den 3. september 1999 i Helsingfors.


 

"All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:16)

"For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Pet. 1:21)

The subject of this lecture is the doctrine of Scripture as represented by the Lutheran orthodoxy. I want to make it clear that actually I am not a researcher of the Lutheran orthodoxy. The reason for this topic is especially Dr. Robert Preus’ book The Inspiration of Scripture. It was originally published in 1955 and it deals thoroughly with this subject. I represent the Concordia-association and we have published The Inspiration of Scripture in Finnish language. So the people in our country have from now on the chance to become familiar with the doctrine of the Scriptures as taught by the Lutheran orthodoxy, Dr. Preus serving as a competent guide. I hope this book would be translated also in Swedish. We are also happy to have a foreword to this book by Rolf and Daniel Preus. In my presentation I shall follow Preus’ study and pick up some important points.

PREFACE

The Lutheran orthodoxy has many times been branded for example as dead and cold orthodoxy, or close to fundamentalism. Most theologians take a negative stand to the doctrine of Scripture as taught by the Lutheran orthodoxy. A typical slogan in this connexion is for example: "The Bible is not the textbook of geography or biology."

The criticism against the Lutheran orthodoxy reflects the break between old-protestantism and new-protestantism concerning the basis of theology. The question is especially of the influence of the historical-critical method of Bible interpretation and the philosophical presuppositions behind it. Consequently the Lutheran orthodoxy has often been overlooked in the theological study.

In a certain sense the starting point of Dr. Robert Preus in his study is this unfriendliness towards the Lutheran orthodoxy. In the preface of his study he gives two reasons which justify the study into the position of the seventeenth century Lutheran dogmaticians regarding the inspiration of Scripture. Firstly, the influence of these dogmaticians on the Lutheran generations which have studied their theology is remarkable. This is true although the younger generations have often studied their theology superficially, unsymphatetically and unfortunately from the secondary sources. The second reason which Preus gives is the attitude of these dogmaticians towards Scripture. The era of the Lutheran orthodoxy has often been characterized as a period of dead orthodoxy, endless controversies, incomprehensible intolerance etc. On the other hand it is indisputable fact that the true christian piety existed at that time as the wealth of devotional literature and many beatiful hymns testify even today. The conviction of Preus is that the main reason for the almost universal disapproval by the posterity towards Lutheran orthodoxy and it’s dogmaticians is to be found in their rigid adherence to the Lutheran principle of sola scriptura and their doctrine of verbal inspiration.

THE DECISIVE MEANING OF THE SCRIPTURE-PRINCIPLE

Preus begins his study dealing with Scripture as the source of theology. He shows that the principle of sola scriptura has decisive meaning for the Lutheran orthodoxy. Martin Luther has said that the doctrine is like a golden ring in which there is no gap. The Lutheran orthodoxy shared his view. Therefore as we study their doctrine of Scripture we should not limit our investigation only to those chapters in which they specifically deal with Scripture. (A parallel mistake was made by a theologian who studying Luther’s doctrine of Scripture paid attention only to those passages in which Luther makes use of the word ’inspiration’.)

For the interest of the dogmaticians of the Lutheran orthodoxy towards the doctrine of Scripture is of the utmost importance the position they give to Scripture as the source of theology. Scripture is the principle of knowledge in the theology (principium cognoscendi); it is the only norm of the christian doctrine. Revealed theology must be drawn only from the revealed and written Word of God. Otherwise our theology is false and so is our Christ. The dogmaticians know also natural theology but they make a distinction between it and revealed theology. The source of natural theology is human reason and nature. Natural theology doesn’t offer a saving knowledge of the Gospel but only a knowledge of God’s law, of His existence and justice. At first God gave His revelation by word of mouth but as soon as His word was put down in the writings this written word of God was the norm for His people. As the canon of the Bible has been completed by God we have to adhere only to the Bible and we are not allowed to ask and wait new immediate revelations from God.

According to the dogmaticians Scripture is the source of theology only in an instrumental sense. The existence of theology doesn’t depend on it. God is the first principle (principium essendi) of theology. He reveals the truth; Scripture is the revealed truth (Quenstedt). Scripture is the norm by which we judge in doctrinal matters. The dogmaticians also point out that everything which is contained in Scripture or derived from it through legitimate consequences is included in the word ’Scripture’. The theological conclusions, the doctrines themselves are not to be thought of as a source of theology. This mistake was made by Thomas Aquinas for example.

Scripture is the only norm of the doctrine. It is the only norm or it is not the norm at all. Scripture is God speaking to us. According to Hutter this fact separates the Lutheran church from most of the other denominations and sects as ’die reine rechtglaubige Kirche’ (the pure and orthodox church).

The Lutheran orthodoxy emphasized the Scripture-principle especially because the Catholic controversialists continually attacked this position. Roman Catholic theology maintained that Scripture is not the only norm of theology. The unwritten tradition and the decisions made by the pope and the councils are also the sources of theology. Preus argues that the crux of all the doctrinal differences between these two parties was expressly this disagreement concerning the principles.

Roman Catholics did want to include the unwritten tradition in the principle of knowledge of theology. Lutherans couldn’t allow it. The reason was that in this way Scripture ceases to be principle and it becomes a norm which is submitted to the Church and the expositions by the pope (thus Scripture would be norma normata). For the same reason the dogmaticians resisted the so called syncretists, as Georg Calixt, in the Lutheran Church. The syncretists held that the tradition should be maintained as the secondary source of theology. The dogmaticians point out that there is no indisputable evidence of the consensus in the early church (this is a typical belief also today). Secondly the thougths of the syncretists endangers sola scriptura -principle.

SCRIPTURE IS THE WORD OF GOD

The dogmaticians unreservedly and unequivocally call Scripture the Word of God. Scripture is the Word of God because God speaks to us in Scripture. Scripture is God speaking to us. Regarding the doctrine of Scripture as taught by the Lutheran orthodoxy it is important to pay attention to the distinction they made between the materia and the forma of Scripture. By the materia of Scripture they mean the letters, syllables, words, phrases etc. in Scripture. In this sense Scripture doesn’t differ from any other book. By the intrinsic forma of Scripture they mean the inspiration of Scripture or the inspired meaning of Scripture. This forma makes Scripture to be what it is, Scripture, and it also distinguishes it from all other books in the world. When the dogmaticians speak about Scripture as the Word of God they speak about the inspired content of Scripture when they speak exactly. On the other hand the letters and words in Scripture don’t only signify the inspired content of Scripture but they actually reveal this divine meaning and therefore it is impossible to separate them from it. According to Preus this materia-forma -distinction has not been enoughly expressed in many studies on the theology of Lutheran dogmaticians.

Because the forma of Scripture makes Scripture the Word of God, the dogmaticians maintain the unity and sameness of the Word of God. Caesar is Caesar whether depicted in a painting or in a coin. So also the Word of God is same whether written or spoken. Preus refers to Fil. 3:1 in this connection. The sameness of the Word of God concerns also the Word that is in God (verbum endiatheton). At this point the dogmaticians criticize the Roman Catholic doctrine which puts the unwritten tradition on the same level with Scripture. Their criticism is also directed against Rathmann in the Lutheran church who held that the inner Word, as he called it, which was the wisdom of God, was different from the external Word of God, which was Scripture.

The dogmaticians carefully distinguish between the written Word of God and the everlasting, hypostatic Word of God, who is the second person in the Trinity. On the other hand the dogmaticians maintain that we must think of the revealed Word of God only in the context of the personal Word. There can exist no word of prophecy apart from the personal Word. God makes everything through the personal Word, that is, through His Son. The personal Word, Christ, is the very heart, content and meaning of the prophetic Word.

THE INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE

Johann Hülsemann says that the inspiration and divinity of Scripture would not have been questioned during his time (1602-61) without the rise of the Jesuits. According to Preus most Catholics before the seventeenth century spoke of the origin of Scripture in terms very like those employed by the seventeenth century Lutheran dogmaticians. Liberal exceptions were Pighius and Erasmus. Erasmus had for example teached that the evangelists could err in their writings. Preus points out that Johann Eck took him to task very hardly. According to Hülsemann the Jesuits wanted to render the doctrine of inspiration doubtful in order that they might prove the necessity of unwritten tradition in formulating Christian doctrine.

The dogmaticians teach that Scripture as the source of theology postulates absolute self-authenticating authority (autopistia), inspiration and infallibility. This concerns the quia-subscription to the Lutheran confessions by the dogmaticians. Is it possible to subscribe the Lutheran confessions unconditionally if the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture is at the same time rejected? The answer of the dogmaticians would be negative.

Concerning the definition of the inspiration the dogmaticians teach that God gave the content and the words of Scripture and also the impulse, that is, the command to write. The inspiration is for Quenstedt an "absolutely unique and extraordinary action" of God, which pertains only to Scripture. The inspiration is an act of the Trinity, of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The dogmaticians hold the old rule opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa (the external works of the Trinity are individed).

The inspiration pertains to all of Scripture. There is nothing in Scripture which is not inspired. Among the dogmaticians there was complete unanimity of opinions that everything in Scripture was given by divine inspiration. But only after the time of Calixt the question was given special consideration. Calixt thought that God did not give through the inspiration those parts of Scripture which do not have any direct connection with the mysteries of our faith. He held that in view of these parts of Scripture the Holy Spirit directed the writers and kept them from all errors. (It can be said that the position held by Calixt is represented in theology also today). The orthodox Lutherans took the opposite position. Everything in Scripture was given by the divine inspiration. Therefore there can be no levicula (minor things) in Scripture. The very idea of levicula was impious to the old Lutheran dogmaticians. It is not possible to worship God and at the same time regard some part of His Word as meaningless and unimportant.

This doctrine of the Lutheran dogmaticians has been called the plenary inspiration. It does not exclude that which Scripture expressly reveals, that is, that the writers beforehand studied those things they were to write (for example Luk. 1:3). The investigation of the human sources preceded the act of inspiration which was simultaneous with all the writing of Scripture. Consequently the choice of the things to be put down in writing and the very order of the words was given by inspiration without the possibility of mistake or slip of the memory.

The dogmaticians bases their doctrine of Scripture on Scripture. Well-known proof-texts are first of all 2 Tim. 3:16 and 2 Pet. 1:21. The former text proves that it is not enough to say that only the doctrinal portions of Scripture are inspired. The inspiration pertains all of Scripture. With regards to latter text Calov points out that because the writers of Scripture did not write of their own human will but God inspired them to write they were kept from any error and they really were moved and inspired to speak and to write. The writers of Scripture worked only as hands and penmen of the Holy Spirit. The position taken by Calixt and the Jesuits is absurd. It leads to the impossible mission to search divine and human factor in Scripture. The other consequence of their position is uncertainty regarding the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture. If the inspiration of even one verse is denied then Scripture is not divinely inspired at all. The question is literally: everything or nothing.

By the verbal inspiration the dogmaticians mean that every word in Scripture is inspired and dictated by God. All dogmaticians did believe in the verbal inspiration. The most exact treatment and defence was made by Calov, Quenstedt, Dannhauer and Hollaz. Calov makes an important remark. He says that generally the denial of verbal inspiration is connected with the denial of the matters mediated by words. The words and the content of Scripture belong together. During the seventeenth century the denial of the verbal inspiration became especially apparent among the Jesuits and the socinians. Preus tells about a colloquy, which was arranged in Regensburg 1601 between the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans. In that meeting the Jesuits publicly denied that Scripture is the Word of God.

It is impossible to separate the content of Scripture from the words of Scripture. The knowledge God has given to us concerning Himself is inseparably bound to the words of Scripture. The content can’t be expressed without words; the words are used to to convey a given content. Unless we can say that God has given the words of Scripture we can’t say that Scripture is divinely inspired. The only alternative for verbal inspiration is that there is no inspiration at all.

THE MONERGISTIC DOCTRINE OF INSPIRATION

The dogmaticians teach that all the words in Scripture were dictated by God. God is the real author ot Scripture, the holy writers were His instruments. They were the hands of Christ, the hands and penmen of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is not human word but it is the Word of God. Gerhard is correct in saying: "The Holy Spirit speaks to us in Scripture and through it. Therefore we must regard the words of Scripture as the words and thoughts of the Holy Spirit." This understanding of the relation between the Spirit and the writers is monergistic. Scripture was not brought forth by the will of man or by the human cooperation. The writers as the instruments and penmen of the Spirit were not able to write anything else than what was dictated to them. Quenstedt asserts that the prophets and the apostles have brought along with them nothing more than their ability to speak and their pens. Calov is still more persistent in stressing the instrumental nature of the writers of Scripture and in eliminating all possibility of synergism in regard to inspiration. The Holy Spirit has imparted the Word to the prophets and apostles. Hence the mystery of Christ is said to be "revealed unto the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3:5) and St. Peter says that "the Spirit of Christ which was in the prophets testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow, and the apostles preached the Gospel through the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven" (1 Pet. 1:11-12).

The consequence of the monergistic doctrine of inspiration is not that God would have dehumanized the writers of Scripture and reduced them to mere mechanisms. They spoke consciously, knowingly and out of experience. Quenstedt says: "The writers are said to be feromenoi, activated, incited, borne, by the Holy Spirit, not as if they were unconscious, as the enthusiasts say of themselves and as the Gentiles imagine the ecstacy of their prophets. Neither is it to be taken as if the prophets did not understand their prophecies of the things which they were to write, which was the aberration once taught by the Montanists, Phrygians, or Kataphrygians, and Priscilianists." Thus the dogmaticians clearly reject the Montanistic understanding of the relation between the Holy Spirit and the writers of Scripture. Neither does the monergistic doctrine of inspiration mean that writers were forced to write Scripture. They wrote willingly, but not out of their own free will. God made them willing penmen. They chose what to write. Thus the apostles and prophets had the same purpose in writing Scripture as did God. Psychologically the will of the writers was active when they wrote the Scriptures, although they contributed nothing of their own will to Scripture. Neither does the monergistic doctrine of inspiration imply that the penmen lost their identity or that they did not retain their various stylistic differences. But the question was asked: if there are different styles in Scripture, how can it be verbally inspired? The dogmaticians answer that in a certain sense Scripture has a uniform style. Its unity of subject matter makes it appear as if it were written by one author. The apparent differences in style is explained by the fact that the Holy Spirit accommodated Himself to the circumstances, abilities and natural endowments ot the amanuenses (the doctrine of accommodation). If Cicero can write both in both a grand and a humble style the Holy Spirit can do likewise. Feustking, one of the dogmaticians, says: "The Spirit when He dictated the words of Scripture accommodated Himself to the natural abilities of each prophet, evangelist and apostle and to their scholarship and ordinary mode of speaking." According to Quenstedt the Holy Spirit could speak to us only by accommodating Himself to the human way of speaking and communicating.

From what is said above it is clear that the dogmaticians do not approve of the so called mechanistic theory of inspiration, which so often is attributed to them. According to that theory the writers of Scripture are described as being mere lifeless machines which only moved their hands and obeyed the irresistible impulse of the Holy Spirit. The dogmaticians knew this theory and they rejected it consciously and loudly. That the dogmaticians called the writers pens and hands does not mean that they wanted to dehumanize them. They made use of these terms only to emphasize their conviction that God is the real author of Scripture (auctor primarius), the prophets and apostles instruments through which God put His words in writing.

The doctrine of inspiration of the dogmaticians has been criticized among the conservative theologians for example by Dr. Herman Sasse. He thought that their monergistic doctrine implies an Monophysite-Docetic understanding of Scripture which destroys the human character of the Bible. According to him the mistake was made when the holy writers were described as the instruments of the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit wrote without using their will or their characters. Preus says that this criticism goes too far. The dogmaticians never taught that human will is inactive or neutral psychologically. According to Preus the attention of Sasse and many other theologian has been focused so exclusively to the monergistic doctrine of inspiration as taught by the dogmatians that they have failed to pay attention to the accommodation-doctrine which is equally important for the dogmaticians. The inability to interpret the dogmaticians’ view of inspiration in the light of their doctrine of accommodation has resulted in a wrong analysis in respect of their very doctrine of inspiration. Preus says: "This historical inaccuracy regarding the old Lutheran inspiration doctrine is unfortunate not only because it is believed by a large number of theologians today who should know better, but also because it really bars the way to a true understanding of the doctrine of Scripture, as taught by the dogmaticians."

In the last chapter of his study Preus returns to this question. He points out that if these two, the monergistic inspiration doctrine and the doctrine of accommodation, seem to contradict each other, the orthodox teachers make no effort to harmonize them. Naturally this kind of gap (lacuna) bothers them who study the dogmaticians, but as soon as the dogmaticians are portrayed as crossing this gap, they certainly are misrepresented. This habit of refraining from drawing the consequnces which seem logical was not unusual among the Lutheran theologians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact it was their principle. It is remarkable that their doctrine of inspiration is parallel to their doctrine of conversion. I would say that this is a brilliant discovery in Preus’ study. The orthodox Lutherans taught in accordance with the second article of the Formula Concordiae that conversion is monergistic, that is is effected by the grace of God alone, that human will is totally passive in conversion. And still their teaching is not that man as an object of conversion is merely a robot, or that God converts man against his will, or that man does not in the fullest sense experience his conversion. Other examples of this kind are also the classical question concerning the reason for the salvation of some people and not others (cur alii et alii non), salvation by grace alone and universal grace (sola gratia - gratia universalis) etc. Preus concludes: "This willingness on the part of these theologians to abstain from drawing conclusions to which their doctrines seem irrevocably to point, irritating as it may be, must always be borne in mind, if we are correctly to understand their theology and avoid the pitfall of fabricating a straw Quenstedt or Calov."