The Rev. Glenn R. Obenberger
1991 Synod Convention Essay
“The Bible is a necessary evil!”1 … so says Heiko Oberman in his biography of Luther. Do we agree with such a statement? If we were to look for our answer only in observing that many Christians seem to avoid and neglect searching the Scriptures, we might draw some strange conclusions. We might conclude, for example, that the Bible is a troublesome book, which is fraught with many perils and therefore something which should be avoided at all costs. Or we might conclude that it is an unnecessary book which is of little value and therefore something which can easily be neglected. We are not about to accept those conclusions based simply on the failed practices of many Christians. Yet if properly qualified, we can agree with Oberman’s statement, for remember, Scriptures are a consequence of the fall into sin. Before the fall, Adam and Eve had a perfect knowledge of God; had they not fallen, there would never have been the need for God to reveal Himself to perfect mankind in the fashion to which we are accustomed. But since sin has been injected into human reason, God’s revelation of Himself to us has been subject to misinterpretation and misrepresentation.
Our purpose in this essay is to establish the blessings and importance of Bible study for the Holy Christian Church. For the times when we are tempted to view the practice of searching the Scriptures as something unnecessary, we shall consider what our Lord God says about its necessity in the lives of His people (Part I). For the times when we are tempted to avoid the study of Scripture because of some of the inherent pitfalls of this practice (Part II), we shall observe that it is not only possible but essential to study the sacred Scriptures for spiritual enlightenment and edification (Part III). Therefore let us examine together some of the things we are told about this subject by God Himself, by the history of the Church, and by the testimony of the saints. It is the assertion of this writer that searching the Scriptures is a necessary but hazardous practice for the children of God. As we come to accept this truth and its various implications we shall be moved by our Lord diligently to search His Word, which He has so graciously condescended to give us.
Now while Scriptures themselves are not absolutely necessary, in that the Church can certainly exist without them as it did during the period between Adam and Moses, still “whatever God in His wisdom and love has ordained to give His Church is for this very reason necessary.”2 Therefore let us first consider that SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES IS A NECESSARY ACTIVITY for the Christian Church.
GOD COMMANDS IT
Does God then command us to do this? Most of us, without any hesitation, would unequivocally answer that He does. The passage which immediately comes to mind is John 5:39, in which Jesus addressing a hostile crowd of Jews said: “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (KJV) However the word in the original Greek for search can be either translated as a command word (imperative) as it is here in the KJV or as a statement of fact (indicative) as it is more commonly translated today: “You search the Scriptures since you think you have everlasting life in them. They testify about Me!” (GWN)
But even though most scholars would translate it in the indicative, we are not limited to this passage for a proof text that searching the Scriptures is the will of God for us. We have the familiar passage from Deuteronomy, which is often used for Christian Education Sunday. God through His prophet Moses declared at Mt. Sinai:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (6:6–9, NIV)
Again God speaking to Joshua commands: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1: 8&9, NIV)
It is interesting to note that there are not many passages which state the practice of searching the Scriptures as an imperative. What we find more often is that our loving Lord exhorts us, His beloved children, to be immersed in His Word. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom…” (Colossians 3:16, NIV) Luther understands the Third Commandment in this way when he writes in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Again in the Large Catechism he writes:
This, then is the plain meaning of this commandment: Since we observe holidays anyhow, we should devote their observance to learning God’s Word. The special office of this day, therefore, should be the ministry of the Word for the sake of the young and the poor common people. … How does this sanctifying take place? Not when we sit behind the stove and refrain from external work, or deck ourselves with garlands and dress up in our best clothes, but, as has been said, when we occupy ourselves with God’s Word and exercise ourselves in it. … The Word of God is the true holy thing above all holy things. … God’s Word is the treasure that sanctifies all things. … I constantly repeat that all our life and work must be guided by God’s Word if they are to be God-pleasing or holy. Where that happens the commandment is in force and is fulfilled. … Remember, then, that you must be concerned not only about hearing the Word but also about learning and retaining it. Do not regard it as an optional or unimportant matter. It is the commandment of God, and he will require of you an accounting of how you have heard and learned and honored his Word.3
We could hardly characterize the injunction of gladly hearing and learning the Word of God as a legal requirement. It is rather to be thought of as an evangelical injunction.
The preaching and hearing of the Word, baptism and having oneself baptized, administering and receiving the Lord’s Supper are in no way meant to be a performance of good works demanded by a new moral or ceremonial law. They are a joyful confessing and glorifying, a blessed hearing and receiving of the salvation won by Christ, of the glad tidings that God is reconciled to us sinners and has forgiven our sins, that heaven is open and eternal life is our inheritance. … It is veritably an annihilation of all Christianity, making an Old Testament out of the New, a law out of the gospel, a curse out of grace, death and damnation out of Spirit and life, when one demands preaching and hearing the gospel, baptizing and being baptized, administering and receiving Holy Communion of people and of Christians as works of the law. By doing that we do not make Christians but hypocrites and pharisees, and twice-damned slaves.4
The Jews Jesus addressed in John 5:39 (“You search the Scriptures …”) viewed the command of God in a legal fashion and were therefore blind to the fact that all of Scriptures testify to Jesus as the Christ. They were burdened with their diligent searching. Jesus was pleading with them to begin their searching anew and unburdened in the light of the Gospel.
THE BELIEVER DEMANDS IT
In addition to the fact that God commands the Church to search His Word, we can observe as a natural result that the believer also demands it. Even if the Lord did not expressly command us to study His Word, the Church of believers would be compelled to do it anyway. “Like newborn babies, thirst for the pure milk of the word in order that it may cause you to grow so that you are saved. Surely you have tasted that the Lord is good!” (I Peter 2:2&3 GWN)
We can observe that when the Lord speaks, the believer automatically wants to listen as did young Samuel when he realized that it was the Lord God who was calling to him, for he said: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:10 NIV) Mary also sat at her Lord’s feet choosing that one thing needful, i.e., hearing the Word of the Lord. (Luke 10:38&42) Surely Satan remains active among believers tempting them to ignore and disregard the Scriptures and calling the accuracy and reliability of the Bible into question. Nevertheless, when the believer recognizes that it is his Lord speaking, he listens.
This is so, because the believer understands that when God speaks, He speaks wisdom, a divine wisdom, which far outshines our sinfully corrupt reason. His thoughts and ways are not like our own; they are far above our thoughts and ways. (Is. 55: 8&9) As the Apostle Paul confesses: “We speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. … God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” (I Corinthians 2:8&10 NIV) When God speaks, the believer insists on listening, for his loving Lord speaks a different language, a language which liberates and unburdens; they are words of life and truth.
The believer’s demand to search the Scriptures is a natural fruit of true faith. This is recognized by the Psalmist in Psalm 1, who, speaking of the believer, says: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (v. 2 NIV) The Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch responded to God’s Word in this fashion when the Apostle Paul directed his work away from the Jews toward them, for we are told: “they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48) It was said of the Bereans that “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11, see also I Thessalonians 2:13)
GOD PROMISES TO BLESS IT
Along with the truths that God commands the searching of the Scriptures and that the believer also demands it, we should note that it is a necessary Christian practice, for it is of great benefit to the believer. First of all God Himself promises to bless it. As it was quoted above in Joshua, the Lord promises those who meditate upon and follow His Word: “You will be prosperous and successful.” (1:8 NIV) Or as Jesus declares to the woman who envied His mother: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:28 NIV) As God’s Word goes out and is heard by His beloved creatures, His good purpose for us will be accomplished (Isaiah 55:11). God’s good purpose for us is stated briefly in the second letter to Timothy: “you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (3:15–17 NIV) Through the study of God’s Word, the sinner is made wise unto salvation and then, as a believer, is equipped for a life of joyful service. “These results are of course dependent on the workings of the Holy Spirit, but God achieves them in large part as Christians read and study the Bible, and especially when they prayerfully search the Scriptures for the Word of truth and life called the Gospel.”5 Jesus once stated the blessings of diligently using His Word this way: “If you remain in My word, you are really My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31&32 GWN)
THE BELIEVER REALIZES THE BENEFIT OF IT
Truly God promises to bless the searching of His Word and this is verified by the experience of the believer. The Psalmist of Psalm 119 was one such believer who realized the many benefits of searching the Word of God. He recognized the Word’s power in time of temptation (vv. 9&11); the delight of having it as his counselor (v. 24); as a source of strength in sorrow (v. 28); as a source of joy and delight (vv. 35&111); as granting him freedom (v. 45); as a comfort in the midst of suffering (v. 50); as a precious possession (v. 72); as a source of divine compassion (v. 77); as an anchor of truth (v. 86); as an everlasting Word (v. 89); as a bestower of sound wisdom (vv. 98–100); as a guide in this dark world of sin (v. 105); as a defense against spiritual enemies (v. 114); as a giver of life (v. 139); as a companion in loneliness (v. 151); and as a giver of peace (v. 165). Luther comments “… when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understanding, new pleasure, and new spirit of devotion, and it constantly cleanses the heart and its mediations.”6
We must keep in mind that the Holy Scriptures were given to us poor sinners for the sake of the Gospel. The Law, remember, is written in every person’s heart, but the Gospel is a foreign word to the sinful mind.
The heart, center, and ultimate message of the Bible is that God wishes to be gracious to sinners for Christ’s sake. Unless one hears this voice of the Gospel (Ap IV, 257,274; XII, 39), that is, the voice from heaven speaking absolution to terrified consciences (AC XXV, 3; Ap XII, 99), the whole point and purpose of the Scriptures has been missed. That is why the Apology says that the Gospel “is of especial service for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures … and alone opens the door to the entire Bible.”7
The believer’s relationship with his Savior is only enhanced by the study of His Word. Through the searching of Scripture, he is granted the ability — to see Jesus more clearly with the eyes of faith (cf. John 5:39c and Acts 8:30ff) — to love Jesus more dearly with a heart filled with devotion (cf. John 14:23 & 20:31) — to follow Jesus more nearly as a true disciple (cf. John 6:67–69 and I John 1:3&4).
FAITH IS PLACED IN JEOPARDY WITHOUT IT
With blessings and benefits such as these, what else needs to be said to demonstrate to believers that they need to search the Holy Scriptures? Since God chose to put His Word in writing, it follows that it is expected that everyone who can read will read and meditate on it. It is the height of presumption to do otherwise. However, as a warning to us, the negative side should also be considered. What is the outcome for believers when there is a lack of proper Bible study? Faith is placed in jeopardy without it.
Consider our Lord’s parable of the Sower. In the explanation given by Jesus we hear of the tragic results when something occurs which disrupts the relationship between the heart of the person (the soil) and the Word of God (the seed).
When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful (Matthew 13:19–22 NIV)
Or consider the rich man in hell who pleaded for his five brothers. He wanted to invent a new way of avoiding the torments of hell for his brothers; he wanted Lazarus to rise from the dead and go to them and warn them. But Abraham informed him that they had Moses and the Prophets, the Word of God, and if they refused to listen to God’ s Word, if they refused to search the Scriptures, just as this rich man had done in his lifetime, they would also end up in the torments of hell (Luke 16:27–31). Just as the Psalmist observed: “Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek out your decrees.” (Psalm 119:155 NIV)
HOW MEMBERS OF THE E.L.S. VIEW THE NECESSITY OF IT
Now having established the necessity of searching the Scriptures, what shall we say about the practice of Bible study among the members of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod? There are some statistics we can review from which we are able to draw some qualified conclusions. But before we do that, let us first hear from Luther in his commentary on Galatians written in 1535:
… if someone experiences love toward the Word, and if he enjoys hearing, speaking, thinking, lecturing, and writing about Christ, he should know that this is not a work of human will or reason but a gift of the Holy Spirit. For it is impossible for these things to happen without the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, where there is hate and contempt for the Word, there the devil, “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), is reigning, blinding the hearts of men and holding them captive, to keep the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ from shining upon them. This is what we see in the rabble today; they do not care about the Word at all but smugly despise it, as though it did not pertain to them at all. Those in whom there is some glow and yearning for the Word should acknowledge with gratitude that this feeling has been infused into them by the Holy Spirit. For we are not born with this feeling; nor can we be instructed to acquire it by any laws. It is the right hand of the Most High, pure and simple, that has changed us (Ps. 77:10).8
Among which group shall we find the majority of the ELS — among the smug rabble or among the glowing converted?
There are several ways we might begin to evaluate this matter in our midst, but none will be sufficient. First of all we could call upon the data received in the 1980 study of Profiles of Lutherans funded by Aid Association for Lutherans. There it is reported that 62% attend weekly worship services; 20% attend weekly Sunday School or Bible Class; 33 % conduct daily private devotions; 15% conduct daily family devotions; and 34% have weekly or daily Bible reading.9 The editor rightly calls into question the accuracy of these figures, since the respondents would be tempted to place themselves in a more favorable light. Perhaps a more accurate figure would be found in the parochial reports on the inside back covers of the synod’s annual reports. We have taken statistics from three pertinent categories for the past 20 years. (See Appendix A) Here it can be observed that it seems we value Bible study among our children, although the attendance at Sunday School seems to be on a decline. (However several factors may be contributing to this decline, e.g., this figure includes pre-Sunday School children and we may be experiencing an increase in this age group synod-wide.) The enrollment of communicants in Bible Classes has been on the increase from a low of 4% to a high of 15%. This figure however would not include Bible study which goes on in Women’s and Men’s Clubs and Lutheran Youth Society organizations. The average percentage of ELS members in church on any given Sunday seems to remain quite static in the mid 40% range.
Perhaps a less scientific observation can be made that in the past fifteen years in neither the Lutheran Sentinel nor the Lutheran Synod Quarterly have there been any feature articles dealing with the promotion of general Bible study. What accounts for this lack of promotion in our midst? At the 1964 ELS convention, President Joseph Petersen had this to say in his report:
Why is it that people who call themselves protagonists of the “open Bible” find it so difficult to gather for Bible study, when social functions come so easily? In congregations where regular Bible classes are conducted, only too often they are treated like an orphan or a step-child. Some of the Reformed churches, notably the Baptist, often put us Lutherans to shame, when it comes to Biblical knowledge and interest in the eternal verities of its sacred tomes. One of the most artful devices employed by the old evil foe is to keep the ransomed away from that living and life-giving Word. If every single member in our congregation would truly become a Bible student and apply that Word as he or she should, we would not have to worry about the future of Christian education, missions or the condition of the various treasuries. Brethren, without a continuous interest in and use of the Word, we are not only fighting an uphill battle, but we are also doomed, And what a dreadful thought that is!10
These comments were followed by the action of synod in these two resolutions:
RESOLVED: That the Convention express its appreciation for this reminder regarding the use of God’s Word, … RESOLVED: That the Convention encourage our congregations to be mindful of these blessings and the many opportunities afforded for systematic use and study of the Word by such means as regular church attendance, daily family devotions, use of the Word in the various schools and organizations.11
In 1981, President George Orvick proposed a synod-wide Bible Study program which was acted upon by the synod through a recommendation that a committee be established to carry out such a program.12 The result was the publication of two booklets for the Christ the Cornerstone series. The first, The Life of Christ, was made available in 1984 and it can be noted that Bible Class enrollment in the synod went from 10% in 1983 to 15% in 1984.
When we seek to evaluate the practice of searching the Scriptures by our synodical membership, it would be a mistake on our part, if we concentrated purely on Adult Bible Class. As was recognized in 1964, searching the Scripture goes on in many other ways in the lives of our people. Maybe a more subjective but nevertheless more perceptive telltale sign would be to consider the response of our people today to the hard sayings of Christianity. Are we hearing our members asking What does the church say about. . . or When will the church change its position on …? Do they know less today of what the Bible teaches, and worse, do they care less than ever before? If we are hearing questions today which are more concerned about what our outward organization teaches and less about what Scripture teaches, perhaps the failure is not to be found in our small Bible classes, but in our systematic instruction of God’s Word and even in weak textual preaching.
This then leads us to ask: are ELS congregational leaders personally searching the Scriptures themselves? Are our pastors, Christian Day School teachers, Sunday School teachers, congregational officers leading the way with private devotional use of Scripture? Are they availing themselves of professional conferences, seminars, and institutes? Are our congregations allowing and encouraging our leaders to do this necessary searching of Scripture, or have we loaded them down with mundane tasks which could easily be shared, and thereby have robbed them of the opportunity to study?
While searching the Scriptures is necessary as we have seen, our practice may betray our adherence to that truth more often than not. Therefore it would be good for us also to consider some of the reasons which lie behind our avoidance and neglect of Bible study. But before we do that, remember the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and how downcast they were that first Easter afternoon. And yet when Jesus led them in a diligent search of Scripture their hearts were uplifted and later they said to each other: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32 NIV) Oh that every ELS member might so value the necessity of an ongoing Christ-led search of the Scriptures! Is this not the desire reflected in our Synod’s motto it is written?
The practice of searching the Scriptures, however, has not been going on throughout the history of the Church without causing a little trouble. Think of the executions starting with Stephen and lasting through to the Inquisition (1232–1820 A.D.). Think of the great divisions it has caused from the separation of the Eastern and Western Churches to the separations between the Churches of the Reformation and the Roman Church, not to mention the separation within even our own beloved Lutheran denomination. Think of the wars it has inspired from the twenty year war against the Cathari and Waldenses in the early 13th Century to the Thirty Years War after the Reformation. SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES IS A HAZARDOUS PRACTICE. Is this in part what Jesus meant when He said: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Matthew 10:34–36 NIV)?
SOME COMMONLY HELD, BUT IMAGINED FEARS
In view of such things is it any wonder why Scriptures fall into disuse? But that is not the only problem, for you see the devil, the unbelieving world and our sinful natures have successfully spread lies about God’s sacred Word which have contributed to this rampant disuse among us. Yes, it is true that the practice of searching the Scriptures is hazardous and therefore we should have a healthy respect for such a task. Yet there are some commonly held, albeit imagined, fears that seem to plague the Church today: the Scriptures are unreliable, unclear and insufficient.
First of all, we hear the charge leveled against the Bible that it is a collection of man-made wisdom which over time has lost its relevance to our time and culture. Subsequently it is viewed as being filled with contradictions and even in some sections as being no more than the retelling of the prevailing mythologies of its day. How can we be motivated to do Bible study in the face of such a vocal and popular negative opinion? We must understand that these types of charges come from the unbelieving world. Nothing better can be expected from sinfully blind reason. As a result of our Spirit-wrought faith in Jesus as our Savior we believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God in all its parts. Therefore with the Psalmist we confess: “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. … All your words are true.” (Psalm 119:89&160 NIV) And we accept by faith the principle which our Lord Jesus Himself used: “Scripture cannot be broken.” (John 10:35 NIV)
Unfortunately this first charge against the Bible is heard from many so-called Christian churches today. But the second is sounded even more loudly from these same sources and others. It contends that the Bible is cast in very obscure language and is therefore unclear. The many varying translations of the Bible are pointed to as evidence of this problem. But what kind of God would reveal himself in dark and easily misunderstood language? Certainly there are dark and obscure passages in the Bible which have puzzled scholars down through the centuries and are handled differently by the various translations. However, in all that we need to know for salvation, the Bible is abundantly clear, otherwise how could the Psalmist write: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” (Psalm 119:105 NIV)? The Apostle Paul was also inspired to write: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” (II Corinthians 2:12–13 NIV) Jesus did not thank His Father for revealing His truth to learned scholars, but to little children I (see Matthew 11:25&26, cf. also II Peter 1:19 and Romans 16:25&26)
As further evidence against the clarity of Scripture, many will point to the variety of Christian denominations and maintain that the Bible leads believers into different directions. This argument would contend that individual passages have many possible interpretations. Francis Pieper comments on these fallacious notions by saying:
The talk common in our day that all church bodies stand on Scripture and differ only in their interpretation of it is not in accordance with the facts. The Roman Catholic Church does not stand on Scripture, but on the papal interpretation of Scripture. The Reformed Churches, as far as they differ from the Lutheran Church, do not stand on Scripture, but on Zwingli’s, Calvin’s, etc., interpretation of Scripture. The Lutheran Church, however, does not stand on an interpretation of Scripture, but on Scripture itself. This is not a mere assertion. It can be proved by induction in the face of universal contradiction,13
What Pieper observes during the early part of this century certainly applies to the religious climate of our day, with one exception, the majority of those passing themselves off as Lutherans today regrettably no longer stand on Scripture.
It should be remembered that it is sinful reason which muddies the understanding of the divine Scriptures as Pieper also observes:
The first and foremost duty of the exegete consists in holding the flighty spirit of man to the simple word of Scripture and, where he has departed from it, to lead him back to the simple word of Scripture. Luther says that the sole purpose of all his writings and particularly of his exegetical works is to lead back into Scripture, to get every Christian and every teacher to base his faith on the bare Scripture. … Luther therefore, as is well known, frequently uttered the wish that also his books might perish in order that Christians might base their faith on the “nuda” Scriptura, without any interpretation; every interpretation is less clear than Scripture, and every interpretation must be examined in the clearer light of Scripture. “No clearer book has been written on earth than Holy Scripture. Among all other books it is like the sun among all lights.” (St. L. V:334.)14
(NOTE: an exegete is one who expounds the meaning of any given text)
The third imagined fear we shall consider is promoted even by those who claim to have a very high regard for the Bible as the Word of truth. These are they who claim the Bible is insufficient. They rely on an inner light or illumination to add or take away from Scripture. A warning against this subjective practice is found in Proverbs 30: “Every word of God is flawless; … Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” (vv. 5&6 NIV; see also Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22: 18&19) God is faithful to His purposes in Scripture, so that all that is needed to be known to be saved and to live a life pleasing to God is contained in His Word. Jesus promised His Apostles that the Spirit would inspire them, so that they and all those who would believe their message (John 17:20) would know and believe the truth: “the Holy Spirit… will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. … he will guide you into all truth.” (John 14:26,16:13 NIV, see also Isaiah 8:20, John. 20:31 and Romans 15:4)
Christians everywhere today are being intimidated by these challenges to God’s Word coming from within and without the Church. But this is so unnecessary, for Scriptures are most reliable, abundantly clear and completely sufficient. However, if one devalues the Scriptures according to one of these fallacies, he will certainly neglect searching them. But again, these are only imagined hazards, they have no basis in the real experiences of Christians. This is not to say, however, that there are not some real fears which a faithful believer will have to face, for searching the Scriptures is a hazardous practice.
SOME REAL FEARS
Let us first consider how Scriptures are not flattering toward the sinner. How many of us like to read critiques about ourselves which are unflattering? We may force ourselves to do this once or twice in an effort to learn and to change those behaviors which others find so unsavory in us. But not many of us would make a practice of reading them daily. What do the Scriptures have to say about us? “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV)
Jews and Gentiles alike are under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves, their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9d–18 NIV)
Our old sinful natures find this to be “an aroma of death as a prelude to death.” (II Corinthians 2:16a GWN) Is it any wonder why the Christian is tempted to avoid Bible study? It is hazardous for the ego and if the Gospel does not predominate in one’s study, a positive self image in Christ through the new man of faith will not be realized.
Perhaps the greatest fear in this regard, witnessed among our membership, is the fear of mishandling Scripture through false interpretation. Because we are sinners, our interpretations of what God has revealed to us may be colored by our sinful reason through presuppositions which have no basis in Scripture. This is a very real fear and may account for some of the lack of volunteers for Sunday School and Vacation Bible School teachers, as well as for lay evangelists. Although the danger of misinterpretation is real, it needs to be remembered that this is neither the fault of the Author nor the Scriptures themselves. Sinful man is to be blamed.
Quenstedt says: “The prophetic and apostolic Scripture is holy, Just, good and salutary. In itself it harms no one, leads no one into error, and is not the cause of any heresy. It shows man his depraved nature, it reveals his failings and accomplishments. It deters him from what is evil and urges him toward what is good. If the occasion of errors or unorthodox opinions is brought about when one reads certain passages from Scripture that is purely accidental.”15
(NOTE: Johann Andreas Quenstedt was one of the great Seventeenth Century Lutheran dogmaticians. He was known as the Bookkeeper of Lutheran Orthodoxy)
It is certainly true that any person, who is able to read, can read and understand the Scriptures, but it is also equally true that one must read the Scriptures as the Word of God and be instructed by Him. We are not to be viewing ourselves as sitting on the judge’s chair when searching the Scriptures, but rather at the student’s desk. The individual who puts his reason above the Word of truth will come away with misinterpretations of Scripture and hence false teachings. Peter referred to some, who having read the Epistles of Paul, became guilty of this: “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (II Peter 3:16)
Let everyone see to it that he is a simple pupil of Holy Scripture, for wise folk do not come by its meaning. Scripture remains closed to them. St. Augustine complains that he first approached Scripture with free reason and studied in it for nine entire years, wanting to comprehend it with his reason. But the more he studied in it, the less he understood of it, until he found by sad experience that one must put out the eyes of reason and say: What Scripture says I believe with a simple heart and leave unfathomed by reason. If one does this, Scripture, formerly obscure, becomes plain and clear. … In short, it does no good to read Scripture in the light of reason.16
As students of Scripture we surely are to use our reason, but only as a servant of that sacred Word, not as its master. But the danger is always present, since we carry with us at all times those egotistical and self-righteous sinful natures. Every time we diligently search, we need to ask our Lord to grant us a humble spirit for this most necessary of tasks.
While we must always be on guard against our own private interpretations, on the other hand we must also beware of the multitude of false prophets that make themselves so readily available to the spiritually gullible. We could easily be tempted to despair of our own abilities to search God’s Word or even become lazy in this task and trust in unreliable teachers. They are out there with their smooth talk on the radio and television and with their publications filled with timely and pithy sayings. Jesus confronted the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the Law for peddling their wares to the unsuspecting. He said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! … Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” (Mark 7:9&13 NIV) So Jesus warns: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15 NIV) Therefore Scriptures may be mishandled by ourselves or by others whom we allow to teach us.
There are some real fears then as we perform this hazardous practice of searching the Scriptures. But there is one other that should also be mentioned. Searching the Scriptures may become a sterile exercise. A person may be ever so orthodox and yet be engaged in an unfruitful searching. For example, when Jesus called to the attention of the Jews that the Scriptures they were so diligently searching testified about Him, yet they refused to come to Him in true faith (John 5:39&40). The writer of Hebrews comments about a similar case when he writes: “We also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.” (4:2 NIV) One may have all the facts and figures of the Bible memorized and still not know the truth about our Savior Jesus Christ!
SOME ERRORIST RESPONSES TO THESE HAZARDS
By the grace of God it is possible to search the Scriptures while avoiding these hazards. But before we consider the proper practice of doing this under part three, let us briefly see how some errorists have responded to these hazards in the past. The two responses which we shall consider come from the papacy in response to misinterpretation and from the pietists in response to the sterile exercise of searching the Scriptures.
We have already observed as we considered the necessity of Bible study that the early Church promoted the diligent use of Scripture and this continued during those early centuries of the Ancient Church.
Chrysostom, d. 407, and Augustine, d. 430, continually reminded their hearers that private reading and study of the Bible should follow attendance at public worship. But in 1080 Gregory VII ordered that Latin should be the universal language of Catholic worship and, consequently, excluded all vernacular reading of the Scriptures in church services. Innocent III, in 1199, prohibited the private possession and reading of the Bible.17
The shift from the promotion of private study to a restricted use came about as the Church began to depart from its Scriptural basis in its teachings and practices. Unable to defend them with Scripture, the Church was compelled to take the Scriptures from the hands of her challengers. By burning as many vernacular copies of the Bible as could be found, the Church closed the Bible to the laity for centuries. The door opened instead for doctrines issuing from tradition, the Church fathers and the papacy itself. It was the post-Reformation Jesuit order which accused the Scripture of being a wax nose which could be twisted and shaped into anything which a false teacher desired. Therefore they supported the idea that the Bible must be kept out of the hands of the uneducated laymen. But it can be observed from the history of the Church that any major heresy originated from the ranks of the clergy and not the laymen.18
Pietism, in reaction to what it perceived as dead orthodoxy, opened the Bible to the point of subjecting it to sinful reason.
Men like Philip Spener (1635–1705), August Hermann Franke (1663–1727), and Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752) reacted against the narrowness and coldness of this immediate post-Reformation period. These men are usually called Pietists. They stressed that the Bible was spiritual food, to be read primarily for personal edification. The Pietists placed great emphasis upon the study of the original Biblical languages and upon the application of Scripture to daily life. Unfortunately, pietist hermeneutics also led to abuses. Some Pietists paid little attention to the discipline of hermeneutics and the original meaning of the passage. They frequently permitted their emotions to decide what the Spirit of God was saying. In some circles Pietists almost ignored the Bible in favor of their personal feelings and emotions.19
(NOTE: hermeneutics is the science or methodology of interpretation)
Spener is considered the father of pietism with his initial work Pia Desideria setting the tone for this theological movement.20 Whereas the papacy closed the Bible, we might say that pietism opened it so widely that all that could be seen were the two inside blank margins, which waited to be filled in by sinful reason. The ill effects of this age of subjectivism are still felt by the Church today: such as the denigrating of the textual sermon (the proclaimed Word); the diminishing of the office of the public ministry; the devaluation of the Sacraments; and the dividing of congregations into small groups for Bible studies, which are lay led and solicit the feelings and subjective thoughts of the participants.21
Now if searching the Scriptures is truly a hazardous practice, then how shall we engage in this necessary task when there is so much to fear? Let us use the following words and prayer of Luther to give us the proper perspective:
It is certainly one of the greatest calamities on earth that Holy Scripture is so lightly regarded. … All other matters, arts, and books one uses and practices day and night, and there is no end to working and laboring. Holy Scripture alone lies there as if one had no need of it. Moreover, those who honor it enough to read it occasionally quickly know it all; nor has any art or any book ever appeared on earth that everybody has mastered so soon as the Holy Scripture. And yet Scripture certainly does not contain words that are merely to be read (Leseworte), as they think, but it is full of words that are to be lived (Lebeworte) that are put down there, not to speculate and philosophize about (hoch zu dichten) but to turn into life and action. But our complaining does no good; people do not heed it anyway. Christ, our Lord, help us sincerely to love and honor His holy Word. Amen.22
To speak of its necessity and to warn against its abuse still does not equip us to do Bible study. There are certain principles which need to be applied in order that proper study takes place. If we do not learn of them and pass them on from one generation to the next, we face the inevitable reversion to the Dark Ages. The Bible will be closed, and we will experience the famine which our Lord spoke of in Amos: “The days are coming when I will send a famine through the land — not a famine of food or thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” (8:11&12 NIV) Let us then consider HOW SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES IS PROPERLY PRACTICED.
LUTHER REINTRODUCED PROPER BIBLE STUDY TO THE CHURCH
As Lutherans we possess a rich heritage from which to draw when considering the proper practice of Bible study. Luther did more than just open the Bible and place it into the hands of the people. More importantly, he reintroduced proper Bible study to the Church once again.
Much of the power of the great reform movement associated with the name of Martin Luther flowed from his Bible study. His understanding of the nature of God and God’s communication to man in His Son Jesus Christ and in the Bible led him to affirm many hermeneutical principles that had been forgotten in the church for centuries or were formulated for the first time by Luther. The new hermeneutical principles, in turn, made it possible for Luther to explain Scripture with such clarity and confidence that few, if any, Bible interpreters can be compared to him as an exegete.23
After becoming professor of biblical theology in Wittenberg in 1512, Luther applied himself diligently to his duties. Treating the biblical text with anything less than the utmost respect due the writings of the Most High would have been unacceptable to him. He first lectured on the Psalms from 1513–15, followed by his lectures on the Epistle to the Romans in 1515–16. It is reported that he read through the Bible twice a year for the first ten years and, knowing Luther, this was not done as some mechanical speed reading exercise. Confined to Wartburg Castle (1522) Luther translated the entire New Testament into German. He translated the whole Bible which appeared in print for the first time in 1534. Luther was a student of Holy Scripture from the time he became a professor in biblical studies until he died. “A doctor of theology for thirty-four years, practiced in the translation and exegesis of Scripture — notwithstanding all this experience, he had to admit that he was overwhelmed by the depth and wealth of the Scriptures, which no man would ever fathom in a single lifetime.”24 This is the rich heritage on which we are invited to build. It is summed up in that Reformation byword: sola scriptura (Scripture alone is the ground of faith in the one true God). While Luther knew that he could never overstudy the Bible, he also said: “There is hardly a tree in this forest that I have not shaken and obtained apples or picked berries from.”25 Yet he did not boast that he had picked them all; the branches are still heavy with fruit, ripe for the picking. We need to learn from Luther how to go about picking and tasting with voracious appetite that will not subside.
PRINCIPLES OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
While it is true that the following principles of interpretation must be applied when searching the Scriptures, it should be stated at the outset that this is not a practice limited to only well-trained scholars. Every regenerated Christian who has the ability to hear and read Scriptures should be able to hear and read with blessing all on his own. (See Appendix B for examples of the principles A-G below)
A) Scripture interprets Scripture: Since Scripture is the Word of God, it is to be understood in its own light; human reason cannot shed any more light on it. An interpreter of Scripture must demonstrate the correctness of his teaching solely by and from Scripture itself. The Holy Spirit is the only reliable and truthful , interpreter of Scripture. The role of the interpreter is simply to set forth the meaning of the Holy Spirit in any given text.
B) The central thought throughout the Bible is that Jesus Christ is Savior of all sinners: Since the main purpose of Scripture is to make us wise unto salvation, all of Scripture is to be seen in the light of the Gospel.
It is the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures alone that were written down for us in order that we might have hope, and it is precisely because of that fact that every question about the meaning of these Scriptures is a “Gospel question.” Every Biblical text is related to the Gospel in such a way that the interpreter has lost sight of the purpose of the Scriptures if he regards concern for any aspect of the text as not on the level of a “Gospel question,” or considers interest in such things as the accuracy of the history reported in the text as somehow irrelevant and beside the point. … Every question about what Scripture says or teaches is already a “Gospel question” simply because it is a question about Scripture given to us by God for the sake of the Gospel! To dismiss any question about Scripture as though it had no bearing on the Gospel is to forget what the Scriptures are for.26
C) Rules governing human speech are to be observed when one interprets Scripture — the words of the text are to be taken literally unless otherwise indicated by the context: Since God chose to inspire human beings to write down His Word and thus used human languages with their rules of grammar and syntax, we must then abide by them as we go about interpreting the meaning of any given text. If, for example, we were to read an auto-biography and ignore these rules and come up with interpretations based on our presuppositions, we would become a laughing-stock. If we were to receive a letter and excise a sentence out of it without considering the rest of the letter, we would very likely draw wrong conclusions about what was meant in that one sentence.
D) All doctrine is to be derived from clear passages: Since the perfect and all-just God has revealed Himself to us poor sinners in Scripture, we must assume that He will give us only those teachings which are easily understood. He will not cloak those things which we must know in dark, figurative or symbolical language. To establish a teaching of the Church on a hunch or a guess is unacceptable, which leads to the next principle.
E) Obscure passages must derive their meaning from clear passages: Since there are places in Scripture which have perplexed scholars for centuries, we must not attempt to understand them apart from what has been clearly revealed to us. This too leads into the next principle.
F) Any interpretation which contradicts the clearly established teachings of the Christian faith is unacceptable: Since God is truth and will not contradict Himself, there can be no conflict between the meaning of any two passages in Scripture. The clearly established teachings are also referred to as the analogy of faith, that is, the sum total of all the clear passages of Scripture which set forth doctrines. This may seem more overwhelming than it really is, for the layman armed with the Small Catechism has the tool to follow this principle with confidence.
G) Each passage has one Spirit-intended meaning: Since God is not to be thought of as double minded, we can be assured that He did not cast His Word in such a way that it might be given various interpretations. This is not to say, however, that well trained interpreters of Scripture will always come with the same interpretation for every passage. Yet, if they follow points D–F above, their differences will not be harmful. If one ignores this principle though, Pandora’s box will be opened and the truth of God will be distorted and even lost for the interpreter and his students.
SINCE SCRIPTURE IS CHRISTOCENTRIC, SO SHOULD BE OUR STUDY OF IT
It was established under B above that Scripture is Christocentric (centered upon the Gospel message of Jesus), but we need to go beyond maintaining this as a principle in proper biblical interpretation, for it is an attitude which needs to pervade the entire study of Scripture. Jesus made this point to the Jews in John 5:39, for He was in effect saying to them: “Unless you see me on every page of Scripture, you will never understand what God has revealed to you there!” “Without the knowledge of the Gospel the Bible remains a meaningless and useless book. But when the Scriptures are seen as Gospel, as evangelium, the Word of God becomes the sanctuary above all sanctuaries, which sanctifies the. person and everything he does.”27
The way we are to approach the study of Scriptures is with what we might call a sacramental approach. This can be observed in Luther’s salutary use of Scripture:
The Word for Luther was never simply a record of things which God had said and done in the past. The Spirit of God is active in the Word to bring to the reader and hearer, whenever and wherever he lives, not only reliable information about the past, but also the very voice and power of God which speaks and acts now. A key axiom for Luther was: “Scripture has the Holy Spirit as its inseparable companion.” We sometimes speak of the “sacramental” aspect of the Word. By this we mean that the Gospel accounts of the life of our Lord, for instance, are not just some dry and dead histories, but the living instruments of God, or in Luther’s words, “sacred signs through which God works in believers” (WA 9,440).28
This sacramental approach to the study of Scripture can be so easily lost and forgotten as we make our search for facts and figures our goal. Conservatives especially need to be on guard that an apologetic approach (a need to prove the truth and validity of Scriptures) does not supplant the sacramental approach. If Bible studies are not finding Christ Jesus on every page of the Bible, then the searchers are engaged in their activity as a service offered to God. But God wants nothing to do with such a feeble act of service as John 5:39 reveals. God wants us to study His Word primarily to learn about what He has done for us, by this His power becomes operative through our study. In this regard, the words at the end of the Gospel according to the Apostle John might be applied to all of Scripture: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (20:31 NIV)
APPLICATION — PROPER DISTINCTION OF LAW AND GOSPEL
Perhaps it might be suggested that as far as Lutherans are concerned, they are strong in the homiletical (sermonizing) department, and a little weak in the area of Bible study. But sermonizing and Bible study are to be seen as activities with much in common. Besides the rules governing the delivery of a sermon, it should be recognized that the principles used in preaching a certain text are to be employed in any and all Bible studies as well. The fact that both are to be Christocentric is well founded, but it should also be noted that both should properly divide the Word of truth, i.e., properly distinguish between Law and Gospel, in both its teaching as well as in its application. When the Bible is searched in private, within a family setting or in a public forum, care should be taken that these two main teachings of Scripture, God’s Law and His Gospel, are clearly and properly distinguished. We should expect nothing less than what we do in the Sunday sermon, for confusion of these two messages is no less harmful in Bible study than it is in the sermon.
The believing Bible student expects that God will speak to him through His Word. God may speak words of Law — words that humble and terrify the reader, words that crush him because they expose his sinfulness and his spiritual nakedness before His Creator. Or God may speak words of Gospel — words that comfort, cheer, and encourage the frightened sinner because they speak of the great salvation which God has prepared in His Son Jesus Christ. Sometimes this idea of the double effect of the Word is turned into a hermeneutical principle which reads: Every passage of Scripture is either Law or Gospel. But the Bible often cannot be catalogued neatly as either Law or Gospel. One might debate, for example, whether the story of the crucifixion is Law or Gospel. It is both, for it portrays vividly the anger of God against sin as well as His boundless love for the sinner. Again and again the Bible student will find that a passage which he understood as Law one day will speak Gospel another day. In short, the Bible student is reminded that his study and explanation of a Biblical text is wrong or incomplete until he has been addressed by His Creator in terms of both Law and Gospe1.29
THE ROLE OF THE LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS
As descendants of the Lutheran Reformation, we not only have a rich heritage upon which to draw in regard to the principles of interpretation, which were brought to light; and the sacramental approach to Scripture, which is uniquely Lutheran; and the discipline of properly distinguishing between Law and Gospel; but we also have the Lutheran Confessions. These symbols are extremely helpful in the practice of searching the Scriptures, for they comment on and expound the many teachings of God in His Word. The fact that we confess them means that we believe that the understanding of God’s Word which is contained therein is the correct one. Not to make use of these great treasures in our Bible study would not only be a tragic waste, but a downright arrogant practice. The clergy, as well as the laity, should be compelled to make use of these tools. But as it is, even the Small Catechism, which is one of these great Confessions is often found despised in our midst and dismissed as a mere child’s game.
Among our synodical forefathers, we can observe the practice of having a Book of Concord in their religious libraries. These were fathers of immigrant households, laymen, who took seriously the responsibility of instructing their families.30 This also equipped them with the ability to test the spirits of their clergy and theological professors, for they were solidly grounded in the sola Scriptura approach to the Christian faith. How many of our laymen make regular use of the Lutheran Confessions today? Dare we even ask how many of our clergy make such regular use?
Certainly we do not want to lapse into symbolatry (making the Confessions the norming norm of the Scriptures, thus placing the Confessions over the Scriptures). Again let us hear from Luther to help put these things into a proper perspective:
The number of books on theology must be reduced and only the best ones published. It is not many books that make men learned, nor even reading. But it is a good book frequently read, no matter how small it is, that makes a man learned in the Scriptures and godly. Indeed the writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time so that through them we may be led into the Scriptures. As it is, however, we only read them these days to avoid going any further and getting into the Bible. We are like men who read the sign posts and never travel the road they indicate. Our dear fathers wanted to lead us to the Scriptures by their writings, but we use their works to get away from the Scriptures. Nevertheless, the Scripture alone is our vineyard in which we must all labor and toil.31
Luther, of course, was not speaking here of the Confessions, but rather the writings of the Church fathers, of which Luther himself would be for us today. Yet if what he said in regard to the significance of the writings of the saints is true, then how much more would the Confessions of our Lutheran church be significant in the searching of Holy Writ, for we maintain that what we teach, believe and confess in those symbols is nothing more nor less than what is taught in the very Word of God.
BIBLE STUDY LED BY LAITY
It may seem that after covering the principles of biblical interpretation, the Christocentric or sacramental approach, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel and the familiarity with the Lutheran Confessions, that only a theologically trained pastor is able to lead public Bible study. This is not true, for there are gifted laymen who are able to approach the searching of the Scriptures in exactly the manner outlined above and under a shepherd’s supervision are able to lead others faithfully in the study of God’s Word (we could also add that there are gifted laywomen who are able to lead other women). Unfortunately there is a growing tension in our congregations to allow untrained and ill-equipped laity to do this task. This perhaps is as a result of a clergy shortage, an ever increasing workload placed on our pastors, and the misguided desire to fracture congregations into smaller groups. When properly trained and given the necessary tools (See Appendix C), the laity certainly may be entrusted with this important and necessary work of the Church. But let us ever be vigilant against the Reformed error of deeming anyone as qualified to lead others in Bible study who simply claims the guidance of the Spirit. May God ever preserve among us the proper practice of searching the Scriptures.
METHODOLOGY OF SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES
Now before this essay is drawn to a close, it would be appropriate briefly to consider some practical words regarding the different ways in which the believer engages in Bible study. There are basically three uses of Scripture that are employed by Christians: a devotional use, an expository use and a systematic use. Even though we are properly trained to do Bible study, we are still unprepared, if we also do not have a humble and prayerful attitude as we begin our searching. Luther commented:
That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory — not for yours or any other person’s — He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine words exists except the Author of these words, as He says: “They shall be all taught of God” (John 6:45). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and ability and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit.32
By this, Luther is not denying that the Bible student should be properly trained, for he would fully agree that this is necessary. But the student of Scripture is not to think he is able to plumb the depths of Holy Writ with his skills and his abilities; it still is true that “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” (I Corinthians 2:10b NIV)
The devotional use of Scripture is the practice of developing one main truth found in a certain portion of Scripture and making application of it to one’s life. We do this publicly as we hear the Word preached in our divine services. We do this privately as we make use of reliable meditation booklets or when we make a practice of daily reading a portion of the Bible. Some helpful hints which better facilitate the searching of the Scripture under this category would be to read and study the sermon text prior to hearing it preached, to take notes as the text is expounded or even to make a taped copy of the sermon to listen to throughout the following week. As one privately makes use of meditations, he can read it aloud. This seems to help in the comprehension, especially if such reading is normally done at the hour of sleep. Daily Bible reading is enhanced when an audio tape is used on which is recorded a professional reading of the text while following along in one’s own Bible. If one follows a daily reading plan, for example, reading through the Bible in one year, he needs to beware of placing himself into such a rigid schedule. This could become discouraging when the schedule is interrupted over a long period of time. It is always helpful to have one’s own Bible in hand, so that markings and notes in the margins might be made for quick and easy reference in the future. It is also advisable to purchase two or three Bibles of the same edition, so that when one wears out you might easily move into a new and yet familiar copy.
The expository use of God’s Word is the restatement of the meaning of a text verse by verse. This too is sometimes employed in the Sunday morning sermon, but more often this is the style used in a Bible class. Privately this can also be done and is usually employed by those who have been placed in charge of leading others in Bible study. But this is a very effective use made by any and all believers, while making use of the tools as mentioned in Appendix C.
The systematic approach to Scripture is normally associated with the instruction of our youth and adult confirmands. This is the topical treatment of the Word of truth. It is used in a series of sermons, especially during the Lenten season when a specific topic is developed. But we also find it useful in a public Bible study, as well as in a private study. Again we have the resources available to help in this type of approach, especially the Confessions of the Lutheran Church. Beware of so-called topical Bible studies which are not really biblical in nature, but psychological, sociological, etc.
It could be noted that Jesus availed Himself of all three types of Bible. study. When He was present in the synagogue at Nazareth on the Sabbath He led the people in a devotional consideration of Isaiah 61:1&2 (Luke 4:17–21). When the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees tried to discredit Jesus with their questions during Holy Week, our Lord used the expository method in regard to several passages (Matthew 22:23–45). And finally when the risen Lord Jesus spoke to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we read how Jesus systematically took them through a study of all the Old Testament Scriptures said about the Christ.
To say that searching the Scriptures is an easy task is to betray its serious nature and the great care we must take as we approach the holy ground whereon God the Most High speaks. To say that searching the Scriptures is a difficult task is to betray the will of God for us to read and search His Word which He has given us as a reliable, clear and all sufficient revelation of Himself. Therefore we come back to reaffirm the truth that searching the Scriptures is a necessary but also hazardous practice. We are called to enter upon this with sanctified attitudes and proper practices befitting the treatment of God’s most holy Word. For Christians to avoid or to neglect the searching of Scriptures is a prescription for spiritual pain and heartache, which could eventually lead to spiritual death. The Holy Christian Church, which is grounded upon the very Word of God, ceases to have meaning and purpose without God’s revelation to it. Its confession becomes a sham and its organization illegitimate. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Corinthians 2:14)
The work of the Lord which we have been called to do in this life will flourish among us when we diligently search His Word. He promises to bless our diligent use of His Word to this end. However, such results cannot be our motivation, otherwise Bible study becomes only a gimmick. Rather, let us continue to search because we love our Savior God, who graciously condescended to us by revealing Himself through human language. In H. Roepe’s essay entitled: The Proper Use of the Bible written for the 100th anniversary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, there is a concluding paragraph which is very apropos for our Evangelical Lutheran Synod in 1991:
The entire work of the Church, of saving souls, of extending it by missionary endeavor, of internal unification, of presenting a fighting front against error and Satan, of doing God’s work upon earth, is based on the Word of God and its use. Personal Christianity of the individual, the joining of these individuals into the Christian community of a congregation. the union of such congregations into larger groups for the prosecution of the Lord’s work, is right, blessed, and eternally successful only in the measure in which the Bible is properly used. This must be to him who calls himself a Christian a potent incentive to constantly use this precious revelation of our God earnestly, zealously, and properly. This simply means that at home, at school, at church, as an individual, as congregations, as synod, the less we use the Scriptures properly, the less will the work of the Lord flourish. The more we use that Word, the more will those things that God wants and which He can and will bless, manifest themselves in our thinking, speaking and living. To bring about a more universal use of the Scriptures, many and varied plans and devices have been suggested and recommended. We do not deny that many of these are of value, that they may serve to lead men to the Scriptures and into them. But we must never overlook the fact that the love for God’s Word must essentially flow out of the love for God Himself. All of our plans for an increase in the proper use of the Scriptures will fail, and fail miserably, unless we lay the foundation upon the relationship which exists between man and God in Christ Jesus. Pastors, teachers, congregations, synod, can and must be everlastingly concerned in bringing to the hearts of men the knowledge that God loved the world, that God loved the sinner. From this love of God to men flows and grows man’s love to God. Where that relationship of love is warm and intimate, there will also be found a willingness, yes, a zealous eagerness to know what that loving God has to say to sinners, there the Bible will be used in church, school, and home, and used as the loving God would have it used.33
Are we as individual believers, as Christian congregations and as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod prepared to continue in the necessary practice of searching the Scriptures? Are we committed to promote Bible study in our midst? If the prayers we use so often in our Sunday morning services are sincere, then we have the necessary delight in and respect for searching the Scriptures, for in many of our churches we use opening and closing prayers which emphasize our need for God’s written and proclaimed Word. In those congregations which do not use this form for beginning and ending the service, the Collect for the Word comes at the end of the service. May it also serve as a fitting response to the topic we have just now considered together in this essay:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of Thy holy Word we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which Thou hast given ns in our Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
TO GOD ALONE BE THE GLORY
- “So the Bible is a necessary evil! It is because without it man’s spirit will claim to be holy and there will be no way of proving him wrong. Scripture becomes ‘evil’ when, as a hollow pontifical document, it petrifies in holiness instead of being publicly proclaimed in the Church as the living Word.” Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 174.
- Robert Preus. THE INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE: A Study of the Theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1957) [Reprinted in Concordia Heritage Series, 1981, by Concordia Publishing House.], p.25.
- Theodore G. Tappert, ed. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), pp. 376–378.
- August Pieper, “Are There Legal Regulations in the New Testament,” Translated by Carl J. Lawrenz, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, 86 (Winter 1989), p.40.
- Herbert T. Mayer, Interpreting the Holy Scriptures (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1967), p. 38.
- Tappert, p. 379.
- Gospel and Scripture: The Interrelationship of the Material and Formal Principles in Lutheran Theology, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, November 1972, p.6.
- Luther’s Works Vol. 26, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), pp. 376–77.
- N. S. Tjernagel, ed. An Interpretive Study Based on Profiles of Lutherans, “Data Analysis, Section Three: Religious Activities of Member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.” pp. 9 & 10.
- The 47th Regular Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, June 19–25, 1964, pp. 10 & 11.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- 64th Report Regular Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, June 21–26, 1981, pp. 19 & 37.
- Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), I, p. 367.
- Ibid., p. 360.
- Preus, pp. 166–67.
- Ewald M. Plass, ed., What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), I, p. 97, para. 300.
- Fuerbringer, Th. Engelder, and P. E. Kretzmann, eds., The Concordia Cyclopedia (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1927) p. 75.
- Preus, pp. 165–66.
- Herbert T. Mayer, pp. 29–30.
- K. James Stein, Philipp Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1986), pp. 98–99.
- Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), pp. 87–91.
- Plass, pp. 83–84.
- Herbert T. Mayer, p. 27.
- Oberman, p. 166.
- Gospel and Scripture, pp. 13 & 14.
- F.E. Mayer, The Religious Bodies of America (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), p. 146.
- Mark O. Harstad, “The Church Year: Luther on the Means of Grace: Word and Absolution,” Lutheran Sentinel, July 1983, p. 3.
- Herbert T. Mayer, pp. 41 & 42.
- Erling T. Teigen, “Confessing in the 1980’s,” Lutheran Sentinel, 64 (198l), pp. 20–22.
- Luther’s Works, Vol. 44, James Atkinson, ed., Helmut Lehman, gen. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), “To the Christian Nobility,” p. 205.
- Plass, Vol I, p. 77.
- Theodore Laetsch, ed. Abiding Word (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1946), Vol. I, p. 83.
- The Bible
- Christ-centered translation which views the Scriptures as inspired and inerrant
- Center margin cross references
- Wide margins for notes
- Study notes as in Study-Bibles (e.g. Concordia Self-Study Bible, Concordia Publishing House)
- Individual Book Introductions
- Appendices (e.g. word studies)
- Tables of weights and measures
- Pictures (drawings and photographs of Holy Land sites)
- Parallel Translations
- Pronunciation guides
- Harmonizations of historical narratives (e.g. Gospel accounts)
- Chronological and genealogical tables
- The Bible on audio tape
- Computer Bibles with many of the above features built into them
- The Lutheran Confessions
- The Book of Concord (Tappert ed., Fortress Press)
- Bente’s Historical Introductions to the Book of Concord, CPH
- Teigen’s I Believe series, Lutheran Synod Book Co.
- Luther’s Works, FP & CPH; What Luther Says: An Anthology, CPH
- P.E. Kretzmann’s Popular Commentary of the Bible, CPH
- The People’s Bible, Northwestern Publishing House
- Werner H. Franzmann’s Bible History Commentary, NPH
- Various Commentaries on Individual or Groups of Books
- George Lillegard’s From Eden to Egypt (Genesis), NPH
- Darrel Kautz’s Contemporary Bible-Study Guides (OT)
- A. Pieper’s Isaiah II, NPH
- Laetsch’s Jeremiah and Minor Prophets, CPH
- Ylvisaker’s The Gospels (A harmony of all four accounts), NPH
- Kessel’s Christ the Cornerstone: The Life of Christ, LSBC
- Ardnt’s Bible Commentary: Luke, CPH
- Kessel’s Christ the Cornerstone: The Living Church, LSBC
- Luther’s Romans, Galatians, I & II Peter and Jude, Kregel Publishing
- Meyer’s Second Corinthians, NPH
- Koehler’s Galatians, NPH
- S. Becker’s Revelation of St. John, NPH
- M. Franzmann’s Revelation, NPH
- Lenski’s Commentary on the New Testament, Augsburg Publishing House
- Sermon Collections
- Luther, Lenker Edition (8 Vol.) , Baker Book House
- C.F.W. Walther, various publications, CPR & LSBC
- U.V. Koren, LSBC
- Trench’s Notes on the Parables and Miracles of Our Lord, BBH
- Walther’s Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, CPH
- F. Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, CPH
- Graebner’s Outline of Doctrinal Theology, Shield Publishing
- Wuest’s Word Study
- Bible Introductions
- H. Hummel’s The Word Becoming Flesh, (OT), CPH
- M. Franzmann’s The Word of the Lord Grows, (NT) CPH
- Exhaustive Concordances (to match the translation being used)
- Bible Dictionaries
- Unger’s Bible Dictionary
- The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible
- Davis’ Dictionary Bible
- Boyd’s Bible Dictionary
- Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
- Lutheran Cyclopedia
- Bible Atlases
- Moody Atlas Bible Lands
- Oxford Bible Atlas
- Baker’s Bible Atlas
- Hammond’s Atlas of the Bible Lands
- The Macmillan Bible Atlas
Percentage of children in Sunday School: 1970–1990
Percentage of communicant members in Bible Classes: 1970–1990
Percentage of members in Church on Sunday: 1970–1990
A) Scripture interprets Scripture: The parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26–29) is not given an explanation by our Lord. However, we can turn to His explanation of the parable of the Sower (Mark 4:13–20) and find help to understand such terms as the seed and the soil.
B) The central thought throughout the Bible is that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all sinners: Jesus made reference to this in John 5:39—“the Scriptures… testify about me.” (NIV) and again in verse 46—“Moses… wrote about me.” (NIV) Philip made this point when he said: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45 NIV) Peter, speaking to Cornelius, said about Jesus: “All the prophets testify about him. that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43 NIV)
C) Rules governing human speech are to be observed when one interprets Scripture — the words of the text are to be taken literally unless otherwise indicated by the context: In Genesis 1, the word day could only mean a regular day as we know it. Context would not have us conclude anything differently. The expression: evening and morning would also go to support the literal understanding and not the evolutionistic though of day = age. When our Lord instituted His Supper and said: “This is my body.” (Mark 14:22 NIV) “This is my blood” (Mark 14:24 NIV), He literally meant what He said (is means is). The context in Mark or in the other two Gospel accounts (Matthew and Luke) or in I Corinthians does not militate against that understanding. To make these words of Jesus into a figurative expression, one would have to ignore the rules of grammar and bring a totally ascriptural concept to bear on the text.
D) All doctrine is to be derived from clear passages. Some would teach on the basis of Romans 8:20 & 21 that there will be animals in heaven as we know them on earth. Since this passage is unclear, all we can say about such a teaching is that it is a pious opinion; it cannot be made into a teaching of the Church. However, when two doctrines which are clearly taught in Scripture seem to contradict one another according to our reason, we must let them both stand and in faith confess both. An example of such seemingly contradictory teachings would be the universal grace of God (I Timothy 2:4; Matthew 23:37 & Hosea 13:9) and the election of grace of a few to heaven (Ephesians 1:3–6; Matthew 22:14; Romans 8:28–30; II Thessalonians 2:13; I Peter 1:2; & Acts 13:48).
E) Obscure passages must derive their meaning from clear passages: Revelations 19–21 speak of the return of Christ, the Judgment and heaven, but since picture language is used, its meaning must be understood in the light of God’s clear words on these subjects in such places as Matthew 24 & 25.
F) Any interpretation which contradicts the clearly established teachings of the Christian faith is unacceptable: A teaching could be derived from James 2:24 (“a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” NIV) which would seem to contradict the clear passages on this matter, such as Romans 3:28 (“a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” NIV), Ephesians 2:8&9, etc. The context of the James passage would show that James is referring to Judgment Day and is saying nothing more than what is taught in such places as II Corinthians 5: 7–9; Romans 2:5–13&16; and Matthew 25:31–46.
G) Each passage has one Spirit–intended meaning: During the Middle Ages this was especially challenged by the allegorical method or the idea that there are different levels of meaning found in many of the texts of Scripture. For example, in the Flood account, the ark contained clean and unclean animals, some allegorical interpreters equated the ark with the Church, the clean animals with the unmarried and unclean with the married. Or in the creation account, the two great lights were understood to be the Pope as the greater light and the Emperor as the lesser light. Or in the account of the ten lepers (Luke 17:17), there was found the teaching that there had been ten worlds created.