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Sola Scriptura

Justin A. Petersen

1943 Synod Convention Essay

The true temper and test of a Church, as well as of each individual member thereof, may, aye, must, be summed up in her shibboleth, or watchword. This shibboleth at once becomes the standard around which her confessors rally, the mark by which she would be known and judged, the weapon with which she wages her battles, and the sign by which she hopes to conquer — which is all to the good when her shibboleth is God appointed, but all to the wrong when it is man-made.

The shibboleth of the true Lutheran Church of which our Norwegian Synod not only proudly claims to be, but really is a part, is a threefold one — the Word alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone. Thanks be to God alone, our watchword is not man-made but God-made, the end and goal of which cannot be tragic defeat, but glorious victory.

To me has been assigned the first of this three-leafed clover shibboleth, namely, the Word Alone. It may appear to be the least attractive and edifying of the three — and by far the least important. But it is only apparently so. Between these three, the Word Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone there is the closest connection. Without the first you can have neither the second nor the third of these spiritual treasures. Without the Word alone there is no vehicle for Grace alone. For it is through the Word alone that Grace alone is brought, imparted, and sealed to us. And without Faith alone there is no hand with which to receive Grace alone. The three are as connecting links of a chain, none of which must be broken, lest all be lost. Verily, an inseparable shibboleth, this three in one—the Word Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone.

Sola Scriptura

The word sola is a Latin word, which means alone. Scriptura is also a Latin word, meaning Scripture, namely the Holy Scriptures, the Bible.

Now the Bible bears this clear testimony to itself that it is the Word of God, the divinely inspired Word of God from cover to cover, both as to its contents and its every word. Scripture identifies itself with the Word of God. As proof-texts we need but call attention to the following passages: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” 2 Tim 3:16. “Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” 1 Cor. 2:13. “When ye received the Word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but, as it is truth, the Word of God.” 1 Thess. 2:13. But the purpose of this paper is not to treat the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Bible. We mention it here because of its relation to the Scripture as the sole source and norm of all doctrine. The one stands and falls with the other. If we haven’t a verbally inspired Word of God, then we can have no sure and perfect source and norm of doctrine, faith and life. Dr. F. Pieper writes in Lehre und Wehre, 1928, p. 14: “The Church of the Reformation stands on the rock of Holy Scripture, on the sola Scriptura. But she stands there, and can stand there, only because she identifies Scripture with God’s Word.”

Now the Bible itself clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically declares that God’s Revelation to man, His Revelation in Scripture, is the sole source and norm of all saving knowledge. That Scripture is to be the sole norm of theology we see from Is. 8:20, where we read: “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles God.” 1 Peter 4:11.

That the Word of God is to be the sole source of saving knowledge, we see from such passages as John 5:39: “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” In 2 Tim 3:15, Paul writes to his son in the faith, Timothy: “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” The Lord Jesus directed Abraham to inform the rich man in response to his petition to send Lazarus to his brethren that they might be warned against the hell-fire that awaited them unless they repented: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29), thereby designating the writings of Moses and the prophets — and we, in addition, have the writings of the evangelists and apostles — as the source of saving knowledge.

But the Scripture is not only the sole source and norm of theology, but it is also — and for that very reason — the only sure and perfect rule of faith and life,” as we confess in our Explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism.

That the Bible is perfect we see from its own testimony. In the 19th Psalm, verse 7, we read: “The law of the Lord” (the word law here is used in its wider sense, including both Law and Gospel) “is perfect, converting the soul.” Our Savior Himself testifies to the perfection of Scripture when He says: “The scripture cannot be broken.” John 10:35. It is as a perfect ring.

And because the Word of God is a perfect Word, therefore it is also a sure Word, surer than the testimony of our senses, firmer than heaven and earth. “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” Ps. 19:7. And our Lord assures us, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Matt. 24:35. That the Word of God is surer than the testimony of our senses we see further from the words of St. Peter, who had been an eyewitness of Christ’s majesty on the Mount of Transfiguration, and who with his own ears had heard a voice from heaven, testifying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But still the apostle goes on to say: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy: whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts. Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 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 Peter 1:19–21.

Here we have the answer to the protest of a Dr. E. Lewis: “‘Give us a sure word,’ that is the cry we daily hear. … We read our comparative religion; tell us, is there nowhere one word which stands above all other words, no truth of rocklike quality, which nothing can move? … Tell us, must we always flounder, must we always be experimenters, must we always build up only to tear down?” (The Faith We Declare, p. 188ff.)

Such a rock we have, thank God! Again the Savior assures us: “Whosoever heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, I will liken unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.” Matt. 7:24–25.

We do well therefore in casting our anchor in this sure Word. “Cast thine anchor in the unchangeable, unbreakable, infallible Word of God. Cast thine anchor in the oaths and covenants of the Most High. Cast thine anchor in the everlasting Gospel. And come what may, that anchor will always hold.”

“God’s word a treasure is to me,

Through sorrow’s night my sun shall be,

The shield of faith in battle;

The Father’s hand hath written there

My title as His child and heir,

‘The kingdom’s thine forever;’

That promise faileth never.”

And ever faithful to the Word of God, the true Lutheran Church teaches and confesses that the Word of God, the Bible, is the only sure and perfect source and norm of doctrine, faith and life.

The Lutheran Confessions are permeated with a holy awe of Scripture. Believe Scripture, bow to the authority of Scripture, is written on almost every page of our Confessions. To quote but a few instances — in the introduction to the Formula of Concord, Epitome, p. 216 (we are quoting from the English text of the Concordia Triglotta), we read: “We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with (all) teachers should be estimated and judged are the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old Testament alone, as is written Ps. 119:105: ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’” The same clear-cut position is taken in The Thorough Declaration of the Formula of Concord, p. 234: “First then we receive and embrace with our whole heart the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged.” From Scripture, then, and from no other source, would the Reformation Fathers draw the water of salvation. In the Smalcald Articles, page 139, it is stated: “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel.” These are Luther’s words.

In his classic on “The Evangelical Lutheran Church, The True Visible Church of God on Earth,” Walther writes in Thesis 13: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church recognizes the written Word of the Apostles and prophets as the only and perfect source, rule, norm, and judge of all teaching — (a) not reason, (b) not tradition, (c) not new revelations.”

(a) There is probably nothing that has caused more damage in the Church than the misuse of human reason. Our reason before the Fall was a noble faculty. Luther says: “It is indeed true that it is of all things the highest and chief thing, above all other things of this life, yea something divine.” But “after the Fall,” Luther continues, “this finest and best of all things is under the power and rule of Satan.” (Luther, XIX: 1462.)

Therefore Scripture warns us against following our reason in spiritual matters. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Prov. 3:5. God exhorts us to “cast down imaginations and everything that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” 2 Cor. 10:5. God tells us in His Word that human reason is incapable of judging spiritual things. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them.” 1 Cor. 2:14. Dr. F. Pieper in a series of lectures on the Lutheran Church, page 29, says: “To set up reason as the source and norm of theology is forbidden by Scripture, since Scripture declares that human reason, even when divine revelation is presented to it, is absolutely incapable of understanding it.”

Reason has its place and use in the study of God’s Word. We need our reason to understand the meaning of the words used in Scripture. We must observe the fixed laws of language. And we must be able to think logically. “Human reason must indeed be used in interpreting scripture, never, however, as principle but always as instrument.” (Dr. F. Pieper, Lecture etc., p. 50.) Reason makes a good servant of theology, but a very poor master.

When human reason would sit in judgment upon God’s Word, it is setting itself up as God, placing itself above God. Luther uses harsh language, but not too harsh, in describing this brazen effrontery of human reason. He calls reason “Satan’s paramour,” and “the enemy of faith.”

Rationalism in a finer form concedes that natural reason is not a norm of theology, but insists that the case is quite different with enlightened reason, or the reason of regenerate man. Regenerate reason, it is held, is capable of judging spiritual matters and must be permitted to sit in judgment on Scripture. Modern theology, even the more conservative, is obsessed with the notion that in regeneration reason receives additional powers, so that it can understand more or less the mysteries of God and is privileged to sit in judgment on Scripture. This simply is not true. Christians understand the mystery of the Trinity, of the person of Christ, of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, just as little as the unregenerate. What takes place in regeneration is that the Christian receives power to bring his reason “into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” When a Christian is tempted to criticize Scripture, and to place his own thoughts above the Word of God, he does this not according to the new man but according to the old man. Dr. Walther rightly says: “Nor can enlightened and regenerated reason be made the source and norm of religious knowledge, equal to and on a plane with Scripture. For the nature of an enlightened and regenerate mind consists just in this, that it does not make itself, but Scripture, the source of knowledge in matters of faith. Besides in no man is there to be found, in this life, a perfectly enlightened and regenerate reason.” Lehre and Wehre, 13, p. 99.

Other aliases of regenerate reason are Christian consciousness, Christian experience, consciousness of faith, spirit and so forth. These terms are all in reality synonyms of enlightened reason, so we need not discuss them in detail.

A striking example of the use, or misuse rather, of enlightened reason as a norm in theology we have from the Reformation era. At the famous colloquy between the Reformed theologian, Zwingli, and Luther, held at Marburg in 1529, Zwingli insisted that he could not accept the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, stating that he did not believe that God expected him to believe that which he could not understand. To which Luther replied: “Neither can I understand it, but,” pointing to the words “This is my body,” “the words are too powerful for me.”

Another striking example we have from the doctrinal controversies waged by our Synod in the eighties. In one of his letters Dr. Koren writes: “In an address by Pastor Muus during a meeting of the Church Council in Minneapolis (see the printed minutes, p. 29) we read: ‘Pastor Koren says: “A person is either spiritually dead or spiritually living, there is no room for a middle condition.” ‘I (Muus) say there is a middle condition. When one is under the influence of God’s Spirit, he is neither absolutely dead as a heathen or absolutely living. When we are to solve this matter, we must, I believe, use our human reason and with it go to God’s Word to see what we find out there.’”

In reply Koren says: “Let us now see what the Word of God says about this matter. In Luke 11:23, the Savior says: ‘He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.’ Pastor Muus now comes with his reason to the Word of God to see what he finds there, and then he finds that one cannot understand the words just as they read, there must be a middle condition; there must be some that are not absolutely with Christ, neither absolutely against.”

“In John 3:6, the Savior says: ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ Pastor Muus again comes with his reason and finds that there must be a middle condition, that there must be some that are not altogether flesh, despite the fact that they neither are actually born of the Spirit. In Matt. 7:13–14, the Saviour speaks of two gates, a wide and a strait, and of two ways, a wide and a narrow. From this we teach that every man must be either on the one or the other of these ways. Pastor Muus knows of still another way, which is neither broad nor narrow.” Koren Samlede Skrifter, III, pp. 220–221.

(b) Tradition. Neither is tradition a source and norm of theology. The Catholic Church places the tradition of the Church, the fathers, the Pope, who is claimed to be infallible in matters of doctrine, alongside of or above the written Word of God. The specific Roman principle of theology includes four sources or norms—Scripture, tradition, the Church Councils, the Pope. Cf. Bellarmin in De Conciliis II, 12, 1. The Roman Catechism states the same. But since the final interpretation of all these norms is left to the Pope, he in the last instance is the norm of Catholic theology.

Concerning traditions, which the Catholic Church insists are “divinely revealed truths or precepts otherwise than by Holy Writ” (Council of Trent, Session 4), Cardinal Gibbons has this to say: “The Catholic Church correctly teaches that our Lord and His apostles inculcated certain important duties of religion which are not recorded in the inspired writers. We must, therefore, conclude that the Scriptures alone cannot be a sufficient guide and rule of faith because they cannot at any time be within the reach of every inquirer, because they are not of themselves clear and intelligible even in matters of highest importance, and because they do not contain all the truths necessary for salvation.”

But what does the Bible say to all this? “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Col. 2:8. In Matt. 15:6, our Saviour says to the Scribes and Pharisees: “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” And in the last chapter of the last book of the Bible we read: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.” Rev. 22:19.

(c) As to new revelations, we are neither promised them, nor are we to expect them. On the contrary, God has directed all Christians to the end of time to the Word of the apostles and prophets. The Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Eph. 2:20. With the Word of the apostles and prophets the divine revelation of doctrine has been concluded. All Christians down to the end of time believe through the Word of the apostles. Cf. John 17:20.

The true Lutheran Church then on the basis of Scripture teaches and confesses that the Word of God alone is the sole source and norm of doctrine, faith, and life. And it is the only Church that so confesses and practices. The Reformed Church, it is true, confesses the Sola Scriptura, but in practice places reason above Scripture, as witness its teachings on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Our dear Synod, as a part of the true visible Church of God on earth, has always confessed and practiced the Sola Scriptura. When in the first constitution, adopted by the Synod in 1851, it was discovered that the leaven of Grundtvigianism had crept in, the Synod at its next meeting in 1853 dissolved the original organization, purged the Grundtvigian leaven, and adopted a new constitution based on Sola Scriptura. At the suggestion of Dr. Koren the Norwegian Synod adopted as its motto and engraved in its official seal the words “It is written.” And when we examine our Church’s many doctrinal controversies, we find from the very first controversy to the last, from that concerning lay preaching to the doctrine of Election, that what really was at stake, besides the particular doctrine in dispute, was the Sola Scriptura.

We shall close this part of our paper by making Dr. Walther’s words our own: “Hear, O heavens, give ear, O earth; for the Lord hath spoken.” This is and must remain our battle cry. This is the device emblazoned on our banner. If our Synod should no longer hold this banner aloft, her fall would not be imminent, but would already have set in, and she would be fit only to be cast away as insipid salt, that no longer serves, but only deserves to be trodden under foot. (Lehre und Wehre, 1911, p. 158.)

But the Word of God is not only the sole source and norm of doctrine, faith, and life; it is at the same time the means by which alone our spiritual life is conditioned, from beginning to end. It is the Word alone that creates faith: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Rom. 10:17. If it be objected that Baptism also creates faith, we reply that Baptism is nothing but the visible Word and that it is the Word in Baptism that gives it its regenerating power. It is the Word alone in the Word and Sacrament that nourishes and strengthens faith. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby.” 1 Peter 2:2. It is the Word that sanctifies us. “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” John 17:17. It is through the “Word of faith” that we are justified. Rom. 10:8. It is only by continuing in the Word that we can continue as disciples of Christ. “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.” John 8:31. It is with the Word alone that we fight our spiritual battles. The Word is called “the sword of the Spirit.” Eph. 6:17. It was with this weapon alone that our Savior conquered Satan in the wilderness — “It is written.” He could have spoken a word of His own — for He is the Word — but no, He employs the written Word of God, and the bare Word of God. With the Word the weakest Christian is strong, but without the Word the strongest is as a feather before the hurricane. It is the Word alone in Word and Sacrament that can give the alarmed sinner certainty concerning his state of grace. Here God speaks and deals with us. “Therefore we ought and must maintain this point that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through His spoken Word and Sacraments. It is the devil himself, whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” (Smalcald Articles, p. 147.) The believer dare not build upon his feelings or experiences, for these are changeable, and, in the hour of affliction prove to be but sinking sand. At such time our conscience will accuse us, and our heart condemn us. Then the Word of God, which is a higher court than our heart, can alone give us assurance of grace. Satan may change our feelings many times a day, but the Word of God is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.

“Though no my heart should ever cry,

Still on Thy Word I will rely.”

“I cling to what my Savior taught

And trust it whether felt or not.”

This being true, that our spiritual life of faith is conditioned from beginning to end upon the Word alone, how absolutely necessary it becomes that we use this Word.

Koren concludes his powerful Synodical Address on The Inspiration of Holy Scripture, delivered in Chicago, 1908, with the warning: “God has given us His Word: Is there any greater gift? … But if we are to retain it, then we must use it. To that end may God help us!”

The most nourishing food may be prepared and placed on the table for us, but it is of no value to us if we do not partake of it. The soldier may go into battle well trained and strongly armored, but his defeat is certain unless he wields his weapons.

“It is not the truth as it lies, silent and unread, in the Word, but the truth as it enters from the Word into the human heart with the applying presence of the Holy Ghost, which makes us believers.” (Krauth in The Conservative Reformation, p. 166.) And we may add, keeps them as believers.

Therefore the Bible urges: “Search the scriptures.” John 5:39. Therefore God from high heaven: “O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord.” Jer. 22:29. “Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.”

We have and confess the Word of God, and the Word alone. Our greatest danger is not this that the Word shall be falsified among us — though that danger is indeed great and ever-present, but rather that we shall grow negligent in our use of the Word. In either case Satan is well pleased. For he cares little that we have the pure Word, if he can keep us from using it.

How about our use of God’s Word? If Dr. Koren away back in 1897 felt constrained to say, after he had enumerated a number of sins that flourished in the Synod: “Should I in the meantime mention the sin which above all sins has alarmed me and humbled me as I have meditated on the condition of The Norwegian Synod, then it is the great and general indifference to, and neglect of, God’s Word.” What must we say about conditions among us today?

Is it not true that attendance upon divine services among us is far from what it ought to be at times? And what about the use of God’s Word in our homes? What about family worship among us? And our private use of God’s Word? Despite the fact that the Good Shepherd repeatedly stresses the importance and blessing of regular and sufficient feeding of His lambs, how few Christian day-schools we have in our midst! And how weak these few often are, despised and opposed not only by the world, but at times even by members of the congregations! What discouragements and disappointments does not the pastor often encounter when he makes earnest efforts to induce parents to send promising young men and women to our one institution of higher learning—Bethany College. What do all these things reveal but a lamentable indifference to the blessings of God’s Word?

How often the sects, and even non-Christian cults, put us to shame when it comes to the use of God’s Word! I once entered the home of a sectarian family. On the table lay several New Testaments, one for each member of the family. And their worn condition showed that they were used. This winter I had opportunity to observe a Christian Scientist. Almost any time of the day or evening, I would see her with the Bible in one hand and Mary Baker Eddy’s Key to the Scriptures in the other.

As to the indoctrination of the young, what strenuous efforts are not put forth by the Catholic Church in this direction. Within a distance of but a few blocks from my room in Duluth there are three large parochial schools operated by the Catholics.

And we who have the truth, the full truth, how negligent we often are in our use and application of that Word of truth!

To have the Word in its truth and purity, and then not take that Word seriously, use it diligently, bring forth its fruits, in other words, live that Word is a situation so serious that, unless repented of, will in the end cost us our salvation.

If the note of repentance over our neglect of God’s Word is missing in our Jubilee Celebration, God will say to us as He did to His Israel of old: “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.” Is. 1:14.

Let us, therefore, on this 90th anniversary celebration humble ourselves before God in true repentance. And may the genuineness of that repentance be evidenced by earnest improvement in the use of our spiritual heritage—God’s Word.

What a revival we then will experience in our midst, a true revival on the basis of God’s unfailing Word. Then shall we experience “a time of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.” Acts 3:19. Then “The voice of the turtledove shall be heard in our midst” (Song of Solomon, 2:12), and “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” Is. 35:1. The voice of the Lord hath spoken it. “Hath He said, and shall He not do it? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?” Numbers 23:19.