Note: for a qualification and significant addendum to this book review please see the comments made on the post here.
At one point in his first book, These are Written: Toward a Cruciform Theology of Scripture, the Lutheran theologian Peter Nafzger, Ph. D, shares a very provocative quotation from N.T. Wright: “When John declares that ‘in the beginning was the word,’ he does not reach a climax with ‘and the word was written down’ but ‘and the word became flesh’… scripture itself points… away from itself” (Wright, Scripture, 24, quoted on 136). An interesting way of putting things indeed!
Less controversially, Wright is also quoted later on saying “[t]he apostolic writings, like the ‘word’ which they now wrote down, were not simply about the coming of God’s kingdom into the world; they were, and were designed to be a part of the means whereby that happened” (Wright, Scripture, 38, Wright’s emphasis, quoted on 137).
Of course Lutherans are eager to add that the Scriptures, as the Word of God, are a “means of grace” and are therefore also currently a means by which this happens (Rom. 10:17, I Thes 2:13). Nafzger’s book is all about the theology of Scripture, and he is man on a mission to make sure that points like those above, often passed over or minimized in the debate over the Bible’s inspiration, are raised to prominence. Not only this, but Nafzger, seeing Scripture in the larger framework of the divine economy, is keen to highlight the “Trinitarian and soteriological narrative, which he identifies as the basis of a cruciform theology of the Word of God” (Werner Klan, back cover): “the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus must have constitutive significance for a theology of the Word” (ix, foreward by Joel P. Okamoto).
And along with this, pesky questions about Scripture’s authority, what it is composed of (canonicity), and its interpretation (perspicuity) – things “Christians have a hard time speaking clearly and consistently about” (5) – all need to and can be addressed. To give just one example of how all these are connected, he helpfully states in a footnote: “The canonicity of a book…is based on and helps determine its authority, which is grounded in and exercised through its interpretation…canon, authority, and interpretation cannot be separated” (17). In order to resolve these issues, he says “we must reconsider the assumptions, concepts, and categories that have governed the modern debate of Scripture” (33, 5). Of course, in doing this, Nafzger also must deal with the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration and the matter of what has come to be called inerrancy (86, 87).
So, how does he go about attempting to resolve these issues? In the first chapter he notes that most modern conversation can be boiled down to an “argument over the historical truthfulness of the biblical account” and rightly notes that while reliability is critical “much more needs to be said then that the Bible is reliable and true” (5). In chapter 2, he examines Karl Barth’s theology of Scripture, concluding that while it is insufficient, it does “point in some helpful directions”, particularly with his “dogmatic relocation of the Scriptures under the theology of Word of God…. a more comprehensive framework for considering the Scriptures in relation to the rest of the Christian confession, especially to Jesus and church proclamation” (5, 6).
In chapter 3, Nafzger highlights the fact that God is a speaking God whose Word is living and active. Also, that He has spoken “definitively, ultimately, decisively, and for all time in His Son, Jesus Christ, the personal Word of God.” This personal Word was conceived, sent, and raised from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent His Apostles in the power of that same Spirit. “The apostolic writings that have been collected and circulated in the church are the definitive versions of their proclamation… the written form of the Word of God and final rule and norm for Christian proclamation.” Chapter 4 looks at a variety of issues, including how modern theologians have wrestled with the idea of the word of God, Luther’s emphasis on the oral word, and finally, Barth’s “threefold form of the Word” – his “understanding of the relationship between Jesus, the Scriptures, and church proclamation”, which Nafzger adopts after making some important critiques, corrections, and improvements. In chapter 5, Nafzger “examines, in preliminary ways , how this account of the Word of God provides more solid grounds for thinking about the canon, authority, and interpretation of the Scriptures”, admitting that this final chapter is “selective and incomplete” (6, see xiv, 4-5, and 161 for comments about his efforts in this book and its limitations).
I think Pastor Nafzger is to be commended for taking on the topic of the theology of Scripture, one that respected Lutheran theologians like Herman Sasse (7) and David Scaer (54-55) have noted needs serious attention. Anyone who is interested in reflecting more about the theology of Scripture – particularly pastors – might consider getting this book. From it, it seems to me that I received an excellent introduction to the current trends in the larger world of more conservative Christian scholarship in general, not to mention his own particular project that attempts a thoughtful and faithful synthesis. Excellent insights that Lutherans in particular will resonate with (I think here of his discussion on “deputized discourse”) are culled from the best Christian minds thinking about this issue, and the book also provides a helpful, if not brief, historical overview of the questions surrounding the issues of the Bible’s inspiration. Importantly, Nafzger also reminds us of the waning but still powerful influence of the 20th century theological giant, Karl Barth, and the great challenge it is to counter his influential – and yes, confounding – ideas in ways that are both highly intelligent and fair.
To form a theology of the word of God, one must construct it according to certain parameters that can be shown to be justified. Personally, I will say that as a fellow traveler who has also struggled with the questions surrounding Scripture’s composition, authority, and interpretation, I truly appreciate Nafzger’s careful study and his well-reasoned reflections on these challenging issues. He has provided much excellent fodder for my own thinking and reflection. I especially appreciate his emphasis – as I am sure that many theologians will – that truths put forth in Scriptural passages like John 5:39 and 20:31, and Luke 24: 24,47 (7, 26, 152) should be central to our theology of Scripture. Again, he raises excellent points about the “concepts, categories, and assumptions” that have dominated contemporary approaches – such as, for example, naïve “objectivist attitudes” (146, see 155) that minimize the importance of an authoritative church (28-30). Overall, it is easy for me to get excited about Pastor Nafzger’s systematic theology of the word even as I now wish to direct attention to key questions I believe his approach engenders.
First, regarding the canon, should the church insist that some books (i.e. the antilegomena), failing as they do Nafzger’s “dogmatic account of the canon” (122), are not Scripture, or is it sufficient to insist that these – if they are to be considered Scripture – are of a lesser authority? (133) Second, regarding the issue of Scripture’s authority and inspiration, should we say it is good, as a general rule, to simply assert that the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to make clear to all men who we are, who God is, and what He has done and will do – i.e. “the Trinitarian and soteriological narrative” – and that conversion occurs in part through such knowledge? (53, 79, 94, 155) Third, also regarding Scripture’s authority, since Jesus received the Old Testament canon with faithful contemporaries (96), should we say that the miracle of His resurrection alone does not uniquely establish the historical truth of the Scriptures per se (87, 115, 125), but the New Testament in particular? Going along with this, should the church assert that the resurrection of Christ does indirectly constitute (123) among all men the reason for the acceptance of the New Testament Scriptures – and by implication, the Old Testament Scriptures that Christ upheld – given that it is the one miracle the Apostle insisted all men can – should – know and believe for their salvation? (Acts 17)
Fourth, regarding the matter of the Scripture’s “perspicuity” and its interpretation, I think about the place of John 16:8-11, important to both Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. Should we assert that the Holy Spirit might, for example, through a reading of the book of John, convict the unbeliever with knowledge of the end-times judgment of the crucified Savior now (John 12:32, 16:8-11) – yes, ultimately so that they may believe (“internal clarity”) – but even if they do not believe (“external clarity”)? (42-43, 98, 111 [fn 36], 113, 140, 154-157 [fn 135]) Or, does God choose to bring about this knowledge of one’s sin exclusively through the “fresh” words (97) of those who preach this – or through “fresh” writing? Finally – to both explain and unpack the above question in a bit more concreteness – do we want to assert – or give the impression – that when it comes to understanding the key message conveyed in the Scriptures unbelievers who carefully examine them are necessarily less able to grasp what is being said – and to be spiritually convicted – than the believing Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 10, who after all did lack the entire content found in the New Testament – the “good news” about Jesus? (30-32, 42-43, 146-148)
These are some of the key questions that arise out of my reading of Pastor Nafzger’s book, These Are Written, which I highly recommend for your prayerful reflection and study.