It seems to me that one of the great battles of the church in the years to come will be over whether the literal sense of Scripture is to be respected. After all, is it not often downplayed, minimized, and even subtlely undermined – even if this is done unintentionally? See, for example, this post regarding Stanley Hauerwas’ intentionally provocative idea that we need to keep the Scriptures from the rabble.
Once again, the Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Stephen Freeman has put up a post that is full of food for thought regarding the Scriptures: “Making Known the Mystery”. And once again, I am responding here (see the first response here): the title of this post comes from the opening statement of Freeman’s most recent one. I think much that he has written there is excellent and worthy of deep reflection, even as I must balk when he insists, for example, that “all literalisms seek to rid Scripture of its mystery”, and “[such readings do] not transform or transfigure anyone or anything”.
Of course he also says “This is not to deny that the Scriptures have a value on the literal level”, but I for one, struggle to understand what kind of value he thinks they have. After all, he immediately goes on to say “the hiddenness of the gospel is precisely that – hidden beneath the literal level”. Some questions that arise in my mind, for example, are these:
- “Cannot the Holy Spirit use words to reveal what is hidden on one level while there is mystery that remains”?
- “Must we insist that the Ethiopian eunuch, for example, would necessarily have been completely lost even if he had had the New Testament?”
I do not deny that there is much power behind Freeman’s critique of the role of the Western individual – perhaps especially the American individual – who he says being “unaided, unbridled, and unsubmitted, is the ultimate authority” (see his powerful follow-up post, “Again – The Sin of Democracy”, here)
And yet, as I have pointed out before, Freeman’s critique may “hit” some Protestants – even in their formal theologies – but confessional Lutherans, for one, really do not universally desire to be called “Protestants”. Again, as I noted at the end of my response to the Hauerwas comment, Lutherans such as Martin Chemnitz spoke of eight kinds of tradition that should be accepted. In truth, “Sola Scriptura”, just like “Scripture interprets Scripture”, is simply useful shorthand for matters that ultimately are more nuanced and really cannot be fully captured with those soundbytes.
Martin Luther certainly would have agreed that much of what was in the Scriptures – the “deeper meaning” Freeman quotes Andrew Louth talking about* – was hidden only to those with eyes to see. When he insisted that he saw “Christ on every page” of the Bible, he was obviously not insisting that any rank pagan could just pick up the book and see the same!
It seems to me that even persons claiming the Lutheran mantle have been taking steps that chip away at the importance of the literal meaning of the Scriptures and its corresponding clarity, or “perspicuity”. For example, the 19th century Lutheran theologian Johann Von Hofmann (see here for more on him) essentially believed that persons without faith could not begin to understand God or faith. Really, how could such a person ever “do theology” rightly at all? How could they be a Christian theologian? Now, on the one hand of course there must be some truth here, but on the other hand we must be careful to go too far. For example, Matthew Becker says of Hofmann’s views that “all understanding and interpretation of the Christian faith is possible only on the ground of Christ’s living relationship with the individual, which forms the object of such faith”.**
We can’t go there.
It is true that historically Lutherans have believed that what would make such theology insufficient would not be a lack of knowledge about God (this knowledge, actually, may indeed be quite accurate), but not knowing God – knowledge of Him. On the other hand, Lutherans did not say that unbelieving persons could not begin to have an accurate knowledge of what God was like or His work in history. On the contrary, the idea is that many persons did in fact have this knowledge, even as they raged against the testimony of the Holy Spirit, that is the public testimony found in the Scriptures.
The Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchton, writing in 1555, speaks of
“the frightful delusion of those who are scorners and hardened persecutors of the gospel, who continue in the Cain-like poisoned bitterness and rancor of their hate and rage against the truth. Neither sermons nor admonitions, supplications nor entreaties help; and although they are overwhelmed in their hearts and consciences by the public attestation of the Holy Spirit in Holy Scriptures and miracles, they do not cease justifying their godless doctrine and life” (Loci Communes, 1555, 1982 ed., p. 236)
Here is what the Lutherans confessed in the 1530 Augsburg Confession, which speaks to these matters in chapter XX:
“23] Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.
24] Now he that knows that he has a Father gracious to him through Christ, truly knows God; he knows also that God cares for him, and calls upon God; in a word, he is not 25] without God, as the heathen. For devils and the ungodly are not able to believe this article: the forgiveness of sins. Hence, they hate God as an enemy, call not upon Him, 26] and expect no good from Him. Augustine also admonishes his readers concerning the word “faith,” and teaches that the term “faith” is accepted in the Scriptures not for knowledge such as is in the ungodly but for confidence which consoles and encourages the terrified mind.”
In other words, the Nicene Creed, for example, may be believed to be true, doctrinally, historically, etc – but the key question here is whether or not you believe it is *for you*. Not in the sense that your believing makes it real – you have no influence over that! – but *in the sense* that we are talking about Christ’s forgiveness, life and salvation *for you*!
But here we come back to Father Freeman, and another question for him: is it only rationalistic literalists who think about such matters in this fashion? Or is my post really touching on something important for Christian life?
Tolle lege image: http://www.augustinianslimerick.com
*In the comments section of this post, Father Freeman says this: “I tended to shy away from the word “allegory” for many years, preferring the word “iconic.” That might still be a better choice because of baggage associated with allegory. My taking up the word came as a result of reading Fr. Andrew Louth’s treatment.”
**Hofmann as Ich-theologe? The Object of Theology in Johann von Hofmann’s Werke, Matthew Becker, Concordia Journal, July 2003, p. 265.
Update: this post was slightly altered for the purpose of clarification.