“Reading the Bible With Martin Luther”? Or With His Modern Existentialist Interpreters?

07 Apr
Dr. Wengert, does Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” Mean That We Should Not Call Sin What the Bible Calls Sin?

Dear Dr. Wengert:  Does Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” really mean that we should not call “sin” what the Bible calls sin?

“But because we have for so long been persuaded of the opposite by that pestilential saying of the Sophists that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, we are obliged to begin by proving even that first principle of ours by which everything else has to be proved—a procedure that among the philosophers would be regarded as absurd and impossible.” — Martin Luther, AE 33:91

Recently, at the recommendation of a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS) pastor I had come to respect, I checked out Timothy Wengert’s relatively new book (fall of 2013) “Reading the Bible With Martin Luther”. The book is published by Baker Academic – which to my knowledge has an excellent reputation for conservative Biblical scholarship – and also featured a wholly positive endorsement from one highly respected LC-MS theologian (even as we note such a “blurb” can mean “this is a book to read, not one to agree with completely”).

On the one hand, I can see why a person might want to endorse the book: it does seek to introduce Martin Luther’s Law-Gospel distinction to a wider audience, presenting some excellent quotations from the Reformer and some thought-provoking analysis and insights from its author. On the other hand, it is also plagued by “Law-Gospel reductionism”, a teaching that was actually formally defended by LC-MS professor Ed Schroeder back in 1972 (for a short piece by Pastor Cooper talking about both the importance of the Law-Gospel distinction and the dangers of Law-Gospel reductionism, see here). In this short reflection on the book, I will briefly discuss three of the core problems that attend this kind of reductionism.

First, while Wengert rightly upholds the importance of faith for the interpretation of Scripture, he goes too far. Telling us that the Bible must “drive us away from itself and toward faith in Christ under the cross” (p. 21), Wengert sets up a conflict where Luther saw none. First of all, while it true that the good news is indeed not so much that God has given us His written word, but that He has given us the incarnate Word, Wengert forgets to mention not only that the Scripture does in fact point to itself (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11), but that it also points to the incarnate Word who points us back to the written word – particularly as it regards His fulfillment of its Divine prophecies (see Luke 7:18-23 and Luke 24). Contra Wengert’s attempt to drive a wedge between Christ and the written word here, it is the Scriptures that testify about the incarnate Word (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39; Acts 26:22-23; Rom. 1:1-6: 3:21-22). And second, while we should not think that a sincere agnostic, truly seeking to understand the Bible as a complete work, would come up with the Nicene Creed, what Mark Twain said about the Scriptures is certainly relevant here: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Certainly, as we all know, there are some interpretations that certain words, whatever their context may be, will simply eliminate from the get go.

Second, in a related point, Wengert tells us that God’s word will not “succumb to our categories, principles, or proof texting” (p. 21), and that “if people only read Scripture to find out what it meant or what it means, it will always and only be the dead, killing letter” (p. 32). He further explains: “Luther distinguished theologically between a noun (Heisselwort; literally, a word that labels) and a verb (Thettlewort; literally, an action word). All that human words can do is label something. But God never simply labels things with God’s Word; God does something to us by killing and making alive….” (p. 32). In speaking thusly, Wengert essentially assumes that the person reading or listening to Scripture to learn what it means – what God means – has got the wrong idea. On the contrary, there is no justification for pitting God’s teaching through the word against His transforming through the word (I Thes. 2:13). Further, in discussing Luther’s view on the “too [law-]strong” book of James, Wengert, in contradistinction to what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit’s mission in John 16:8, sees its law-words not as related to God’s power or goals, but to Satan’s, who, in general, “gets believers to turn [the Bible] into power and wisdom – the more infallible and inerrant the better”. Wengert says God overturns such pretentions: “the [weak, despised, and neglected book… written by losers for losers….] itself opposes them with a God who… raises the Crucified from the dead” (p. 53). So again, this is a false dichotomy that Wengert introduces, which has the potential to open up the door to all manner of serious error.

Third, Wengert connects the judgmental behavior of the Pharisees with those who believe Christians need to uphold the moral norms reaffirmed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  Citing the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, Wengert brazenly writes “When one insists on using the phrase ‘Go, and sin no more” against those in same-gendered, committed relationships as another stone to throw, permission is granted to throw – if we have no sin.” (p. 25)  Evidently if one is not perfect, one should never attempt to guide others in accordance with God’s law.  In truth, this comment from Wengert is as incoherent as it is offensive (see also his remarks on the paragraph found on pp. 42-43 for more about “throwing stones”). First, with this view of the text, Wengert himself could never “invite” (see p. 24) those with whom he disagrees to leave behind their life of hypocrisy and intolerance. Second, using this passage gives the distinct impression that conservative Christians inevitably are – like the Pharisees were – not only eager to not forgive the fallen but eager to self-righteously and hypocritcally enact final judgment over fellow sinners’ souls. The fact that all of us have Pharisaical impulses notwithstanding, this kind of overblown rhetoric and argument lending comfort and aid to the “Spirit of this Age” (i.e.the gay rights movement) is, as they say, “over the top”. Wengert’s efforts to seemingly soften his stance – through his doubt-inducing and convoluted talk of the “bound conscience” (pp. 78-82 ; this concept from Wengert was the ELCA’s justification for accepting same-sex marriage) – should hardly comfort us. In sum, he presents himself here as no friend to the historical biblical forms of Christianity.*

An endorsement on the back of Wengert’s book says that he “challenges students of the Bible to find its authority and message by letting the text master them rather than through their own attempt to master God’s Word”. That, in itself, is a noble goal, but unfortunately, this book gives evidence of an author who has himself been mastered by a 20th century existentialist interpretation of the great reformer that leaves no room for any clear, or perspicuous, language (particularly surprising because this is the basis of Philip Melanchton’s “loci method”, and the author is known for his expertise on Melanchton). This, in turn leaves no room for a biblically accurate Jesus Christ.

If Lutheran churches in America – and pastors from any other church bodies reading this book – truly desire to be increasingly mastered by the Author of the biblical text – instead of a “different Jesus” (see 2 Cor. 11) – they best avoid being mastered by the faulty view of biblical hermeneutics promoted in this book. If they don’t, their namesake’s words to Erasmus will make less and less sense to them, as the years roll on: “a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.”


UPDATE/P.S.: For some great thoughts about a healthy approach towards existentialism, reason, philosophy, etc, see this great new post from Trent Demarest.



*Note that liberal biblical scholars consistently misportray what it means that Jesus “ate with sinners”, something that I address in part in this recent post.

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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Uncategorized


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