Thursday, March 24, 2011

“How Lutherans Interpret Scripture”

Well, if we want to be honest, Lutherans interpret scripture almost any way that they want to. Of course, I’m being a little tongue in cheek when I say that, but there really is no clear cut definition of how Lutherans interpret scripture.

There are many Lutherans who believe that the Bible should be interpreted literally. For example, this world was created in eight days, Noah truly took all of the animals on an ark, and Jonah was swallowed by a large fish. They believe that God guided every word that was spoken.

In response to the above, many more Lutherans don’t concern themselves with how the world was created. They believe the initial story in Genesis is a message of God’s love for humanity iby creating the world for us and of our responsibility to take care of it. In addition, we know that most civilizations have a story of the flood. It could be connected to when the earth shifted on its axis or some other cataclysmic event that separated the continents. Furthermore, Lutherans see the story of Jonah as just that, a major “parable” with messages for us to ponder.

Then there are those who are more extreme. They do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin woman. They believe many of the stories in the Hebrew Testament are what we today would call “fictional. Furthermore, the Bible interpretation needs to be “adjusted” for current understanding of science, culture, and the dynamics in which we live.

There is one basic understanding of scripture from all Lutherans: we are justified by faith through grace. We have been made one through Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself on the cross so that our sinfulness would be “taken away” and we would be justified in the eyes of God.

There are other basic understandings: 1) Jesus Christ was both fully human and divine, 2) Jesus was on this earth for a period of time and had a ministry that lasted somewhere between one to three years, 3) Jesus was arrested, beaten, hung on a cross, and died, 4) Christ rose from death, not by being resuscitated, but in a new a “human” form, 5) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. All other understandings and interpretations are acceptable as long as these are not denied.

With this in mind, I would like to summarize what a contemporary theologian has suggested for Lutherans in their understanding of scripture.

Initially we look at the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to see what it says about the Bible. The ELCA Constitution has two statements regarding the Bible. First, there is a general statement about the Word of God, which is understood in a threefold sense: 1) Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word); 2) the message of law and gospel (the proclaimed Word); and 3) the Bible (the written word). Second, there is a specific statement about the Bible as authoritative for the church’s proclamation, faith, and life. The ELCA accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.

Mark Allen Powell identifies four phrases that Lutherans often use when talking about the Bible.

Law and Gospel: Lutherans say that the Word of God speaks both law and gospel and that both must be held together for God’s Word to be fulfilled: the law is that which accuses us and judges us, and the Gospel is that which comforts us and saves us. This message of law and gospel is at the heart of scripture: faithful interpretation discerns this message; faithful proclamation declares this message.

Sola Scriptura (scripture alone): Lutherans say that scripture is the “only rule and norm” according to which doctrines are to be established and evaluated. This does not mean that Lutherans do not respect the validity of sound reason or the legitimacy of human experience. Scripture has unique authority as the only record of revealed truth, and it, therefore, provides a perspective from which human reason and experience are best understood.

The Plain Sense: Lutherans say that scripture is to be interpreted in line with its “plain sense.” This means that passages are to be understood in the sense that would have seemed obvious to their original readers (e.g., “metaphorical” or “literal”). Secret systems of “coded meaning” are not to be imposed on scripture to produce interpretations unavailable to the original audience.

Public Interpretation: Lutherans say that the interpretation of scripture is a public act rather than a private one. Individuals should not view the Bible as a conduit for receiving private messages from God but should recognize that the Bible presents God's word to the Church as a whole. The meaning of scripture for individuals is to be found by seeking application of its universal message to personal situations.

There is more to be said about this. I will continue this discussion in the next addition of “God Talk.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


So, what’s the big deal about Lent? What is it all about, anyway?

Lent is a time of penance, prayer, preparation for or recollection of baptism, and preparation for the celebration of Easter.

In a general way, the traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The season of Lent has been around for thousands of years. It initially developed during the early years of Christianity. Most of the new Christians were baptized during a long service called The Easter Vigil. The Lenten season was a time for preparation and consideration of what it meant to be a disciple, or follower, of Jesus Christ. The length of the Lenten season was forty days to represent the forty days of Jesus fasting in the wilderness. The forty days began with Ash Wednesday and ended at midnight, just before The Day of Resurrection. The forty days did not include the five Sundays in Lent because those were days that the faithful observe Jesus’ resurrection.

As the Christian religion developed, with its connection with the Holy Roman Empire, the season of Lent was reshaped as the church gave instructions on how to observe Lent. Christians were not to eat meat or fish, sometimes not even eggs or dairy products. Furthermore, they were limited to one meal a day. In the Ninth Century, fasting restrictions were gradually loosed. In the Roman Catholic tradition, meat was allowed by the Twentieth Century, except on Fridays. In 1966, the Roman Catholic Church began a trend toward penitential works, such as acts of charity in conjunction with Lent.

With the advent of the Reformation, the practices of Lent were rethought, especially by Martin Luther. The church at that time had developed a strong practice of “good works.” In one of his sermons on the First Sunday of Lent, Martin Luther said, “But the worst of all is that we have adopted and practiced fasting as a good work: not to bring our flesh into subjection; but, as a meritorious work before God, to atone for our sins and obtain grace. And it is this that has made our fasting a stench and so blasphemous and shameful, so that no drinking and eating, no gluttony and drunkenness, could have been as bad and foul. It would have been better had people been drunk day and night than to fast thus.” (Martin Luther did not mince words.)

What has developed, for many people in the current culture, is a practice of self-abstinence for personal reasons, such as dieting, giving up chocolate, or some other practice to improve their personal well-being. Often the practice of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer have gone by the wayside. There seems to be some perception of Lenten practices as irrelevant to one’s faith.

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are the three usual considerations of Lent. These have developed because of Jesus’ comments on how we should practice piety in our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that our focus should continue to be the focus of preparation for or recollection of baptism, and preparation for the celebration of Easter. Such preparation and recollection of baptism and Easter needs to consider the holy days before Easter of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the time that Jesus spent with his disciples in the Upper Room initiating The Lord’s Supper and his anguish, beginning with the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. However, it also seems to me that Lent is an opportunity to rethink who we are, what are purpose in life is, and how to respond, not only from the mind but the heart, to God’s will each day of our lives.

Besides considering fasting and almsgiving, we need to be in daily prayer, worship regularly, and read the Book of Faith. All of these open up to us the opportunity to experience a closer personal relationship with Jesus.

We claim to be Christians. Our desire is to follow Jesus. With that in mind, our practices of Lent need to focus on our personal relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. We need to develop an attitude of walking with Jesus in his ministry, entering Jerusalem, being in the Upper Room, and walking with him across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane. We need to acknowledge our own frailties, such as the disciples did when they abandoned him when he was arrested, denied him, and even betrayed him. We need to spiritually come to the foot of the cross and walk to the tomb where he was buried.

In following Jesus, we can think about losing our life so that we may find it, picking up our own cross and follow Jesus, and dying to self so that we may live.

There is no Easter without Good Friday. There is no empty tomb without a cross. There is no resurrection without a crucifixion.