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.”

No comments:

Post a Comment