For the past year or so, I have participated in a Bible Study every Tuesday morning with a group of mostly Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors. We look at the readings for the week in the original languages and discuss the meaning of the text. It is an experience I am glad to be a part of, though I am always aware of the fact that I am a visitor and not a native. That is not to say that the group is not hospitable. They have been wonderfully welcoming, much to the contrary of the reputation that LCMS pastors sometimes get for being anti-ecumenical. They are holy men of God who have my utmost respect, and I have learned a great deal from them. The LCMS is something of a mixed bag these days, but this group is made up of convinced, conservative Lutherans who take seriously not just the Scriptures but interpreting them according to Lutheran confessional standards. It is this last bit that often leaves me as odd man out.
John the Doubter?
Case in point, this past week we were discussing the LCMS Gospel passage for this Sunday, Luke 7:18-35, in which an imprisoned John the Baptist tells two of his disciples to go to Jesus and ask Him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” This gives Jesus an opportunity to sketch out the difference between Himself and John, remarking finally that “among those born of a woman none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” It is a fascinating passage with lots of twists and turns to work out, but one of the things that is most striking is that, on the surface, it seems as if John, who had earlier identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), now has grown doubtful. During his time in prison, he has started to second guess himself and to wonder whether he made the right call, so he sends his servants to find out.
Except, if you read what the early Church Fathers have to say about this passage, that is not what is happening here at all. Rather than sending his disciples to confirm his own faith, John sends them so that they may find faith themselves. “So great indeed was [John], that he was taken for Christ,” says Saint Augustine, “and if he had not himself testified that he was not He, the mistake would have continued, and he would have been reputed to be the Christ.” Thus, according to Augustine, John said, “‘Go then, ask Him;’ not because I doubt, but that ye may be instructed.” Saint John Chrysostom says similarly, “Having sent them forth, He withdrew Himself, giving them opportunity and time to do the things that He had enjoined; for while He was present and ready to heal, no man would come to His disciples.” The same sort of teaching is found in the writings of Ambrose, Gregory the Great, Remigius, Jerome, Hillary, and countless others. The Fathers do not always agree with one another about how to interpret a passage of scripture, but on this passage they are in complete unanimity.
This also seems to be how a lot of Lutherans have understood this passage, both modern and old, including dear old Martin Luther himself. Nonetheless, at Bible Study this week, several of the Lutherans present argued for the opposite reading, that John was simply a doubter who had backslid into skepticism because of his hardship. Since the text does not tell us explicitly which version is correct, both of these interpretations are plausible. Nonetheless, one of them holds the weight of sacred tradition and the consistent teaching of the Church over the centuries, while the other is merely a private opinion foisted upon the text by individual readers many centuries and cultures removed from the actual events. Yet our conversation remained deadlocked because ultimately there is no place in Lutheranism for the Church to speak definitively on a matter of controversy.
By comparison to the standards of most of modern Protestantism, confessional Lutheranism is wonderfully, refreshingly Catholic. Unlike the radical iconoclasm of many other early Protestants including Puritans in the Church of England, early Lutherans went out of their way to retain just about anything from the tradition they could which they saw as consistent with Scripture. Vestments, gestures, crucifixes, ancient hymns, celebration of the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and even the continued use of the confessional were all hallmarks of the Lutheran Reformation. It is not anathema to quote from the Fathers in the company of good Lutherans who know their faith. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the standard of faith for Lutherans is sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” which means that the ultimate standard of faith is only the individual Christian and what he or she thinks the Bible is saying.
I am certain that my Lutheran and other Protestant friends will feel that this is an unfair rendering of their position. They will say that Scripture is largely perspicacious, an argument that many Anglicans have also made historically. It is true that much of what is found in the Scripture is a lot clearer and a lot more straight forward than our post-enlightenment, post-modern world would care to admit. As Lutherans rightly point out, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” cannot mean anything other than what they actually say. Still, there are a variety of places in the Scriptures where multiple readings of the same passage are plausible. Herein, classical Protestants would say that we interpret the unclear passages in light of the clear ones. This is a fine rule, so far as it goes. But in the case of our passage about John the Baptist and his intentions, there is very little that can be found elsewhere in Scripture that can be of much help. So how then can a judgment be rendered?
Anglicanism and Sola Scriptura
Anglicanism maintains the primacy of Scripture in the formation of doctrine, and there is a way of describing sola scriptura that is consistent with the Anglican formularies. If by sola scriptura, we mean what Article VI says, that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation,” than sola scriptura is an appropriate and historic doctrine, adhered to by the Fathers themselves. Scripture forms the foundation of the deposit of faith. It cannot be contradicted. It is not incomplete. It holds the key to our salvation. Everything that the Church teaches must conform to Scripture’s standard. Scripture is the ultimate rule of faith, and the doctrinal assertions of any particular church can and must be judged by an appeal back to Scripture, as Article XX makes clear.
However, Article XX also tells us that the Church “hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith.” The addition of this phrase to the article was objected to strenuously by the Puritan factions at the Convocation of 1563, but Archbishop Parker and those aligned with him prevailed. While Scripture is our highest standard of authority as Christians, bearing the unique Word of God that is not to be found anywhere else, the Scriptures are not self interpreting. The Church must not only keep and bear witness to the words of Scripture but also attest to their meaning. This the Church does through an appeal to an unbroken inheritance of apostolic interpretation, handed down from generation to generation, guarded by the episcopate, and carried forth by the liturgy itself which forms us even as we worship. As new issues arise, the Church tests them against the apostolic inheritance, finding answers ultimately in an appeal to Scripture made not in isolation by each individual Christian, but through conciliarity, within which the Holy Spirit works to guide the Church into all truth.
Scripture and the Conciliar Church
It is a complicated and messy process, made much muddier by the schisms that have rended the Church over the centuries, but it is ultimately beautiful and elegant in its outworking. And, of course, it is itself scriptural. When the early Church encountered controversy concerning the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols and whether or not to accept Gentiles, the apostles and bishops met in council, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit to come to a conclusion, not apart from the Scriptures but in and through them. And when that conclusion was reached, it was announced as that which “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
Is this a process that is open to abuse? Certainly, as we see in councils today wherein the bishops fail to acknowledge that they are meeting in schism, without the whole council of the Church, but act as if they have similar authority. Councils can and do err, but the Holy Spirit guides the Church faithfully over time, always bringing her back to what has been revealed to her through the power of God’s Word. The alternative is to adopt the notion that the Scriptures do not need an interpreter, in which case every person individually becomes the chief interpreter of Scripture, every man or woman a pope in their own right, unable to be moved even by God Himself to believe that their own infallible readings of the text could ever be suspect. And so, though I have great respect for Lutherans and for the contributions that Lutheranism has made to the Church, I could never be one, nor any other kind of Protestant, except in the very narrow sense in which Anglicanism could be so defined. I simply do not trust myself to have that kind of unmitigated power over the Word of God.