The Way Forward (3): The Bible in the Church


According to the Formula of Concord, the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” are “the pure clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm by which all teachers and teaching are to be judged” (Solid Declaration, Rule and Norm). Our attention easily locks onto the description of Scripture as the “only true norm” in doctrinal controversy. That’s the contested Protestant bit, the “Scripture-principle.” It’s been endlessly discussed since the Reformation, and entered deeply into Protestant identity.

It has also been viewed with increasing skepticism since the Enlightenment, not without reason. It just doesn’t seem to have worked out very well. Conflicts don’t actually seem to be resolved by biblical interpretation in the Protestant churches; controversies seem more likely to generate schism or else the formation of ongoing opposed parties within ecclesiastical communities. Hasn’t any unity Protestants have enjoyed really been brought about by state-church regimes or capacious denominational structures, rather than a meeting of the minds over Scripture?

Notice, though, that the Formula does not present Scripture only as a norm to be appealed to in controversy. Before Scripture is norm, it is the “pure, clear fountain of Israel,” the source of the water of life. A fountain is different from a norm; its work is prior to any outbreak of controversy, any pressing need for judgment. A fountain gives life and provides cleansing. Its waters sustain travelers, clear dust from human eyes, and turn deserts into fruitful fields. Unless the church is constantly being enlivened and formed by Scripture in this way, appeals to the Bible as norm and judge will be operating in a vacuum.

No method of resolving disputes within the church can function without the support of an underlying sensus fidelium, a common mind among the faithful. Even a teaching office on Roman Catholic lines can only settle disputes successfully if there is a shared perception that the office deserves respect. This can never be wholly a matter of recognizing the formal authority of the bishop or the Pope, as in the slogan “Rome has spoken – case closed.” It has to include a perception that the actual decisions made by the teaching office reliably cohere with central Christian beliefs and practices. Only so can a sense be maintained that obedience to the teaching office is an authentic form of discipleship. But for that to be the case, the teachers and the faithful must share a common formation in faith and life. They can only meet, so to speak, if they live in the same Christian universe.

The root of our problems with authority in the ELCA, I would suggest, is the confusion, weakening, and consequent fragmentation of the sensus fidelium, the common mind of the faithful. This confusion and weakness are by no means all on one side. We’ve all been affected by the biblical illiteracy, thin catechesis, clueless educational programs, and unfocused preaching that are widespread (I’m not saying universal) in our denomination. Seeking scriptural resolution to a passionate controversy on top of such weakness, confusion, and fragmentation is like trying to ride up the glass mountain in the fairy tale: no matter how strong your theological horse or how well you ride it, you’re never going to get traction.

This is one reason I’ve been suggesting that the way forward has to be a renewed formative engagement with Scripture as pure, clear fountain. We need to set the Bible loose in the ELCA; we need to uncap the hydrant and let the waters pour where they will. We need to do this not defensively, nor simply in a new round of argument about sexual ethics, but with the air of people discovering treasure in a field. The new mantra in the ELCA is that our unity is in Christ, not in theology or moral teaching. A confused mantra – but why not respond: “Good – then let’s go looking for him. Let’s dig up the field of the Scriptures to find him.”

I heard a couple of words in church last Sunday that encouraged me: “The word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27). When we let the Bible loose, we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. But it’s not just our own power we have to reckon with. And we’ve just about run out of other things to try.

12 Responses to “The Way Forward (3): The Bible in the Church”

  1. Garry White Says:

    I have followed your reflections from your Aftermath paper to your Way Forward series. I’m proud to continue to be your student. Blessings!

  2. Rev. Judson Merrell Says:

    Dr. Yeago wrote:
    “We need to set the Bible loose in the ELCA; we need to uncap the hydrant and let the waters pour where they will.”

    How are we to do that when the Lutheran Study Bible published by our denomination’s own publishing house says that God does not speak to individuals?

    It seems to me that in *trying* to follow through with NC Synod’s memorialization to read the Bible through a Lutheran Lens, the guidance that has flowed through the upper echelon of the ELCA has only made the situation worse.

    • Lance Henderson Says:


      I agree that the Lutheran Study Bible is an abomination. And some of the supporting materials for The Book of Faith Project seem to be slanted toward the idea that the last thing we would ever want to do it is take the Bible at face value. But that criticism is only for some of the material.

      That said, I’ve had a good deal of interest & excitement from parishioners following the the 4-fold method of looking at Biblical texts suggested by BoF–Historical, Literary, (Lutheran) Theological, and Devotional. There are a few caveats. When looking at the Historical, I include work of the Church Fathers (Tom Oden’s Ancient Christian Commentaries work well for the busy pastor). Regarding the Theological, I try not to fall into the traps of the 20th century century understandings of pseudo-Lutheran buzzword theologies–i.e. Two Kingdoms, Priesthood of All Believers, et al. And with the devotional, I try to bring in as much of the liturgy and the hymnody as I can.

      Perhaps what is best of all is that the method is cheap! Everyone’s got a Bible (the wide variety of study Bibles and translations add to the conversation), and by using the method, I don’t have to buy another single must-be-verified-before-use curriculum from Augsburg Fortress.

      I’m right there with you on what is coming down the pipe labelled as “teaching”. But as I like to say, a broken clock is right twice a day. Book of Faith can be used effectively and to great interest to parishioners. We just finished a 7 week series using the method to look at the 6 passages we use weekly in worship–the Gloria, Gospel Alleluia, Psalm 51, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, the Nunc Dimmitis. Very well received.

  3. Pastor Travis Norton Says:

    I wonder too what “setting the Bible loose” looks like. Does it look like the Book of Faith initiative? I have found in my own teaching of confirmation that it’s more important to teach Bible stories than the catechism because the kids just don’t know what the bible says. Their parents aren’t that different.

    Part of what I’ve noticed in this whole debate about sexuality is that the revisionist side ends up doing a lot of preaching/teaching against scripture. Trying to wriggle out from under certain passages. I know I’ve done this too on other issues that pinch my current beliefs. But we need a way to deal with tough passages and parts of scripture that seem so wierd(not mixing up different kinds of clothing, covering your head in church etc) without our current default of resorting to historical criticism as a way to undermine those parts of the Bible and giving ourselves permission to ignore them.

  4. Christopher Luke Seamon Says:

    What are your thoughts on the assertion that the Bible is not such much the Word of God as it “contains the Word of God”? I see that this distinction is either said or basically implied in the official ELCA talk concerning the Bible. A recent article in The Lutheran implies that the Word of God is something that we find in the Bible by our searching for it. Confessionally speaking that seems backwards to me. Isn’t the Word that which finds us and speaks to us?

    • David S. Yeago Says:

      The trend towards saying that the Bible “contains” rather than “is” the word of God largely reflects the felt need to distinguish ourselves from “fundamentalists” who have been the unacceptable “other” against whom mainline Lutherans have defined themselves since the troubles in the Missouri Synod in the ’70’s. It also reflects a mood in modern Protestant theology that finds it difficult to accept that the divine could ever genuinely have concrete, particular presence in the world. I don’t believe that the Reformers shared that mood, or that they had the slightest hesitation about identifying the Scriptures with the Word of God.

      The particle of truth in the distinction is that, obviously, not everyone who reads the Bible hears the Word of God. And not every interpretation of the Bible proclaims the Word of God. But, to use an old analogy, not everyone who saw the human body of Jesus saw the eternal Son of God, and not every religious interpretation of the human Jesus honors the Son of God. But this is not because the human Jesus only “contains” the Son of God. It is because a certain kind of eye is needed to see who Jesus is, and only the Father can give us that vision (cf. Matthew 16:13-17).

      I wouldn’t start a fight over the “contains the word” formula as such, but I worry about its drift. The way I put the matter in the preceding paragraph is rough and needs all kinds of nuancing, but hopefully it makes clear that the heart of the problem is in us, in our deficient vision, not in the Bible.

      The “contains the word” formula by constrast is sometimes accompanied by rhetoric that suggests that the problem is in the Bible, which was written a long time ago and is only human and so forth, and therefore conceals the Word of God as much or maybe more than it reveals it. Then it is up to us, with our spiritual/ethical insight and our proper “Lutheran hermeneutics, “to “find” the word of God by getting past the irrelevancies, anachronisms, and distortions with which the scriptural text encumbers it. What is in danger of getting left out is the need for us to change in order to see what is there in the texts.

      Again, the christological analogy is illuminating: would we want to say that the human Jesus only contains the Eternal Logos, whom we must seek beyond the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the flesh, beyond the irrelevant time-conditioned Jewish attitudes and assumptions of the son of Mary? Well, some people have wanted and still want to say just that, but I like to think that it would stick in the throat of most people in the ELCA.

      Obviously this is very brief and needs much development. I want to be clear that when I spoke of the dangers of the “contains the Word” formula I was not ascribing a view to anyone in particular. I also cheerfully admit that the Bible is time-conditioned — all of it — just as the Son of God was conceived in Mary’s womb at one particular point in time and not at any other. I agree that the Bible is full of dangerous imagery, intolerable tensions, odd folklore, violent horrors, perverse additudes, and strange old Hebrews shrieking and blubbering about vengeance. I would just deny that all this constitutes a reason for denying that the Bible “is” the Word of God.

  5. Sally Krey Says:

    As a layperson who has been involed in Christian Education for over 30 years, my frustrations and fears have come to fruition. The ELCA’s publishing house has been producing Sunday School materials that have been designed for entertainment, social edification, and easily teachable with minimal preparation. They have been very light on Biblical content with either a single verse or a transliterated story. Now that we have raised a generation on this, they are becoming parents who are being asked to be Sunday School teachers. How can they teach what they have never learned? How can they answer their own children’s questions? Pastors please teach your teachers! We need to take a serious look at the content and conveyors of what our children are learning (or not learning). How easy it is to convince the laity that homosexuality between committed partners is acceptable behavior because they love each other, and love covers all sins. When the fountain is brackish, what do you expect?

  6. thomas Says:

    There are two “Lutheran Study Bible” versions. The Concordia Press “Lutheran Study Bible” is very different from the ELCA sponsored book.

  7. Dan Says:

    When you first start attending a Lutheran church after being among the Baptists, Methodists or Presbyterians a couple of things strike you right away. Nobody much goes to Sunday School, and almost nobody carries a Bible. During sermons you don’t hear “Would you turn with me in your Bibles…..” as you do everywhere else. And then when you get involved with Christian ed and try to recruit helpers, you find out nobody under sixty feels competent to teach basic Bible stories to children.

    It is hard to believe that a denomination could get this way accidentally.

    Do Lutheran clergy really want a bunch of us untrained lay people reading the Bible? Do the ELCA leaders want anyone reading 2 Peter right now? I doubt it. Does the average pastor really want the hydrant uncapped? Lots of questions about all sorts of things will come out of that hydrant. Isn’t the status quo a good deal more comfotable?

    • R. Reimann Says:

      Thank you Dan for your insights. One of the issues I have a problem with is that our clergy does not regularly use scripture to bring every day events into focus. It is too easy to use printed works from the “home office.” Few people, clergy included, want to rock the boat even though the boat needs to be rocked.

      The Living God of whom we confess believing in, is a Father. He loves us and as a loving Father should and will do, He does hold us accountable for our actions. As His children, we too need to help each other along lifes pathways. There are days we must love and fear the Lord our God.

  8. Rob Knetsch Says:

    It is very interesting that the comments I am reading here are strongly reflective of the situation in the Anglican/Episcopal communion, of which I am a part. Of course, this occurs to various extents, depending of which diocese you are in. What makes it worse it that there is no equivalent to the Formula of Concord, or some such document. I’m not sure if this makes much of a difference: while there are many forms of Lutheranism (Missouri/ECLA, etc.) there is only ONE Anglican Communion…which does not say much because the enormous tent that we call a “Communion” has walls that are stretch so thin, they are porous.

  9. reads elert also Says:

    “According to the Formula of Concord, the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” are “the pure clear fountain of Israel, which is the…”

    With all due respect the actual reference to rule and norm at FC reference has to do with the apostolic and prophetic writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. A distinction must be kept here. Thanks.

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