Why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant’

I am very often called a ‘Protestant,’ mainly by American Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or Roman Catholics. But I have always rejected the term, and that is often perplexing to them. Since I am now a bit tired of explaining why, I have decided, after being encouraged, to just write a post about it.

Some (and mainly Americans) claim that ‘Protestantism’ (as it is often used these days) is, in some sense, a result of the Reformation. Baptists, for instance, who are undeniable part of so called modern ‘Protestantism,’ have their origin in the Anabaptist and radical reformations, yet these predates the Lutheran Reformation and are condemned by name in Confessio Augustana, art. 5, 9, 12, 16 and 17. These are ‘Protestants’ in the modern sense, yet to say that they are a result of the Reformation is, well, undeniably wrong, as they are condemned by it, and would therefore have to exist before or concurrent with it.

As for the use of ‘Protestant,’ allow me explain why this is an improper designation to use for Lutherans:

Some (American) Lutherans claim that “Lutherans were the original Protestants,” yet that is true only of German Lutherans in the Holy Roman Empire and perhaps their successors, yet I would say that this is dubious, as the term ‘Protestant’ is NOT, and have never been, a theological designation. It is a purely historical designation, and in its time it was political, not theological.

The origin of the name ‘Protestant’ was a protest not against any church body (so not against the Roman Catholic Church) but against the Holy Roman Emperor’s enforcement of the Edict of the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529, upholding the condemnation of Luther and Lutheranism in the Empire from 1521 (the Edict of Worms) and reversing concessions made to Lutherans at the first Diet of Speyer in 1526. Read more at Wikipedia, and in the included links. This decision was met by protest (hence the term ‘Protestant’) from “six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities,” according to Wikipedia. They didn’t protest the Catholic Church but the Holy Roman Empire, and the term wasn’t theological, it was political. It was a protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor (to use more modern terminology). To use a modern equivalent, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the US are ‘Protestants’ in the historic sense when they protested the HHS Mandate. The Wikipedia article notes: “During the Reformation, the term protestant was hardly used outside of German politics. People who were involved in the religious movement used the word evangelical (German: evangelisch).” Later, and gradually, the article notes, “protestant became a general term, meaning any adherent of the Reformation in the German-speaking area.” Note when it says that it was a general term it was general in the German-speaking area, and not in Lutheranism as such. It was, and remains, a political term, confined to the German situation.

It is understandable that many American Lutherans call themselves ‘Protestants’ (and underline that “Lutherans were the original Protestants”), as German Lutheranism has had a strong influence on American Lutheranism, more so, it seems, than Scandinavian Lutheranism (which is to be expected, the population of Germany far outnumbering the population of Scandinavia). Scandinavian Lutherans did not call themselves ‘Protstants,’ and I never will call myself that. In Norway we generally call ourselves ‘Lutheran’ or ‘evangelical Lutheran’ (no. evangelisk, not to be confused by the Norwegian evangelikal, used of the modern Evangelical Protestants) or often simply ‘Christians,’ though I find that to often be misleading. If someone asks me what I am, I don’t say simply ‘Christian,’ as I do not want to be put in the same box as Reformed, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics. I would rather be mistaken for a Roman Catholic than for an Evangelical.

Scandinavia was never part of the Holy Roman Empire and as such the edicts mentioned didn’t apply to us. Historically, no Scandinavian Lutherans called themselves ‘Protestants,’ and it is an entirely historically contingent term. In fact, in Scandinavia we had the reverse. Here, the Reformation wasn’t ground up, as in Germany, but top-down, as in England, introduced by the rulers (though the process was more ‘ecclesially willed’ in Sweden, then in Denmark-Norway, AFAIK). So the ‘Protestants’ in Scandinavia were Roman Catholics protesting the religious politics of the King (Gustav I in the Swedish Empire, Christian III in Denmark-Norway).

So the historical designation ‘Protestant’ doesn’t refer to me, or to many Lutherans, therefore ‘Lutherans were the original Protestants’ is simply not true of Lutheranism as such, only of German Lutheranism (and, arguably, only for those six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities, and their subjects, who uttered their political protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor).

But what about the more modern use of the word ‘Protestant’? Well, that is even more problematic. Many today simply say ‘Protestant’ every time they speak of a Christian who isn’t Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Oriental Orthodox (or perhaps Old Catholic, if they know of their existence). But that means that it has become utterly useless as a term. It doesn’t say anything about what we believe, only who we aren’t subject to. It doesn’t tell you anything about the person who is given the title. It just tells you what he isn’t. I know Lutherans (especially Americans) who time and time again has to explain that yes, they do believe in the real presence or yes, they have liturgy, because they get lumped together with everything from Pentecostals to Adventists. When Anabaptists, who are opposed to the Lutheran Reformation, are called ‘Protestants,’ we see that it has lost its meaning.

I am a non-Swede. I do not live in Sweden, and have never lived there. But non-Swede is not therefore a useful word to use about me. People from, say, southeast Asia are also non-Swedes but I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with people from southeast Asia. To illustrate the point, consider these two sentences: “As a Norwegian, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with southeast Asians.” Or: “As a non-Swede, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with non-Swedes.” The second sentence is utterly nonsensical an that tells us the uselessness of ‘non-Swede.’

So to with the word ‘Protestant’ (as many use it). I have fare more – theologically, liturgically, sacramentally, and ecclesially – in common with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than I have with Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc. To use the same kind of sentence, I would have to say, “As a Protestant, I have far more in common with Roman Catholics than I have with Protestants.” It shows how useless the term is. But it goes beyond this.

To use a word – ‘Protestant’ – to denoted some kind of unity between me and these ‘Protestants’ over and against Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics isn’t just useless and bizarre, it is misleading and, quite frankly, deceitful. It makes it look like there is some kind of unity between these so-called ‘Protestants,’ when, quite frankly, no such unity exists. It thus serves to cover up the fact that there is more unity between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than there has ever been between Lutherans and, say, Evangelicals, Pentecostals or Baptists. To use ‘Protestant’ in this modern sense is basically to lie and deceive.

And that is why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant.’


Nokre smått reviderte tankar omkring konfirmasjonen

Eg blogga litt om dette i forfjor også, og denne posten er ein ny versjon av den med litt nytt, basert på nokre diskusjonar på Facebook.

Sidan 1920(!) har konfirmasjonen i Den norske kyrkja primært vore ei velsignings- og forbønshandling, og ikkje primært ein teologi- og bibelkunnskapspresentasjon. Nokre eg har snakka med synst dette verkar rart. Men når eg har snakka med utanlandske vener, spesielt frå England eller USA, vert ein ofte overraska over at vi i Noreg i det heile (spesielt blant folk) ser på konfirmasjonen som ein slangs kristen Bar/Bat Mitzwa. For kva er eigentleg ein konfirmasjon? På nettsidene til Den norske kyrkja står det at konfirmasjonen er «en forbønnshandling,» at «alle konfirmantene kneler ved alterringen» i konfirmasjonsgudstenesta, og at «[p]resten eller konfirmantlæreren din ber for deg.» Dette er det nok ikkje alle som har fått med seg, og eg har fått spørsmål om kvifor ein ikkje lenger må stå å demonstrere bibelkunnskap og vedkjenning. Vel, det siste er ikkje heilt korrekt. Vedkjenninga og forsakinga er ein del av konfirmasjonsgudstenesta, for alle i kyrkjelyden, inkluderte konfirmantane. Vi kunne gjerne gjort meir ut av det, slik ein gjer det i Church of England, der konfirmatoren (biskopen) innleier ved å seie «Brothers and sisters, I ask you to profess together with these candidates the faith of the Church,» før han spør tre spørsmål: «Do you believe and trust in God the Father? … Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ? … Do you believe and trust in the Holy Spirit?,» der alle, etter kvart spørsmål, svarer ved å seie fram aktuelle trusartikkelen i den apostoliske truvedkjenninga. Sjå Common Worship: Christian Initiation (London: Church House, 2006), s.115.

Men sjølve konfirmasjonshandlinga er ikkje lenger ein presentasjon av teologi- og bibelkunnskap. Men det har det som sagt ikkje formelt vore sidan 1920! Då vart konfirmasjonen definert som ei velsignings- og forbønshandling, innleia av ei vedkjennigshandling. Men interessant nok er det jo dette som er den klassiske definisjonen av konfirmasjon, slik det vert praktisert i, t.d. Den romersk-katolske kyrkje og i Church of England.

I sistnemnde går konfirmanten fram til biskopen, og biskopen seier: «(name), God has called you by name and made you his own,» før han legg hendene på hovudet til konfirmanten, og seier: «Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.» Dette er faktisk den klassiske definisjonen av konfirmasjonshandlinga. Gud konfirmerer, stadfester, konfirmanten i den kristne trua. Sjå Common Worship: Christian Initiation (London: Church House, 2006), s.118.

Mange har lært at konfirmasjon tyder stadfesting eller bekrefting, og det er heilt korrekt, men mi erfaring er at mange, kanskje på grunn av samanblandinga av overhøyring og konfirmasjon, har blitt fortald at det er konfirmanten som stadfester at han vil halda fram i den trua som vart gjeve han i dåpen. Eg tenkte også sjølv slik då eg var konfirmant og fleire år etterpå. Men etter å ha lest bønene som vi faktisk ber i Den norske kyrkja, og bønene vi ser i den anglikanske konfirmasjonshandlinga, så er det vorte klart at det er Gud som stadfester konfirmanten i dåpsløftene. Det er Gud som styrker konfirmanten; det er Gud som gjev uttrykk for at løftene står ved lag. Det betyr sjølvsagt ikkje at vi ikkje skal handle på desse løftene, eller at ein ikkje også stadfester trua, t.d. gjennom lesing av credo, men det understrekar at Gud er den som primært stadfester/konfirmerer. Det er altså meir korrekt, slik eg ser det, å seie at ‘eg vart konfirmert då og då’ enn ‘eg konfirmerte meg då og då.’ Akkurat som at det heiter at eg vart døypt, ikkje at eg døypte meg.

Den norske kyrkja har altså gått tilbake til det klassiske utgangspunktet, der konfirmasjonshandlinga er ei forbønshandling der Gud konfirmerer konfirmanten, dvs. at Gud stadfester konfirmanten i dåpsløftene, og utustar han. Dette blir heilt konkret sagt i Dnk sitt informasjonsskriv om konfirmasjonen: «I Den norske kyrkja er konfirmasjonen ei forbønshandling. Ordet konfirmere tyder å stadfeste eller styrke. Det er ikkje ein føresetnad for konfirmasjonen at konfirmanten skal stadfeste noko, det er Gud som stadfester lovnadene sine slik dei vert gitt i dåpen.»

Overfor konfirmantane er eg tydleg på at konfirmasjonsdagen ikkje er eit kunnskapsframvisingsshow. I konfirmasjonen blir vi stadfeste i dåpen av Gud – slik kyrkja alltid har lært og slik Dnk lærer (i alle fall i fylgje informasjonsmaterialet). Eg trur det er viktig å understreke dette økumeniske perspektivet – spesielt sidan vi faktisk er i kommunion med Church of England. I Porvoo-kommunionen vert det understrekt at alle medlemskyrkjene anerkjenner sine konfirmasjonar: «A person who is confirmed in any of the Porvoo churches, whether by a bishop or by a priest, is considered to be confirmed in all other Porvoo churches.» Det må nødvendigvis bety at ein har grunnleggjande same lære om konfirmasjonen i desse kyrkjene. Vi skil jo også heilt medvite i Dnk mellom konfirmasjonstida og konfirmasjonen.

Sjølv tenker eg at konfirmasjonen er ei stadfesting av dåpen der Anden blir gitt på ein spesiell måte til den som blir konfirmert. Dette er også den tradisjonelle tenkinga økumenisk sett, også i Church of England. Så vidt eg veit knyt Church of England dette til Apg 8,14-17. Der les vi om dei kristne i Samaria som hadde komme til tru. Dei vart alle døypte, men apostlane Peter og Johannes reiste dit etter dette og «bad for dei truande, at dei måtte få Den heilage ande» (v.15). For, «Anden var endå ikkje komen over nokon av dei; dei var berre døypte til Herren Jesu namn. No la dei hendene på dei, og dei fekk Den heilage ande» (v.16-17). Det er ikkje noko indikasjon i teksten at dei hadde fått noko inadekvat dåp, men at (denne spesielle) sendinga av Anden er noko heilt eige. Sjølv meiner eg vi burde tenkt sakramentalt om dette. Det krev sjølvsagt ei retenking omkring sakramenta der ein ikkje tenker at eit sakrament berre handler om synd og tilgjeving. Om retenking rundt sakramentsomgrepet vil eg tilrå å lese Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, s.336-369 (kap. 13,III, §3, «The Ambivalence of the Word “Sacrament” and the Special Case of Marriage»). Pannenberg skriv der også litt om konfirmasjonen.

Frå luthersk hald kan vi knytte dette til Luthers tenking rundt det å ‘praktisere dåpen.’ Les gjerne Bård Norheim sine tankar om dette. Han har ein relativ enkel artikkel om dette. Men elles vil eg tilrå å lese boka basert på doktorgraden hans; Practicing Baptism. Vi kan også seie at skriftemålet i praksis er å ‘praktisere dåpen,’ og eg vil påstå at Confessio Augustana held fram skriftemålet som eit sakrament.

Etter å ha skrive om kyrkja (i CA VII-VIII) får vi presentasjonen av sakramenta. Fyrst dåpen (CA IX), deretter nattverden (CA X) og så skriftemålet og atterløysinga, samt frukta som skal komme av dette (CA XI-XII). Fyrst deretter, i CA XIII, kjem artikkelen om bruken av sakramenta. Difor meiner eg at skriftemålet tydleg vert presentert som eit sakrament i vedkjenninga. Men det vert knytt til dåpen (CA XII) og kan, som sagt, kallast å praktisere dåpen (eller å gå tilbake til den tilgjevinga som ligg der). På same måte meiner eg at vi kan tenke om konfirmasjonen. Der stadfester Gud «lovnadene sine slik dei vert gitt i dåpen,» for å sitere Dnk sitt informasjonsbladet om konfirmasjonen. Dermed blir det sakramentalt på same måte som skriftemålet blir det. På same måte som vi i skriftemålet går tilbake til den tilgjevinga som ligg i dåpen så går ein i konfirmasjonen tilbake til Andens gåve i dåpen, jf. orda vi seier etter at vi har døypt nokon: «Den allmektige Gud har no gjeve deg sin heilage Ande, gjort deg til sitt barn og teke deg inn i sin truande kyrkjelyd. Gud styrkje deg [tenk latin firmare] med sin nåde til det evige livet. Fred vere med deg.»

Eg har teke tak i dette, og i kvar bøn eg ber når eg konfirmerer konfirmantane ‘mine,’ seier eg: «… styrk han/henne ved din Heilage Ande…,» då confirmare kjem frå firmare, som betyr å ‘styrke.’ Eg vurderer å gå over til «konfirmér han/henne med Din Heilage Ande,» men då må eg i så fall snakke litt om det i gudstenesta. Dette må vi understreke igjen og igjen. Dette handlar ikkje om vårt strev, men om at Gud stadfester at dåpsløftene står ved lag.

Conformitas Christi and Imitatio Christi

A while back I talked to a fellow Lutheran priest and and we talked, amongst other things, about some traditional differences between Lutheran and Roman Catholic views on our relation to Christ, and about the difference between imitatio Christi, which is a traditional emphasis in Roman Catholic theology, with an emphasis on our imitation of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:5, 1. Peter 2:18-25), and conformitas Christi, which is a traditional emphasis in Lutheran theology, and particularily in Luther’s own though, with an emphasis on our conformity to Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-30).[1] I believe that those two concepts are both very important, but I also believe that something is lost when we see them in a kind of duality.

I do agree with most Lutheran theologians that conformitas Christi is ‘more important’ than imitatio Christi, where the second follows from, or flows forth from, the first, but I don’t think that we will really grasp them until we stop viewing them dually, and start to see both, in their proper relation, as following from, and being based on, the more basic notion of participatio Christi.[2] Participatio Christi is often seen as an aspect of conformitas Christi, but I don’t agree with that. We partake of Christ, logically speaking, before we are conformed to him, conformed to his image. The former is given us directly, through faith, in baptism, where Christ is truly present in the believer and the believer truly partakes of him, and the latter is a process through which God ‘molds’ us; forms us in, or conforms us to, the image of his Son (Romans 8:28-30).

In fact, I believe that this notion is at the heart of theology, and it is one of the main elements of my Lutheran defence of the Eucharistic sacrifice.[3] When we properly understand our relation to Christ, through the hypostatic union, and expressed in (the Lutheran understandig of) the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum,[4] we see that it all boils down to this: Undeservedly, by grace, we are justified and made children of God, partakers of Christ, which, through the working of God, conforms us more and more to Christ, and which, again through the working of God, produces in us an imitation of Christ or what Christ and St. Paul calls ‘fruit.’ Note the important part of that image. No tree can force fruit to come. If the tree is good, and if it is well ‘fed,’ it will produce fruit. And we cannot produce fruit, says Christ, unless we are in him (John 15). He is the true vine, we are the branches, having been grafted into him.

When people argue what is more important; conformity to Christ or imitation of him, I say that they are both crucially important but must be understood in their proper relation to each other and, more importantly, to the more basic notion of our participation on him. Without that as the starting point, it all collapses and we end up emphasising ourselves (either inwardly or outwardly) instead of Him.


[1] For some points about this read Per Lønning, «Conformitas Christi,» in Lønning, The Dilemma of Contemporary Theology: Prefigured in Luther, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1962): 9-26, and Bård Norheim, Practicing Baptism: Christian Practices and the Presence of Christ (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications 2014): 104-106, 160-162, 174-176.

[2] For some ideas on this, see Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, eds., Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1998).

[3] See «“Do this in remembrance of me … ” A Lutheran defense of the Sacrifice of the Mass,» which is the accepted manuscript of an article of mine published by Taylor & Francis in Studia Theologica: Nordic Journal of Theology on May 8, 2017.

[4] See esp. Johann Anselm Steiger, «The communicatio idiomatum as the Axle and Motor of Luther’s Theology» (Lutheran Quarterly 14, 2000): 125-158 and Vidar Haanes, «Christological Themes in Luther’s Theology» (Studia Theologica 61, 2007): 21-46 (esp. pp.30-33).

Some thoughts on Scripture in Lutheranism

In Lutheran theology, Scripture has primacy. But what does that mean? What, exaxtly, is meant by what some call sola Scriptura? To understand that, we need to ask what that sola is in reference to. To do so, I will start with some points made by Thomist philosopher Edward Feser in a post on philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s thoughts on empiricism and sola Scriptura. There, he points out that there are serious problems with, at least an ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘fundamentalist’ doctrine of sola Scriptura. He compares it to the empiricism of the 17th century; the view that reduced experience to just some ‘basic’ components – saying «there is currently a reddish patch in the center of my field of vision» instead of «this apple is stale.» Read the entire article.

Feser’s points out that the (larger) context of experience into which we read (or experience) something is «the sum total of what is observed under normal circumstances (bright daylight; senses in good order; undisturbed and alert observer) and what is then described in some ordinary idiom that is understood by all» and where the thing experienced is interpreted in light of «tradition» or «preconceived opinion.»[1] Feyerabend, says Feser, is taking as his starting point, an early Jesuit critique of sola Scriptura, and notes that «(a) scripture alone can never tell you what counts as scripture, (b) scripture alone cannot tell you how to interpret scripture, and (c) scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, and the like.» Feser elaborates on this, and I want to highlight two passages:

This larger context — tradition and Magisterium — is analogous to the larger context within which both common sense and Aristotelianism understand “experience.” Experience, for common sense and for the Aristotelian, includes not just sense data — color patches, tactile impressions, etc. — but also the rich conceptual content in terms of which we ordinarily describe experience, the immediate memories that provide context for present experience, and so forth. Just as modern empiricism abstracts all this away and leaves us with desiccated sense contents as what is purportedly just “given,” so too does sola scriptura abstract away tradition and Magisterium and present (what it claims to be) scripture as if it were just given. And just as the resulting experiential “given” is too thin to tell us anything — including what counts as “given” — so too is scripture divorced from its larger context unable to tell us even what counts as scripture. The modern empiricist inevitably, and inconsistently, surreptitiously appeals to something beyond (what he claims to be) experience in order to tell us what counts as “experience.” And the sola scriptura advocate inevitably, and inconsistently, surreptitiously appeals to something beyond scripture in order to tell us what scripture is.


[There] is a crucial feature of the sola scriptura and early modern empiricist positions that makes them open to the Jesuit/Feyerabend attack, but which the Catholic and Aristotelian positions lack — namely, commitment to a “myth of the given,” as it has come to be called in discussions of empiricism. In the case of early modern empiricism, the myth in question is the supposition that there is some basic level of sensory experiences whose significance is somehow built-in and graspable apart from any wider conceptual and epistemological context (as opposed to being intelligible only in light of a body of theory, or a tradition, or the practices of a linguistic community, or what have you). Aristotelian epistemology not only does not commit itself to such a “given,” it denies that there is one. In the case of sola scriptura, the myth is the supposition that there is a text whose exact contents and meaning are somehow evident from the text itself and thus knowable apart from any wider conceptual and epistemological context (as opposed to being intelligible only in light of a larger tradition of which the text is itself a part, or an authoritative interpreter, or what have you). The Catholic position not only does not commit itself to such a scriptural “given,” it denies that there is one.

This is very interesting post, and Feser is good at describing what often goes under the term sola Scriptura in modern (evangelical or reformed) theology. He does not, however, describe the original view of the Lutheran reformers. In a follow up post to his Feyerabend post, Feser answers a Reformed critique of that original post. There, he states that «sola scriptura tells us that scripture alone suffices to tell us what we need to know in matters of faith and morals.» While that is a true characterisation of certain evangelical and fundamentalist views of Scripture, it is not an entirely true characterisation of the Lutheran view. What is often described as the ‘scripture principle’ of the Reformation is not found in the earliest Lutheran writings,[2] but we do find it in Luther’s Smalcald Articles (of 1537) and in the Formula of Concord (of 1577). In the former document, Luther points out that «it will not do to frame articles of faith from the works or words of the holy Fathers. … The rule is: The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel.»[3] And in the latter it is quite explicitly stated, in the introduction to the Epitome (the summary part of the Formula of Concord):[4]

We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone, as it is written Ps. 119:105: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. And St. Paul: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed, Gal. 1:8.

Other writings, however, of ancient or modern teachers, whatever name they bear, must not be regarded as equal to the Holy Scriptures, but all of them together be subjected to them, and should not be received otherwise or further than as witnesses, [which are to show] in what manner after the time of the apostles, and at what places, this [pure] doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved.

As this shows us, the role of the adjective or adverb sola is not a rejection of Church teaching or Tradition (‘dogmas’) or of persons with the authority to teach (‘teachers’), but a confirmation that both are subject to Scripture, and that Scripture is the only rule that can rule all other rules or rulers. In Lutheran theology, we thus distinguish between Scripture as norma normans (or norma normans non normata, the norm which norms, rules, or regulates other norms) and tradition, in particular the creeds and symbols, as norma normata (the norms which are normed, ruled, or regulated by Scripture).[5] Feser writes, in a second follow up-post, that the difference between (his representation of) sola Scriptura and the Roman Catholic position «is not fundamentally about how many texts there are. Rather, the Catholic position is that it can’t all be just texts in the first place. Rather, we have to be able to get outside of texts, to persons who have the authority to tell us what the texts mean.» But that is not really a problem for the classic Lutheran position (or even the classic Reformed one).

Reformed scholar Keith A. Mathison maintains that the view of the early Church, and the view of the Reformers, is what we might describe as Feser’s ‘natural’ view. (Mathison, of course, is not writing in response to Feser.) He maintains that for the early Church the «sole source of divine revelation and the authoritative doctrinal norm was understood to be the Old Testament together with the Apostolic doctrine, which itself had been put into writing in the New Testament,» and that this revelation «was to be interpreted in and by the church within the context of the regula fidei (‘rule of faith’),» i.e. Tradition. This seems curiously close to Feser’s position, and it is what late Reformed scholar Heiko Oberman identified as ‘Tradition 1’ (in distinction from ‘Tradition 0,’ where neither the Church nor Tradition has any authority, and ‘Tradition 2,’ where Tradition is also a source of revelation, alongside Scripture). For a Roman Catholic critique of Mathison, see here.

I believe we do have a problem of terminology here. As we see from the Formula of Concord, when we say sola Scriptura, we do not mean that Scripture stands alone, as what Feser might call a ‘given.’ Sola Scriptura does not mean that Tradition is bad or irrelevant. If it was, then much of the content of Confessio Augustana is irrelevant, as the Fathers and Canons are frequently cited. In the Lutheran tradition, sola Scriptura means, as Mathison points out, and as we see in the Formula of Concord, that Scripture is the highest ‘rule’ which ‘rules’ Tradition (‘dogmas’) and the persons who have been given authority to teach (‘teachers’). Someone must be charged with its interpretation. But that office doesn’t stand above Scripture, but is its servant, as a supreme court judge doesn’t stand above the constitution but serves and upholds it. In many ways, Scripture is like a constitution. Not that it is (merely) a juridical document. The comparison refers to status, not content. The status of Scripture in relation to Tradition (large T) is analogous to the status of a state’s constitution in relation to its other laws. The constitution has primacy in relation to other laws (which can all be binding), and Scripture has primacy in relation to Tradition (which can also be binding). Or in other words; Scripture is norma normans, Tradition is norma normata. To use modern terminology, the Lutheran position, known historically as sola Scriptura,[6] would better be described as prima Scriptura. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Scripture (or a constitution) is straightforward or easy to interpret. As I note above, we need to distinguish between the ‘scripture principle’ of the Reformation on the one hand, and our view (and interpretation) of Scripture on the other.

And this is, incidentally, very close to the position of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, to the position of pope St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, and the position of Joseph Ratzinger/pope (em.) Benedict XVI. In Dei Verbum, we see this in paragraph 10, describing the Magisterium:

This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

In paragaph 79 of Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II identifies five areas «in need of fuller study before a true consensus of faith can be achieved.» These areas are (emphasis added):

1) the relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God; 2) the Eucharist, as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, an offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit; 3) Ordination, as a Sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate; 4) the Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safeguarding the faith; 5) the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity.

What we see here is that John Paul II states that Scripture is «the highest authority in matters of faith,» and that its relation to Tradition is «indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God.» We find this also in Ratzinger (pope Benedict XVI). He fleshes this out in detail in, amongst other works, in the article «Standards for Preaching the Gospel Today,»[7] and in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini. In the former, Ratzinger says that Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium, and the concrete, contextual faith of the faithful depend on each other, but that primacy belongs first to Scripture, then to Tradition (focusing on the Creeds and Dogmas), then to the Magisterium (the servant of Scripture and Tradition), and then to the concrete faith as it is lived out in the dioceses and parishes. One key passage comes on page 38: «[T]he Bible has such an absolutely unique normative importance because it alone is really the sole book of the Church as Church.» And in the latter, he cites a crucially important image from Dei Verbum, that the «study of the sacred page,» i.e. Scripture, «should be, as it were, the very soul of theology.» The soul has primacy over the body, but it cannot survive or exist in actuality without it. Likewise, Scripture has primacy over (the living) Tradition, but cannot survive or exist in actuality without it.

We need, again, to see this in analogy to the constitution of a nation or a state. The constitution has primacy, and every law must be read in light of it. Yet that doesn’t mean that the lawmaker (God in this analogy) cannot, directly or through agents, posit new, binding laws, and it doesn’t mean he cannot task someone with the duty, and right, to uphold, interpret, and enforce the constitution and the other laws.

But again it must be pointed out, with Dei Verbum, that the teaching office «is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.»

And this is, of course, also the same principles used in the Lutheran understanding of sola Scriptura (or prima Scriptura, to be more exact). Scripture is the norm which norms, rules, or regulates other norms (norma normans non normata); Tradition (with emphasis on Creeds and Dogmas, and also on liturgy and Canon Law) are norms which are normed, ruled, or regulated by Scripture (norma normata); the ordained priesthood, with the bishops as leaders, has the task to preach and interpret that which has been handed over (Confessio Augustana 14, 28); and this has to be lived out in the context of the faithful’s own lives.

Feser’s critique is valid as a response to much of what we find in evangelical theology. I don’t think that it hits its mark, however, with regards to classic Lutheran theology. In fact, his concluding remarks is basically the classic Lutheran position:

If either the Catholic position or the Aristotelian one “posit[ed] a foundation representable as a text,” then they would be open to the Jesuit/Feyerabend objection. But that is precisely what they do not do. The Aristotelian epistemological view does not conceive of “experience” in terms of a sensory “given.” And the Catholic position does not merely posit a larger text or set of texts (one that would add the deuterocanonicals, statements found in the Church Fathers, decrees of various councils, etc.). The trouble with texts is that you can never ask them what exactly they include, or what they mean, or how they are to be applied. But you can ask such questions of an authoritative interpreter who stands outside the texts. And such an interpreter — in the form of an institutional Church — is exactly what the Catholic position posits.

The important thing to remember, however, is that an interpreter is just that; an interpreter. He must interpret what is written, and see it in light of the tradition. He cannot just posit whatever he wants. He must present us with what the text actually says.


[1] Feser is here quoting Feyerabend’s essay «Classical Empiricism,» in Problems of Empiricism, vol. 2: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge University Press, 1985): 35.37.

[2] The earliest Lutheran writings, by which is meant writings that in some sense was writings of the Lutheran community, not just of their respective authors, include Confessio Augustana or Luther’s Small Catechism (which, together with the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), and the Athanasian Creed. These form the core of the Lutheran confessions, and they are the only confessional documents binding in the Church of Norway, of which I am part.

[3] Smalcald Articles, II:II:15, cf. Gal 1:8.

[4] Cf. the parts on the rule and norm in the Church in the introduction to the Solid Declaration (the comprehensive part of the Formula of Concord), 1-3.

[5] It should be noted that this scripture principle tells us nothing about the inspiration of Scripture, or how Scripture is to be interpreted. That belongs to the ‘view’ of Scripture, but the ‘scripture principle’ of the Reformation is open to different view of what Scripture is.

[6] Even this is misleading. The term sola Scriptura came later.

[7] Chapter 2, pp.26-39, in Dogma and Preaching.