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.

Lutheranism and the Virgin Mary

This will be a rather short post, but I think that the topic deserves it own blog post.

Not long ago a Roman Catholic friend of mine posted something about Mary on their Facebook wall, whereupon some Lutheran friend of his replied that the honouring of Mary was one of the things that Luther reacted against. The problem was, of course, that his claim was in fact not true.

Luther had an immense devotion to Mary, as Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong points out. Luther held that Mary was/is perpetually virgin, that she was/is the mother of God (in Greek, Theotokos, ‘God-bearer’), and (perhaps more surprisingly) that she was born pure. Here I just want to point out that these beliefs are not only Luther’s personal belief but also part of the wider Lutheran tradition.

We don’t find this explicitly in the core of the Lutheran confessions, i.e. the three ancient creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed), Confessio Augustana, and Luther’s Small Cathechism.[1] But we do find it in Luther’s Smalcald Articles, which is part of the Book of Concord, and thus part of the wider tradition of the Lutheran confessions (binding in, for instance, the LCMS).[2]

In most english translations of the Smalcald Articles, I.IV it states, amongst other things, that «the Son became man in this manner, that He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Ghost, and was born of the pure, holy [and always] Virgin MarySee here, for instance. Here we see reflected the three doctrines mentioned above: Mary is the mother of God, as Jesus is God. But more importantly, the confession states that she is both pure and always virgin.

It has been pointed out to me that the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is not in all versions of the Smalcald Articles, and it wasn’t part of Luther’s original German version. One person said that «this is why good editions of the Book of Concord put it into brackets (‘was born of the pure, holy [and always] Virgin Mary’).» The problem is that I think this person has misunderstood the use of the brackets. They are not there to put the concept into question, but to signify that there is a difference, though not a contradiction, between the German and the Latin versions.

The German text says von der reinen, heilegen Jungfrauen Maria geboren sey (‘from the pure, holy Virgin Mary [he was] born’). The Latin text, however, says ex Maria pura, sancta, sempervirgine nasceretur (‘from Mary; pure, holy and avways virgin he was born’). The edition I use is Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, ed., Irene Dingel (Vollständige Neuedition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014). This is not just a ‘good edition,’ it is the very best.

The reason many translations of the Smalcald Articles (at least, as far as I’m aware, in English, Norwegian, and Swedish) put the words ‘and always’ in brackets is because they don’t bother to make two separate translations, one of the German, and one of the Latin. Therefore, to mark that there is a difference between the two, many translations puts ‘and always’ in brackets. As I’ve already said, it isn’t there to put the concept into question. The Latin text, including sempervirgine is part of the official text of all those churches which hold to the Smalcald Articles, even if Luther didn’t originally include it in the German edition. He wasn’t infallible, and official confessions ‘belong’ to the community, not just the author. Melanchthon, for instance, didn’t ‘own’ Confessio Augustana (and thank God for that). The churches in question includes the LCMS, as evidenced from the fact that ‘always virgin’ is part of the text included on their website. Yes, it is in brackets, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t hold to it. It is merely to point out that there is a difference (though not a contradiction) between the two official texts. Semper Virgo or sempervirgine is part of the Lutheran tradition.

So no, the proper honouring of Mary was one of the things that Luther reacted against.


[1] These are the only five confessions that are binding on all Lutherans, and thus, in my estimation, the only thing, in addition to Scripture, you need to hold to call yourself a ‘confessional Lutheran,’ though many (mostly Americans) would disagree. But when the Formula of Concord was written, in 1577 (in German, translated into Latin in 1584), it was rejected by the Lutherans in Hesse, Zweibrücken, Anhalt, Pommeranian (Land), Holstein, Denmark (Denmark-Norway), Sweden, Nürnberg, Strassburg, and Magdeburg. The Formula of Concord has never been a universally accepted document. A document doesn’t automatically become a binding confession just because a Lutheran theologian writes it.

[2] The LCMS holds to the entire Book of Concord.

Lutheranism, Philosophy, and Transubstantiation

As a Lutheran, I have often been told that we ought not believe in Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic doctrine that the bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We ought rather, it’s told, to hold to what is called ‘sacramental union.’

Now, the reason for that, we are often told, is that we ought not use unbiblical terms like ‘substance’ and ‘accident,’ since they are not from Scripture, and since they rely upon Aristotelian philosophy. The word ‘philosophising’ is often thrown around, together with claims that the categories of ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ aren’t helpful and that we should embrace ‘mystery.’ But the same arguments are completely forgotten the second we come to the Nicene Creed. Why are none of these people saying that the category of homousios is ‘unhelpful’? Why is it all of a sudden OK to use philosophy when a Nicean Father does it? And why is the category of substance all of a sudden ‘helpful’ (since they acknowledge that Christ is of ‘one substance with the Father’)?

Is it just a case of ‘Platonism good, Aristotelianism bad’? Why is it that using philosophy is wrong, in principle, when it comes to the Scholastics and the Eucharist, while it is of utmost importance when it comes to Church Fathers and Christology?

It seems to me to be a dishonest way of arguing when the real reason is that one disagrees with a doctrine or idea.

But today I found something interesting, while reading in the Book of Concord. There I stumbled upon this section, from the Epitome of the Formula of Concord (part I:13), in reference to the doctrine of Original Sin:

But as to the Latin terms substantia and accidens, because they are not words of Holy Scripture, and besides unknown to the ordinary man, they should not be used in sermons before ordinary, uninstructed people, but simple people should be spared them.

But in the schools, among the learned, these words are rightly retained in disputations concerning original sin, because they are well known and used without any misunderstanding, to distinguish exactly between the essence of a thing and what attaches to it in an accidental way.

For the distinction between God’s work and that of the devil is thereby designated in the clearest way, because the devil can create no substance, but can only, in an accidental way, by the providence of God [God permitting], corrupt the substance created by God.

Now, why is it OK to use the categories of ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ with reference to Original Sin, and not with reference to the Eucharist? Is the Eucharist off bound when it comes to philosophical speculation and terminology, while God and Original Sin is fair game?

And even if many Lutherans do not use the name, is there really any difference between Luther’s ‘sacramental union’, and the later consubstantiation? If the categories of ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ are OK to use (as they are, according to the Epitome of the Formula of Concord), what makes it wrong for a Lutheran to believe in Transubstantiation?

Transubstantiation has been part of the Western Church since the 13th century. Is it just the classic fear of the Scholastic movement, coupled with the irrational far of anything medieval?