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.

Some Lutheran reflections on Scripture and Tradition

A while back I was reading through an old (closed) discussion on an online forum, and read some thoughts from one of the participants.[1] He said that we shouldn’t read Scripture through any kind of tradition, since Scripture was ‘self interpreting,’ ‘clear,’ and ‘easily understandable.’ Then he went on to cite his proof of this, and said that Luther held to sola scriptura. There is just one big problem with this, and that is the fact that neither Luther nor any other Lutheran reformer made the claim that sola scriptura implies that tradition (or Tradition) doesn’t matter. This we can see by analysing the word. ‘Tradition’ (Gk. παράδοσις, Lt. trāditiō) just means ‘that which is handed over,’ and the act of handling over is παραδίδωμι in Greek and trādere in Latin. Scripture is itself handed over, and is thus part of Tradition. But, as we see with all text, this handing over is not passive. It is always interpreted, and Scripture is no exception. It is not ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable,’ and is read within a community, within a Tradition.

The Lutheran reformers, who used the term sola scriptura, meant by this the fact that Scripture stands above (other parts of) Tradition. But Scripture was still to be read within a living ecclesial Tradition, and especially though the writings of the Church Fathers. One can, of course, discuss to which degree they were successful in this, but they did not use the term sola scriptura as a way to exclude Tradition. In fact the first authorities mentioned in Confessio Augustana (CA) aren’t Scripture, but the Nicene Creed (article 1) and, in all ways but in name, the Chalcedon Creed (article 3).[2] To get technical, the Lutheran reformers defined Scripture as ‘the norm which norms (but which is not itself normed)’ (norma normans or norma normans non normata) and Tradition, especially the ecumenical creeds, as ‘the norms which are normed’ (norma normata).[3]

But there is a danger here. Since Scripture judges Tradition, we often end up defining Tradition as a given creed (the Apostles’ Creed, CA, etc.) That is what has happened in many modern Reformed and Lutheran churches. In a discussion I once referred to St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said to obey the bishop, and was told that this wasn’t uttered explicitly in Scripture, so we shouldn’t believe it. But this has never been part of what, at least Lutherans, have understood by sola scriptura.

I have been asked why, on this view, we cannot just say that Scripture is ‘the written rules from a board game,’ and play the game based solely on Scripture. The problem with this is that there are many different interpretations at play. The ‘game’ has changed, and does change constantly. We can say that the ‘game’ has gotten a lot of ‘expansion packs.’

The question often boils down to this: Why must Tradition judge me, and my reading of Scripture? The answer is that one person’s reading of Scripture is not identical with Scripture itself. That person’s interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily correct. Although Scripture cannot be normed by Tradition (norma normans non normata), it can be, and is, interpreted through Tradition. Tradition is still a norm (norma normata). It all boils down to the question of whether or not Scripture is ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable.’ As a man with a master’s degree in theology, and who loves Greek, I can say that it is far from.

We need people to teach this. People not only with education, but who are called and ordained to teach in Church. According to Lutheran teaching, “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” (CA XIV) Who are ‘regularly called’ (Lt. rite vocatus)? William Weedon has some thought on this:

The Augsburg Confession is very bold in its insistence: “As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” (Conclusion of first half of the AC) “In doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scriptures or the Church universal.” (Conclusion of the second half of the Augsburg Confession).

I would contend, however, that precisely at the point of AC XIV Melanchthon KNEW that something needed to be introduced that was new in both doctrine and in ceremony. But he was betting the farm that his opponent, Johann Eck, would NOT notice what he had done. And so what Melanchthon did was to scrounge up a term from canon law that might be a tad ambiguous – rite voctaus – and hope that Eck wouldn’t notice that the term was being used in a novel manner.

Fat chance. Eck was a careful student of the Lutheran movement and watched it with growing alarm. He did not let AC XIV slip by without telling commentary:

“When in the fourteenth article, they confess that no one ought to administer in the Church the Word of God and the sacraments unless he be rightly called, it ought to be understood that he is rightly called who is called in accordance with the form of law and the ecclesiastical ordinances and decrees hitherto observed everywhere in the Christian world, and not according to a Jerobitic (cf. 1 Kings 12:20) call, or a tumult or any other irregular intrusion of the people. Aaron was not thus called. Therefore, in this sense the Confession is received; nevertheless, they should be admonished to persevere therein, and to admit in their realms no one either as a pastor or as a preacher unless he be rightly called.” (Reu’s *A Collection of Sources for the Augsburg Confession*, p. 357)

The question is this: What is meant by rite vocatus? Does it mean, following Eck’s opinion, that you need ordination in apostolic succession (as that had been understodd throughout Church history), or something else? The problem is that we have never agreed what it actually means. The way I see it, is that we must read it the way the receivers of the text would read it. CA was not just a confession, it was an apologetical piece of writing, delivered to the Roman Catholic Church and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg, June 25, 1530. It seems to me that if you write a work, you need to use terminology the way its intended audience will use it. And furthermore, the authors of the confession claimed that “there is nothing,” at least in the first half of the confession (articles I-XXI), “that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.” (CA XXI) The ‘writers’ in question is the Church Fathers (Lt. ex scriptoribus; Ger. aus der Väter Schrift).[4] But if this is true, we need to understand rite vocatus as a need to not only call but to ordain men into the apostolic succession. There have been much discussion on this. But if we want to read this artivle through Tradition – the Tradition of the Church Catholic and the Church Fathers – we cannot avoid this idea. We must either read CA XIV as part of Tradition, or as a break with (or a correction of) Tradition. But then we end up, I think, as judges of Tradition. We become the norma normata ourselves. I will stop there, and let Chris Jones, one of the commentators on William Weedon’s blog post get the last word:

If the Apostolic Tradition means anything, and if the Creeds, the Councils, and the Fathers are worthy of any credit at all as faithful witnesses to that Tradition, then it seems to me that we must see our Confessions as part of that tradition, and consistently read them in the context of that tradition. Otherwise how can we possibly claim to be the Catholic Church, rightly reformed? And if that leads us to the conclusion that our Lutheran fathers were mistaken about the necessity of episcopal ordination, then that ought to lead us not to put the “Catholic principle” out of court, but to repent of that error. If we have made a mistake, we ought to admit it – not re-interpret Church history to make the mistake somehow not a mistake. After all, if one should never admit a mistake in doctrine or practice, there never could have been a Reformation.

If the “Catholic principle” is only an a posteriori judgement, not an actual embrace of the Apostolic Tradition, then it was no more than a rhetorical weapon against the Romanists, without substance. And that leaves us not as evangelical Catholics, but mere Protestants. That is not a position that I care to be in.


[1] This post is based on different things I have written here on my blog, and on some posts in which I have participated in various online forums.

[2] For thought on this, read this (unfortunately Norwegian) article by Knut Alfsvåg: «Luthersk spiritualitet: Om lære og liv i den éne, kristne kirke» (Dansk Tidsskrift for Teologi og Kirke 40:1, 2013): 42-56.

[3] The Roman Catholic Church also essentially states this, in Dei Verbum. Here is a ‘taste’: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. 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.”

[4] For the Latin and German texts of the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord), see Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (Herausgegeben im Gedenkjahr der Augsburgischen Konfession 1930. 5., durchgesehene Aufage. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1963). In the Church of Norway, however, we are bound not by the entirety of these confessions but only the three (western) ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed); Confessio Augustana; and Luther’s Small Catechism.