Theses on Scripture
Introduction to the Statement
Differences in doctrine and practice among the members of the Synodical Conference were beginning to surface already in the 1930s and 1940s. These differences threatened the fellowship our Wisconsin Synod had enjoyed with the other church bodies of the Synodical Conference since 1872. Meeting in Saginaw, Michigan, the 1955 WELS convention, by unanimous vote, adopted the Preamble to the Report of Floor Committee No. 2. This Preamble identified the specific doctrinal issues in controversy.
Now the following needed to be determined: Was the Missouri Synod a weak brother in need of our admonition? Would the synod respond to our patient, brotherly admonition? If this were the case, we had a responsibility to bring loud and clear admonition to our weak brother. Or was Missouri set in its unscriptural doctrines and practices? Were we compelled reluctantly to regard Missouri as those “who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” (Ro 16:17)? In such a case the God-pleasing course was clear: “keep away from them”; we must terminate fellowship with Missouri.
The 1955 convention was not sure which of the above two possibilities was the case. It voted, therefore, to recess the convention for one year. The recessed session in 1956 still did not feel it was able to make a judgment. It voted to “hold in abeyance the judgment of our Saginaw resolutions until the next convention.” The Standing Committee on Matters of Church Union was instructed to “continue to evaluate any further developments in these matters.”
The Synodical Conference convention at Chicago, Illinois, on December 4–7, 1956, adopted resolutions calling for the Union Committees of the member synods to meet for future discussions in the hope of reaching agreement in the controversial issues. The 1957 Wisconsin Synod convention concurred that such doctrinal discussions should continue “in an effort to restore full unity on the basis of the Word of God.”
The Wisconsin Synod’s Standing Committee on Church Union at this time included the synod’s president and vice presidents, all district presidents as well as all members of the seminary faculty. A subcommittee of eight was chosen to attend the meetings of the Joint Union Committees on behalf of the Wisconsin Synod. President Oscar Naumann led the delegation. In all, six meetings were held in 1957, 1958, and 1959. Each meeting was scheduled for three days.
The second meeting, in Chicago on April 22–24, 1957, took up the first subject agreed upon for discussion. All four synods (Missouri, Slovak, Wisconsin, and Evangelical Lutheran Synod) made presentations on Scripture—Revelation, Inspiration, Principles of Interpretation, and Open Questions.
These discussions did not take place in a vacuum. In 1957 another committee was busily working in the United States to draft a statement on Scripture. The Joint Commission on Lutheran Unity, representing the United Lutheran Church in America, the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (= Suomi Synod), and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, was at work. Its statement was to be used as the doctrinal basis for the proposed merger into the Lutheran Church in America. On December 16, 1957, the Joint Commission’s draft was released. Words such as inspired and inerrant were missing from that document. Rather, it stated that these church bodies “treasure the Holy Scriptures . . . as the primary witness to God’s redemptive act in Christ.” It spoke of “the Gospel transmitted by the Holy Scriptures” as the true treasure of the Church and said: “The Holy Spirit uses the Church’s witness to the Gospel to create Christian faith and fellowship.” In other words, the statement of the future LCA deemed it sufficient to confess that the Scriptures contain the Word of God. It limited the authority of Scripture to the Gospel message rather than say that everything in the Bible is true.
In contrast to this, the result of the second meeting of the Joint Union Committees of the Synodical Conference was positive. After thorough discussion of the subject of Scripture by representatives of the four synods, there was full agreement in substance. The “Statement on Scripture” was prepared. It was approved by the convention of the Synodical Conference in 1958. And in turn it was adopted by the Wisconsin Synod, without a dissenting voice, in its 1959 convention. The other three church bodies of the Synodical Conference also adopted it in their conventions.
The discussions within the Synodical Conference had begun on a hopeful note. Now there was a basis to address other issues in controversy because all agreed that the Scripture would serve as the inerrant guide and absolute authority for the discussions.
No true unity and no doctrinal clarity can come without acceptance of the Scripture as the inspired and inerrant Word of God. Thus the “Statement on Scripture” remains an important and timeless document for our church.
God reveals Himself to men primarily through His incarnate Son, whom He attests and presents to His Church through Scripture. The purpose of Scripture is to proclaim Christ as the Savior of sinners (Jn 5:39,46; Ac 10:43). All Scripture is written because of Christ and has a connection with the revelation of God in Christ, some passages directly, some more remotely. Every word of Scripture is therefore an organic part of the Scripture’s witness to Christ. And Scripture is the complete message of God to sinners. By it man is freed from carnal security and self-righteousness, is delivered from despair, and regains by faith the lost image of God. Gal 3:26; cf. 4:31; Jas 1:18; 1 Pe 1:23; Jn 8:31,32.
We reject the idea that the natural knowledge of God is sufficient to salvation or useful beyond the use made of it in Scripture (Ro 1:20; 2:1,14-16; Ac 17:22,23). The revelation of God in nature and conscience is insufficient for salvation because man by reason of his fall is so constituted that he persistently perverts and distorts the revelation given to him by God and refuses to acknowledge or to submit to the God who thus reveals Himself. And man pursuing this perverted course is either led to feel secure in his self-righteousness or is driven to despair.
We reject the idea that tradition is a source of revelation. Cf. Mt 15:3-6; Col 2:8.
We reject the idea that other new sources or norms of divine revelation besides Scripture are to be expected. Heb 1:1,2; Mt 28:19,20; Gal 1:8,9.
II. The Inspiration of Scripture
We believe and teach that all Scripture (that is, all the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments) is given by inspiration of God and is in its entirety, in its parts, and in its very words inspired by the Holy Spirit. God revealed Himself personally and directly to such men as Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. Some of these He called to transmit His message to men orally or in writing. Their message was thus not their own, but God’s Word. They were moved by the Holy Spirit, so that He is the true Author of their every word. Inspiration means, then, that mighty act of God whereby He spoke His Word in the words of men and made them the effective and final vehicle of His revelation. Hence these words do not merely inform us concerning God’s past action; they also convey God’s action now. 1 Th 2:13; 2 Pe 1:19-21; 2 Ti 3:15-17; 1 Co 2:13; Jer 23:29; Ro 1:16,17.
In giving men His message by inspiration, God had men express His Word in their own language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek), and in their own style (personal, historical, poetic, oratorical). (Cf. the superscription on the cross, Mt 27:37; Mk 15:26; Lk 23:38; Jn 19:19,20.) Thus the holy writers felt personally responsible for every word they wrote (cf. 2 Co 7:8), while they at the same time knew that their words were given by the Holy Spirit (1 Co 2:12,13).
We reject as a distortion of the true conception of verbal inspiration any idea which makes the act of inspiration a mere mechanical dictation.
We condemn and reject any and all teachings and statements that would limit the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, or that deny the divine authorship of certain portions of Scripture. Inspiration applies not only to such statements as speak directly of Christ, but also to such as may seem very remote (e.g., in the field of history, geography, and nature). For since God is the Lord of history and has revealed Himself by acts in history and has in the person of His Son actually entered into man’s history, the historical framework in which the Gospel message is set in Scripture is an essential part of the inspired Word just as much as the spiritual truths revealed in it.
We reject the idea that verbal inspiration is called into question by accidents in the transmission of the text and the resultant variants in the manuscripts. Inspiration pertains in the first instance to the original autographs of Scripture. But by His gracious providence God has given us such a fullness and variety of witnesses to the original text that Christian scholarship reproduces it with great fidelity. God has so watched over the transmission of the text that the variant readings nowhere affect the doctrines of Scripture. We gratefully acknowledge also that translations of Scripture, though not under particular inspiration, are by God’s providential care adequate vehicles of His revelation in the inspired Word. Heb 2:3; 1 Pe 1:25; Mk 13:31; Jn 17:20; Mt 28:19,20.
III. The Authority of Scripture
We believe and teach that God has given us His Holy Scripture to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Ti 3:13-17). We therefore confess Scripture to be the only, but all-sufficient foundation of our faith, the source of all our teachings, the norm of our conduct in life, and the infallible authority in all matters with which it deals. Lk 16:29-31; Dt 4:2; 13:1-5; Isa 8:20; Ac 26:22; Jn 10:35.
We believe and teach that where Scripture has not spoken decisively or is silent, differences of opinion may be held without violating Scripture or breaking the bonds of fellowship. Such matters fall into the area called “open questions.” Scripture itself must determine which questions are to be considered as open. The term “open questions” may legitimately be used where the Scripture language leaves open the precise scope of a passage, or where linguistic, textual or historical problems make the perception of the intended sense difficult. But where Scripture has spoken, there God has spoken, whether it be on a central dogma or on a peripheral point; where Scripture has not spoken, the matter must forever remain open. 1 Pe 4:11; Jer 23:22,23.
Scripture being the Word of God, it carries its own authority in itself and does not receive it by the approbation of the Church. The Canon, that is, that collection of books which is the authority for the Church, is not the creation of the Church. Rather, the Canon has, by a quiet historical process which took place in the worship life of the Church, imposed itself upon the Church by virtue of its own divine authority.
IV. The Interpretation of Scripture
Since Scripture is God’s Word, the interpretation of Scripture should not be regarded as merely or primarily an intellectual task. The true meaning of Scripture becomes clear for man in a given situation, not merely by a scrupulous study of Scripture and a careful analysis of the facts at issue, but rather by approaching Scripture in a spirit of repentance and faith which makes men obedient sons of God, who hear Scripture when it speaks as Law in all the rigidity of the Law, and when it speaks as Gospel in all the unconditional grace of the Gospel. 2 Co 4:3,4; 2 Ti 3:16,17; Gal 2:5; 5:3,6.
Scripture alone is to interpret Scripture. The hermeneutical rule that Scripture must be interpreted according to the rule, or the analogy, of faith means that the clear passages of Scripture, not any theological system or dogmatical summary of Bible doctrine, are to determine the interpretation. Seemingly obscure passages must not be interpreted so as to pervert or contradict clear passages. This means that every statement of Scripture must be understood in its native sense, according to grammar, context, and linguistic usage of the time. Where Scripture speaks historically, as for example in Genesis 1–3, it must be understood as speaking of literal, historical facts. Where Scripture speaks symbolically, metaphorically or metonymically, as for example in Revelation 20, it must be interpreted on these its own terms. Furthermore, since God spoke in the common language of men, expressions such as sunrise and sunset, the corners of the earth, etc., must not be viewed as intending to convey scientific information. Ps 119:105; 2 Pe 1:19; 2 Ti 3:15.
Since the same God speaks by the same creative energy of the same Holy Spirit throughout Scripture, the Old Testament and the New Testament are to be viewed as constituting an organic unity. This unity is to be understood, not as a simple equation of the two testaments with each other, but in the sense of Hebrews 1:1,2: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Since the New Testament is the culminating revelation of God, it is decisive in determining the relation between the two testaments and the meaning of the Old Testament prophecies in particular; the meaning of a prophecy becomes known in full only from its fulfillment.
Since Scripture is in all its parts and in all its words the inspired Word of God, we reject and condemn any use of the phrase “totality of Scripture” which tends to abridge or annul the force of any clear passage of Scripture. Similarly we reject the use of any phrase which makes room for the idea that the Scripture as a whole may be regarded as the Word of God, though it in many details is regarded as only the words of men.
We reject and condemn “demythologizing” as a denial of the Word of God. Where Scripture records as historical facts those events and deeds which far surpass the ordinary experience of men, that record must be understood literally, as a record of facts; the miraculous and mysterious may not be dismissed as intended to have only a metaphorical or symbolical meaning.