Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Hermeneutics of Promise

Less than two weeks ago many of us who gathered to celebrate the Christian festival of Pentecost heard from Moses and Joel and Peter. From chapter eleven of Numbers we heard about how the LORD took some of the Spirit [Hebrew: Ruach (a feminine form!)  = "breath," "wind," "spirit"] that was on Moses and put it upon the seventy elders. "And when the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again" (v. 25). Unexpectedly, and beyond the prophesying at Moses' tent, the Spirit also rested upon Eldad and Medad, who prophesied in the camp. One young man--perhaps not unlike some young LCMS pastor upset with "how things should be done in the camp" ("in the synod)"--ran and tattled to Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp" (v. 26). And even Joshua, the assistant of Moses, was offended: "My lord Moses, stop them!" "But Moses said to him, 'Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his Spirit upon them!'" (vv. 28-29). Moses seems to be saying, "Would that all of God's people were prophets and spiritual speakers."

In the New Testament reading, Peter applies the prophesy of Joel to what was then taking place within the Jerusalem Christian community: "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit [Greek: pneuma (a neutral form) = "wind," "breath," "spirit"] upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy…" (Acts 2:17-18). After hearing Peter's sermon, the crowd asked, "What shall we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him" (vv. 38-39). In the last days, both men and women, both Jews and Gentiles, both slaves and free, will  receive the Spirit, and the Spirit will lead them to prophesy, teach, proclaim God's words.

With Holy Baptism comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit come the various gifts of the Spirit that are detailed elsewhere in the New Testament. The purpose of the Spirit's gifting is to build up the body of Christ, to elicit and strengthen faith, to teach faith that is active in love and service. What qualifies a person to proclaim God's words? The baptismal gift of the Spirit and the Spirit's gifts of speaking, teaching, administering, hearing, thinking.

Surely there is a great tension between the promise of the Spirit's outpouring upon both men and women, so that both men and women preach and teach and prophesy, and the New Testament's legal demands that "women be silent in the churches" and "subordinate to their husbands" (assuming they have husbands). Those who insist on the binding character of these legal demands find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain away the clear promise that the Spirit will indeed rest upon both men and women and lead both men and women to preach/prophesy and teach. Such explaining away of the Spirit's gifting of women for public service in the church is grounded in a hermeneutics of law, that is, it is grounded in an approach to the Bible that treats the Bible as a kind of timeless legal document that sets forth God's rules for all times and places. In this approach, the legal demands of the apostles are preeminent.

By contrast, a hermeneutics of promise rightly distinguishes the legal material in the New Testament from the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ, the promise of forgiveness of sins through him, justification by faith alone, spiritual regeneration (eternal life), and the exhortations to Christian love. A hermeneutics of promise, as exemplified in Philip Melanchthon's Apology to the Augsburg Confession (especially in Articles Four and Twenty-eight), illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ and his benefits and subordinates apostolic commands to the ultimate goals of eliciting and strengthening faith in Christ alone, consoling devout consciences, defending Christian freedom, and applying the law of Christian love. In other words, a hermeneutics of promise, in contrast to a hermeneutics of law, is oriented toward the righteousness of faith and Christian freedom.

Such a hermeneutics of promise is particularly opposed to the imposition of intolerable burdens on people's consciences and the demand to obey human traditions (even apostolic ones, such as those about hair length, foods, jewelry, emperors, slaves, and so on) rather than the gospel. "For the apostles themselves did not want to burden consciences with such bondage." We must always pay attention to the chief part of Christian doctrine and acknowledge that "hardly any of the ancient canons are observed according to the letter. Many of their rules fall daily into complete disuse, even among those who observe such ordinances most diligently. Consciences can neither be counseled nor helped unless we keep this moderation in mind: that such ordinances are not to be considered necessary, and even disregarding them does no harm to consciences" (AC 28:16, Kolb/Wengert, 102). 

To paraphrase Melanchthon: Those who are adamantly opposed to the ordination of women to the pastoral office have issued a call to arms. Instead of engaging in patient debate with those they accuse of teaching false doctrine, they issue an edict written in blood, threatening people with expulsion from the church body unless they act in clear opposition to God's promises (such as the one that indicates that in the last days God would pour out his [feminine!] Spirit upon both men and women). But here you ought to see the tears of those women who have been told that they cannot speak for God, that they cannot serve as pastors or professors of God's word, that they cannot possibly administer the sacraments of Christ, that they must suffer in their conscience if they think that somehow God is calling them to the holy ministry. You ought to hear the pitiful complaints of many good people on this issue and count up how many men and women have left the LCMS because of such legalistic restrictions on the leadership and ministry of women in the synod. God undoubtedly sees and hears these people.


  1. Wow! Now you're invoking Melanchthon to support your false teaching for women pastors. Dude, what more can be said to you. You do not listen, and will not. Beware a hardening of the heart. And really..."God would pour out his [feminine!] Spirit..." That's what you've got?? I want to have a baby in my stomach, but God made me a man. Boo-hoo. How legalistic of Him (or maybe the Feminine Spirit?] to do so. "God undoubtedly sees and hears these people." No doubt. He also sees and hears people who flee other denominations to the LCMS. What do you mean to say? He also sees and hears people who stick up liquor stores.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I suspect some might ask you if you are listening? Perhaps you should consider if your own heart is not hardened, such as the hearts of the Pharisees who insisted on the traditions of the elders over against the mercy of Christ and his freedom over against the Jewish laws.

    Since it is clear you do not know Hebrew, Ruach ("Spirit," "wind") is a feminine noun. Perhaps you should consider this more carefully.

    Matthew Becker

    Matthew Becker