Monday, January 9, 2012
An Exegesis of 1967 LCMS Resolution 2-02
This year marks the 45th anniversary of a convention resolution (1967 Resolution 2-02) by the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod that "commended" a rather remarkable document: A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies. Two years earlier the Synod had authorized its Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) to form a committee to "conduct a comprehensive study of Biblical hermeneutics," that is, to examine the principles and methods of biblical interpretation.
The eight individuals who formed that committee and who prepared the report that was commended in 1967 were Walter Bartling, Robert Bertram, Martin Franzmann, Heino Kadai, H. Armin Moellering, Robert Preus, Walter Roehrs, and Raymond Surburg. Ralph Bohlmann and Richard Jungkuntz also participated in the work of the committee. Anyone familiar with that period of synodical history knows that these ten individuals represented the two basic theological camps within the synod at that time, one that was oriented toward seventeenth-century Lutheran Orthodoxy (with its rather novel notion of "biblical inerrancy") and the other oriented toward post-enlightenment theological developments and toward an understanding of biblical authority that rested on the Bible's dynamic witness to law and gospel. And yet, at the end of the day, all ten professors, from Bob Bertram (my teacher at Chicago), on the one hand, to Robert Preus and H. Armin Moellering (my teacher in St. Louis), on the other, signed off on the report that was eventually "commended" to the Synod's membership.
Between January 1966 and April 1969, the committee met 12 times. Seven essays from the group were published by the CTCR in the 1969 booklet, A Project in Biblical Hermeneutics, edited by Jungkuntz. At the Synod convention that year, the delegates "received" a further CTCR document, "Answers to Questions Raised Regarding the Document A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies," which basically addressed a few minor criticisms of the original report. The Synod also encouraged further study of the original 1967 document (see 1969 Resolution 2-04). Speaking for the CTCR committee, Dr. Jungkuntz wrote that year to the Synod:
"The committee is fully convinced that the basic hermeneutical issues which appear to be the source of tension and confusion in our church today are not uniquely a problem of The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod and that their solution or removal from the area of Christian concern will not be achieved by our unique contribution alone. At the same time, however, we also believe that the action of the Synod in authorizing this comprehensive study and the work that has been done on it so far furnish our church with an opportunity for growth in Biblical understanding and mutual edification which would now be abandoned only at great loss to ourselves--loss of courage, loss of freedom, loss of trust in the power of God's Word to overcome our darkness with His light" (1969 LCMS Convention Workbook, 66).
Yet, just four years later, after Dr. J. A. O. Preus was elected president of the Synod at that same 1969 convention, a slim majority of synodical delegates to the 1973 convention acted by resolution to condemn 40 of 45 faculty members at the Synod's Concordia Seminary, in part because they had been utilizing the very principles and methods of biblical interpretation that had been deemed "legitimate" by the ten-member CTCR committee and had been "commended" to the Synod in 1967 and further commended in 1969. Looking back on that 1973 convention action, in light of how those contemporary biblical principles and methods ("the historical-critical method," as it was then called) had been commended to the Synod in 1967 and 1969, one is reminded of that scene in the film Casablanca where Claude Rains' character, the police chief, is forced to shut down Rick's casino. As his men are doing this, he declares to Rick, "I'm shocked! Shocked, to learn there is gambling in this place!" And then the chief is presented with his winnings from the evening. The 1973 Synod seemed to be saying, "We're shocked! Shocked to learn that you faculty majority have been using the historical-critical method and contemporary principles of biblical interpretation!" ("Leave aside the fact that we commended this method to scholars in the Synod and have benefited from its use in our Synod...")
This is not to suggest that the use of the historical-critical method is on the same moral level as gambling, although I suspect there are some who would argue that it comes close. Certainly the vast majority of Bible students for the past several centuries have benefited greatly from the scholarly results of such historical and literary investigation of the Scriptures. In my view, the pay-off of this scholarship has been much, much greater than whatever winnings the police chief got that night at Rick's. Each week that I prepare a sermon or a Bible study, I benefit from the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (as does even the most "fundamentalistic" of Bible scholars), the Stuttgart edition of the Hebrew Bible, the great historical-critical work that was done by the German scholars who produced the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the Greek lexicon that was edited by former LCMS scholar, Fred Danker, and by those scholars who worked on the Anchor Bible Dictionary and all those who have produced the ocean of critical commentaries on the biblical books, and the list goes on.
Remarkably, there was a time in LCMS history when contemporary tools of biblical study, including the legitimate use of the modern historical-critical method, were commended to the Synod's own membership. In the CTCR committee's report to that 1969 convention, the ten-member group could even write publicly:
"Our church too must critically examine the methods and products of modern biblical scholarship. It is a matter of record that in recent decades there has been a shift away from the crass theological liberalism that was rampant earlier in this century in the direction of a more conservative, more Biblical theology. With this shift has come, on the part of many Biblical scholars, a more responsible use of the historical-critical method of Bible study. It is therefore not a foregone conclusion that all the presuppositions and conclusions of current scholarship are necessarily the same as those against which our fathers rightly protested. Hence it must not be assumed in advance that our church's present judgment needs to coincide at all points with that of the fathers, although it should indeed proceed from the same theological perspective" (1969 LCMS Convention Workbook, 5). Remember, the names that stood behind these words included Robert Preus, Raymond Surburg, H. Armin Moellering, and Ralph Bohlmann.
A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies sets forth basic presuppositions for a faithful interpretation of Holy Scripture, "the basic and legitimate elements of the so-called historical-critical method," and "necessary controls" for the rightful use of that method.
Within the section on presuppositions, the committee stated the following:
"In hearty agreement with the Lutheran Confessions we affirm that the right understanding of the Gospel (including the proper distinction of Law and Gospel as grounded in the article of justification) is the key that finally unlocks the meaning of Sacred Scripture (Apology, IV, 2-5; FC, SD, V, 1). We therefore hold that all theological questions raised by any interpretation must be posed and answered with reference to this central concern of the Scriptures. We also hold that those technical questions involved in interpretation which neither aid nor impair the right understanding of the Gospel (in its full sense) ought not become a matter of controversy in the church" (A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies, pp. 8-9).
Then there came a section that gave a basic description of "the historical-critical method" of biblical interpretation and how that method is to be legitimately used:
"We consider the following to be basic and legitimate elements of the so-called historical-critical method (cp. 'Guiding Principles for the Interpretation of the Bible' as accepted by the Ecumenical Study Conference, Oxford, 1949):
1. Establishing the text. This entails the sensitive use of both external and internal criteria (i.e., the evidence of manuscripts, ancient versions, lectionaries, patristic quotations; and the evidence of style, language, thought) for detecting any alterations which the text may have suffered through the process of transmission by human hands, and thus to determine the original reading as accurately as possible.
2. Ascertaining the literary form of the passage. This entails, as an aid to better comprehension, analyzing the Biblical passage in terms of its formal structure and character at the hand of such questions as these: Is it prose or poetry? Is it an address, a prayer, a monologue, a treaty, an edict, a letter? Is it an oracular saying, an invective, a lament, a liturgy, a proverb, a parable, a creed, a hymn? and so on.
3. Determining the historical situation. This entails discovering, so far as possible, the original setting—in time and place and circumstances—of the document, its author, and its readers.
4. Apprehending the meaning which the words had for the original author and hearer or reader. This entails careful investigation of the actual linguistic usage and idiom (together with their overtones conditioned by the social context in which they appear) of the author and his contemporaries in the light of the Biblical data and also of such extra-Biblical literature as may belong to the same social context.
5. Understanding the passage in the light of its total context and of the background out of which it emerged. This entails consideration not only of the text’s antecedent and contemporary circumstances—religious, cultural, historical—but also of the full range of the Biblical witness in both the Old and New Testaments" (ibid., 9).
Among the "controls," one finds the following:
"The problem of 'history' needs to be handled with extraordinary sensitivity by the Christian interpreter. He cannot adopt uncritically the presuppositions and canons of the secular historian. In his use of historical techniques the interpreter will be guided by the presuppositions of his faith in the Lord of history. It is indeed true that Christian faith rightly sees in the historicalness of God’s redemptive work (His entry into and participation in our saeculum) a divine warrant for the use of “secular” means and methods in the study of His Word, including linguistic, literary, and historical analysis of the texts. But at the same time faith recognizes that there is more to history than can ever be adequately measured by “laws” derived exclusively from empirical data and rational observation… " (ibid., 10).
"The undeniably necessary effort to hear a text of Scripture first of all in its particularity, its meaning 'then and there,' must be balanced by an equal effort to hear the text both in its integral relation to all the rest of Scripture and in its meaningfulness for all who hear it today. This effort does not require an arbitrary flattening out of the rich variety of the Biblical witness into a dull one-dimensional uniformity…" (ibid.).
"Whatever cognizance needs to be taken—as indeed it must—of the connection between Biblical materials and their background in the whole complex of social, cultural, political, economic, and religious factors of their day, a clear distinction must nevertheless be maintained between the unique, divine, and revelatory character of Scripture and the sheer human and contingent character of Scripture’s earthly milieu. Parallelisms between extra-Biblical materials and the form or substance of Scripture do not as such constitute causal or substantive relations. This is not in the least to deny the genuinely human and earthly dimension of Scripture itself…" (ibid.).
The hermeneutical principles and "the basic and legitimate" historical-critical method that this CTCR committee defined for the Synod in 1967 and which were commended that year by the Synod and further commended in 1969, strike me as still valid and useful for our own contemporary situation some forty-five years later. I certainly could not teach theology very well in my university or parish setting without using and relying on tools and resources of historical-critical investigation.
It seems to me that paragraph two (on literary form and genre) and paragraph five (on the historical context) have been largely neglected in synodical biblical interpretation and theological understanding since 1973. The same can be said for the language about "an equal effort to hear the text both in its integral relation to all the rest of Scripture and in its meaningfulness for all who hear it today."
A good example with respect to paragraph two and the sensitivity to contemporary "meaningfulness" is the apparent refusal within the contemporary LCMS to acknowledge the distinct genres that are present in the first chapters of Genesis and to accept the fact that none of these genres fits with modern notions of "historical report" or "modern scientific description." Such a conclusion is easy to make if one takes the time to compare the stories of origin in Genesis 1-11 with other, similar stories from the ancient Near East, including the Babylonian epic of creation (Enuma Elish), the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh (e.g., flood, serpent, tree of life), other Akkadian epics and myths, Ugaritic myths and epics, Sumerian epics (e.g., speaking snake), myths of primeval time among African peoples (including the Egyptians), Greek tragic mythologies, and other ancient Near Eastern myths and legends. By discerning the genres in these early chapters in Genesis, a key task of the historical-critical method, one is less likely to force the text into a genre that is foreign to it, e.g., thinking about it as "pure myth" (as in "false story"), or as "historical report" or modern "scientific language."
A good example with respect to paragraph five of the CTCR committee's report is the apparent refusal in the contemporary Synod, post-1973, to acknowledge that the Scriptures are in tension with one another with regard to their teaching about men and women within the church. The few NT commands that "women be silent in the churches" and that women are not "to exercise authority over men" must be understood in the light of the Bible's "total context and of the background out of which it emerged. This entails consideration not only of the text’s antecedent and contemporary circumstances—religious, cultural, historical—but also of the full range of the Biblical witness in both the Old and New Testaments." When one does that, one realizes that the Bible contains some apparent contradictions on the same issue, in this case what women may or may not do in the churches in the first century, since some women spoke authoritatively within the churches and exercised leadership over men (in both the OT and the NT) whereas in a few other places women were severely restricted. When one attends to historical and cultural contexts and acknowledges the distinction between abiding principle ("all things must be done decently and in order") and temporal/transitory application ("women should be silent"; "women should not exercise authority over men"; "women should have an authority on their head"; etc.), then there is freedom to discern how a given Scriptural text should be understood and applied in the contemporary situation. The application today might even be the exact opposite of the application that some used in the first century. It is not a coincidence that the Synod voted in 1969, finally, to allow women to vote in congregations and to serve in leadership positions, just at the time that it was commending the historical-critical method, since most scholars within the Synod at that time readily used this method to point out how the Scriptures really do not prohibit such actions for all times and places. Even then, there were a few synodical scholars who, as a result of their historical and literary investigation of the Scriptures, had come to the conclusion that the prohibition on women serving as theologians and pastors is not really biblically supportable either.
What the Synod commended in 1967 and 1969 still needs to be commended today. The reaction against the hermeneutical principles and the legitimate use of historical-critical methodology that the Synod took in 1973 and later--over against the synodical commendations of those same principles and method in 1967 and 1969-- was a mistake. It was a mistake for that faculty majority to have been condemned for using the very biblical tools that the Synod had earlier commended.
If one argues that the Synod changed its position on Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture between 1967 and 1973, I can accept that argument, but I would simply respond then by saying that the Synod commended a better position on Scriptural interpretation in 1967 and 1969 than it adopted in 1973 and later.
Sure, there is more to this story than what I am presenting here. My friend, Ed Schroeder, one of those who was condemned in 1973 and who lost his synodical calling as a result, has written about some of the other dynamics in play here, as has another friend, Fred Danker, one of the most able of historical-critical investigators in the twentieth century. (One the ironies in this story is that two of the earliest proponents of the use of historical-critical methodology within the Synod, namely, Horace Hummel and Martin Scharlemann, later took up defensive positions "on the other side" and acted against those who used the very method that they had earlier helped to introduce into seminary education within the Synod. I remember thinking to myself, after hearing Dr. Hummel lecture on "inerrancy" one day, when I was his M. Div. student in the mid-1980s, that the term really was meaningless, since the whole point of his lecture was to kill the term through a dozen qualifications. Same was true with his extremely qualified use of the expression "the historical-grammatical method," which was supposed to replace the forbidden phrase, "the historical-critical method." As he described the former approach, it really didn't seem to be substantially different from the latter. If there was a significant difference it was that the historical-grammatical method encouraged one to maintain the status quo of synodical doctrinal resolutions and not call a synodical understanding into question, whereas "the historical-critical method" did in fact lead one to reject as unsupportable certain cherished positions within the traditional LCMS, e.g., a literalistic understanding of Genesis 1 and an insistence that the first-century apostolic applications about keeping women "silent" and not allowing them "to exercise authority over men" were just as valid today as they were for at least a few in the first century. Because of this difference I became convinced that Dr. Luther would have actually supported the use of the historical-critical method--and there are solid indications within his own biblical interpretation that leads in this direction--because it would allow the Scriptures to be placed over against the church and its received interpretations of the Bible, it would allow scholars to test those traditional interpretations continually against the biblical texts as historically and literarily understood, and it would allow the church to remain open to the possibility that the biblical texts had not been properly understood or applied in its own history.