A friend recently noted that if you look at the writings of our synod’s early fathers, you find much about the doctrine of scripture itself. But between about 1900 and 1945, that ended. Instead, you find occasional articles or conference themes, but no solid books. Even today, a quick search of the CPH catalog reveals basically one book on the doctrine of scripture, and that is by Johann Gerhard (Who is definitely NOT a 20th century theologian, thanks be to God!)
About the same time that we began ignoring the doctrine of scripture, we also began to struggle with the doctrine of scripture. One may say it culminated in Seminex, but we still struggle – and that struggle is once again increasing. We now have people teaching that one of the Sedes Doctrinae for Holy Baptism is more properly considered antilegomena than homologomena. Only an extremely low view of the doctrine of scripture could allow for such a thing.
So what happened? Did we abandon the doctrine and therefore stop writing about it, or did we stop writing about it and therefore abandon the doctrine. Like the chicken and the egg, we can’t get to the origin in that sense. I think the two probably happened contemporaneously, and fed each other. But this much is fairly certain: During the early 20th century, the LCMS abandoned a confessional Lutheran and scriptural view of scripture, and began accepting a modern textual critical method. When I was in seminary, it was explained that higher criticism was bad, but lower criticism was ok. I think both are a modern capitulation to scholardom. The pre-“enlightenment” church did not think in such terms. Questions about scripture were never questions of manuscripts and scientific inquiry into the psychology of the author, but attestation of the church. Canonicity was apostolically driven, not archaeologically driven.
I know I’ll have fifteen people arguing with me about this – you’re unfairly characterizing modern textual criticism, we need to keep up on current trends, our scholars need to be conversant with current scholarship, we don’t want to be fundamentalists,etc. But I’m not suggesting fundamentalism. I’m suggesting we stop treating every method of biblical interpretation that existed before 1850 as “historical theology”. Fundamentalism is a modern and very limiting way of looking at scripture. But it arose about the same time as modern textual criticism – so in that sense, they are both equally modern and I would argue both equally limiting. Consider Chemnitz’s seven-fold definition of tradition, and compare that to what was taught in my hermeneutics and isagogics classes. And then compare that to the current seminary curriculum, which I’m told no longer requires a hermeneutics class.
I’ve had several people over the last few months – disparate situations, locations, and overall outlook – who have suggested that textual criticism is not really all its cracked up to be. I would agree. I’m glad there are people out there who understand it, are interested in studying it, and can respond to the challenges of it. The problem is, that few who study it see it as “learning the enemies tactics so we can effectively refute it and remain faithful”. It’s more likely to be seen as “a valuable tool that can help us unlock the key to the scriptures more fully than our fathers did”. It’s arrogant to assume we understand scripture better than Iraenaeus, Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhardt. But more than personal arrogance, it has lead many of those same people to deny Jesus said “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.”
And that’s a problem, no matter how you look at it.