Editor’s note: In this five-part series, former ELCA Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom examines the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Part two will explore how to use Scripture in context.
One issue seems to permeate almost every discussion we have in the church, and it’s especially prominent when we debate matters that have the potential to divide us. That issue is the Bible, and it centers on these questions: What is the authority of the Bible? How should we use the Bible? How do we, given our roots and traditions, interpret the Bible?
I’m not going to assert that if we come to total consensus on these questions all will be well. I am going to suggest, however, that the sailing may be smoother if we can have broad agreement on them.
A lifelong journey
My love affair with the Bible reaches back to the Great Depression. My parents were forced to quit farming, and for several months, until they could find a suitable home for their growing family in a nearby village, they had to live apart. My mother took five of us and went to live with her parents. My father took the other two and went to live with his brother, 2 miles down the road.
Every evening, after the meal, my maternal grandmother would rise from the table and reach for her Swedish Bible and Psalm Book. I didn’t understand a word of what she read. But it was a moment of quiet reverence for a restless 4-year-old. That memory will be inscribed forever on my heart.
About 10 years later, my baptismal faith was awakened at a church camp. As a result of that experience, I began to read my Bible daily. Before finishing high school, I had read it from cover to cover—including every “begat” in Leviticus and every “selah” in the Psalms.
At Augsburg College, I took Bible courses and minored in Greek. At Augustana Seminary I continued my biblical studies, which included courses in Greek and in Hebrew, and learned the importance of studying the Bible in the historical context in which it was written.
Now, when I sit in a pew more often than I stand in the pulpit, my concern for our use of the Bible runs as deep as ever.
Several years after I was ordained, I pursued a second master’s degree at Princeton Seminary, specializing in New Testament studies. My doctoral studies in religious education at New York University included a thesis in the area of biblical studies.
In my parish ministry I emphasized adult Bible study. Between parish calls I spent nearly a decade in the college classroom, teaching primarily biblical studies. In my 20 years as a synod and churchwide bishop, I deliberately carved out time in my schedule to teach the Bible to pastors and laity.
In addition to this formal study and teaching, I have always found the Bible important to read for the purpose of enriching my walk as a follower of Christ. Through 63 years of married life, my wife, Corinne, and I have followed the discipline of reading Scripture daily. Now, with diminished eyesight, I have found new delight in my giant-print Bible.
I dwell on this history because the use of the Bible, for both personal enrichment and religious instruction in the church, is not an “ivory tower” endeavor for me. This has been my life. This book has shaped who I am more than any other. It has been central to my ministry as a parish pastor, as a college professor and as a bishop.
Now, when I sit in a pew more often than I stand in the pulpit, my concern for our use of the Bible runs as deep as ever. I long for the church—for all churches—to be more firmly grounded in the Scriptures.
A deeper concern
My concern here is not simply with our reading and study of the Bible but also with how we understand its purpose and how we use it, especially when dealing with difficult issues in the church.
In our culture there is a growing tendency to use the Bible in a manner that is alien to the traditions of the ELCA and most other churches that trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation. The rise of what is called Protestant fundamentalism has brought with it the assumption that every Bible verse is of equal or near-equal importance, and that resolving difficult issues is a simple matter of finding the right verses and applying them as the last word. The Bible becomes a fetish, an object of worship, that must be regarded with unreasoning reverence.
We must be quick to recognize, of course, that even in our Lutheran tradition there have been long periods when our church fell into that trap, times when the Bible was regarded in a fundamentalist way.
Throughout our history we have struggled with this problem. In 1938 the United Lutheran Church in America (the ULCA is a predecessor of the ELCA) adopted what became known as the Baltimore Declaration. After stating that “the whole body of the Scriptures in all its parts is the Word of God,” the declaration asserted that one must distinguish between the “more important” and the “less important” parts of the Bible. The difference between these two parts lay in what the declaration called the “closeness of their relation to Christ, our Lord, and to the Gospel, which is the Word of God in the most real sense.”
Years later, Joseph Sittler, a leading theologian of the ULCA, caused an uproar in Lutheran circles and beyond with his book The Doctrine of the Word (Muhlenberg, 1948). Sittler argued that people must read the Bible from its center—its witness to Jesus Christ—and not from its edges, trying to use it for purposes for which it was not intended.
In our culture there is a growing tendency to use the Bible in a manner that is alien to the traditions of the ELCA and most other churches that trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther’s understanding of the Bible, Sittler said, arose out of his wrestling with sin and with alienation from God, and his discovery of what Sittler called “the measureless and shocking love of God”:
“The whole context of mighty works, prophetic declarations and pleadings, the cries and moans and lyrical songs of the psalter through which that message moves to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ—that, for Luther, is the Word of God.”
Once Luther distinguished the “Living Word” of Christ from the “Written Word” of the Bible, Sittler said the reformer was able “to move with extraordinary freedom among problems of textual criticism.” This view of Scripture allowed Luther to criticize those parts of the Bible that did not, in his judgment, lend a clear witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ.
First and foremost, what makes our Christian Bible, “the written word,” distinct is a word of judgment and mercy, of law and gospel. At its center, however, is the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ. That revelation, that written word about the living word, has been with us from the beginning. It was there in creation, in the history of Israel and specifically in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And it is there whenever we proclaim the gospel and receive the sacraments.
You may think I’m trying to diminish the importance of the Bible. On the contrary, I believe the Bible will come to have an even greater role in the life of the church if we make certain it is used in the proper way.