Editor’s note: In this five-part series, former ELCA Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom examines the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Part one explored how we understand the Bible’s purpose and how we use the Bible in the Lutheran tradition.

What I wrote in part one would probably meet with nods of approval from most of us in the ELCA. Now comes the hard part: What is the proper way to use the Bible in the church, especially when we are faced with trying to apply it to complex and potentially divisive issues? How should we employ the Holy Scriptures, which we call “the source and norm of the Christian faith,” in our church constitution?

I have often suggested that we in the ELCA would do well to reflect on certain methodologies developed in sister denominations—here, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Methodists. After all, isn’t one of the fundamental purposes of “full communion” that we learn from one another?


Historian Henry May described the process that emerged from early Princeton Seminary theologians as “a sober coalescence of biblical authority, ‘doxological’ science, a vigorous intellectual tradition, and a common sense employment of human reasoning” (as cited in the Summer 2002 Princeton Seminary Bulletin).

Catch those elements again: the Bible as primary authority, the revelation of God in the world of science, intellectual rigor, and common-sense reasoning.

In the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, we find this helpful description of the Bible:

“The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.”


In his book This Far by Grace (Cowley, 2003), J. Neil Alexander, a former Episcopal bishop and a graduate of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, suggested that in the Episcopal/Anglican approach, when we seek the will of God, we combine Scripture with tradition and reason. Yet Scripture is given the preeminent place:

“I prefer to think of the Anglican way like a tricycle. The big, front wheel of the tricycle is Holy Scripture. It leads the way, is responsible for steering, for determining the overall direction we are going. But essential to the tricycle are its two back wheels: reason and tradition. These back wheels bring balance and stability … and make the ride a great deal more reliable.”


The Methodists have a long-held process known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Not all Methodists embrace it, but many find it useful.

First and foremost in this approach, we should ask what the Bible has to say about a particular question. Second, we should inquire about the tradition of the church. Third, we should use the gift of reason. Finally, we should look at the experience of believers. I suggest that we consider each of these four steps.

The Bible

We in the ELCA have no problem in citing the Bible as a primary source for guidance. Indeed, we should always begin with a careful study of the Bible, asking the best minds of the church, persons knowledgeable with the Scriptures in their original languages and known for their skills of interpretation, to help us answer questions such as these:

  • What does the text of the Bible say about this question?
  • What do the words mean?
  • Is there more than one way these words might be translated or interpreted?

This makes our seminary communities and our biblical theologians crucial to the life of the church. We must give them the freedom to test the Scriptures with the same rigorous intellectual standards we apply to other kinds of study, convinced that the Scriptures can withstand any examination we bring to them.

But the church also has a right to expect its parish pastors, ordained ministers in other settings and lay theologians to do solid biblical work as they prepare sermons, lectures and Bible studies in the ordinary course of their ministry, and especially as they help the church to think through difficult questions.

Unfortunately, even when we do our biblical work with care and dedication, leaning on the best resources of the church, we often come to different conclusions on what the Bible tells us. Two professors at the same seminary with equally impressive scholarly credentials may arrive at opposing views of a particular issue.


There are those who believe tradition to be so important, they spell it with a capital “T.” At the other extreme, some of us remember when “tradition” was a dirty word in Lutheran circles. We boasted about relying on sola scriptura—the Scriptures alone.

Most of us, however, have come to realize that one cannot understand the Bible apart from tradition. Though we may not give tradition the same status as the Bible, we realize that the two are inseparably linked.

At its best, tradition is the accumulated wisdom and refined judgment of the church, forged by the crucible of centuries of reflection and discussion among the faithful. Thus, though we may not equate tradition with Holy Scripture, we should, at the very least, invite those who can instruct us in the history of the church to guide us in asking:

  • Has the church dealt with this matter in the past? If so, what can we learn from believers in earlier generations?
  • How and why did they come to certain conclusions?
  • Are there changes in the world and in the church that might lead us to question the tradition that has been handed down to us?

Reason and experience

Martin Luther recognized that reason, like any other good, can be demonic. But when continuing certain traditions seemed unreasonable to him in light of his conscience and his understanding of Scripture, he was quick to argue vigorously against those traditions. We should not forget that when Luther made his “Here I stand” declaration, he appealed not only to Scripture but also to “plain reason.”

So, we should ask:

  • If the Spirit of God is alive and at work in the church in every age, should we not expect that new insights into our understanding of the Bible will emerge in our own generation—or from the experience of believers in the world?
  • If such insights emerge, how does that experience fit into our understanding of the Bible and the traditions of the church?


Next month, this series will explore the witness of the Bible within the Old and New Testaments.

Herbert W. Chilstrom
Herbert W. Chilstrom was presiding bishop of the ELCA from 1987 to 1995. He lives in Green Valley, Ariz.

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