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The Authority of Scripture: Source and Norm


by Tim Fisher



            Much of the church’s debate about same-sex relationships is concerned with the role that Scripture plays in the Lutheran tradition. In the Constitution of the ELCA, our church confesses that “the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments [are] the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” Yet what does this mean? For some, it means that the Bible is where the Christian community refers for a directive code of conduct. For these believers, interpreting the code is a simple task: if (for instance) Leviticus says “Thou shall not lie with a man as with a woman,” then the church should teach that same-sex sexual activity is sinful.

            Putting aside other necessary interpretive questions (What is the context? Does our contemporary situation apply? Is our translation accurate? etc…), we need to ask if using Scripture as a code of conduct is faithful to our Lutheran understanding of the Bible’s role in the Christian community. Let’s look at the work of  Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, in their book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings.[1]  Gritsch and Jenson do a great job of explaining a traditional Lutheran understanding of what it means when we confess that Scripture is the source and norm of our church’s proclamation, faith, and life. They write:


The tradition’s [and Scripture’s] legitimate authority in the church is fundamentally the authority of promise rather than of law. The determination of my life and the life of the community by the address of the gospel is that it sets the community and me free. We are given to hope for that love which is the plot of Jesus’ story as the consummation of the human enterprise. We may hope for it because of the utter commitment enacted on the cross. And the relation of this commitment to this future is the space opened for unquenchable freedom. The gospel-tradition determines my life by giving me a sure and specific hope and by freeing me equally from inhibiting guilt and static security. (p. 9)


From the above there follows three assertions. The authors write:


1. Either the Scriptures and the rest of the tradition acquire this authority [the authority of promise] over me, or they do not. If they do, this is a contingent fact; if they do not, there is no other authority by which we could say they ought to acquire this authority. (p. 9)


2. The Scriptures and dogma have—in respect of this authority—preeminent places among the witnesses of the tradition because and only because the other witnesses direct us to them. (p. 9)


3. Under the authority of Scripture and the whole tradition, the function of theology will not be to provide the ideology of an established community; theology will not begin with concern to “preserve” or “deny” anything at all. Theology will first of all be the activity of critique which discovers new life and new language. Neither can there by any such thing as the theology of a church or denomination. Any attempt to deny time theologically, to decree theological immutability, is an attempt to evade scriptural and dogmatic authority in this its fundamental mode.  (p. 10)


Among the treasure-trove of insights that can be gleaned from the above, I will discuss only a relative few. These are as follows:


1. There is no legitimate authority invoked when we point to the text of a scriptural passage (or passages) and say, “See, it says right here that you shouldn’t do x; therefore God is against your doing x.” To do so is to suggest that the ultimate authority of Scripture is based on law, rather than on promise.


2. Item 1 (directly above) does not mean it is somehow erroneous for someone to believe, for instance, that homosexuality is wrong. One is free to think so if one thinks so. (And I am free to try to convince him or her otherwise.) Yet one is also free to think that the verse “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination” (Lev. 20:13)—itself, by itself—speaks no promise of the saving love of Christ. Similarly, one is free to think that homosexuality is not a “degrading passion” (Rom. 1:26) is not something keeping us from moving simultaneously toward and within the promise of Christ. As Gritsch and Jenson write, “Where the Scriptures do not in fact have authority as promise, any attempt to claim legal force for them is an arbitrary imposition. Any theory, interpretation, or practice of the Scripture’s legal authority which obscures this derivation is pernicious” (p. 13).

I hasten to add that Gritsch and Jenson’s discussion does not fall into the loosey-goosey trap of moral relativism. Indeed, no. For them, there is such a thing as a legal authority to be found in the reading of Scripture. The legal authority springs essentially from the authority of promise, and that promise is not only about “me becoming more me.” They write:


The legal authority of the tradition can never properly be used to limit its liberating authority—since the fact of the legal authority depends upon the absoluteness of the liberating authority. This does not mean that theological formulation or ministerial order or social-political stance are in any way unimportant; on the contrary, just because these are mutable they are the arena of our existence before God and man, of our free responsibility as believers. Nor does it mean that one solution is as good as another. (p. 13)


3. Now, for the sake of argument . . . Following Gritsch and Jenson, it seems that even the commandment “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13) may not—itself, by itself—necessarily speak to me of the promise. If it does so for me, it does; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I am obedient to “You shall not murder” not because the text comes to me from Scripture, but because the promise of Christ’s saving love has freed me from desiring the murder of another person. (Such a response, in my view, is quite similar to the concept of the “civil use” of the law, which Gritsch and Jenson also discuss in their book. Also, it is of some interest to note that Luther commends the Ten Commandments not because they are Scripture but because they follow the “natural law.” While it’s beyond the scope of this essay  to discuss exactly what Luther means by “natural law,” let it suffice to say that natural law for Luther is not synonymous with “Scripture.” If it were, then Luther might have commended all of the Levitical commandments. Yet he expressly did not.)


Some may wish to counter my argument here by positing a situation where a person—some imaginary person—claims that the freeing love of Christ has not, for some reason most of us can’t understand, inspired a hatred of murder, but rather the opposite. This is where we insert the obligatory example of the Nazi, who presumably loved murdering Jewish people (and homosexual people, too). Even so, my response to the Nazi isn’t: “The Bible is against murder; therefore I shall uphold Scripture and stop the Nazi.” Rather, it is: “The love of Christ leads me to defend the lives of my neighbors whom Christ loves and whom I love as well.” Here, the action—the abiding by the law, so to speak—follows the promise. Here, we see that sin by no means should abound.


4. Given the above, I admit it is reasonable to assume there are some for whom the saving love of Christ has inspired them to hate homosexuality. I might feel that such people are deluding themselves—that is, that they are actually inspired by something other than the saving love of Christ—but in humility I confess I cannot know the truth of their hearts. Therefore, it seems legitimate that people who feel this way about homosexuality might wish to pursue a community who teach that homosexuality is wrong, just as some might wish to pursue a community who teach, for instance, that ignoring hunger is wrong.


5. What is illegitimate, in the view of Gritsch and Jenson, is to claim that a propositional authority for such a pursuit derives from Scripture. Such a construal of authority is simply not what is meant by our church’s assertion that Scripture is “the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”


Of course none of what we’ve said here solves the debate before the church in regards to same-sex relationships. But for those who follow Gritsch and Jenson’s discussion of the authority of Scripture, its testimony leads the debate out of The-Bible-says-such-and-such/No-it-doesn’t impasse.


Grace and peace,


Tim Fisher

Minneapolis, MN

January 2003



[1] See especially their first chapter, “An Ecumenical Proposal of Dogma,” in Lutheranism: the Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).