Synodical Defection from Scripture

The case of Dr. Matthew L. Becker illustrates defection from Scripture by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. This defection is not by the laity, nor by a majority of its theologians, doctors, seminary professors, or pastors, nor its President. This defection is by the Synod as synod.

Dr. Becker is on the roster of ordained clergy of the Synod. He is an impressively accomplished Professor at Valparaiso University. He has done fill-in or vacancy work in congregations, including teaching confirmands. He publicly teaches a variety of doctrines that are, to put it politely, at variance from those of the Synod.[1] These teachings touch on the office of public ministry, creation, the order of creation, the fall, sin, Scripture, and I don’t know what all (but I keep reading more of it, and it’s voluminous).[2]

The problem is not Dr. Becker, for “the Beckers ye always have with you.” In fact, this is the same tired, old, unimaginative stuff from the 1880s, 1920s, and 1960s. The problem is the Synod.

The Synod is the problem at several levels.

  • Politics. The Synod is politically incapable of disciplining someone like Dr. Becker for his false teachings.

 

  • Confessional Reductionism. The Synod’s process so far has accepted Dr. Becker’s claim that the confessions of the Lutheran church in the Book of Concord do not settle the issues of his heterodox teachings, and therefore he is not subject to discipline. Absent from that line of thought is consideration of Scripture itself as the sole normative authority for doctrine in the Lutheran church. The Synod is the problem for absent mindedly going along with Dr. Becker’s defense. So far, the Synod has abandoned the very “Scripture Alone” that the confessions teach. Surely, if a teaching varies from the confessions, it is error. But just as surely, if a teaching varies from Scripture, even if it is on a subject not settled by the confessions, it is error. Dr. Becker has lulled the Synod into confessional reductionism by which Scripture is confined to the confessions, and Scripture can say no more than the confessions say. Scripture cannot deal with any issue that was not in controversy when the confessions were written.

 

  • Causative Authority. The Synod failed to discern that Dr. Becker’s direct attack on the normative authority of Scripture stemmed from a more fundamental and stealthy attack on the causative authority of Scripture. It is stealthy because he rejects the causative authority by simply disregarding it. Whatever Dr. Becker is stealthy enough to omit from addressing in his arguments the Synod so far has been too unmindful to think of on its own. Thereby Dr. Becker gets a pass on the most foundational issue in his case, the causative authority of Scripture.

Before we can get to the normative authority of the Word, which is its authority to establish our teachings on various doctrines, such as sin, salvation, the means of grace, the office of public ministry, and so on, first we must get straight the causative authority of the Word. What causes the Word to have authority, to give us the assurance that it is the Word of God? Those other doctrines, necessary for the purity of the Gospel, are reached after firstly being settled on the causative authority.

As a layman, I have seen this movie before in the American Lutheran Church of the 1960s, and was fortunate enough to be confirmed in the last confirmation class of one of the devout theologians of that synod, The Rev. Dr. Casper B. Nervig. Dr. Nervig was no slouch on the normative authority of Scripture, but he also emphasized the causative authority.

Dr. Nervig spoke on the autopisti of the Word at the Northern Minnesota district pastoral conference, N.L.C.A., Bemidji, Minnesota, April 18, 1939. His presentation was published as, “Christian Assurance: An Exegetical Study of Romans 8:16,” Journal of Theology of the American Lutheran Conference, pp. 337-51, (Danish Lutheran Publishing House, Blair, Nebraska, April, 1941). He said, pp. 345-47:

We can be assured that God’s Word is true because Scripture itself has given us that assurance through the testimony of the Holy Spirit. In other words, God’s word is self-assuring regarding itself. To the world that sounds presumptuous, but it is the sovereign authority of Scripture. This has been called the ‘causative authority’ of Scripture in distinction from the ‘normative authority’’ of Scripture in matters of faith and life. J. T. Mueller says, (Christian Dogmatics, Concordia 1934, p. 121) ‘The causative authority of the Holy Scripture is that by which it engenders and preserves faith in its own teaching through its very word’ (Rom 10:17). ‘Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.’ This causative authority is exercised directly by the Holy Spirit through the Word bringing out a divine assurance (fides divina). That is the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Of this Quenstedt writes: ‘The ultimate reason by and through which we are led to believe with a divine and unshaken faith that God’s Word is God’s Word is the intrinsic power and efficacy of that Word itself, or the testimony and seal of the Holy Spirit, who speaks in and through Scripture, because the bestowal of faith . . . is a work that emanates from the Holy Spirit.’ Hollaz writes as follows: ‘’By the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, is here understood the supernatural act of the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, attentively read or heard . . . by which he moves, opens, and illuminates the heart of man and incites it to faithful obedience.’’ (Quoted by Mueller, p. 121)

In support of this, notice that Paul writes to the Corinthians that his ‘speech and preaching was in demonstration of the Spirit and power’ (I Cor. 2:4,5). To the Thessalonians he writes that they received his word as the Word of God because the divine word ‘effectually worketh in you that believe’ (I Thess. 2:13, 14).

Our assurance of the truth of Scripture is based on nothing outside of the Word itself. That Word, by the testimony of the Holy Spirit working through itself, gives the assurance that it is true. This is as it were the declaration of independence of Scripture in which it accepts no superior and not even a peer. It is sovereign, absolutely autonomous, containing within itself the assurance of its authority. . . .

This principle of Scripture comes to us from the Reformation. It received a clean-cut formulation in the early orthodoxy in the words of Joh. Gerhard, who spoke of this principle as ‘quaedam principa, autopista kai anapodeikta, certissima et indemonstrabilia, quae non dependent ex aliis, sed alia ex ipsis.’ (a certain principle, self-evident – or self-persuading – and independent of proof, most sure and beyond proof, which is not dependent on others but which others depend upon).

Having seen the ‘autopisti,’ the autonomous self-certainty of the Word of God we cease to look for any other proof to buttress our faith in its authority. This testimony of the Holy Spirit becomes then in fact identical with faith. Quoting Luther: ‘We do not distinguish the Holy Spirit from faith, nor is He contrary to faith; for He is Himself the assurance of the Word, who makes us certain of the Word, so that we do not doubt, but believe most certainly and beyond all doubt that it is just so and in no respect whatever different from that which God in His Word declares and tells us’ (Erlangen Edition, vol. 58, p. 153). If someone asks, ‘How do you know that the Scriptures are true?’ I answer, ‘I know it is true because I believe it is true.’’ But ‘I believe’ does not mean ‘It is my opinion’ as that word is so often used. This I believe is a certainty which I have from the Holy Spirit working in me through the Word; it is the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

It should hardly be necessary to call attention to it but let me remind you that in no way is this assurance to be defined as experience so that it becomes confused with the testimony of the human spirit. It is independent of our spirit grounded in God’s word.

Now it is true that there is a certain human assurance regarding the truth of God’s Word. It is called fides humana. Internally these proofs are, the unique harmony of its many books and authors, the sublime nature of its contents, the amazing prediction of future events, etc. Externally these proofs are its power to survive centuries of assault, its stupendous achievement in changing men as individuals and in fact whole civilizations, the faith of martyrs and others similar. These are scientific proofs of the divine authority of the Bible. But let us remember that the best that such proofs can do is to provide a sort of a human assurance, as Quenstedt says, they do not beget a ‘divine, but merely a human faith; not an unshaken certainty, but merely a credibility or a very probable opinion’ (quoted by Mueller, p. 123). They can be used by the pastor as a starting point with the hope of persuading the unregenerate to give God’s Word a hearing, but beyond that these ‘proofs’ are totally helpless; after that God’s Word and the Holy Spirit must create saving faith and assurance.

We cannot judge Dr. Becker’s heart. We can judge only his confession. By his confession, he denies the autopisti of the Word. We can see this because he subjects the Word to external tests of truth. These external texts originate in today’s shape of the shifting sands of science, or in social respectability. He rejects the Word’s sovereign independence. That is why, later, when dealing with the normative authority of the Word on creation, fall, sin, salvation, ordination, and so on, he is oceans apart from scripturally normed faith. He won’t let the Bible say anything that might embarrass him in academic circles. There is no room for Luther’s theology of the cross, and suffering (for Scriptural faith) as the precious treasure of the Christian.[3] Under his teaching, our face, our respectability, is the test of the Word, when in truth, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12. He would have us judge the Word, whereas in truth, the Word judges us.

God gave us his Word in providence and in redeeming love. Our stand should be not only below Scripture rather than above it, but as receivers of a gift, not consumers demanding a warranty. Do we really think that if we ask for an egg, our heavenly Father would give us a scorpion? Luke 11:12.

As some call Dr. Becker to repentance, all of us must call the Synod as synod to repentance. Repentance is a gift of God. Let us “in humility [correct] those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” 2 Timothy 2:25.

________________________

[1] Matt Harrison, “Regarding a recent decision of a panel not to proceed with charges regarding a public false teacher in the LCMS,” Witness, Mercy, Life Together, January 26, 2015. “When a public teacher on the roster of Synod can without consequence publicly advocate the ordination of women (even participate vested in the installation of an ELCA clergy person), homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible, the historical-critical method, open communion, communion with the Reformed, evolution, and more, then the public confession of the Synod is meaningless. I am saying that if my Synod does not change its inability to call such a person to repentance and remove such a teacher where there is no repentance, then we are liars and our confession is meaningless. I do not want to belong to such a synod, much less lead it. I have no intention of walking away from my vocation. I shall rather use it and, by the grace of God, use all the energy I have to call this Synod to fidelity to correct this situation.” CTCR Response to Matthew Becker Dissent of 6-29-11. Statement of CTCR Executive Committee Regarding Matthew Becker Dissent. See also, Scott Diekmann, “Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker: Nature Interprets Scripture,” Stand Firm, April 16, 2012.

[2] Curriculum Vitae of Dr. Matthew Becker (DOC format | PDF format). See, for example, Fundamental Theology: A Protestant Perspective (New York: T & T Clark, 2014); “The Scandal of the LCMS Mind” (revised), The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2010), 165-184. “Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS,” The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2013) (also at Transverse Markings here, August 20, 2013) ; “A Case for Female Pastors and Theologians,” in The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2010), 126-140; “An Arbitrary Confessional Basis in the LCMS (Pt. 1), Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, July 8, 2014; “An Arbitrary Confessional Basis in the LCMS (Pt. 2), Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, July 8, 2014; “An Arbitrary Confessional Basis in the LCMS (Pt. 3),” Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, July 8, 2014; “A Letter from President Harrison to the CTCR,” Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, June 12, 2013; “Creationism and the Doctrine of Creation in the LCMS,” Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, May 14, 2013; “The Being of Adam, the New Adam, and the Ontology of Pastors,” Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, August 1, 2011; “Further Comments on the Ordination of Women to the Pastoral Ministry,” Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, June 18, 2011; “Concern over the Ordination of Women to the Pastoral Ministry in the LCMS,” Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes, May 18, 2011.

[3] Walther von Lowenich, Herbert J. A. Bouman trans., Luther’s Theology of the Cross, p. 117 et seq. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976); and Ronald K. Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.