Associate editor’s note: In the part 1, we saw Dr. Becker pit Jesus against Scripture and his dismissal of certain biblical books (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation), saying that they cannot serve as principal sources or norms for Christian teaching. Here in part 2, we see Dr. Becker further denigrate Scripture.
Contains the Word; Witness to the Word
In his argument, Scripture continues to shrink even smaller than the homologoumena. He combines Liberal Protestantism’s view that the Bible is not the Word of God but only contains the Word along with much error, and Neo-orthodoxy’s view that the Bible is not the Word of God but only a “witness to the Word.” He says the Bible contains a witness to the Word. He says:
Only in a qualified way may one refer to the Bible as “the word of God,” and only then because it contains the authoritative apostolic and prophetic witness to the word of God in its varying forms and content.
In other words, there are portions of Scripture that contain the Word of God, and portions that do not. We are left to sift the wheat and the chaff. This overlooks the problem that in this sifting, we are editing, and the power of editing is the power of authorship. By this we make ourselves the authors of Scripture. Canon within the Canon Since the Bible is only a witness to the Word and we have to sift, that leads to the notion of a “canon within the canon.” Under this notion, we could hold a bound volume containing only the homologoumena, and still within that, we would recognize a further shrinkage to which parts of the canon we will deem should be canonical. We will give the canon within the canon authority, and look askance upon the rest. He says,
Once again one must ask, what is meant by the term “Scripture” in this section? The Formula uses the more precise designation “the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments” (FC Epitome, Rule and Norm, 1), which leaves open the question about the OT Apocrypha and the NT antilegomena and it centers upon the “canon within the canon” in the homolegoumena writings, namely, the proper distinction between law and gospel.
These central apostolic writings , in their witness to the gospel concerning Christ, are the only norm for the church’s total teaching, since the apostles themselves (via their reception of the Holy Spirit promised them by Christ) became organs for God’s self-revelation, and because all subsequent events that happen in the church must be guided and shaped by this revelation.
Among Lutheran theologians in general, this phrase “canon within the canon” is given varying meanings. At various points in Dr. Becker’s writings, he seems to be harkening to some of those meanings. The practical effect, however, is that some of the Gospels and Paul’s writings become the canon, and then within those, further shrinkage will happen because of what is deemed to witness to Christ and what isn’t, particular applications of law-gospel distinction, science, and culture.
Above we saw that Dr. Becker says “the proper distinction between law and gospel” is the touchstone of the canon with in the canon. This has ready-made appeal to Lutherans because the Lutheran confessions rank the distinction between law and gospel as “a particularly brilliant light.” (Formula of Concord, Article V) During the Reformation, law-gospel distinction was a theological principle among Lutherans, and it became a key piece of Lutheran confessional writings. But it was not the sole principle, and if it ever was a hermeneutical principle, it was not the sole one, and it never was the foundation of Scripture’s authority. “Thus saith the Lord,” still is the foundation of the authority of the Word, and all challenges to the authority of the Word still have the character of the Serpent’s question, “Hath God indeed said?” Dr. Becker not only makes law-gospel distinction a hermeneutical principle, but the only one, and then removes the law as having authority, leaving only the Gospel as having authority, and then founds the authority of Scripture on the Gospel alone, even if the Gospel is not the only word God ever said. In the saying, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), Paul did not say only the Gospel but all Scripture, and he did not say that the only use was to bring us to salvation but also to reprove, correct, and train in righteousness, and he did not found the authority of the Word on law-gospel distinction but on Scripture being “breathed out by God.” So, when Dr. Becker says, “The Scriptures have authority for the sake of this gospel,” that is true as far as it goes. The Scriptures do have authority for the sake of the Gospel, though not only for the sake of the Gospel. But if he were to carry that further and say, the Scriptures have authority only because of the Gospel, that would be error. He does say:
There is no such thing as “a primary” purpose of Scripture, for the use of that term implies a “secondary” or even a “tertiary” purpose to Scripture. Jesus knows no such level of “purposes.” The sole purpose of the Scriptures is to make people wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39). The Scriptures are “rightly used only when they are read from the perspective of justification by faith and the proper distinction between law and gospel” (emphasis added). The Scriptures are rightly used only when they are searched to find in them the gospel, namely, the life, the death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ “for me.” Certainly this “searching” also uncovers divine words of law and judgment, and these words have their rightful say about us sinners and even about Christ, who suffered on the cross as “the world’s greatest sinner” (Luther). Nevertheless, the law is to be rightly distinguished from the gospel so that the gospel receives its greatest clarity in contrast to the law and reveals how the gospel speaks a word against the divine law for the sake of faith in Christ alone.
This gospel reductionism further shrinks the Word of God. By Dr. Becker’s theory, God no longer is allowed to, or if He is allowed, He no longer has any interest in saying anything to his beloved creatures besides the Gospel, even though other things could be beneficial and spoken from kindly generosity. He says:
One may certainly affirm the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the only infallible rule of Christian faith and life, because they teach faithfully and with clarity the truth of the gospel which God wanted recorded for the sake of creating and sustaining faith in Christ, but the entirety of the Bible cannot serve as that infallible rule.
Not every individual statement or assertion in the Bible is consistent with the gospel. Every reader of the Christian Bible ought to distinguish between what is incidental or peripheral within the Bible and what is essential and central to its overall message and purpose. The gospel about Christ, which is attested in diverse ways within the Scriptures, is the key that unlocks the meaning of the whole of Scripture and allows its individual parts to be understood in relation to that biblical whole.
It is true that the Gospel is a key that unlocks the meaning of the whole Scripture. That is an insufficient basis, however, for concluding that statements inconsistent with the Gospel are not God’s Word and hence not Scripture. The Law is God’s Word, it is Scripture, and it has uses. He says,
Of course sorting out the competing and conflicting claims within the various sources of Christian theology requires careful attention to the issue of the prioritizing of sources and norms within theology and of discerning wherein the truth truly lies. Here the witness of the apostle Paul to “the truth of the gospel” is helpful (Gal. 2.5, 14). He acknowledged that even within the Scriptures themselves not everything is normative for contemporary Christian faith and practice, that even the key apostle of Jesus, namely, Peter, could err in a matter of faithful practice, and that the church itself could become corrupted and act contrary to the truth of the gospel. The gospel promise, then, really is the central focus for Christian theology, and the concern for it will always distinguish a properly conservative theology from those that deny or disregard it. A truly orthodox and conservative theology is concerned for the truth of the gospel and the sound teaching that flows from it; yet such a theology is also properly liberal in that it truly liberates individuals from sin, death, and the power of evil and liberates them for loving service in the world. While Christian , academic theology will take its primary cues from the biblical gospel, it will also be open to other insights, insofar as these overlap with its own proper concerns and goals and assist it in the task of clarifying the truth claims within its subject matter.
The supposed logic of this is that, since the Bible correctly tells us that Peter erred, therefore the Bible errs, and because the Bible correctly tells us that the Church errs, therefore the Bible errs. Further, we can do better than the Bible at avoiding error by judging the Bible using the Gospel. By holding to the Gospel, we can filter the errors out of the Bible. This is what academics produce? He says,
What difference does it make to our salvation from sin and death by faith in Jesus Christ, if the story of Adam and Eve is best understood figuratively, or if the Israelites came out of Egypt on wet ground, or if Moses’ lifting up of the bronze serpent can be understood both symbolically and as an historical event? “Am I really expected to hold that my salvation through Jesus Christ is somehow related to, perhaps even dependent upon, an unequivocal assertion that once there really was salvation through a brazen serpent for the Israelites in the wilderness? If [this] is so, then the historicity and factuality of all matters recorded in the Bible as a necessary tenet of faith antecedes any subsequent distinction between Law and Gospel.” Is the virgin birth of Jesus in and of itself necessary as an element in or presupposition of our salvation? It may well be, and I think it is, but its relation to the gospel is different from the issues in the other questions here. What if some of the miracles of Jesus are also meant to be understood figuratively? Is their “happenedness” the key issue or is not this issue, too, only significant in relation to John’s statement about the sole purpose of Scripture? Even the demons know historical facts. What they lack is faith in Christ.
What difference does it make if Jesus’ miracles were figurative? Let John the Baptist and Jesus tell us.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
John heard about the deeds of the Christ, not figurative stories. Jesus said, tell John what you hear and see, not figurative stories. John was not expected to believe because the figuratively blind received their figurative sight, even though those miracles pointed beyond themselves to the spiritually blind receiving their spiritual sight. Jesus encouraged John to believe because of the Becker-distained “happenedness” of the miracle, the factualness of it. The same is true for the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the dead being raised. What good could it have done for Jesus to proclaim himself the resurrection and the life if his raising people from the dead had been only figurative? While happenedness is not the key issue, it remains an issue, and it is the basis on which Jesus sustained the faith of the greatest prophet ever while he suffered in prison. Do we have to suffer as much before we come to understand why, for people who do suffer for the faith, happenedness matters? In the name of upholding the Gospel, Gospel reductionism abolishes the Gospel, because even the greatest prophet, John, would be left with nothing supporting his faith in prison. What becomes of the faith if we remove all the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed that make claims of historical and biographical fact, claims of happenedness? Born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, buried. Did the Apostles go into all the world and get themselves martyred for figurative claims, and would the world kill them for figurative claims? Look at the figurative claims the world of that day made for their own, many gods. They had little problem with figurative claims and their pantheons usually had room for one more. No, the factualness and happenedness of Jesus are key parts of what discredited the pantheons and therefore got the Apostles killed. A factual Jesus exposed the fraud of a figurative Zeus. ________________________  Fundamental Theology, (Kindle Locations 6347-6355).  Matthew Becker, “Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS,” The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2013).  Fundamental Theology, (Kindle Locations 6621-6623).  Matthew Becker, “Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS,” The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2013).  Matthew Becker, “Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS,” The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2013).  Fundamental Theology, (Kindle Locations 7181-7183).  Fundamental Theology, (Kindle Locations 7112-7116)  Matthew Becker, “Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS,” The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2013).  Fundamental Theology, (Kindle Locations 6295-6299).