LUTHER 500: Sola Scriptura


The 500th Year of Luther’s Reformation

The 15th Annual Evangelicals Concerned Preaching Fest

Ocean Grove, New Jersey, October 6-8, 2017

An Introductory Lecture and Three Sermons

Dr. Ralph Blair

(PDF version available here.)

LUTHER 500:  Sola Scriptura

C. S. Lewis recognized that, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to making certain mistakes.” We’re all stuck in our own age, the only age we experience. So, it’s easy to miss where we’re mistaken – especially as we flatter ourselves into assuming that we’ve progressed beyond all those dolts who came before us. Then, we ignorantly repeat the mistakes of the past.

So, said Lewis, we “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that,” he knew, “means, the old books.”

This wasn’t a reactionary conclusion of a crotchety old professor sequestered up in an ivory tower of nostalgia. It’s our only option. One’s own era is inescapably circumscribed within its own setting and its own bent. So, it does make sense to try to rise above one’s own era’s inevitable ignorance and shortsightedness. We’re in need of a cultural diversity that goes deeper than the present tense.

Since no yet-to-be-written books are available, the only options to today’s books are old books. They’re free of our era’s biases and blind spots, but they have biases and blind spots of their eras. Fortunately, the old books come from many different eras.

Unfortunately, and for some time now in American universities, the study of old books, e.g., the ancient classics, Western history, as well as basic principles of rational thinking and logic, have been dropped with high handed disdain for the sake of our day’s pet peeves, prejudice and priorities. That censorship dogmatically deprives us of a diversity of viewpoint and perspectives beyond our own biases and blind spots.

These days, people get themselves anxious and then hostile if they’re presented with anything that questions or refutes their own presuppositions, their postmodern prejudices, and their politically correct and postured pieties. Sadly, since they lack any real ability at skilled reason and argument, they start and end with “Shut up!”

Still, there’s one collection of old books that’s stood the test of time and that’s linked to various eras, authors, languages and cultures, that presents a perspective that claims to rise above any one particular time and place, and, indeed, above all time and space. It’s been received for nearly 2,000 years to be the Word of God. This collection of old books has impacted more people than any other collection. It’s called, of course, The Bible.

But Gallup finds that, even in our fairly “Christian” country, so to speak, “By and large, Americans don’t read it.” Says Gallup: “Because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” Indeed, Barna finds that, however trite its little Bible quiz is, most Americans cannot name even five of the Ten Commandments. And fewer than half can name the four gospels.

Ignorant of a book they ignore, they’re nonetheless quite quick to register their opinions on the Bible – whether negative or positive. I heard plenty of that at City Church coffee hours.

Well, Luther eventually found the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and the only reliable standard for faith and life. But that came to him only after his many years of spiritual dread and depression, only after he’d engaged in seriously searching those pages, and really, only after he’d already posted his 95 Theses.

At last, he experienced overwhelming relief, even great peace, in the Bible’s message of God’s free grace. He said that it was as if he’d been “born again”. He’d gained what for so long he’d sought.

Odd as it may seem, Luther recalled that, he’d never even seen a Bible until he was 20. He’d grown up going to Mass regularly. Yet, in his youth, he’d never seen, let alone, read, a Bible. He said that, back then, he’d assumed, “there were no other Gospels and Epistles besides those in the Homilies”, the breviary or a missal mumbled in Latin and usually in a rush.

It was the vested interest of the medieval church hierarchy to control what was told to the masses. So, the Bible remained in Latin, a foreign language to everyday folks. This is why Luther’s translation of the Bible into the language of the German people was so very significant. Yet, in our secular culture these days, fewer and fewer people have seen a Bible, let alone read one.

Jesus and his disciples were on the road to Caesarea Philippi. They were used to Jesus’ referencing himself as “The Son of Man” (i.e., a man), but also an allusion to the Hebrew Scripture’s latest reference to a heavenly Messiah, from the Book of Daniel (c. 165 BC). So, they assumed he, again, meant himself when he asked: “Who do the crowds say that the Son of Man is?” His disciples replied: “Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah, and still others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Then, Jesus asked them, directly: “And you, who do you say that I am?”

Instantly, Simon Peter replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” Instantly, Jesus affirmed his reply: “Peter, son of John, how blessed you are, for you did not come up with this on your own. This was revealed to you by my Father in Heaven.”

Then, Jesus spoke a revelation of his own, and he used a pun in doing so: “You are Petros, and on this petra, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will never overpower it.” (Matt 16:13ff)

Petros is the Greek masculine name. It means, “stony”. Petra is the Greek feminine for a “massive rock” – a fitting image of that solid rock foundation of Peter’s divinely derived testimony.

This pivotal teaching moment, reported by Matthew and Luke, shows that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in his asking the question and at the revelation of his identity as Messiah. (Matt 16; Luke 9) These biblical texts couldn’t be clearer on his fullest endorsement of the Divine origin of Peter’s reply.

But here’s how a writer for The Atlantic magazine described this scene to his elite, albeit biblically illiterate, readers. Lamely, he projects that Jesus’ question is the query, “of a man who wishes to disturb but who is also himself disturbed; of a man who has somehow found himself in deeper waters than anticipated; of a man at once baffled and intrigued by a destiny that he may have begun to glimpse but of which he is not fully aware. And thus, seeking guidance, seeking perhaps to ken the range of possibilities, Jesus put the question to his followers.” Huh?

The Atlantic’s writer spins the scene: “Peter ventured a reply, ‘Thou art the Christ’.” Without a single syllable of Jesus’ ringing endorsement of the divine origin of Peter’s reply, The Atlantic’s writer claims: “Jesus declined to enlighten his followers.” Say what? There was no higher authority to which Jesus could have attributed the source of Peter’s witness than the divine intervention of Jesus’ heavenly Father. And Jesus did that! Only then, did he ask that, for a time, they keep this revelation quiet.

Having presented his counterfactual report, The Atlantic writer takes as his, a secularist meme that flies in the face of the historical and textual evidence: “The Gospels are highly imperfect historical documents.” And, The Atlantic – how historically reliable is it?

Who do people say Jesus is? That depends on who’s speaking and whom they’re reading. Skeptics are deeply invested in buying into false narratives. They can’t afford to say what Gospel writers said Jesus said of Peter’s identifying him by God’s revelation. So, the misinformed elite remain misinformed skeptics, and continue to twist even misinformation into what they think they can afford. Long ago, Jesus gave a heads up on all of this: What we find, what we say – whoever we are – reveals where we’re coming from. What we’re full of, spills out. (Luke 6:45)

In 1956, as a first year student at BJU, I wrote an English term paper and called it, “ ‘That’s what they say…!’ But who are they?” Unlike Dr. Bob’s “feedback”, when he shouted me down for defending Billy Graham, my English teacher said I was witty.

It’s more than witty to ask, on any subject, “Who says so?”, “Who are they to say?” What’s footnoting for, if not to document who said it and raise the legitimate question, “Who are they?”

Of course, that question, “Who are they?” can be put with telltale signs of defensiveness, especially in retaliation to basic truth claims and admonitions. “Says who?” or “Who are they to tell me what’s right or wrong?” It can be put with even stronger censure: “Who the hell are they?” Had I used that version as the title of my term paper, my teacher’s reaction would have echoed Dr. Bob’s.

“Who the hell are they?” is, of course, a rhetorical demand: I’m the one who gets to say what’s so! This defensive tone exposes insecurity – the doubts and fears of one who thinks he’s not as right as he pretends to be, but thinks he needs to be, and thinks he needs you to think so, too.

There are seemingly more tolerant phrasings, but disingenuous posturing is just as dogmatic, defensive and dismissive: “Well, who’s to say what’s right or what’s true?”, “You’re entitled to your truth, I’m entitled to my truth. So there!”, and they sign off.

Even before postmodernism’s defensive assault against Truth with a capital “T”, people presumed to make pronouncements on all sorts of matters about which they had little or no basis to judge except, of course, their own agenda and ignorance – in that order.

But, even rational principles, applied in investigation and study, must always operate on assumptions that are taken for granted – by faith – if you will. Still, rationality can discipline thought and thus, can guard against mere confirmation bias. Asking, by what authority or on what basis do we say this or that, is all-important.

Given the wide range of ideas, beliefs and opinions that are at odds with each other, it’s no wonder that disputes have arisen over whether or not we can know any ultimate truth. But saying there’s no ultimate truth, postures one’s own ultimate truth. Saying all is self-delusion, functions as self-delusion. And, if one pretends that all, but I, are self-deluded, he or she is surely stuck in self-imposed delusion.

So, where in this world of ignorance, self-centeredness, contradictions, lies and delusions is there a sure foundation for knowing ultimate Truth and Reality? Clearly, such a foundation must come into our limited and limiting world from beyond all of our own distracting personal agendas.

Luther found Truth and Reality when Truth and Reality came to him in his desperate quest for truth and reality. How did Truth and Reality come to Luther? Truth and Reality came to Luther in Reality’s Word of Truth, the Holy Scriptures. From then on, Luther found his personally experienced reformation and his public proclamation for reformation, rooted in a biblical revelation he’d so surprisingly, yet amazingly, learned the hard way. And it had been there all along – right there in the Bible.

In the 20th century, the world-renowned and rather liberal Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, taught at Tubingen in Germany. He was papal advisor to the Second Vatican Council in the mid-‘60s. Now, at 89, Kung has asked Pope Francis to, “give room to a free discussion” of papal infallibility. That dogma dates back only the Counter Reformation against Luther.

Kung is no Bible-based Luther, but each man sought or seeks reformation of the church. They have something else in common. Says Kung: “In writing my book, The Church [in the mid-‘60s], I found myself always speaking about this man Jesus Christ. I realized that I did not really know who this man Jesus really was. And it occurred to me that many of my colleagues and many of the people who read my books didn’t know who Jesus was either.”

In 1983, that 500th year of Luther’s birth, Kung wrote his book, Infallible? He revealed, “I was more than ever pushed to discover on what our theology is based. I think I know the tradition – that is, the old tradition – about as well as anyone. I was educated in Rome and spoke in Latin every day for seven years. And I liked it. But I was never able to preach about Jesus. … I decided eventually to preach on the Gospel of Saint Mark, and I did, verse by verse. I experienced in a new way what I had once found boring. I came to the conclusion that basically the Christian message is He Himself. I hate to say it so simply – I’ve seen in America what television preachers can do with such remarks – but that is a convenient way of getting across the general idea.”

Christianity is Christ! That’s the title of an old book, a book that W. H. Griffith Thomas, a British evangelical and co-founder of Dallas Seminary, wrote 117 years ago.

In Luther’s day, the Renaissance bloomed across Europe, in arts, humanities and science. And the great historian, Jacques Barzun, makes a profound observation of all of it, saying, in Luther and the Reformation, “The Modern Era begins” .

Explorers were finding new worlds beyond the seas. The half-century old invention of a practical printing press had, in its day, an impact similar to today’s technological advances. Gutenberg’s movable type made the cheap, rapid and wide distribution of the printed page an everyday reality. Luther took full advantage of it. He became the most prolific and most popular writer of his day.

What was first printed by this new invention tended to be large volumes in Latin. However, Luther latched onto the printing press to flood Europe with his tracts and pamphlets as well as his Bible translations in the language of the people. Most peasants couldn’t read, but they certainly could listen to others read what Luther wrote and they grasped what he said. They received it very well.

Incidentally, by the time Luther finished writing what he had to say, his unabridged works add up to over 70,000 pages in print.

Luther learned from his experience with the Bible, that, indeed, it was God’s word, for, as he put it, “No book, teaching, or word is able to comfort in troubles, anxiety, misery, death, and even in the midst of devils in hell, except this book, which teaches us God’s Word and in which God Himself speaks with us as a man speaks with his friend.”

This written word of God serves us, as it served Jesus himself, in his own deep experience of testing. Luke says that Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit, far into a dangerous desert of wild wilderness where the Satan tested Jesus who was hungry and exhausted. “Turn these stones into bread”, was one test. But Jesus rebuked him with, “It is written”, and cited God’s word from the Torah. We “can’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”. (Deut 8:3) Well, Satan didn’t stop there. He next made a false promise in exchange for Jesus’ worship of him. Again, Jesus rebuked him with words from the Torah: “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.” (Deut 6:13) Satan kept it up, testing Jesus again. This time, he twisted the Torah into a perverted “proof text”. Again, Jesus rebuked him: “It is written: Don’t put the Lord God to a test.” (Deut 6:16) At that, the Satan withdrew for the time being. And Jesus returned to the Galilee to minister “in the power of the Spirit”. (Luke 4:14)

So, throughout his ministry for reform, Luther, too, repeatedly and bluntly urged: “Whoever would hear God speak should read the Holy Scripture.” He explained: “The entire Bible does nothing else but give a person to understand what he was and what he is. … It tells him he’s completely lost. It also tells him of Christ’s mercy and, through Christ, it leads us to God.” Luther knew that, without God in Christ, we’re completely incomplete!

Luther condensed the whole teaching of the Bible to two lessons: Humanity is ruined and damned by sin and cannot escape on its own. God, in his mercy, destroys sin and justifies humanity. As Luther put it: “The purpose of the entire Scripture is to commend to us the goodness of God, who, through His Son, effected the restoration of human nature, fallen into sin and damnation, to righteousness and life.” So, he asked, rhetorically, “What purpose other than this proclamation does Scripture have from beginning to end?” He said: “Messiah, God’s Son, was to come and through His sacrifice, as an innocent Lamb of God, bear and remove the sins of the world and thus redeem us from eternal death for eternal salvation.” This is the whole scope of the Good News.

It’s sad that, Luther’s biblical Good News is so uncommon a theme in “Bible-believing” churches today, given a preoccupation with selective moralist nitpicking and Rightwing politics. It’s sad too, that Luther’s biblical Good News is so uncommon a theme in Lutheran and other mainline churches today, given a preoccupation with selective moralistic nitpicking and Leftwing politics.

Luther cautioned that Christians should not expect to have all their questions answered to their own immediate satisfaction by looking up “answers” in the Bible. But so many go against this advice. Whatever their prejudice, they find “proof texts” for rationalizing.

Still, as Luther explained, “Scripture is its own light. It’s a fine thing when Scripture explains itself. So”, he urged, “rather than believing papal lies, be free to doubt whatever is not made clear in words of Scripture.” He noted: “The scripture, as it’s for everyone, is clear enough in truths necessary for salvation. But it’s obscure enough for those who merely want to pry into every little thing”.

He anticipated the “analogy of faith”, seeing obscure texts in the light of clearer texts. He put the principle beautifully: “Be sure that nothing brighter exists than the sun, that is, the Scripture. But if a cloud has drifted before it, there is, after all, nothing behind it but that same bright sun. So, if you come to a dark passage, don’t doubt that it surely contains the same truth that’s clearly put at other places. Whoever can’t understand dark passages should stick with clear passages.” Capeesh Papa?

Luther stressed a passage’s context: “Weigh the words carefully, comparing what preceded with what follows, be diligent to capture the integral meaning and don’t read your eccentricities into a text by mutilating words and tearing them out of their context.” But preachers have abused Bible verses to push racial segregation and to fight against interracial and same-sex marriage. They’ve done untold damage to people of color and same-sex attraction, as well as to the Law-free Gospel, the Golden Rule, Galatians 3:28, et al.

For Luther, the widest and the central context of Scripture is Christ: “We clarify the Old Testament by the Gospel, not vice versa; and we identify the meaning of the Old Testament with the meaning of the New, making both look to Christ, as do the two cherubim on the mercy seat.”

Luther said: “If we have the correct understanding of scripture and the correct articles of our faith, that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, suffered and died for us, then we’re not lacking much, even though we’re not able to answer everything that is asked on other things.” Unfortunately, so many are still stuck on all those “other things”.

Luther never failed to speak up in defense of Christ’s Gospel, even under threat of death. Today, all over the world, thousands are imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed for their witness for Christ. But we in this free country fear that some friends might offend themselves and “un-friend” us, were we to share our faith in Christ.

Luther knew that, scripture “turns all the supposedly wise and clever people into fools and it’s an open book only to the distressed and foolish folk” for whom Jesus was thankful and he prayed, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth: I thank you for hiding these things from those who pose as wise, and for revealing them to the childlike.” (Matt 11:25) He prayed this prayer as he denounced the many towns where he’d done so many miracles, including his base at Capernaum: “And you, Capernaum, do you think that you’ll be exalted to the skies? Oh, no, you’ll go down into the depths of the dead. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But, I tell you, it will go easier for Sodom on the Day of Judgment than for you.” (Matt 11:23f) Jesus explained to Peter, “To the one who’s been given much, much will be expected.” (Luke 12:48)

Luther challenged people to, “Dismiss your own notions and your own feelings and think of scripture as the most sublime, most noble of sacred things.” Recalling those days of his youth around the copper mines, he said that Scripture is like “the richest of the mines, that can never be entirely emptied”.

Another of his metaphors, reminiscent of “Away in a Manger”, though that carol was mistakenly attributed to him, he wrote these lines: “Here [in Scripture] you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies, to which the angel directs the shepherds. The swaddling clothes are plain and ordinary, but dear is the Treasure, Christ, who lies in them.” This tender metaphor is so much more meaningful than all of Rome’s fake relics that Luther scorned – that fake little vial of the virgin mother’s milk and fake baby teeth from Jesus.

Over the centuries, papal hierarchical control over the churches gradually, yet radically, and for all practical purposes, reduced the place of Scripture. So it’s no wonder that the peasants lost touch with the Bible, when even clerics had inadequate training in the Bible. Still, some monasteries, such as Luther’s ancient Order of Augustinians, did study Scripture seriously.

There’d been a few German Bibles before Luther, but his translations from the original Greek and Hebrew were the greatest in terms of accuracy, readability and consequent popularity.

Reflecting on his work of translating, Luther noted his purpose – to render Scripture for understanding. He asked, “What’s the point in unnecessarily sticking to literalism if that misleads?” He knew that confusion could arise for German readers if he kept Hebrew idioms. So, he pondered: “Now, let me see, ‘How does a German speak in this case, or in that case?’ Let me dismiss the literalist Hebrew and freely express the real sense of the text in the best German way.” He even paid attention to casual talk in the market square to pick up everyday idiom of everyday Germans. That’s the way to do it. And that’s the way Bible translation is done today.

But his translating wasn’t easy. He said he’d not have done it but for his love of Christ, for no amount of gold could have enticed him into such difficult and exhausting labors.

Luther’s reception of God’s revelation for reform was, by God’s continuing gifts, not original to him. He, in his own turn, took seriously what the first Christians had learned from Jesus himself and then, from what Paul and others had learned and written, that was collected and preserved as the New Testament. And the Spirit behind Luther’s protest was the same Spirit who’d inspired other declared “heretics” like England’s John Wycliffe, “Morning Star of the Reformation”, born a hundred years before Luther, and Jan Hus, Czech Reformer, burned to death a hundred years before Luther’s posting. Hus had quipped that his goose was cooked but that a fighting swan would come to take his place. Luther adopted that sign of a fighting swan for himself.

Luther’s recovery of the Bible from Rome’s abuse and his return to the centrality of Scripture, was his part, in his day, in what, ever since, has been the worldwide evangelical standard for accurate biblical theology and its application to everyday life.

Luther was usually wise enough not to personalize responses to his ministry, though he could seem mean-spirited when he was grieved over the rejection of the Gospel. He usually saw himself as a wanderer, singing a song through the woods of the world and, “Whoever hears it, hears it.” But, he did frustrate himself over how indifferent and resistant people could be to this wonderfully liberating Good News of God’s free grace in Christ Jesus.

At Eisleben, in 1546, in the very last sermon he ever preached, Luther said: “In times past, we would have run to the ends of the earth if we had known of a place where we could have heard God speak. Yet now that we hear God speak every day [in God’s Word and in sermons based in God’s Word] we don’t see this happening. … You ought to lift up your hands and rejoice that we have been given the honor of having God speak to us through his Word. But, people say, ‘Eh’, who cares? We’re tired of that’.” At that, Luther became sarcastic over such pitiable indifference and tragic rejection. He mocked them in grief: “All right then, go ahead, dear brother, if you don’t want God to speak to you … then look for something else. Over in Aachen you’ll find Joseph’s pants and our blessed Lady’s chemise; go there, squander your money, buy indulgence and the pope’s secondhand junk.”

By the way, that Marian Reliquary is still in Aachen Cathedral, now opened only every seven years. Next time is 2021. You can still see Mary’s chemise there, though Joseph’s pants are missing. What’s there instead is Jesus’ diaper and his loincloth as well as John the Baptist’s decapitation cloth. I kid you not.

The heart of the Reformation was the Word “made flesh” in Christ Jesus. And this was revealed in God’s Word of Good News in Scripture. God’s Word revolutionized and restored perspective and spiritual health to the heart and soul of Martin Luther as it had restored the hearts and souls of prior reformers and the earliest Christians. And through all these centuries since, this heart-regenerating Word of God has given the same relief to millions upon millions of souls who sought God “with ears to hear and eyes to see”.

Do we listen? Do we hear? Do we look and perceive? Pray that, by God’s grace, we do! Amen.

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