The Source and Norm of Lutheran Theology

“Hold fast the form of sound words.” 2 Timothy 1:13

The “formal principle” of the Reformation, the basic premise upon which Luther’s monumental work was founded (and upon which we by God’s grace still stand today) is sola ScripturaScripture alone. It is this principle of Scripture itself which establishes the absolute reliability of what we believe and teach because it acknowledges the infallible and immutable, verbally-inspired Word of God as THE ONLY SOURCE AND STANDARD OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE.

Ironically, since early childhood and throughout his formal education as a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had been taught to the very contrary that it is NOT Scripture but the pronouncements, decrees and traditions of “the Church,” that is, of the popes and their adherents, which determine what is to be taught and believed, and that any variance from that rule was heresy —false doctrine, punishable in the extreme by death. Luther himself had accepted the authority of Rome during those early years, even though its doctrines, laws and practices brought him no peace of mind or of conscience with God but kept him in a state of constant fear and uncertainty.

Only through his study of the Bible was Luther brought by the Holy Spirit “to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4), to confidence in God’s mercy, who justifies poor sinners alone by His grace for Christ’s sake, totally apart from the works of the Law (Romans 3:20-28), and to the assurance that whatever is taught, believed and practiced according to the perfect rule of SCRIPTURE ALONE is “most certainly true” (John 8:31-32). On the other hand, all doctrines of men, whether they can be shown to be contrary to Scripture or whether they are adiaphora [matters neither commanded nor forbidden by God’s Word] craftily disguised as the will of God and laid upon the consciences of God’s people as His commandments, must be rejected as “lying and deceiving by God’s Name” —false and pernicious doctrine (Jeremiah 23:31; Matthew 15:9).
It was this God-given principle to which Luther steadfastly held when he was summoned to appear at a meeting of the Imperial Parliament on April 16, 1521. There in the city of Worms [pronounced vohrmss] on the Rhine River, Emperor Charles V, princes and dukes of the empire, and representatives of Pope Leo X had assembled to demand that Luther take back all his writings in which he had criticized Rome, accused it of false teachings, and condemned its abusive practices. So as not to appear personally arrogant and defiant, Luther asked for one day’s time to consider the demand and to prepare his response. On April 18th, surrounded by copies of books and pamphlets he had written and in full view of the “world,” as it turned out, Luther stood before the meeting and defended his writings in a lengthy speech, concluding with this mighty and uncompromising statement:

Unless I can be prevailed upon by the testimonies of Scripture or by clear reasons —for I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone, who quite obviously have often erred and contradicted themselves— I cannot, nor do I want to, retract anything. I remain convinced by the Holy Scriptures I have cited, and my conscience is bound by the Word of God. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.”

While historians may disagree as to Luther’s exact words on that momentous occasion, one thing is certain: By God’s grace and with His help, Luther took his stand upon SCRIPTURE ALONE. He stood resolutely upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the Chief Cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). He stood his ground, fully persuaded of the Scriptures’ absolute infallibility, inerrancy, immutability, clarity, sufficiency and authority as the only source and standard of Christian doctrine and practice and fully convinced that unflinching adherence to that single standard is the only legitimate prerequisite of genuine orthodoxy.

Tragically, the wide divergency of doctrinal positions among those today who bear Luther’s name is ample testimony to the fact that this “formal principle” is no longer adhered to with any consistency. In some “Lutheran” bodies it has actually disappeared. In others it exists in name only, while opposing factions within the body debate historical and social contexts, exegetical differences, textual variants, and so-called “practical considerations” in order to find loopholes, exceptions, special circumstances, and “divine” or “apostolic” precedent to justify their differences. In the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, for example, the once-orthodox church-body of Walther, Pieper, and other staunch confessors of the truth, we now see an outward fellowship of really strange bedfellows: “Liberals,” “moderates,” “conservatives,” and “confessionals” differing with one another, even openly, in doctrine and practice but maintaining a guise of unity in an effort to “save Synod” each from the other. Such a farcical circus with its non-stop posturing only deceives the simple and unwary into believing that doctrinal discipline is actually being maintained while allowing some room for “reasonable diversity” among Christians. So-called “conservatives” and “confessionals” continue to “mark” error and errorists, but they never “avoid them” (Romans 16:17). They “admonish” heretics, but they never “reject” them (Titus 3:10). They claim to “stand fast” (I Corinthians 16:13) upon sola Scriptura so long as they are not forced to choose between Scripture and their membership in Synod, or their pastorate, or their synodical pension! Such theological “whimps” are hardly what Luther would have called “conservatives” or “confessionals,” who wrote:

And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife,
let these all be gone! They yet have nothing won!
The Kingdom ours remaineth!

Similar lip-service to sola Scriptura is rendered in other church bodies which call themselves “Lutheran” but tolerate diversity in doctrine and practice out of a false concept of “love” to the erring, OR on the basis of an arbitrary distinction between “doctrines divisive of fellowship” and “doctrines NOT divisive of fellowship.” Who is kidding whom?? The Lord declares through Jeremiah: “He that hath My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully” (23:28), and through Amos: “Can two walk together except they be agreed??” (3:3). And in Leviticus 19, God Himself shows how we are to demonstrate love to an erring brother, saying: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart; thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor and not suffer sin upon him.” Unpopular though it be nowadays to engage in polemics, that is, to refute false doctrine, to admonish the erring, to reject and avoid those who will not heed correction, to take a “stand” and to make it count regardless of the consequences, this is what Scripture demands of every faithful Christian, pastor and layman alike! (Matthew 10:19ff.).

By God’s grace, we in our beloved Conference have stood foursquare on Scripture alone down through the years, recognizing the Word of God as the sole determiner of what is preached and taught in our churches, practiced among us, committed to students in our seminary, printed in our position papers and in our Concordia Lutheran, and agreed to in meetings with other groups whose stance we must carefully examine. “Not unto US, O Lord, not unto US, but unto Thy Name give glory, for Thy mercy and for Thy Truth’s sake!” (Psalm 115:1). Indeed it is not to our credit personally or collectively that Scripture alone has been and continues to be the sole source and norm of what we stand for; but the Lord in His great mercy and according to His promise has preserved His precious Word to us in these latter days, His Word in its truth and purity —a blessing for which we are grateful beyond expression.

As was the case with Luther, however, our standing fast upon Scripture’s sure foundation has not been without cost. Over the past fifty years, there has been tribulation, controversy, slow and meager growth in numbers, and even sudden defection of once-stalwart confessors of the truth. Some of these were pastors who, out-of-the-blue, reversed themselves in doctrine and practice and left our fellowship, in some cases joining the very heterodox church bodies which for many years they had marked as such on the basis of sola Scriptura and, in obedience to its clear injunctions, had avoided. Imagine, if you can, the cries of disbelief and dismay, the tears of sadness and anguish of heart, the just anger and resentment at having been betrayed, had Martin Luther in his later years recanted all his writings, sought the counsel and favor of the Pope, taken a colloquy in the Church of Rome, and returned to the spiritual “Babylon” from whence he had been so mercifully delivered many years before! His courageous stand before the Diet at Worms would have been for nothing; and Solomon’s words in Proverbs 26:11 would well apply to him: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” Why the sudden shift in position on the part of these former brethren? It was because they did not “stand fast and hold the traditions which [they had] been taught.” (II Thessalonians 2:15). Instead, as victims of their own pride, they ventured off the sure foundation of sola Scriptura, lost their spiritual footing, stumbled, fell, and ended up in the quicksand of error and ignorance!

In spite of such tragic losses, however, “the Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad!” (Psalm 126:3). He has graciously preserved to us and our children His precious Word in its truth and purity and has strengthened us through that Word to ever greater steadfastness in building upon its sure foundation. Let us be wary, however, lest Satan lift us up with pride to despise the Word as our only authority and cause us to fall! Rather, let each of us, pastor and layman alike, “hold fast the form of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13), growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who assures us: “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). For then and only then will we be enabled by the Holy Spirit through that very Word to declare with Luther: “Here, on God’s pure Word, I stand! By His abiding grace, I cannot do otherwise! God help me, as He has promised! Amen!”

Lord, keep us in Thy Word, we pray!
The guile and rage of Satan stay!
E’er let us in its power confide,
that we may seek no other guide!  
  (TLH 292, adapted)

D. T. M.