Sola Scriptura has been the Church’s standard of orthodoxy ever since the Reformation. Today Rome wishes to be thought of as operating under this norm as well, and even the most radical wings of contemporary theology claim it. Obviously its meaning must be wide when everyone lays claim to it.

To be sure, there is a difference between being everybody’s theological pet and being an actual working principle. Luther and his co-Reformers took very seriously the matter of Scripture’s ruling in the Church and in its theology. To Luther there was a great difference “between what God’s Word says and what men say.” For him the principle always was that the Word of God, Holy Scripture, was the only standard for measuring all teachers and all teaching.

Modern theologians have subjected the sola Scriptura principle to its severest attack. Now “the problem” is one “of the tension between the historically conditioned shell of the Christian message and its essential kernel independent of the changes of history,” observes Regin Prenter (The Word and the Spirit, Augsburg, 1965, p. 56). What other result could be expected than that “the Gospel was stretched on the torture rack of contemporary thought until it obligingly said what the thinkers of that age already were saying?” (ibid.).

Prenter has his finger on modern theology’s sore spot regarding the sola Scriptura principle. At the same time he chooses to keep himself untainted by orthodoxy and its reliance on the inspired biblical text by accepting higher criticism’s view of the Bible as “the historically conditioned shell of the Christian message.” He insists that “it was no loss to Lutheran theology that the inspiration theory disappeared.” In fact, he goes on to warn that “its reappearance will only mean a return to orthodoxy away from Luther’s living witness about the Spirit” (p. 166).

It is no secret that many others find the views of “orthodoxy” on Scripture’s inspiration similarly repugnant. What the Nicene Creed confesses when it says of the Holy Spirit, “Who spake by the prophets,” has been stringently modified or completely excised by most contemporary theologians. Even among generally conservative theologians, like Prenter, terms like “orthodoxy” and “inspiration” have a loaded, pejorative connotation. Theodore G. Tappert, editor and translator of the up-to-date version of the Lutheran Book of Concord, peers down upon orthodoxy as “ossified and polemical,” concerned more for the preservation of pure doctrine and rigid distinctions, for fashioning neat, tidy systems of theological thinking, for what might be termed the assertive, scholastic, intellectual, and traditional viewpoint, than for lively, vigorous Christian living and witnessing (The Lutheran Heritage, Muhlenberg, 1957, vol. 2, p. 36 ff.). Tappert would agree when Prenter lumps orthodoxy and biblicism together in one bundle, accusing orthodoxy of “a certain dogmatism and a self-assurance,” of looking for and demanding “a fixed point” when it emphasizes the significance and the power of the Bible in the hands of each devout reader (op. cit., p. 10). Apparently the Apostle Paul’s commending of the Berean Christians for their avid reading and searching in Scripture for “fixed points” as it were, and many other examples from Christ’s and his apostles’ teaching, never cross their minds.

Article continues below

In any case, it is very clear how deep, sharp, and bitter the feelings run on the subject of orthodoxy and all its claimed evils. A veritable chorus of critical voices sings forth the “damnamus.” Pannenberg contends it would be best “to abandon the conception that dogmatic statements must have the character of timelessly binding and unchanging truth” and to admit rather that such truths are only “relatively binding” (Jesus, God and Man, Westminster, 1968, p. 14). Pannenberg is talking about “confessional statements,” which involve the person of Christ, and he is arguing that these may have become “strange and impossible for contemporary Christians” (p. 11). His suggestion that doctrine, “the lasting truth in this tradition,” specifically Christological doctrine, “emerges as a process in the history of traditions” is woefully inadequate and unscriptural. His own rationale is actually self-condemning when he urges that then theology will always be open “to the inclusion of ever new points of view … [and] new interpretations” (p. 12). The great and cherished ecumenical creeds of Christendom, pressed forth as standards of orthodoxy against heretical teaching, appear shunted to the side when Pannenberg avers that “for such a project no common dogmatic presuppositions are required” (p. 14).

I am quite aware of the ambiguity inherent in the term “orthodoxy”; certainly it means different things to different people. Nevertheless, the basic concern remains: Are there, or are there not, outside and inside limits by which the Christian faith is set and determined? To what extent do the Scriptures remain the controlling factor? In the tension between modern theology and orthodoxy four practices characterize modern theology: (1) criticizing orthodoxy’s rigidity of formulation; (2) rejecting the doctrine of verbal inspiration; (3) stereotyping a man like Luther as a “doctrinal purist”; (4) caricaturing orthodoxy as loveless, lifeless Christianity.

Article continues below

1. With the creedal (ecumenical) standards of the past also in the picture, modern theologians criticize orthodoxy for remaining rigid and unyielding in its formulations of doctrine. Heinrich Bornkamm brands this formulation a canonization of its own tradition and warns that a church that clings to formulations of doctrine with confessional firmness “puts on an armor that grows heavier and heavier.” “It almost always happens,” he adds, “that the exposition itself must be re-expounded” and that then “the old formulations must give way” (The Heart of Reformation Faith, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 43). Tappert psychologizes that it must have been impatience with what he calls Luther’s “loose and sometimes inconsistent use of the Bible” that “drove the theologians inexorably in the direction of a fixed and final authority” (op. cit., p. 43). Prenter likewise has only adverse criticism for anyone who regards the Bible as, in his words, “a collection of inerrant truths about God.”

The Church really ought to rid itself once and for all of skittish feeling about being dogmatic over the truths about God that Holy Scripture embraces within its inerrant text. As Harry Blamires has well pointed out, “there is no escape from creed and dogma except by way of rebellion against God” (A Defence of Dogmatism, SPCK, 1965, p. 130). Each man has his creed, and the Christian ought indeed to be much concerned that his is clearly and accurately formulated. Secular creeds are forever seeking to subvert the Christian’s certainty of faith, often with labels like “traditionalist,” “irrelevant,” “obscurantist,” and “sub-rational,” all of which are very familiar by this time.

By rights, orthodoxy, instead of fielding the questions, ought to be putting them. Is God untrustworthy? Is the Church founded upon everlasting question marks? Is our faith nothing but a nebulous fog? Is the Bible reliable? The idea that Christians take shelter behind some kind of veil of incomprehensibility ought to be recognized for what it is, an invention of the Devil. For Christians to act as though they do not have the answers to men’s greatest problems of life, when in fact their Lord has given them, is really to abdicate from their calling.

Article continues below

The Lutheran orthodox theologians of the seventeenth century, for example, were outstanding exceptions to such irresoluteness; whatever faults they may have had, they proved themselves courageous contenders for the faith. Firsthand reading of their works will convince the careful scholar that the usual attacks on these stalwarts stem from superficial, prejudiced, and second-hand sources. Writing them off as mere “rationalists,” or “intellectualists,” or “dogmatic pedants,” is arbitrary and poorly motivated judgment.

Emphasis on pure doctrine and the fight against false teaching have properly characterized the Church from apostolic times. Even cursory reading of the New Testament (e.g., Acts 2:42; 18:26; 1 Cor. 14:8, 9, 19) shows how great this concern was among the early Christians. It was always so. Augustine called it “zeal about God’s house” to be concerned about pure teaching.

Luther’s zeal for purity of teaching is common knowledge and the cause célèbre of the Reformation. His double-pronged struggle against Rome, on the one hand, and against the “fantastic spirits,” on the other, turned on the issue of purity of doctrine and faithfulness to the pure Word of God as contained in Scripture’s text. The thetical portions of Luther’s famous treatises spell this out clearly. But perhaps even more telling in this regard are his many sermons and the beautiful Postils he wrote for the spiritual nurture of the “poor clergy” (so ill prepared to deliver good, evangelical sermons) and for the laity, particularly the heads of households, who were to be spiritual examples and mentors in their homes, teaching correctly about God and all the articles of faith. No one who reads Luther in these sources can doubt his zeal for God’s house and purity of doctrine.

Those who today have an honest passion for orthodox teaching, therefore, stand in line with a noble company, all the way back to the apostles themselves. History has repeatedly shown that, if doctrine is not the glue that holds the Church together, then whatever does is a substitute that leaves the Church vulnerable to the assault of secular theology. It is an unhealthy condition when confessional churches approach the point of barely tolerating serious doctrinal discussion and formulation. Never has the Church stood more in need of the sharp disinfectant of proper dogmatic firmness than at the present. The call, of course, is not for authoritarian dogmatism, but for well articulated and firmly held scriptural, confessional formulation. This is all the more imperative because the Church of today is so sorely troubled with the spirit of theological ennui, amorphous relativism, vapid process-philosophizing. To put it in plain English, the Church of today needs people who will stomach nothing less than the gospel truth given by God in his Word.

Article continues below

2. Orthodoxy has also been charged with formulating the “theory” of inspiration of Holy Scriptures. Instead of admitting the historical conditionedness of the Bible it introduced the teaching on inspiration (so goes the argument) in order to insure its authority as the voice and Word of God. The seventeenth-century orthodox theologians, according to Tappert, make “constant appeal to biblical authority supported by a mechanical theory of inspiration,” and as a result were able to achieve “a remarkable homogeneity in the interpretation of Christianity” (op. cit., p. 49). The net effect, however, of reinforcing Scripture’s authority in such “logical, rational, speculative terms,” in Tappert’s judgment, was “to obscure and conflict with historical and experiential reality” (p. 45).

Pinomaa, the Finnish Reformation scholar, voices similar criticism of orthodoxy’s emphasis on divine inspiration, especially as regards the Spirit’s use of the Word. “Orthodoxy resolved the problem,” he states, “by confining the Spirit to the outward Word. Verbal inspiration fixed the Spirit in the Word, whether it was in use or not” (Faith Victorious, Fortress, 1963, p. 103). Luther, he claims, did not have a doctrine of inspiration in this sense, that is, objectively and ontologically. Regin Prenter is also sharply critical of orthodoxy for what he calls the “objective view” that came to “monumental expression in the verbal inspiration doctrine,” but that “since the advent of historical criticism is no longer tenable” (op. cit., p. 23). His severest judgment, however, like Pinomaa’s, is the claim that support of “an inerrant Bible” makes proclamation of the Gospel and saving “confrontation impossible” (p. 31). Instead of “genuine preaching” that conveys objective certainty to a believer, through the faithful exposition of God’s infallible Word, Prenter opts for and virtually canonizes what he calls “objective uncertainty, doubt, and anguish” as the ingredients of “discipleship.”

Taking the last point first, we can say emphatically that Luther would have severely scored a doubting attitude toward Holy Scripture as the Word of God, an attitude that blessed, as it were, doubting and uncertainty. Such mysticism, though piously motivated, would only divert the Church from joyous confidence in God’s revealed truths. Luther bluntly blasted Erasmus for notions like these in his rightly famous Bondage of the Will. In a ringing sermon at Veste Coburg on April 16, 1530, Luther fired the hearts of the notables gathered there, prior to the famous Augsburg Diet, to be confident in faith concerning Holy Scripture and its articles of belief, rather than cringing and quavering with uncertainty for God’s Word and what they could accomplish with it on their side (Luther’s Works, 51, p. 204 f.).

Article continues below

One of the greatest misconceptions of our times is the notion that verbal inspiration was the invention of the seventeenth-century orthodox theologians. It was a doctrine held in highest reverence by the early Church, taught by apostolic authority. The seventeenth-century theologians earned the name “orthodox” because they believed that this was so; that Holy Scripture was the proper and only base for doctrine; that it was scriptural to contend for the true faith against all false teachings; and that Scripture was its own best interpreter, a principle Luther supported against all opponents of the Reformation.

The charge that these men held to a mechanical theory of inspiration is wholly without support and rises from superficial knowledge of their writings, or worse still, deliberate falsification. The fact is that they were much deeper, more balanced, more consistent, more loyal to Scripture itself than any of the modern reductionists who rip Scripture apart. Moreover, it has never been shown that faith in Scripture’s own doctrine of inspiration is somehow inhibiting or Spirit-defeating, too dogmatic.

The modern notion, offered as the Church’s most viable option for our times, that theology is to be open-ended, forever reaching ahead to the truth in the future, is very compelling but false. “The intellectual stretching forward towards a future in which at last man will be fully grown up and the Church can really come to be,” notes Blamires, is “idolatry of the future” and “life-denying,” whereas “orthodoxy is life-affirming” (op. cit., p. 44). For too long now theology has been looking past what God has already given, the balm of Gilead, refusing to accord his Word the maximum of respect and regard. “Doctrine is not ours but God’s,” Luther reminds us. We ought to cherish it exactly in that way, as His first of all. Was it not this precisely, this receiving it from God’s hand, that prompted the noble train of martyrs and “saints who from their labors rest” to risk all, even life itself, for its preservation among them (as well as promulgation among others), for their children, and theirs after them?

Article continues below

3. Orthodoxy has also been accused of creating a stereotype of Luther as a doctrinal purist, an image supposedly out of character with his real person and work. It was orthodoxy’s commitment to traditionalism, Tappert charges, that led to this caricature of Luther “as an orthodox professor of dogmatics” (op. cit., p. 47). In similar vein the orthodox theologians are accused of overvaluing the church fathers of the first five centuries, in a manner purportedly unlike Luther and more like Melanchthon.

Actually regard for and citation of the early church fathers was as much in accord with Luther’s as Melanchthon’s strategy. The Protestant party at Augsburg, in 1530, was as much influenced by the absent Luther—at Veste Coburg because he was under imperial ban!—as by the present Melanchthon, and special pains were taken to demonstrate the continuity between the Reformation position and that of the early Church.

But the chief complaint made against the seventeenth-century theologians is that they poured Luther into the mold of their own rigid views on Scripture, whereas the Reformer was ostensibly much freer with the Word. “Impatient with the Reformer’s apparently loose and sometimes inconsistent use of the Bible,” they rebounded “inexorably in the direction of a fixed and final authority,” Tappert argues (op. cit., p. 43). Here was the whole issue, lumped in one bundle: “For Luther, it was the gospel to which the Scriptures witness that was normative; for the orthodoxists the Scriptures themselves became normative, and in order to establish scriptural authority a mechanical theory of inspiration was developed” (ibid.). Tappert then lists Matthias Flacius, John Gerhard, Abraham Calov, and John Quenstedt as the responsible figures—a caricature, and one that would have surprised none more than the accused themselves!

However, Tappert is by no means alone in his view that for Luther the Word of God was never simply identifiable with Holy Scripture. Werner Elert, too, lifts a scolding finger at the orthodox theologians and states that their view “of Scripture completely in conformity in all details is out of the question,” and therefore out of step with the Reformer (The Structure of Lutheranism, Concordia, 1962, p. 181). A similar tack is taken by Edmund Schlink, who like Elert is otherwise staunchly on the side of conservative Lutheran theology. To the question of why Scripture is authoritative, Schlink answers: “Because God saves through the Word proclaimed by it” (Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, Fortress, 1961, p. 10).

Article continues below

Consistent Lutheran theology, beginning with Luther himself and so on down through the orthodox teachers to our times, has accented the fact that the Scriptures have their unique authority first of all because they are the Word of God by divine inspiration. Their chief content, of course, is the saving Gospel. This is their very heart, and for this reason God gave his Scriptures, as every believer knows and attests.

The position of the orthodox theologians was thus in full accord with Luther on the doctrine of the Word. Their portrayal of Luther, rather than a caricature, was more in the nature of a portrait faithfully drawn, with important features skillfully highlighted. The notion that Luther was somehow “freer” in his handling of Holy Scripture does not stand up. The fact is, as Althaus shows, that Luther was held by the text. Althaus is critical of Luther on this score but is frank to admit: “Here is the point at which the clarity of Luther’s own Reformation insight reached its limit. For it was at this point that Luther himself, in spite of everything, prepared the way for seventeenth-century orthodoxy” (The Theology of Martin Luther, Fortress, 1966, p. 52). “Luther makes no distinction between the gospel itself, which calls us to faith and effects that faith by convincing our heart and spirit,” Althaus notes with good perception, “and the doctrinal form which theological reflection has developed out of this faith in the gospel” (ibid., p. 53). For Luther, such formulations were not a different sort of breed from Scripture’s own given articles of faith. That kind of distinction, says Althaus, “Luther never made,” for it is a fact that “he called men to believe in the theologically formulated dogma of the church in the same sense in which he called them to believe in the ‘word of God,’ the gospel” (ibid.).

In this way, then, the orthodox theologians did indeed have Luther as their spiritus rector, or spiritual leader. They respected Luther’s concern for purity of doctrine, and they understood well Scripture’s role in safeguarding doctrinal purity. It was never a stilted concern for purity’s sake alone. Some who followed them may, indeed, have turned pure doctrine to such wooden use. But like Luther the orthodox theologians strove for doctrinal purity for the sake of true unity of faith in the Church. It was on this grounds, as Elert shows, that Luther labeled “jugglers” (Gaukelspieler) those “who, for the sake of external unity, speak equivocally with reference to crucial points” (op. cit., p. 280). Where pastors wink at doctrinal differences on the Sacrament, for example, Luther plainly deplores this duplicity and finds it hard to believe “that a preacher or pastor could be so obdurate and wicked as to keep silence in this matter and let both groups go along in this way, each in its own opinion” (quoted by Althaus, op. cit., p. 280). So it is likely, according to Elert, that Luther would have been still more adamant in the controversies that almost tore the Church apart after his death.

Article continues below

The spirit and mood of our day drums away at the idea that purity of doctrine is really not necessary, that it contributes nothing to unity but is disruptive, and, as a matter of fact, that it is pharisaically motivated. Such sentiment could never have found room in the Reformers’ hearts! While they well understood that faith was grounded on Christ, and not on a body of doctrine, they also always contended that there was a circle here, not a wall sharply dividing the one from the other. Thus the spirit of the Lutheran Confessors of 1530 (Augsburg Confession), of 1577 (Formula of Concord), of the days of orthodoxy in the seventeenth century, and of every simple believer in Christ sounds forth in these ringing, crystal clear words of Luther:

The great difference between doctrine and life is obvious, even as the difference between heaven and earth. Life may be unclean, sinful and inconsistent; but doctrine must be pure, holy, sound, unchanging.… Not a tittle or letter may be omitted, however much life may fail to meet the requirements of doctrine. This is so because doctrine is God’s Word, and God’s truth, alone, whereas life is partly our own doing.… God will have patience with men’s moral failings and imperfections and forgive them. But he cannot, will not, and shall not tolerate a man’s altering or abolishing doctrine itself. For doctrine involves His exalted, divine Majesty itself [Weimar edition of Luther’s works, vol. 30, III, p. 343 f.; cf. Luther’s Works, 41, 214 ff.].

4. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all against those tagged orthodox is the charge of so emphasizing pure doctrine that loveless, lifeless Christianity inevitably results. It is somehow assumed that correct teaching about God and the articles of faith excludes genuine sanctification of life; the fact that history records quite the opposite is quietly ignored. It would be foolish, of course, to deny that there were periods when churches and individuals kept rigorous doctrinal norms but otherwise went through their religious paces without genuine concern for human need. But it would be naïve to associate this phenomenon—hardly a phenomenon when one remembers that injustice among men will really end only when history itself comes to a close!—solely with orthodoxy.

Article continues below

The old priest in Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest has a pertinent observation on the activity of the overly finicky nun:

The mistake she made wasn’t to fight dirt, sure enough, but to try to do away with it altogether. As if that were possible! A parish is bound to be dirty. A whole Christian society’s a lot dirtier. You wait for Judgment Day and see what the angels’ll be sweeping out of even the most saintly monasteries.

Even Reformation zeal would not have caused Luther to single out the monasteries only. Realistically he observed of all human nature, even in the regenerate, that life will always be filled with the “unclean, sinful, and inconsistent.” Christians strive after perfection, but they themselves know how often failure marks their path. However, a fair appraisal of life among Christians devoted to the pure teaching of God’s Word will regularly reveal, in spite of all, an unusual measure of acts of mercy and healing love.

In the early days of Lutheran history in America, C. F. W. Walther and his followers, who settled largely in the midwest (then called “west”) to found the conservative Missouri Synod, were castigated mercilessly (usually by fellow Lutherans) for their insistence on pure teaching and their so-called loveless existence. Dr. Walther’s simple rejoinder was: “Come and see.” His was no boast about perfection of life, only a reminder that purity of doctrine did not exclude sanctified life and works of love but rather undergirded them.

Tappert appears to be chiefly critical of what he calls the tendency in orthodoxy “to support and sanction the status quo,” to inculcate blind obedience in the people, set up certain taboos, blur the buoyant, cheerful, resilient spirit and way of life that characterized Luther, and thwart the true prophetic role of the Church in the world. Except for certain private acts of charity and rather perfunctory practices, “orthodoxism was religiously and morally sterile,” Tappert claims with broad sweep (op. cit., p. 50). He has to admit, however, that John Gerhard, one of the giants of orthodoxy, devoted almost a fourth of his famous Loci Theologici, a nine-volume dogmatics, to the practical and ethical concerns revolving around family, church, state, and individual sanctification of life. Without exception the great orthodox teachers of the seventeenth century, such as Calov, Hunnius, Hutter, Quenstedt, and Hollaz, following Gerhard’s example, intertwined their writing of dogmatics with the whole of Christian life. Only later, when the Enlightenment made its influence felt, was ethics moved out of theology in the German universities, as a separate discipline in philosophy. It is perhaps worth noting, for the present situation, that some Lutheran theological schools in America have held on tenaciously to the old arrangement, with due emphasis on the nexus indivulsus, the inseparable link, between justification of the sinner by faith in Christ and the sanctification of life that flows forth from his new relation with the Saviour.

Article continues below

Orthodoxy, then, emphasized both purity of teaching and active Christian living. But in the relation of the two, care was taken to distinguish between justifying faith and the fruits of faith. Yet faith never exists in isolation; its fruits are present in good works that flow out of each believer’s faithful filling of his station in life, his vocation. The starting point is always the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins. This was a concept Luther emphasized anew for the Church, that not the so-called splendid works that the Church had come to prescribe as especially spiritual and meritorious, but the routine performance of one’s duties as a child of God, acting out of love for God and for one’s fellow man—these were truly good works in God’s eyes.

One of Luther’s early (1520) and somewhat neglected treatises bore the specific title On Good Works, and was written to counter the charge that his doctrine on justification by faith alone in any way implied or fostered libertine ways or careless living. The facts were quite the opposite, as he was able to show, for Christian faith, he said, was always active in love.

Much of the criticism of orthodoxy has been less than kind, let alone accurate. Emil Brunner, for example, states very sharply that “in orthodoxy, if only your support of doctrine is clear and univocal, you are a Christian, however you may have disposed of the matter of love” (Divine-Human Encounter). Edmund Smits responds with equal bluntness to this charge: “Brunner does not refer to any text to support his statement, and in all probability has no text to support it” (The Symposium of Seventeenth Century Lutheranism, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, 1962, p. 23).

Article continues below

There was nothing sentimental or soapy about either Luther’s or the seventeenth-century theologians’ loyalty to God’s truth and their brief in behalf of virile Christian living. But they could rightly be aroused, as Blamires is in our day, that “so much misuse has lately been made of the sentence ‘God is Love’ ” (op. cit., p. 55). “If in the name of tolerance and charity,” notes Blamires with Luther-like punch, “we treat too tenderly utterances which show grave deficiencies of understanding, we risk doing a grave disservice to the Christian cause” and we endanger “those souls likely to be misled by the confusion and ignorance” of these peddlers of theological untruth (ibid., p. 33). Luther and the seventeenth-century orthodox theologians struggled, too, with the terrible reality that “heresy establishes an apparent strength in our midst which is totally disproportionate to its real power” (ibid., p. 36). There still is need in our day for the cleansing water of doctrinally sound teaching, faithfully drawn from the only pure fountain, God’s Word, Holy Scripture.

We may freely grant that the Church in the past, also in the age of orthodoxy, did not always succeed in sensitizing the consciences of its members to the needs of men. Things are probably no different in our day. But as the Church seeks to correct such “passivism,” it must take care that it does not spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort on penultimate problems while the ultimate mandate of preaching the Gospel and the whole counsel of God languishes—to the eternal hurt of immortal souls.

The point is that no one has ever shown that what the New Testament takes for granted as always being closely joined, purity of doctrine and active Christian living, do not go together and belong together.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.