A Snapshot of the State of Biblical Interpretation at the LCMS Seminaries: Initial Impressions of Concordia Commentary Mark 8:27-16-20 by Voelz and Mitchell

It is strange that this is the only commentary in the series that has two authors. This is not because Voelz was unable to finish it, but because he was unwilling! Evidently, he has taught that Mark 16:9-20 is not part of Mark to his students for decades. He takes his Martin Luther stand on excluding a section of Scripture that our Small Catechism quotes as the words of “Christ:” “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). This is not the main problem, though, but simply a consequence of Voelz’ overall approach to interpreting Scripture as a rational critic. His own words demonstrate this well enough.

The volume is dedicated to Jack Dean Kingsbury, who is called an “exemplary reader of the Gospels.” How well he reads is not of concern to me, but he is considered one of the founders of school of the narrative criticism, which is basically interpreting a biblical book, typically a gospel, as a work of fiction. This allows critics to move completely behind historical concerns (whether it actually happened) to focus on the actual text. But one should not preclude the other, indeed, it cannot if it is to be truly Christian. Voelz’ describes his approach to Mark—that it is not a basic, straightforward historical account and the fountain and source of all doctrine to him: “the Gospel of Mark is best seen as a drama on the Gospel story—a dramatic presentation of the person and work of Jesus” (1234).

Should you buy this book? If you find the following footnote helpful, there is a good chance this volume will greatly enhance your understanding of Mark: “The topic explored in this section concerning quotations and allusions could be expanded to encompass a consideration of ‘intertextuality.’ for which there is a highly theoretical, post-structuralist/deconstructualist version that focuses on the ways in which ‘texts’ (both written and nonwritten) are not hermetically sealed entities but mutually interdependent sign systems, one the other hand, and a more commonsense literary version that seeks to distinguish (sometimes sharply, sometimes not) among quotations, allusions, thematic parallels, etc. on the other.” This footnote 44, in explaining the attitude of this commentary, shows Voelz’ attitude towards God’s Word (597).

Voelz writes concerning his first volume: “In excursus 3, ‘Literary Assumptions regarding Mark’s Gospel,’ we introduced the notion that there are significant parallels between the contours of Mark’s narrative and the story of the Odyssey, and we sought to demonstrate these parallels in relevant periscopes…” (597). Voelz sees a great similarity between the inspired Gospel of Mark and a much earlier pagan myth of fantastical tales attributed to Homer. After a few pages of useless similarities and extensively quoting one scholar, Voelz tries in vain to reassure the reader: “it is important to remember that the parallels between Odysseus and Jesus do not show that Mark’s story is essentially concocted on the basis of Home’s work(s). Rather … such parallels should the superiority of Jesus to Odysseus, and they can be drawn with the understanding that the Homeric epics (as well as other near ancient myths) provided a cultural preparation for the true expression of the interaction between God and man, namely, that which has occurred in the person of Jesus Christ” (600). I personally am not impressed in someone saying Jesus is superior to an imaginary and flawed superhero. “Once again, Jesus surpasses Odysseus, who declares himself not to be a god” (651). This is Voelz’ approach to God’s Word given through Mark the Spirit. But the Spirit is required to understand His own Word (1 Cor. 2).

Scholars interpreting Scripture today cannot just quote Scripture and use it in a straightforward way. This is true for almost any academically-minded professor who wants to be accepted to the academy by his peers. The problem is, despite titles and being called “experts” of interpreting Scripture, almost every recognized academic interpreter of Scripture is critical and atheistic in his approach to the Bible, if not personally, then professionally. It is what is learned and inculcated in masters and PhD programs at the most prestigious schools. Another LCMS St. Louis exegetical seminary professor, Jeffery Gibbs, wrote in his CPH book Jerusalem and Parousia (originally a doctoral dissertation under the aforementioned Kingsbury): “Matthew’s story, even the ‘characters’ of God and Jesus are, in a sense, ‘at the mercy’ of the narrator” (8). This means that in the story-world “the reader knows far more than any character in the story” (11). The attempt to take a fictionalized reading of Scripture (which ignores the real, historical concerns and its direct authority to establish doctrine) and make it Christian causes Gibbs to apologize and weakly defend his orthodoxy: “In passing, I may note my own conviction that the story related in Matthew’s Gospel is, in fact, historical.” This fictional approach may seem to safely seclude the actual text and avoid the corrosive denial of biblical history as in past versions of historical criticism (that is the aim of narrative criticism), but how can an interpreter of Holy Scripture avoid what it claims to relate—real, human history? How can one not take it as the Word of God, rather than a harmless, easily ignored story? The Bible does not need comparison to myths and pagan fantasies to boost its status—God’s Word judges all things.

Fiction has no authority or direct power. But the Scriptures do, as God’s own, life-giving Word. What is avoided by interpreting the Scriptures as fiction is the authority of them. Their power to judge, correct, and tell even the mighty experts and academic tyrants of this world, “you are wrong, because this is what the Word of God says” is undermined by the fictional approach. The Gospels purport to tell real history, not an entertaining story: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (1:1-4). Mark, similarly does not set up a sappy drama to move one’s emotions, but relates simply and directly “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” from the beginning (1:1).

Lest you think this is merely a St. Louis seminary problem, the evidence is also found at the Fort Wayne LCMS seminary that its exegetical department has bowed its head to the canons of modern sensibility and scholarship. Although it may be a little behind the cutting edge of 1980’s narrative criticism of the St. Louis seminary, it is not substantially different in effect. David Scaer praised and authorized “redaction criticism” (although only using the compound German word, not the English term) in his 1971 Apostolic Scriptures booklet and still heavily focuses on creative and critical approaches to interpreting Scripture, despite the title of systematic professor, not exegetical. Redaction criticism, a predecessor to narrative criticism, focuses on the author as creative editor or redactor. It seeks to know what (theological motivations, historical circumstances) caused the human gospel writer to change or edit his received sources (including Jesus’ words).

The main exegetical question I was taught at Concordia Theological Seminary was not what the text actually says and means and how we are to submit to it, but what was the human writer thinking when we wrote this—what were his motivations and reasons, all things behind the text and ultimately inaccessible. Proof-texting, the doctrine of inspiration as the primary presupposition for reading Scripture, and using different biblical books and authors as one cloth and voice were discouraged and ridiculed by my exegetical professors as unscholarly and naive in my seminary days (2003-2007) at Fort Wayne. I give Voelz credit, thought, he at least has the guts to be a bit honest about his approach.

Although the roots and effects of these critical approaches are expertly hidden and all is portrayed as alright publicly to laymen, sometimes it makes it way into print. David Scear wrote this, which is incomprehensible to someone who takes the authority of Scripture as God’s own authority: “Contemporary critical scholars, in distinguishing between the event and later theological interpretations of the event, attempt to identify the steps from the event, which for them is often unrecoverable, and the final form in the Gospels. . . . Such methods are not without value in that the earliest church reflections on the Lord’s Supper are seen to resemble closely what later became the classical Reformed view of a symbolical meal. Texts in their final form, as we have them in the Bible, were encrusted with views now associated with Lutherans and Catholics. Because the Gospels preserve both earlier and later reflections on the Last Supper, Lutherans and Reformed justified their accommodation as biblical with each other on the Lord’s Supper in the Formula of Agreement” (“Reformed Exegesis and Lutheran Sacraments: Worlds in Conflict,” CTQ 64:1 [2000], 14). As one might expect from this approach which sees two conflicting layers and theologies in Scripture conveying different doctrines, as with every critical approach, it undercuts the direct authority and power of the Word of God. A Scripture that has two contrasting theologies has none! But the arrogance of the critical scholar who thinks he is above the Word of God is bound to come out. We have much to learn from Luther’s humble submission to God’s own speech, despite its humble outward form.

Peter Scaer, a Fort Wayne professor and the son of David Scaer, takes a tact very similar to Voelz in his dissertation publication, entitled The Lukan Passion and the Praiseworthy Death. The official, published description for this book reads: “In the ancient world, crucifixion epitomized all that was shameful, servile and lowly. Jesus’ death on a cross would have been a stumbling block for many. Luke recognized this prevailing attitude toward crucifixion, and sought to show that Jesus’ death was noble and praiseworthy, even according to the Roman world’s own standards. Scaer argues that Luke drew upon the Noble Death tradition, especially as found in Graeco-Roman rhetoric, in depicting Jesus as a man of courage and virtue. Luke also made use of Jewish-Hellenistic martyrological traditions to present Jesus’ death as worthy not only of honour, but even of emulation. Most provocatively, Scaer contends that the third evangelist drew specific motifs from the Socrates story in order to show that the founder of the new Christian movement was a noble and just man, deserving of the utmost respect. In using these Graeco-Roman sources as he fashioned his narrative of Jesus’ death, Luke reveals himself as a masterful author in the classical tradition, intent on portraying Christianity as a world class religion.” It says that Luke “borrowed” or copied themes from a pagan story about a condemned philosopher who killed himself, in order to write his Gospel on Jesus. Inspiration can have no meaningful role in this approach that sees the Gospel writers as fictional authors who copy themes and ideas from pagan masters. It also downplays the history and reality of the Bible, but allows for praise and acceptance by other scholars. This approach, however decorated by the world, does not honor Jesus or His Word. This is the current state of exegesis at the two LCMS seminaries and how pastors have been taught to approach the Word of God for decades. All the lip-service in the world to the doctrine of inspiration is meaningless, if it is ignored in practice and Scripture is treated as any other human writing.

The Bible is not academic in the modern scholar’s eyes, so it has to be elevated and dressed up by critics who want to stay relevant and fit in to the rationalist university sub-culture. Voelz is a master of Greek, who has written a textbook for Greek students, but he is not pastoral or doctrinal in his writing. His commentary is more linguistic and scientific than useful for preaching or comforting for the believer.

The modernist search for technical accuracy and precise meaning demonstrated in this volume is mind-boggling: this commentary has 681 pages for 8 chapters of Mark (392 total verses, by my count). But Scripture is not written for scholars. Believers are not just to be overwhelmed by words and theories about Scripture, but to be comforted by the Gospel of Christ. Scripture is the foundation of all doctrine and the only authority in the church. One’s approach to an object, sadly, usually determines the result of one’s study and research. We have, in this modern era, widely missed the mark on scriptural interpretation—and this commentary on Mark is a prime example.

The issue of the ending of Mark (that Voelz completely dismisses) is a serious one and must absolutely be addressed (and it will be in CN very shortly), but the overall approach of Voelz to Scripture is very illuminating in setting the scene for this controversy. I am not sure if Voelz uses the word “inspiration” in his massive commentary on the second book Mark, consisting of 651 pages, since Homer seems to be more significant than the Holy Spirit to reading Mark. But if you want to know about Greek myths, fictional stories, post-modernist theories of meaning, and have a mind-numbing and tedious academic account of Mark, all while treating this gospel as a dramatic story, this is a must have volume. –ed.