What is the Word of God? Has the LCMS taken a New Position on the Books of the Bible?

The recently published part two of Voelz’ commentary on Mark has brought the issue of Scripture to the forefront in the LCMS. In most modern Bibles there is a note or footnote to the effect “the most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20” (NIV). The ESV (the official translation of the LCMS) says “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-10.” The AAT reads: “The two oldest manuscripts lack Mark 16:9-20 but end Mark’s Gospel with v.8” So this is not a new issue or some pronouncement from the LCMS. Scholars for over a hundred years have taken this stance against the longer ending of Mark, but few have done it in such an unchurchman-like fashion as Voelz. Lutherans have the added difficulty that Luther in his Small Catechism attributes Mk. 16:16 to “Christ” directly. Voelz took a vow to uphold the doctrine of the Catechism at his ordination. Did he deny it? Is he a heretic?

What is the Word of God? We traditionally speak of its inspiration, that it came from God and was breathed out from Him. We uphold its authority and inerrancy. That is all true and biblical, to be sure. But what books should I believe? What human writing is the Word of God? Which ending of Mark is the true one? That is a difficult issue, since Scripture itself doesn’t actually tell us. For a church that has as its sole authority the Word of God, we can’t say, based on the Bible alone, which books must be held as the Word of God. Put another way, there is no verse in Scripture telling me which books I must hold as inspired. Now, many New Testament books do quote the Old Testament, saying it is the Word of God and from the Spirit (Hebrews is replete with such references). Peter refers to Paul (2 Peter 3:15). But we do not have a formal list of books or verses actually inspired to go off of.

This may seem problematic. “After all, the longer ending of Mark was in my Bible since before I was born.” But who put your Bible together? It was not God on Mt. Sinai, but a number of sinful men. Furthermore, we do not have the original copies of any books of the Bible, written in their original language. As an analogy we do not know which words are precisely numbered as “the Ten” Commandments, since they are not numbered in Scripture (in Ex. 20 and Dt. 5). But Christianity is not a rational, intellectual system. This is a historical problem, not a doctrinal one. But we have to have an actual text of the Bible, right?

The Word of God is not authorized by any man or church body. It is God’s and needs no human approval or stamp of authenticity, or else you would accept divine authority based on a much lesser, errant human authority. The Word of God is the Spirit’s Word and He lives in every believer. The doctrine of the testimony of the Spirit is that teaching that the Spirit himself convicts and convinces of God’s own Word. So you do not have to rely on another sinner, who is often wrong. You have God’s Spirit to understand and accept Scripture as God’s own. God is the one talking in His Word, so listen to Him. This teaching of the testimony of the Spirit bypasses the logical problem of “proving” what is the Word of God.

Voelz cannot say Mark 16:9-20 is not the Word of God. Only Christ can verify His own Word. Voelz can’t say it wasn’t written by Mark even. He has said he does not think it’s not original, but there is no conclusive proof. There is simply his opinion, which is not worth that much to me. No one should base the Word of God on a sinner, let alone a critic who puts himself above the Word of God, rather than be a humble servant of it.

What is the official LCMS position on Mark or the entire canon (which means rule, or the actual list of books we accept as Scripture)? The LSB ordination rite reads: “Do you believe and confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” No list is found though, nor has one ever been put forth in an official way.

There is evidence that the longer ending of Mark is ancient and close to the apostolic period, and it has been held to be God’s Word until very recently. But to ask a sinner if it is God’s Word is the wrong question. A critic saying how another’s book should have ended or the language and style he must have used is pure speculation. So establishing the exact text of Scripture is a science, but science can be done poorly or quite well. It is not a spiritual task, though it must be done. But it can be done arrogantly, disregarding the use of the text in the Church, or humbly, respecting that one person cannot tell the church what is the Word of God. This is God’s task, and He will take care of it.

Voelz shows in his commentary that the teaching of Mk. 16-20 is contained in other books he considers canonical, and it therefore not necessary in his mind. That proves nothing, except to show he doesn’t dismiss the longer ending of Mark because its doctrine is offensive. Voelz doesn’t want to redefine Christian doctrine—yay for him! But human words mean nothing compared to the divine Word.

If you accept and have believed Mk. 16:16 to be the Word of God, then nothing has changed. Nothing can overrule God Himself—His Word is the highest authority. If someone dismisses part of Mark for doctrinal reasons, he is a heretic. But if someone genuinely believes it was not written by Mark, and therefore not inspired, they will not accept the testimony of man. Can we present evidence and a case for its authenticity and originality? Yes, but we cannot “prove” in a scientific sense something is God’s Word. There is no infallible test, since the Word is our only authority. Rome has a list of books and an official translation, because it holds itself above Scripture, so that it “authorizes” the Word of God. Walther himself did not discipline an LCMS pastor who doubted that Revelation was canonical. Why? Walther did not put Himself in the place of God to decide what was God’s Word. The church does not make the Bible the Word of God, but all writing either is, or is not, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Christians worship Christ, who speaks in Scripture, not scholars or scientists. And this longer ending of Mark has been accepted as the Word of God for many, many centuries. No words of man can overrule the Word of God for me. In the same way, Luther calling James “an epistle of straw” bothers me none, since he was criticizing what he held to not be Scripture and not inspired. So he, strictly speaking, was not making a statement about Scripture, in his mind. So Luther said nothing doctrinally about Scripture or inspiration. Voelz’ commentary should matter even less you. His case is not winsome at all, nor is it even easy to distill into layman’s terms. The eminent scholars today do not teach or provoke wholesome discussion, they want people to bow to their learning and not think for themselves.

After all, Luther did not blindly accept what what in his Bible, since he inherited the Apocrypha as Scripture. He had good reasons for dismissing it, as do we. Voelz’ case rests on just a few manuscripts and witnesses (which are still 300-400 years from the original), which are highly regarded, that omit it. But “early” does not mean “correct.” And omitting it can be explained in other ways than as a clear judgment that it is not the Word of God.

The majority of manuscripts and witnesses we possess have at least some of the longer ending of Mark, so it became accepted, or at least known, quite early. The actual human history of this particular section, and which manuscripts are to be most trusted is a complex issue and will not be conclusively known this side of heaven. However, that is all prior evidence that does not establish or form the canon. After all, we don’t make God’s Word, we simply receive it for what it is: the only infallible rule and norm for faith and life.

Luther, Voelz, and no other man, but Christ Himself, through His Spirit, may authorize the Word of God. It should not bother you that the book of Hebrews, and all that follow in the New Testament, were doubted by some in the early church—what is any man or human tradition compared to Christ, who is truth? So, I continue to teach and preach, as the absolute Word of God: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16). Amen. –ed.

“They [the sophists] say that the Scriptures are far too weak that we should silence heretics with them; reason must do it, and it must come forth from the brain; thus one must prove that the faith is the right one. But our faith is above all reason, and it alone is the power of God. Therefore, if people will not listen, then be silent; for you are not held to compel them to receive Scripture as God’s book or Word …. Only say: I will give you reasons enough from Scripture; if you will believe it, it is well; if not, go your way. Will you say: Then’s God’s Word must suffer defeat? Leave that to God!” (Martin Luther, quoted in F. Peiper, Christian Dogmatics 1:242-43)