The Authority and Power of Christian Doctrine

Rev. Andrew J. Preus

Trinity Ev. Luth. Church
New Haven, MO

We run into problems when we frame the relationship between the Bible and faith in Christ purely chronologically.  It reminds me of how some treat what is called the “order of salvation” (ordo salutis).  The order of salvation is meant to be a distinction between the various factors of how one is saved, such as faith, Christ’s merit, God’s grace, and the promise of the gospel. Or we might distinguish between the inner movements taking place in conversion and renewal, on the one hand, and the external gift bestowed through the gospel, on the other hand (see the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, article 3, especially paragraphs 18-25.). If we frame this chronologically, trying to pin down exactly what happens first, second, third, etc., then we might end up with the notion that salvation isn’t complete in Christ but dependent upon us meeting certain criteria first.  So you get wonky teachings from certain Evangelicals, such as that Christ first must become your Savior, and then he must become your Lord.  

The same happens with the issue of the Bible and faith in Christ.  Which came first?  Of course, Christ is eternal.  The Patriarchs trusted the message of the gospel promise long before Moses (or even Job) wrote down a single word.  Yet, Christ came into the flesh, died, and was raised again “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4; Luke 24:46).  In one sense we can speak of faith in Christ coming before an acknowledgement of the full inspiration of the Scriptures.  People come to faith in the gospel without knowing the story, let alone the truthfulness, of Balaam’s conversation with a donkey, Jonah’s three days in a fish, etc.  But true faith will manifest in such an acceptance, since Christ says, “My sheep listen to my voice,” and Jesus affirms the Scriptures (John 10:27-28, 35).

This is why, instead of framing the debate over a chronological sequence of first accepting biblical inerrancy and inspiration and second having faith, or vice versa, we need to understand it in terms of the power of the gospel and the authority of Scripture.  This has also been called the material and formal principles of theology. The Bible is the formal principles, that is, the authority. The gospel (faith in Christ) is the material principle, the power (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18).

Scripture is the source of how we know Christ (authority), what the old Lutheran dogmaticians called the principium cognoscendi (the source of knowing).  The good news of Jesus is the power by which faith is engendered.  Both must be asserted.  Each implies the other.  This brings to mind a variant reading in Romans 10:17. Some manuscripts say “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Others read, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ.” One might prefer “Word of God” as emphasizing the authority upon which our faith rests, namely the Scriptures themselves. Or one might prefer “Word of Christ” as emphasizing the power of the gospel. “Word of God” brings to mind the formal principle, sola scriptura. “Word of Christ” brings to mind the material principle, solus Christus and sola fide. However, whichever variant we take, each implies the other. If the Word of Christ is the specific power by which faith is created, such a Word is certainly written in the Scriptures.

The message of the gospel (power) is based upon the source of Scripture (authority).  And yet, the authority of Scripture is completely misunderstood without the power of the gospel.  Like the Jews who read Moses with a veil over their eyes (2 Cor 3:14), those who accept the authority of Scripture without trusting its power (Christ) will only become legalistic hypocrites (Rom 10:2).  The gospel is the object of faith while the Bible is the source of knowing this object. 

Yet, how one personally and sequentially experiences this in his understanding will depend on the person and circumstances.  And just like there are Christians who have saving faith even while being mistaken about other teachings of the Bible, there are also those who have saving faith while being mistaken about the inerrancy/inspiration of all Scripture.  Herman Sasse was an example of this.  From my reading of him, I can observe that he was humble toward the Scriptures even if he still had some hang-ups for most of his life.  While we should remain on our guard against these hang-ups, not so quick in our attempts to placate nay-sayers against biblical inerrancy, we should also remember that judgment begins at the household of God. That is to say, we must remain sober, willing to critique our own ways of teaching, asking if we are being clear and evangelical, neither despising the authority of Scripture nor neglecting the power of the gospel. In the concluding pages of his The Inspiration of Scripture, Robert Preus gives a clear and balanced response to those who would pit faith against Scripture, the material against the formal, the power against the authority. Allow me to quote him extensively followed by some comments of my own. Preus writes:

Perhaps the most serious and surely the most unkind criticism which has been levelled against the old Lutheran doctrine of Scripture is the indictment of Sasse and Dorner and others that these theologians substituted sola scriptura for sola fide. Both Sasse and Dorner charge that the period of orthodoxy manifested a different spirit from the Reformation in that the Lutheran theologians of that day no longer regarded justification by faith as a principle coordinate with the Scripture principle. Sasse compares these theologians of the seventeenth century with Luther. He says that Luther believed in the Bible because he believed in Christ; the later orthodox dogmaticians believed in Christ because they believed in Scripture. With them sola fide was the result of sola scriptura. Dorner goes so far as to assert that the material principle of Christianity was gradually extinguished by the dogmaticians who made it depend entirely on the Scripture principle. These criticisms are so sweeping that one is tempted to brush them aside and discount them entirely, but they are quite general and there is a little truth in them. There is a spirit manifesting itself during the period of Lutheran orthodoxy which is quite different from that of Luther. The intensity and beauty of Luther’s unbroken, ringing refrain of justification by faith is missing in much of the theological literature of the following century. Luther’s fresh and exciting approach to theology, always in the light of forgiveness for Christ’s sake through faith, often gives place to a rather dry, matter-of-fact presentation of doctrine (except perhaps in the cases of Gerhard and Dannhauer, whose writings become stimulating and truly beautiful at times). One cannot approach the ponderous tomes of the dogmaticians without some apprehension, and as one opens them and reads one is often repelled by the scholasticism and abstraction which one finds therein. Yes, the powerful emphasis of a Luther upon the centrality of justification is wanting in some of the theological literature of the seventeenth century teachers. But a lack of emphasis, important and far-reaching as it may be, is not necessarily a deviation in doctrine. What do the dogmaticians teach about faith in relation to Christ and to Scripture? According to the dogmaticians, saving faith is a personal trust in and application of the merits of Christ, so that the believer says, ‘I believe that Christ suffered and died for me and offers me salvation.’ Saving faith is always and only in Christ, in His person and in His work. It is true that a believer accepts all of Scripture; there are certain articuli antecedentes et consequentes [articles presupposed by faith and articles consequentially accepted by faith] which the Christian must and will believe. But real, justifying faith is always and only in the grace of God which is promised in Christ. In view of these observations it is nonsense to submit that the material principle of Christianity was extinguished by the Lutherans of the seventeenth century. It is true that their treatment of the sola scriptura principle is more detached from the article of justification by faith than it might have been – such a fault is inherent in their systematic method – but they did not do away with the article of justification as the foundation of living and personal Christianity, as the above observations show. They will not even speak of inspiration or the authority of Scripture as a fundamental article of faith. People have been saved who have never heard that there is such a thing as a Bible. The dogmaticians regarded Scripture as the source of Christian theology, as the infallible norm of faith and life, but never as the source of Christianity itself. Like Luther they believed that justification was the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae [the article on which the church stands or falls]. One can only presume that Sasse is indulging in satire when he says that the old Lutheran teachers made the inspiration of Scripture the fundamental article of the Christian faith upon which all other doctrines must follow. (Robert Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture: A Study of the Theology of the 17th-Century Lutheran Dogmaticians, (St. Louis: CPH, 1957), 208-210.)

Preus concludes by discussing further weaknesses in the method used by the dogmaticians. The point to be learned here is that our methods of teaching and arranging biblical doctrine will always have weaknesses. Errors of emphasis and deemphasis are inevitable. However, doctrine is more than merely our arrangement of it. Many like to conflate divine doctrine with mere “theological formulations.” They do so in an attempt to downplay the clarity and authority of the doctrine itself. But theological formulations, that is, our practice of arranging doctrinal topics, is not the same as the doctrine itself. Sinful man is justified through faith alone for Christ’s sake. This article is revealed in Scripture. It is the central teaching of all Scripture. These assertions are no mere theological formulations. How one arranges this teaching and sufficiently communicates it might carry with it certain weaknesses. We can always do better in our instruction of doctrine. But the doctrine itself is true. The Scriptures are God’s Word. We may certainly become more convinced of this after better understanding its central message. We may not fully grasp it at first. We may struggle to teach it effectively. We might even have wrong opinions, which keep us from fully accepting it. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is God’s inerrant, unchanging, inspired Word. Our method of teaching this objective truth should not be conflated with the truth itself.

For this reason, I am sympathetic toward those who are wary of formulations that ground the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture in its effect of bringing about faith in Christ. Is our faith in Christ what establishes the Bible’s authority? Certainly it should reaffirm it and strengthen our conviction in such authority. In the same way, our faith brings about further boldness and conviction that Christ truly did justify the whole world of sinners by his death and resurrection. However, Jesus’ work of salvation doesn’t have its power because it eventually brings about faith through the gospel. It is true even before faith is created. In the same way, the Bible is the pure and clear fountain of God’s truth even before we fully acknowledge it.

But again, we should be careful not to get caught up in the sequence of things. Yes, it’s correct that the Bible is the true, inerrant, inspired (and inspiring) Word of God before, during, and after we come to believe. Yet, how we experience this and come to grasp this is a mystery. The wind blows where it wills. The words of Scripture are the very words of Jesus, and they are Spirit and life (John 6:63). A child gets to know his parents as the authority. He doesn’t always grasp the truthfulness of their authority, yet he relies on their care. This doesn’t change the objective truth that even before they fed him, clothed him, and nurtured him, they were and remain his parents. It is similar with the dynamic between the authority of Scripture and the power of the gospel. Each implies the other. How we come to understand it, articulate it, formulate it, and confess it may vary in each of us. But the Word of our Lord endures forever. To him be the power and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.