Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Werner Elert's silliness on the doctrine of Inspiration.

I'm in the process of re-reading Werner Elert's The Christian Faith. It's a bootlegged translation done back in the 70s (I have the manuscript from Luther Seminary, which I still have borrowing rights from). From what I heard (and Pr. McCain can correct me) CPH bought the rights and then found that a lot of it was heretical. So they translated the non-heretical parts and then not the rest. I will grant that a great deal of it is heretical. It is interesting and insightful at certain points though.

This brings me to one of the points where Elert fails seriously, namely the doctrine of inspiration. He makes a series of weird statements about the authority of the Bible. First, he thinks that all Scriptural authority is based on the gospel. I don't even know what that means. When I was in the ELCA, I had professors claim this- but I never really bought it. The difficulty with this that the gospel makes no sense if you don't have the law. Both together don't make any sense if you don't have them within the context of salvation history. So, saying "the gospel" is the thing that makes the Scriptures authoritative, doesn't make any sense, since the gospel makes no sense without things that aren't gospel. Consequently, they must also be authoritative and then logically a subset of a larger phenomenon known as the "Word of God."

What I think is really going on is his existentializing and psychologizing tendency. This leads us into the next weird claim, that it's the content of the Scriptures, not the Scriptures themselves which are authoritative.

What? How can the content be authoritative, without the thing itself being authoritative? In other words, are you claiming that the Lutheran scholastic authors claimed that if the Scriptures were stripped of their content their would be something left over which would be authoritative? Certainly not. The content and the thing itself is no different.

What he's really getting at is this: he thinks that a person denigrates the authority of the gospel if you ground it in a prior theory of inspiration. In his way of thinking you're saying "I believe the gospel, because I believe in a theory about inspiration."

But of course, no one really says this. David Scaer has consistently pointed to the Christological basis of the doctrine of inspiration particularly in his early work The Apostolic Scriptures. The Scriptures are authoritative because they are inspired. This inspiration is anchored in the authorization of the Old Testament ("the scriptures cannot be broken...) and the authority of the Apostles who wrote the New Testament ("those who hear you, hear me..." "I will send you the comforter, who will lead you into all truth...") by Jesus.

If I believe in Jesus, I will believe in the inerrant Biblical Word that he authorized. In fact, I will no other access to his person and work than to that witness. So, by believing in him and his trustworthiness, I will automatically believe in the trustworthiness of his Bible. This is what was often referred to by the Lutheran scholastics as the inner testimony of the Spirit regarding the authority and infallibility of the Scriptures.

In the end, what Elert wants is to place authority in act of believing in Christ and his gospel and then to exclude a doctrine of inerrancy and Scripture inspiration on this basis. No one is disputing that faith comes first and this faith leads one to acknowledge the Scriptures. What Elert's move does is in fact internalize authority in a psychological event of coming to faith. It takes the locus of authority away from the external Word and places it within the individual and their faith in Jesus.

In the end, as we can see, this is a false decision of either/or. Faith in Christ automatically means both/and. Ultimately Elert's reductionism gives us the current LWF and the ELCA. For this he and his companion at Erlangen have much to account for.


  1. Great post. (I'm a friend of Dr. Mayes).

    I haven't read this work of Elert, so this question is mostly for my own clarification: When Elert says that the authority of scripture is based on the Gospel, could he have meant "Gospel" as in the Gospel story that Jesus lived, died, rose? Then your statement ("If I believe in Jesus, I will believe in the inerrant Biblical Word that he authorized") and his are not so very different (If I believe in Jesus and what He did [=Gospel/Creed], I will believe in the inerrant Biblical Word that he authorized).

    Of course, he probably meant "Gospel" as in Law/Gospel, in which case helped give birth to gospel-reductionism, Seminex, etc. as described in Murray's wonderful book, *Law, Life, and the Living God.*

    Again, I only ask for the sake of clarification, not having read Elert too much.

  2. Mr. Hayes- He means gospel as promise, though he will also talk about "the person of Christ."
    Nevertheless, he's very clear that this does not mean law or anything else. Christ, he says, is not a new Moses. He doesn't give law. The law is over with Christ- though insofar as we remain sinful we remain under its ethos. Otherwise, there would be nothing unique about the revelatory message in Christ. Law and the obsessive need to self-justify are everywhere already.

    In his book "Law and Gospel" (directed against Barth and with some fine critiques of him as well) he talks about how Christ's non-judgmentalism means that he enacts a new gospel ethos. This is all tied up with his idea of "Evangelical Imperatives" or as some of my ELCA profs. called it "the second use of the gospel." In other words, as part of the graciousness of God revealed in the gospel, we are invited in a non-threatening, non-judgmental fashion to love others and be gracious to them. This isn't law, it's an evangelical imperative (which sounds like law!).

    In other words, the gospel does all the heavy lifting and is diluted with law. Also, the gospel functions as something of an abstract principle, which being rather losely anchored in the history of Jesus (he clearly thinks its important that Jesus existed, but then keeps on talking about existential encounters with him) hangs in mid-air (something David Scaer has complained about).

    The Seminex types do take things a little farther than he does. But you can see where they get it. They were also relying on Bultmann, whom Elert was critical of.

    In the end, this all goes back to Schleiermacher. The name of Elert's dogmatics is the same as that of Schleiermacher, after all! It's strucutured he same way as well (Human self-consciousness first, Revelation/Christ, The Church/Sacrament).

    Erlangen types were heavily influenced by Schleiermacher through von Hofmann. It's all very psychologized and existentialized, and in the end very heavily influenced by Kant and Pietism.

  3. "In the end, as we can see, this is a false decision of either/or. Faith in Christ automatically means both/and."
    And you just got yourself on Kierkegaard's bad side too.

  4. Thanks for the clarification. I confess that I have my nose stuck in old books (orthodoxy and older) so much that I don't yet have a firm grasp on these more modern theologians.

  5. Josh:

    You are not missing much.

    : )

    Paul McCain

  6. First -- I totally agree with you re: the gospel as part of God's word. Just reading St. Paul, not to mention the rest of Scripture, it's clear that the law is the Word of God. If God's voice is silenced when He speaks law, this is a most egregious violation of the 1st and 3rd commandments -- and most specifically, the greatest commandment and reveals hatred for God. "He who loves me will keep my commandments."

    However, I do want to point out that part of the reason that some people who want to be orthodox (which is hardly the same as being orthodox) will write such silly things is because of an error on the other side.

    To wit, some conservatives will make it seem like the only important thing about Scripture is that it's inerrant. That is, so long as we talk about how correct Scripture is, show it in as many ways as possible, and figure out the correct meaning of every word then we have truly mastered the Scriptures.

    This is not the case at all. First of all, we never master the Scriptures -- the goal of theology is for God to master us, most specifically through His word. Moreover, the most important thing about God's word isn't that it's inerrant. The most important thing is that God speaks to us through Him -- which implies inerrancy to be sure -- and brings life and salvation to us.

    Those who speak like Elert, sometimes take this sentiment too far and suggest that we can throw out inerrancy because it's not the most important thing, which they deem to be the life-giving word of the Gospel.

    I haven't read Elert, but I wonder if that's his basic problem.


  7. George,

    I think you're right about Elert's motivation for this, apart from his intellectual influences that Jack detailed. I was reading a Robert Bertram piece yesterday about the historicity of Adam, and he essentially pushes the (for moderns) awkward question of Adam's historicity off in order to focus on original sin. What got me is that he complained about conservative Lutherans who countenance Baptists who believe in Adam's historicity but have a false doctrine of original sin. So Bertram was assuaging his own higher-critical conscience but made what I think is a good point about missing the importance for us of Adam's sin while affirming his actual existence, as if "the only important thing about Scripture is that it's inerrant."

    Jack, you could answer this better, but I have wondered a similar thing about Forde. That is, guys like Forde who grew up in the Norwegian Synod or Bertram who grew up in Bronze-Age Missouri or Elert in the Old Lutheran Church might be reacting to something in their past that deemphasized the Gospel of Christ and freedom in Christ. And I have a hunch that something isn't just intellectual influences picked up in grad school. Was there a lot of pietism and overemphasis on sanctification to which Forde was reacting?

    Keep up the great work; every post is interesting.

  8. George- I think you've made an important point.

    The point I was trying to make (following David Scaer)is that inerrancy and inspiration are Christological and must be contrued Christologically.

    Scaer rightly points out in some of his more recent articles that the Reformed (and most other Protestants) make the mistake of starting with non-Christological, rationalistic reasons for the inspiration of the Scriptures. They talk about the inner testimony of the Spirit as something enthuastic and then try to come up with various other proofs (Calvin in particular talks about how predictive prophecy works like clock work). They make no reference to Christ or his authorization of the Scriptures. All this goes back to their essential rationalism and their tendency disintegrate the Word and the Spirit.

    Adam- I should also mention that Elert was reacting to Unionism in the Prussian Church which he grew up in and therefore wanted to get ride of anything in Lutheranism that he thought smacked of Reformed theology. Scott Murray (and I think he's right about this)suggests that this is the ultimate basis of his rejection of the third use of the law.

    What we have to understand though is that Elert just follows the general tread of post-Kantian German Protestant dogmatics. For Kant, we can't know things in themselves, we can just know their psychological effect on us. So, the Scriptures can be measured by the effect of the gospel on us, not what they are in themselves. This tends to psychologize the entire project of theology.

    Regarding Forde, we also see this existentializing tendency. Forde doesn't like the third use and he's shaky on the doctrine of inspiration. He was also reacting against Pietism. If you go to Luther Seminary to this day it's all around you. Interestingly enough though, he tends to collapse sanctification into justification much like the Pietists did.

    1. I believe that in Elert's Dogmatics he makes a case that the problem with Kant is that he makes a distinction between things that appear-to-be (erschein) as opposed to things that are. Elert rejects this notion in Kant's thought. Elert along with Luther would affirm that what one sees is what one gets, ie. the law as nomological existence.

  9. Jack,
    Again, I totally agree. I don't think that "the doctrine of Scripture" (if that's the right way to phrase it) should begin with rationalistic proofs like predictive prophecy, archaeology, or whatever. On the other hand, I do think that the apologetic task of the Church can be dismissed too easily. I've had a few very important conversations with people who are "too scientifically minded" to believe, in which discussions about history become central. Christianity is the only historical religion, and it is so on purpose. God didn't just write rules to be followed for salvation. He didn't just write nice stories to make us believe different things. He came and saved us (as is His nature). That's part of the Christological nature of the Scripture, so discussing it isn't irrelevant (as I'm sure from your other posts about archaeology etc. you agree).

    Even the arch-enemy (loosely speaking, of course) or apologetics, Dr. Scaer himself, has acknowledged that the Scriptures are in some ways apologetic. Particularly his favorite Gospel (Matthew) has quite an apologetic flair, especially regarding the incarnation (virgin birth) and resurrection.

    Anyhow, I always find this stuff amusing because by the end of a deep theological conversation regarding the nature of the Scriptures, I feel like all I've learned is to be like the most simple believers in my parish.


  10. "In the end, what Elert wants is to place authority in act of believing in Christ and his gospel and then to exclude a doctrine of inerrancy and Scripture inspiration on this basis."

    Connected to this was Elert's rejection of the third use of the law. As Pr. David Speers observed in a July 29, 2002, post on a Lutheran list:

    "[T]hose who deny the third use of the law essentially make the gospel into law and become legalists of a high degree."

  11. After studying on this issue a little longer, I think the key to a proper understanding of Elert on this issue is to be found in Theodosius Harnack (i.e. NOT Adolf v. Harnack), who in 1885 published a short treatise "On The Canon And Inspiration of Holy Writ: A Word To Establish Paece" (Ueber den Kanon und die Inspiration der Heiligen Schrift: ein Wort zum Frieden). This paper may help to understand what implications guided Elert's statements.