The Word and Its Interpreters

Fraser Pearce has drawn my attention to a paper by American Lutheran (ELCA) Pastor James Arne Nestingen (“Joining the Unchurched“) about the current mess that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has created by voting at their most recent synod to allow ordination of actively homosexual men and women as pastors of their church.

I don’t want to get into that issue, or the charge that Pastor Nestingen lays at the door of the ELCA leadership (that they have effectively shown the ELCA to NOT be a “Church” in the sense recognised by the Augsburg Confession – interesting though that Catholics are not the only ones who can speak in terms of whether a body of Christians is or is not a “church” in the “true sense”).

What I am intersted in is Nestingen’s discussion of “the Word” and its “interpretation”.

He writes:

The ELCA has redefined the Word of God. Instead of understanding it in terms of what God does with words, the theologians of the church—with the bishops in tow—have uncritically shifted out of the original Lutheran argument into a scheme in which God’s word depends on its meaning. To no one’s surprise, in this setup the power transfers from the word itself to the interpreters of the word—those who decide what it really means. The biblical text is ambiguous by definition, they say, and consequently only the informed—generally, those who are superior, either intellectually or politically—can finally determine what it says. Old Erasmus, his most sophisticated opponent, tried this on Luther and got the drubbing of his life. But in the ELCA, having long lost its theological moorings, the leadership has gotten away with it. That is how theologians and church leaders could dismiss as unclear biblical passages that produced a two thousand year old, all but universal consensus concerning homosexual practice….

With the action taken in the Minneapolis assembly, the ELCA has made such power mongering official procedure and policy. The Word of God does not create, shape or control it; no, the ELCA controls the interpretation of the Word.

Now, I think I understand Pastor Nestingen to be saying that the Word should be allowed to stand and be received by the Church as the power of God to freely “create”, “shape” and “control” what is done in the Church. I hear him to be saying that the power of the Word is neutralised when any person or group of persons within the Church claims the right or authority or even the need to “interpret the Word”; that in such a situation the supposed or claimed “meaning of the Word” replaces “the Word” itself.

Pastor Nestingen points out that both the Papacy and Calvinism do exactly the same thing – ie. place the interpretation or the meaning of the Word above the power of the pure Word itself – and yet

the universal consensus concerning homosexual practice…continues to hold among Roman Catholics, the Orthodox and most Protestant Churches…because it is biblical, [and] isn’t subject to change.

This is also because, Nestingen asserts, both Catholics and Calvinists have certain checks and balances.

Although he compares the ELCA’s arrogance with regard to the Word to that of the “medieval papacy that Luther and the reformers set off against…[which] declared itself master of the Word rather than servant” in that “instead of proclaiming God’s Word, it formally proclaims itself as arbiter of the Word”, nevertheless, “the office of the papacy acts as a check, controlling the range of interpretation” of the Word. The interpretation of the Word is “one of the keys to the power of the papacy”. Nestingen notes that “the bishops share in this authority” (actually, it is more true to say that this authority belongs properly to all the bishops in college teaching in communion with one particular member of their college, id est , the Bishop of Rome).

As for the Calvinists, they also had checks and balances. For the Calvinists, since

the process of interpretation always remains vulnerable to the power of original sin…it must necessarily be checked. So the congregation, the elders, pastors and theologians are linked together in a system of mutual watchfulness. The lay people, elders, pastors and theologians all look both ways, watching over each of the other layers of authority. Interpretation requires constant scrutiny, lest the interpreters be led astray. In American church life the systems of checks vary from one Protestant church to another, but the necessity gets minded.

Note at this point the essential difference between the Calvinist checks and balances and the Catholic checks and balances. The Calvinist is pessimistic about the abilities of human beings to interpret the Word, and thus makes the interpretation of the Word an exercise of mutual suspicion. The Catholic “checks and balances”, on the other hand, are entirely positive in outlook: it is the charism and gift of God that our magisterium is preserved from error, following Christ’s promise “the gates of hell will not prevail against my Church” and “the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, will lead you into all truth”.

In Pastor Nestingen’s eyes, the ELCA has committed a double sin: it has replaced the pure power of the proclaimed Word with the interpretation of the Word by a class of experts, and secondly it has “dropped the checks Roman Catholics and Protestants have carefully maintained.” The rest of his paper concerns the story of how this happened. He is especially scathing of the abdication of responsibility for teaching on behalf of the ELCA “bishops”:

With all of this, the bishops—said to be responsible for the unity of the church—stand by in silence. In their own assemblies, they hide behind punctilious observation of Roberts Rules of Order; at the national, while the gay advocates freely use the microphones, those who are opposed remain conspicuously silent.

Ecumenically, it could hardly be a stranger procedure. Having made the interpretation of Scripture a problem of meaning, the ELCA does not, like the Roman Catholics, bring in the bishops for clarification—with rare exception, the current bishops don’t have the scholarly training commonly available among Roman Catholics.

Well. That’s a compliment for our bishops. I think.

He is also complimentary in the following statement:

Benedict XVI, the orthodox patriarchs and commonly the Protestant leaders as well, know both Scripture and the church’s tradition intimately—well enough to recognize the difference between the historically certain and the ambiguity of convenience. They can hardly welcome a church that has defied standards they consider inviolate.

But let us now come to the nub of the matter. Nestingen’s whole point in this article is that the ELCA has ceased to be a Church, because it has replaced the proclamation of the pure Word of God with the interpretation of the Word by “experts”. This elevation of interpretation over proclamation is detrimental, because, according to the Augsburg Confession, the true Church is to be found:

“[w]herever” the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, “wherever” sinners gather to hear and receive Word and sacrament, God’s word has become incarnate in down-to-earth community.

There is a curious reversal here of St Ignatius dictum “where Jesus Christ is, there is the Church”. It seems to be saying “Where the Church is, there is Jesus Christ”. But we will let that pass for the moment. Pastor Nestingen expresses the problem for himself and for other ELCA Lutherans who share his objection to the recent change in ELCA policy in the question: “Where do you go?”His answer?

“It’s up to you now… you are on your own.”

How horrible. One feels great sympathy for ELCA Lutherans caught in such a situation. There is, however, a road forward that is open to our Lutheran brothers and sisters who come to the realisation, like Pastor Nestingen, that their “Church” has been found to have more in common with the Emperor and his new clothes than that triumphant procession foreseen by St John “dressed in white and coming out of the great tribulation”:

Some of the most devout Lutherans, including learned theologians who were formerly part of the ELCA, are now Roman Catholics. It may be premature and even unthinkable for some of us, but on the other hand, where Christ is proclaimed in Word and Sacrament and sinners gather to hear and receive it, the triune God can break beyond misunderstandings to do his work.

Well… yes.

But one final word is necessary. Throughout the paper, Pastor Nestingen casts nasturtiums at the ELCA for “redefining” the Word of God:

Instead of understanding it in terms of what God does with words, the theologians of the church—with the bishops in tow—have uncritically shifted out of the original Lutheran argument into a scheme in which God’s word depends on its meaning. To no one’s surprise, in this setup the power transfers from the word itself to the interpreters of the word—those who decide what it really means.

But is he not setting up a false dichotomy here? Indeed, the Word of God is not a set of propositions. It is, as Pope Benedict never tires of reminding us, a Person, with a human face. In respect of this truth, the Word of God will always address us directly and personally in such a way to create, shape and control the life of the Church. BUT, one ought to be able to distinguish between the Sacred Text and the encounter with the Word of God that takes place in the event of the proclamation of the Sacred Text. There is a true dynamism at work here.

Nevertheless, if the Sacred Text is to have any application to the lived faith of the Church, it MUST be interpreted before it can be expressed in dogmatic propositions – such as “homosexual acts [are] acts of grave depravity” (CCC §2357). Surely Pastor Nestingen cannot be saying that the interpretation of the Word is unnecessary in the Church? Even if every word of the Sacred Text was crystal clear, the text itself is not expressed in propositions that are immediately transferable into practice.

Thus, SINCE interpretation of the Sacred Text is an unavoidable necessity if the Word of God is to be upheld in teaching and practice of the Church, we cannot avoid asking the question of who is to do the interpretation, what process they are to utilise, and what checks and balances exist for such acts of interpretation.

I am convinced that only those who have the authority to determine the interpretation of the Sacred Text for the Church are in fact entitled to do so, that the process must reflect the Holy Spirit’s own means for conveying God’s Word to the Church, and that the nature of revelation and the deposit of faith must itself provide the “checks and balances” in the process of interpretation.

In essence, this means that only the Bishops in Communion with the Successor of Peter may exercise the right and duty to interpret the Sacred Text for the Church (since they are the successors of the ones to whom Christ gave the authority to speak in his name), that popular voting is excluded (since God’s Word does not originate in the minds and hearts of believers), and that Sacred Tradition itself is the best “check and balance” for all interpretation since it is via Sacred Tradition that the Sacred Text has been preserved and handed down to us.

Therefore, I long ago threw in my lot with the Catholics on this matter. The guarantee of our Lord Jesus and of the Holy Spirit that we will be “led into all truth” and that, built upon the Rock of the teaching of the Successor of St Peter, “the Gates of Hell will never prevail against the Church”, is more than enough for me. The Catholic Church has never erred in the interpretation and teaching of the Word of God ever in all of history. Even Pastor Nestingen concedes that she has stood firm time and time again on controverted issues that continually divide the Protestant Churches.

“Quo Vadis?”, faithful ELCA Christian? The answer is very near you.

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16 Responses to The Word and Its Interpreters

  1. “Thus, SINCE interpretation of the Sacred Text is an unavoidable necessity if the Word of God is to be upheld in teaching and practice of the Church, we cannot avoid asking the question of who is to do the interpretation, and what checks and balances exist for such acts of interpretation.”

    Precisely again, Mr. Schütz. Mr. Nestingen says that

    “To no one’s surprise, in this setup the power transfers from the word itself to the interpreters of the word—those who decide what it really means.”

    But the Bible is, as Prof. Amerio notes simply but profoundly in Iota Unum, a difficult book, and so a fairly sophisticated level of interpretation is required in order to comprehend it; some “power” of interpretation–whether exercised by individuals or by an overarching authority–is required one way or another, and it would be delusional for any given Protestant sect to think otherwise. Given this, which structure for interpretation is going to keep the Church unified in the one, true Faith: the “power” vested in an authoritative office for interpretation, or the “power” vested in each individual believer? Logic proves how unworkable the latter is, and history confirms it.

    P.S. What is Mr. Nestingen referring to when he says that

    “Old Erasmus, his most sophisticated opponent, tried this on Luther and got the drubbing of his life.”


    • Schütz says:

      Sorry, Cardinal, I forgot to reply to your last question. I think it was a reference to Luther’s “Bondage of the Will”, which was a reply to Erasmus’ “Freedom of the Will”. I don’t think Erasmus would have regarded it as a “drubbing”.

  2. Kiran says:

    I found myself kinda feeling wierd when I read what he had written about putting interpretive community above the “word” meaning by it the Scriptures, the kind of wierdness when one feels one is being accused of being wrong exactly where one is most sure of oneself, or rather where one is accused of being wrong simply for being who one is. As in, I am inclined to ask “as opposed to…?” I mean, yes, I do sympathize with him because he belongs to a community which is saying that the word of God can mean whatever we want it to mean, but on the other hand, words and books only have meaning within a context. To take it out of that context and say “See? This is what the words say” is to engage in a bizzarre kind of activity. Chesterton says something about this in his conversion story.

    • Schütz says:

      Actually, what he is saying is a little more complicated than that. First you have to understand that in Lutheran circles “Word of God” and “Scripture” are generally taken as being synonymous. (Of course, they recognise that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is the Word of God, but they would not normally think of this in the first instance). So there is some confusion between “Word of God” as God’s Self-Revelation on the one hand and as a sacred text on the other.

      Lutherans rightly remind us of the dynamic power of God’s Word – eg. as in Creation, Prophesy, and Sacramental verba – the “performative” nature of the Word. We would want to endorse this. Of course, as such, “the Word of God” is not about meaning or interpretation – it is simply to be received, encountered, heard, and responded to. It is this “Word of God” that convicts of sin, that works repentance, that comforts sinners, and which brings into being a “new creation”.

      Okay. All that said, I think we should be able to distinguish (I’m not sure of the proper philosophical categories here) “The Word of God” from “The Sacred Text”, without denying that the Sacred Text IS, as a whole and in all its parts, “the Word of God”. The sacred text is what we use to formulate our teaching and practice. It is the text which requires interpretation.

      On top of that, we remember the way in which our bishops are ordained – with the book of the gospels open face down over their heads. Thus the bishops, as interpreters and teachers of the text, are under, not over, the Word.

      But how can we convince our Lutheran brethren and sistern of this? When is the teaching of the Word of God “an interpretation” where we put our own self-imposed meaning onto the text, and when it is simply being a faithful servant of the text and expounding what is truly contained therein?

      Thus, the Word of God needs no interpretation, BUT the sacred text does, and the manner in which the latter is done must always be as a servant of the text not as its master.

      It seems to me that the trick lies in that final part.

  3. Joshua says:

    “Pastor Nestingen casts nasturtiums at the ELCA…”

    I think you mean “casts aspersions” – not in the sense of holy water of course!

  4. Joshua says:

    I have the greatest sympathy for such persons of good will who find themselves in the awful situation of Pr Nestingen – to find that they are abandoned by the church they thought to be firmly founded on rock, but whose foundations are now washed away, being but built on sand.

    I think of an Anglican, who is completely repelled by that sect’s modern madnesses – and on Sundays has nowhere to go; he said he’d just walk up the hill behind his house and sit on a rock.

    I feel especially for those who are “old fashioned Protestants” with no particular Catholic sympathies – since those who could imagine heading for Rome at least have somewhere to go, but these men are lost, sheep without an earthly shepherd they can trust.


    As the other commenters have written, I find the good Pastor’s dichotomy between the plain Word and disingenuous interpretation perhaps a little strained, but I can see it – because I have heard Catholic priests, exegetes and moralists arguing in the same way, airily dismissing as outmoded and implicitly erroneous what the Apostle writes of morals on this, and other issues; and this wink-wink, nudge-nudge dissent is theirs, despite the fact that the Magisterium still forcefully proclaims the truth about morals. It is indeed a problem of elites diverging from the Faith once delivered to the Saints: Gnosticism never dies.

  5. Christine says:

    I am going to pay a short visit here because of the subject matter. I remember Dr. Nestingen well, he is a charming speaker and fascinating theologian who gave several talks at the ELCA parish of which I once was a member.

    I have little sympathy for his current predicament, however. The ELCA has always wanted to have it both ways — by ordaining women and entering into some very widespread ecumenical relationships (which happened long before the last Churchwide Assembly) she has attempted to remain connected to the Protestant mainline and as the same time in adopting much of the liturgical paradigms of Vatican II she had hoped to prove her “catholicity” and enter into full communion with Rome, which has certainly not been furthered by the JDDJ by which Rome and the ECLA meant very different things.

    The ELCA’s current dilemmas were inevitable. Sad, but predictable.

    Should Dr. Nestingen swim the Tiber I think he will be very surprised to learn what he really finds.


    • Schütz says:

      Great to hear from you, Christine! (First PE, then Christine – just like old times!)

      I don’t think Dr Nestingen is headed for Rome. He would need to change his thinking on a lot of things. Rome does not encourage “one issue” conversions, and requires full assent to all her doctrines, as you know. I think Dr Nestingen would concur with this, ie. regarding Rome as an option to meet only the women’s ordination or homosexual issue as a false option. In a sense it is. Rome is not a solution to a problem in Protestantism, it is a solution to Protestantism.

  6. Joshua says:

    FWIW, if I were (per impossibile) to be a Lutheran, I would have no truck with such pandering to the world as seems to be going on in the ELCA – I say pandering advisedly, since Scripture stigmatizes false religion as whoredom and fornication; particularly in this case of daring to bless what God curses in both Testaments.

    But to enlighten this poor Aussie Catholic – what is this WordAlone and Core whatsit business? Are there “more observant” provinces within the ELCA? And when the good Pastor says the LC-MS seems concerned with excluding, while also commenting on that body’s internal worship wars, what is meant?

    Again, FWIW, the LC-MS seems more objectively speaking Lutheran than the ELCA… David, am I right in saying that local Australian Lutherans are somehow in communion with both the LC-MS and the ELCA, in some manner? Please explain!

    • Schütz says:

      I wish I could explain, Josh. I will try, but I might not get it right.

      Word Alone and Core Whatsit are fellowships of “orthodox” Lutherans within the ELCA – a bit like the Australian Confessing Congregations within the Uniting Church. It is a rather uncomfortable and unofficial version of the “two road option” that Rowan Williams has been holding out as a solution for the Anglican Communion.

      The big issues in the LC-MS for the last decade or so has been the rather serious split between the Confessional Lutherans (such as Pastor Paul McCain and including the smaller subdivision of “Evangelical Catholics” such as Pastor Weedon) and the out and out “evangelical-style” Lutherans who have been deeply affected by the Willowcreek/Bill Hybels/Church Growth theology of the US mega churches. Both sides of the divide are very conservative (eg. on matters of morals), but their ecclesiology and theology of worship are wildly divergent. Hence “the worship wars” comment.

      Then as for those with whom the Lutheran Church of Australia is in communion with, the LCA works on a kind of variagated covenant agreement with different levels between full altar and pulpit fellowship down to lesser forms of mutual recognition or partnership for particular purposes. In this regard, while LCA and LC-MS are in close informal relationship, there is no official agreement between the two Churches as far as I know. There certainly is no agreement with the ELCA.

      Another reason why, for me, an important element in Catholicity is communion.

  7. Joshua says:

    Would it then be fair to say that Lutherans, and other Protestants, are de facto more “congregationalist” in their ecclesial polities? – in other words, as Pr Weedon has nicely put it, the Lutheran pastor more accurately equates to Catholic “bishop” than “priest”. I often get this feeling – for Anglican, and, I believe, Lutheran, parishes, have much say in choosing their own clergyfolk, whereas Catholic parishes have none, being sent whomsoever the bishop allots. The idea of a parish or some soviet thereof vetting various candidates seems very foreign to a Catholic, and, I expect, to an Orthodox churchman as well. (Not that it wouldn’t be nice to pick and choose!)

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, you are right, Josh. The equivalence is pastor=bishop. That doesn’t quite make for “congregationalism” any more than the Catholic Church could be accused of “diocesism”, since their pastors are all in communion with one another more or less like Catholic bishops are. More or less.

  8. Joshua says:

    What I was trying to get at, before sidetracking myself, was that it seems the Protestant sees his connexion as much more to his parish than to whatever wider bodies of which it may be part, whereas the Catholic doesn’t – the idea of changing from one denomination to another, let alone of one’s parish doing so, is completely outside the Catholic mindset, yet apparently is congenial to the Protestant – because of the radically different ecclesiologies held by the former and the latter respectively.

    • Schütz says:

      Just as pastor = bishop, so parish = diocese in Lutheran thinking. Although they wouldn’t actually think like that, as few of them really understand what a diocese is (most refer to the “diocese” as a “regional church” rather than a “local church”). Hence they refer to their parishes as “churches”. We of course know that neither Catholic nor Protestant parishes are “true local Churches” in the proper sense.

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