Professor Kit Kleinhans, from the ELCA, was one of the guests invited to speak at the LCA Hermeneutics Symposium in the Barossa Valley, October 2011. The following, with permission, is extracted from her presentation. It was published in the Lutheran Theological Journal, May 2012.
It is precisely in the process of interpreting and applying our Lutheran confessional heritage in new contexts that reason and experience play a role, not as external sources sitting in judgement over the Scriptures and the Confessions but as important resources for us in our theological work. Luther himself did not exclude the legitimate use of reason and experience in interpreting the Scriptures. Luther’s appeal at the Diet of Worms in 1521 to ‘scripture or clear reason’ is not an isolated instance but a recurring reference in his writings. Luther does not acknowledge reason as an independent authority equal to the Scriptures. Rather, his point is that Christian teaching need not be found verbatim in the Scriptures but can be arrived at by rational deduction from the Scriptures (homoousios being a case in point). I think this approach is appropriate for the Confessions as well. Reason, while never in and of itself a warrant for doctrine, is useful – even essential – in the interpretation and application of the Scriptures and Confessions in new contexts.
Lutherans will not always agree with each other. Thus one of the core points of the Confessions for the global Lutheran communion is the satis est of Augsburg Confession VII. Except for those times when an issue rises to the level of status confessionis, different interpretations need not signify a loss of our heritage or a rejection or diminution of our commitments to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Rather, new interpretations and applications can be profound embodiments of the Lutheran heritage in new and changing contexts.
‘The law says “Do this,” and it is never done’. For the sinner, this is a word of judgement. Let me suggest that for the church as an institution, as an ‘earthen vessel’, this may be understood as a word of encouragement. The Lutheran church is not finished yet. God is not finished with the Lutheran church yet. As American practical theologian Loren Mean puts it, ‘God is always calling us to be more than we have been’. The question is not “What would Jesus do?’ That we already know from the cross. The question rather is ‘What would Jesus have us do in order that the good news be heard and that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven?’
I close with the words of the hymn writer Fred Pratt Green:
“The church of Christ in ev’ry age, beset by change but Spirit led,
“Must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.
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