Luther’s Tools

Word/Scripture: How does it all work? Below Luther’s tools are used to take on the trap set for Lutherans by CCM and to show the strength of his tools for the 21st century:

The trap set for us.

We must remember that in reaction to the authority of the pope, the natural move is to set up a paper pope, as happened after the Reformation. Failing in that, we continually attempt to find some middle point between the pope in Rome and the paper pope. But this is a mistaken project. What is freeing about our Lutheran understanding of sola scriptura is that it is part of a larger discussion about the Word – as 1) Christ himself, 2) as the proclaimed word about Christ, and 3) as the written word about Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2). This does not throw us to the historical-critical wolves, and it also does not catch us in the trap set for us by CCM ¶8, which tries to use the ancient triad of development – canon, creed, and church office – as “high” levels of guarantee, and then dares us to escape the dilemma of avoiding the third (church office) while keeping the first two (canon & creed).

Broken safeguards.

The Apostles’ Creed’s “He descended into hell” is a 4th century development which can hardly be said to be scriptural (not in 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6 – see Selwyn’s commentary) or necessary to the gospel. The canon of scripture has a very complicated history, and Luther did not put Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation in a separate section after the other 23 books in his translation of the New Testament simply in a fit of temper. The development of church office – which no scholars think today can be simply derived from the New Testament – is such a convoluted and differentiated process that those in the know do not pretend that there is a unified tradition. (Even Catholics agree – see L/RC dialogue, 4:40.)

Final authority.

Then what in the world do Lutherans do? We say: “Was Christum treibet” – What drives Christ. Christ is the center and around this center, like a crown, are the traditional solas: solo Verbo, sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, and sola cruce. These are propia or slogans, but not principles – a misleading kind of approach to what we are doing. They all relate intrinsically to the dynamic of law and gospel. What we find in scripture is that which shows us the law, our need of the Savior, and the gospel, the Savior we need. It is in the use (usus) that this has final authority. (See “Forde on Assertions” on our website,

(But how do I know the promises are true? My duty as proclaimer is to proclaim to you that your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. And when you say to me, but how do you know that is true, my duty is to proclaim to you again, your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Because your (and my) problem is sin. And questioning the promise saving me is the basic sin. I don’t want to be a sinner or have a Lord.)

As AC 5 says, “Through these as through means he gives the Holy Spirit who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the gospel.” In another way this is what Paul is saying in 1 Cor. 1: 17, 21. “… by the folly of what we preach ….”

The solas as heresies.

Of course we hold to sola scriptura as that part of the dynamic of law and gospel; all the solas work together to proclaim Christ alone. Isolated from each other they are heresies: Faith alone by itself is heresy – fideism. Grace alone is heresy – Hinduism. Cross alone is heresy – tragedy. Scripture alone is heresy – Biblicism. But together they all serve to point through each other to Christ alone who is the Word alone.

Sola scriptura settles nothing.

Of course this is a kind of canon within the canon, but everyone has “a canon within the canon.” Sometimes this is called the whole counsel of God, sometimes it is called the kerygma; sometimes Was Christum treibet. But nobody operates on the basis of sola scriptura as such. Attempts to do this result in the widespread fragmentation found in the Evangelical movement as far as what scripture means. Sola scriptura does not settle anything.

We have to ask always “what is our starting point?” when we confess, as Luther again and again wrote: “The cross alone is our theology.” He of course included with that the other solas. He wrote eloquently about the clarity of scripture – a light that enlightens everything. But he also spoke eloquently about the obscurity of scripture – that which shows us the darkness in which we exist, the scandal of the cross as the way of salvation. Scripture he said is both obscure and clear – law and gospel. All of this is spelled out eloquently by our Lutheran team in Volume 9 of the Lutheran/Catholic dialogue. The team includes the whole spectrum from Missouri to historical-critical scholars.

Avoid the traps.

We know we don’t want to fall into the trap of CCM 5: Bishops are “necessary… to safeguard… apostolicity,” but we also don’t want to fall into the trap of a theory of inspiration safeguarding the gospel. While scripture speaks of inspiration it does not have a theory of inspiration (unless you want 2 Kings 3:15). Up to the time of the crisis of Montanism (140 AD) the early church understood every Christian to be inspired in the same way. (See “Kalin on Inspiration” on our website,

We also do not want to fall into the trap of assuming that our own feelings and “insights” are necessarily given by the Holy Spirit whenever we are reading scripture. When Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3 about the letter and the Spirit, he is really describing what we call the dynamic of law and gospel.