On Reformation Sunday in October we will again commemorate the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century that brought renewal to the Medieval Church. And the essential principles for the Protestant Reformation, especially for us Lutherans, are the following:
- WORD alone
- GRACE alone
- FAITH alone
In other words, according to God’s WORD we are saved by God’s GRACE through the free gift of FAITH in Christ by the power of God’s Spirit.
And, as Lutherans (especially ELCA Lutherans), we understand that the WORD of God is discerned through the Bible, confession/tradition and reason/experience. Yes, we affirm that the holy scriptures of the Bible contain the Word of God, but we also affirm that confession/tradition and reason/experience help us discern God’s Living Word within the Bible by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Just like a Big Wheel tricycle, “the big wheel” of our Christian faith has three wheels: 1) the Bible is the large front wheel, 2) confession/tradition is one of the small back wheels, and 3) reason/experience is the other small back wheel.
It is this Big Wheel — Bible, confession/tradition, reason/experience — that guides our Christian faith, spirituality and life of good works. Rather, this is what OUGHT to guide us. But, sadly, this Big Wheel of faith is often dismissed by Fundamentalist Christianity today.
In fact, Fundamentalist Christians insist on a biblical “unicycle” of Christian faith, denying the interconnection of the Bible, confession/tradition, and reason/experience. However, this is both dishonest regarding history and harmful regarding life and practice.
Which came first, the Bible or Church confession/tradition? This is a trick question, because these two things are intimately connected. The tradition of the Church led to the writing, re-writing and compiling of the Bible; and, at the same time, the Bible shaped the Church.
What about the value of reason and experience? Shouldn’t scientific discovery and real world experience factor into our understanding of things, including ultimate issues of faith and spirituality? I say yes, but the Bible is still the big front wheel on this Big Wheel of Christian faith, because “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Basically, there are two ways of understanding the Bible: the unicycle way and the Big Wheel way. And these two approaches to the Bible have been defined in the following two ways:
The Bible as Sacred Cow: The Bible is INSPIRED (God breathed), INFALLIBLE (does not fail in matters of salvation) and INERRANT (without historical, scientific and theological contradictions or errors); and all the various passages of the Bible are equally authoritative.
The Bible as Living Source of Principles, Identity and Dialogue: The Bible is INSPIRED and INFALLIBLE, but it is NOT inerrant regarding historical, scientific and theological contradictions or errors; and all the various passages of the Bible are not equally authoritative. Some passages are more authoritative than others insofar as they reveal the way of Christ. In addition, the authority and infallibility of the Bible does not necessarily rest in the Bible’s specific instructions but in its overarching trajectories, themes, values and ideals. This understanding utilizes an historical approach to understanding the Bible. It recognizes that the Bible contains many archaic cultural particularities that, if understood in their historical context, help reveal God’s Word for us today. The Bible is also the primary source of Christian identity and the primary resource for the dialogue between God and Church and world. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Christian community engages in a dialogue with God and the world using the categories and images of the Bible as a way of framing and articulating this ongoing dialogue. Through this process, the Church discerns the Bible’s meaning and application for the Church’s faith, ethics and life, taking into account the biblical text, science, reason, experience and tradition.
This is why we have Bible scholars. They are the experts who study the ancient manuscripts in the original languages and study the archeology, so that they can give us the best information possible to ride our great Big Wheel of faith. This is also why we have Bible study groups for the purpose of communal discussion and discernment regarding God’s Living Word for us and our world. And this is why we have regional, national and global Church assemblies where the Church democratically discerns God’s Living Word concerning various issues of our day and age.
But this Big Wheel understanding of the Bible is really nothing new. Martin Luther, the first Protestant reformer and the founder of the Lutheran branch of Christianity, likened the Bible to the manger of Christ. The manger was “human.” If it were made of stone, no doubt there were some chips and cracks. If it were made of wood, no doubt some boards were crooked and some nails were bent. And, in either case, no doubt there was some straw in it. Nevertheless, it held the Living Word for us and our world. The Bible, likewise, is “human.” Yet it is also “divine” because the Bible holds the Living Christ who lives as God’s Holy Word as the scriptures are read and proclaimed.
Or, one could say that the Bible is like a gold mine. It has worthless dirt and rock in it, but it also has those veins of pure gold within it — the pure gold of God’s all-inclusive truth, all-pervading grace and all-encompassing love.
Through the Bible, the Holy Spirit opens us up to receive and trust in God’s Living Word, and illusions are shattered, old ways are rejected, new life is born, enemies are reconciled, and a family of God’s disciples is created (from “Baptized We Live” by Dan Erlander).
As we ride the Big Wheel of Christian faith — Bible, confession/tradition, and reason/experience — we see that the main thing is the Living Word of Love…
- “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10)
- “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (2 Corinthians 13:13)
- “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16)
- “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 john 4:16b)
As we give thanks on Reformation Sunday for the events of the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation that brought renewal to the Medieval Church, may the Holy Spirit continue to reform the Church today according to the Living Universal Word of Love revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.