The Great Debate – Inherit the Wind

The debate between Doctors Kloha and Montgomery was truly great in that instead of pretending there are no differences among us those differences were brought into the light of day. However, like the Scopes Monkey Trial in which Clarence Darrow faced off against William Jennings Bryan, I fear that all that we shall inherit from it is the wind. (“Inherit the Wind” is the title of a fictionalized account of that debate.)

If you want to see the two sides of the LCMS in the flesh read Brighton’s commentary on Revelation, Kleinig’s commentary on Leviticus, Lockwood’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, or any of Steinmann’s commentaries. Compare those to Voelz’s commentary on Mark and Just’s commentary on Luke. Kleinig, Brighton, Lockwood, and Steinmann handle the text as Montgomery does; Voelz and Just as Kloha does. Particularly with Voelz you get the feeling you’re reading a cheesemonger’s detailed treatment of Swiss cheese with all the focus on the holes. I do think variants can be helpful in seeing how someone along the way interpreted that text, but I don’t think it is valid to focus a commentary on what the best texts don’t say. In the Reverend Doctor Martin Noland’s opinion, expressed in his initial response to the debate on the Steadfast Lutherans web site, both views are within the bounds of our historic view of Scripture.

Before I forget, let me comment on the great debate Kloha apparently didn’t mean to ignite. Did Mary or Elizabeth say the Magnificat? I can account for how ‘Elizabeth’ became a variant to the much better attested reading ‘Mary’. Before Elizabeth says the true half of the Ava Maria the text says she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Before Zachariah says his wonderful Benedictus, we are also told he was filled with the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t say that specifically about the Mother of our Lord. I’m sure that troubled some. How could Mary, despite bearing the Christ, give us the wonderful Magnificat without a special filling by the Holy Spirit? The similarities between Mary’s New Testament song and Hannah’s Old Testament have long been noted. This testifies that Mary was a student of Holy Scripture. She thought and spoke in its terms.

Buy why do I think The Great Debate will cause us to inherit the wind? As I watched all 3 plus hours, I felt bad for the laymen watching. This will not help them. This will only inject questions into their mind, and the wrong ones. No, I’m not advocating we speak one way before the laity and another before the clergy. I am advocating that we avoid speaking of uncertainties, of the holes in the cheese, instead of the cheese.

You might think that’s what Kloha wanted when he blustered that he came here to talk about the text but he guessed they were there to talk about him. He several times said he just wanted to get back to the text. And he repeatedly pointed us to Chemnitz Examination of the Council of Trent, Volume 1, “Concerning the Sacred Scriptures.” He is handling the text he says in accordance with what Chemnitz wrote. I don’t think so. Chemnitz arguing against a proponent of Trent says, “Therefore he declares that the most precise norm, cannon, or rule of faith is not the Scripture but the judgment of the church” (Examination, I, 45). Doesn’t this have the ring of what Kloha is saying? Rev. Dr. Nolan, in the Brother John Steadfast post referred to above, said that really the only difference between the two was to what degree the internal testimony of the Scriptures was to be used. I disagree: the difference is to what degree subjectivity is to be used.

Agreed, Kloha as a professional exegete is presented with hundreds of texts, but as Montgomery pointed out: many of the variants are spelling of names, the same variant is counted multiple times, and not one variant calls into question an article of faith. Furthermore, any variant that might cause a doctrine to appear to wobble is established in some other section of Scripture. These facts should make us very cautious about giving too much credence to variants and the need to weigh them. Chemnitz quotes Augustine. Remember the context throughout is not about variants but about whether Christ left revelation apart from the written word in the hearts and minds of the apostles which they passed on through tradition. Augustine says, “’…let us not weigh but recognize what has been weighed by the Lord’” (Ibid. 47).

Chemnitz is addressing the papalists appeal to tradition beside or beyond the written Word. It is very interesting how Chemnitz starts with Old Testament and shows how oral tradition was continually corrupted and how God responded with the written Word. Chemnitz shows how God follows that precedent in the New by the Jerusalem Council issuing a written response to corrupted oral tradition.

Read Chemnitz; every place he wrote “unwritten tradition” you can replace it with “textual criticism” the “textual critic” or “being certain of the text.” This exercise exposes the danger Montgomery sees and Kloha not at all. That is, making the text so unreliable only professional exegetes think they can read it and know the truth.

I’m not saying Kloha is the devil, but I think he is censured in this remark by Chemnitz, “Let us consider well how the devil is accustomed to lie in ambush against the purity of the doctrine when he is not able to destroy the Scripture entirely, as he tried to do through Antiochus, according to Macc. 1. He pretends with specious arguments that besides the Scripture also the unwritten traditions are necessary…” (Ibid. 65). Isn’t Kloha saying instead of “the unwritten traditions” “textual criticism” or “the textual critics” are necessary?

I have to admit that even Chemnitz appears to say this: I believe Kloha referred to this Augustine quote in Chemnitz” “’One must resort to the truer models, either of more manuscripts or of the more ancient ones or of the original language from which this was translated into another language’” (Ibid., 204).  To prove his point Chemnitz points to the Septuagint saying, “Thus the apostles used and quoted the then common edition of the Septuagint, because it was at that time in everybody’s hands; but they do not make it authentic against the sources themselves but derived the emphasis and peculiarity of meaning from the sources themselves, if the translators had departed from them in any place…” (Ibid.).

Earlier Chemnitz says that the papalists are trying to make the Lutherans accept errant texts: “Thus we will accept the errors of the translator, the mistakes of the copyists, the additions and mutilations of men as the Word of God, and we shall not be free to believe the pure fountainheads themselves more than the muddy and impure books” (Ibid., 203). Again, and I believe this was another Kloha ‘proof text,’ Chemnitz rails against his opponents: “Truly, this must not be tolerated in the church, that in place of the things which the Holy Spirit wrote in the Hebrew and Greek sources something should be foisted unto us as authentic which has been badly rendered by the translator or altered or mutilated and added by copyists and that in such a way that one may not reject them even after he has examined the sources” (Ibid., 202).

Where are our “sources?” Where are “the pure fountainheads” for us? In my mind, Kloha is muddying them by his manner of textual criticism. In his original published paper, he saw a day when seminary students would be in class getting real time updates to the critical text of the New Testament. Wouldn’t this in effect make each student an establisher of the source, his own pure fountainhead?

Kloha appears to argue the opposite direction of Chemnitz. Chemnitz says, “For it is a far different thing to speak of the New Testament Scripture when only one single epistle of Paul has been published than afterwards when it had been delivered an explained in so many books and epistles” (Ibid., 111). Kloha too says we should speak differently in an era where there are so many texts; however, not with more certainty but less. But such a view doesn’t give due attention to the fact that it is not likely that any more ancient papyri are going to be found and that virtually all the New Testament can be produced from the quotes found in the ancient fathers – the guarders and guarantors of the truth passed on to them.

Let me be distill this as far down as I can. When the Romans found it did little good to make martyrs – think Tertullian’s famous words “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church – they went after the Scriptures. The Scriptures have always been a focal point of attack. The Soviets turned the Bibles Christians sent to the Soviet Union in the 70s into toilet paper and cigarettes. Even after the Enlightenment had vitiated the authority of Scripture by making it appear childish to believe them, still the Bible remains the most printed book in the world. Satan knows that as long as the Word remains neither his kingdom nor captives are secure.

Kloha’s presentation gave the impression that there are so many manuscripts out there and so many undiscovered ones that the text is constantly in need of determining. Your average parish pastor, myself included, would be forever up in the air as to which word is a “thus saith Lord” one and which one is not. Where to you think this leaves the laymen? With the wind, in the wind, windblown, and uncertain. Like sheep without a shepherd.

The fact that it doesn’t seem anyway possible for us to have the ipissima verba [the very words of God Himself] (Mark my words; this is where the whole argument is headed.), is no different than a virgin conceiving, a dead man rising, a blind man seeing, a six-day creation, or a sinner repenting. None of these are possible with man, but with God all things are possible. Show me all the fragments of all the manuscripts in all the world and that will sway me no more than showing me an electron microscope’s empty image of consecrated communion elements; it will sway me no more than showing me a dead man decayed to dust or my own sinfulness.

It does not seem possible that we read the very Words of God in the 21st century English Bible we have because the writing and transmission of the text was so horribly human. But we do. In the same way as sinful Mary birthed the sinless Son of God, in the same way that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ, so all the fullness of divine revelation dwells in a Book passed on by sinful human hands.

I’m reminded of Shyster’s famous soliloquy in Merchant of Venice: If you cut us do we not bleed? He says this to defend that even lowlifes like him are human. I think of it relative to Jesus. If you had just come to believe that He was God incarnate and He cut His hand and bled, your mind would race to “How can that be?” The incredible and thorough humanness of Jesus is what threw Mary and Joseph off and explains how they had the temerity to accuse Him of doing something to them when they lost Him in Luke 2! Jesus was so ordinary. He got colds like the other kids. He got scrapes and bruises like the other kids, so much so Mary and Joseph forgot the words of angels, the visits of shepherds, Simeon’s prophesy, the worship of the wise men and much more.

I’m also reminded of the Negro spiritual: “There are flies on you/ There are flies on me/ But there ain’t no flies on Jesus.” O yes there were and still are on occasions when the Meal of His Body and Blood is being celebrated. And there are flies on His Holy Word. All the things of God can and are attacked from their human side.  “Isn’t this the Son of the Carpenter?” “Don’t we know his mother (wink, wink) and his brothers?” These are the equivalent of asking, “Aren’t their variants in the text?” “Which one is the correct one?” “Don’t we have to keep abreast of every knew discovery, every knew assertion, every new statement about the text to be sure we really have the living and active Word of God?”

No, is the short answer. And the long truth is that we must be ever vigilant of how we regard the human side of the things of God because whatever we think, do, or say about them, we will eventually say about the divine side. It’s Gnosticism to think you can draw a line between the material and spiritual and abuse the one and revere the other. It is scientism to think that unless you can understand divine things with science they aren’t real or divine. As we confess regarding Christ’s Descent into Hell and the Person of Christ. “With our reason and five senses [and that’s all science has] this article cannot be comprehended any more than the preceding one…” (FC, SD, IX, 3).

We must make a distinction between the spirit of this age and the Spirit of genuine Biblical scholarship. You inhale the former and the wind is all you will get. Inhale the latter and you get assertions, and as Luther says, “Take away assertions and you take away Christianity” (LW, 33, 21).

About Rev. Paul R. Harris

Ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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