By Paul Koch –
I’m writing this in my hotel room in Palm Springs on the concluding day of our annual pastors’ conference for our district of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Now, pastors’ conferences can often be quite the grab bag of competing experiences—of fun, disappointment, encouragement, depression, laughs, and silent tears. It is a place where I get to gather with my brothers in the ministry to speak openly and honestly about the task set before us. This can be refreshing and uplifting on the one hand and upsetting and discouraging on the other. To be sure, there are difficulties facing the Church on which we need to have open and honest reflection. So, the tone of the thing (like the tone of this opening paragraph) can fluctuate between confidence and fear, joy and discouragement.
This year, the planners of our conference invited some outstanding presenters to highlight the spirit of the Reformation through our church body and into our current cultural milieu. And the first paper, given by Dr. Jeff Kloha, was an example of the best type of presentation at a gathering like this. It was challenging, inspiring and more than a little convicting, causing a healthy level of reflection on my part.
In exploring the role of Sola Scriptura in the gathering of God’s people, he challenged us to reflect on the role of Scripture and how it is used and misused in our congregations. And then he made a bold assertion standing in front of a group of pastors. In part, he suggested that the weakest link in the engagement of the Holy Scriptures was the reader/preacher of the text. In other words, it was perhaps the pastor that was the problem. The pastor of the congregation as the main reader and preacher of the Word of God for a given congregation was often most responsible for moving the Word out of its proper and dominate position in the church.
We went on to have a lively conversation about what we might call one’s posture when coming to the Word. Pastors often come individually, alone, to a text. They come equipped with theological presuppositions and hermeneutical strategies. They come with a sense of assurance that they will get this right by applying their tools to dissect and mine out the truth. However, the testimony of the Scriptures themselves speaks very differently about the skills and abilities of man. In fact, it would be better to assume that we are going to get this wrong. There should be a great amount of humility that defines our posture, a humility that calls us into community with the Church as we are consumed by this divine address of the living God.
The Word of God stands over and outside of our control. In my early days of studying theology, we talked a lot about the confessions of the Church being norma normata (the normed norm) and the Word of God as the norma normans (the norming norm). The text of Holy Scripture is the normative force in the life of the Church. It is not a tool used to achieve our goals; it is the source and cause of life, fellowship, and confession. This means that the Word of God is normative even for the preacher as he then is called to perform that text for the faithful who have been gathered by that very Word, not to be the great interpreter of the text or to stand over the text but to do the text to the hearers, to kill and bring forth life.
I think Luther’s final recorded words highlight this posture before the normative Word of God. He is quoted as saying “We are all beggars. This is true.” Perhaps this might suffice as a good image of what it means to confess and practice Sola Scriptura. In our weakness, we come only and always as beggars before his Word.
I’ve always loved Luther’s famous sacristy prayer, which I still pray every Sunday morning before I leave my study to preach the Word. The third section finds the preacher saying the following:
Then if Thou art pleased to accomplish anything through me, to Thy glory and not to mine or to the praise of men, grant me, out of Thy pure grace and mercy a right understanding of Thy Word and that I may also diligently perform it.
To confess that we just might be the weakest link in the use and control of the Word of God perhaps frees us to happily engage the role of a performer of the Word instead. For to be weak in Christ, to be but a performer, is to confess Sola Scriptura. In fact, even our performance is not our own. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
And so through the weakest link we have the greatest strength.