Robert Benne, one of the ELCA opponents of homosexuality, reflects on the ELCA assembly for Christianity Today: “How the ELCA Left the Great Tradition.”
But Benne doesn’t see that his own views on Scripture are part of the problem. All ELCA theologians embrace the historical-critical method. Scripture is, in this view, at best, a human document recording human experience of the divine.
Consider this from Carl Braaten, from Christian Dogmatics (co-edited with Robert Jenson), the systematic text used in ELCA seminaries:
…Biblicism holds to an infallible Bible that can be the absolute authority in matters of belief and morals. The ancient doctrine of verbal inspiration survives. In some Christian groups the theory of inspiration is used to vouch for the absolute reliability of the Bible on all matters that relate to cosmology, biology, geography, chronology, and history. The Bible is used as a bulwark against the evolutionary hypothesis of modern natural science. …
Fundamentalist biblicism is rejected by most theologians and is out of favor in most of the seminaries that train clergy for the parish ministry. They reject biblicism not merely because historical science has disclosed errors and contradictions in the biblical writings, but rather because the authority of the Bible is elevated at the expense of the authority of Christ and his gospel. Non-fundamentalist Protestants also accept the Bible as the Word of God in some sense, but they point out that the concept of the Word of God, as Barth made clear, cannot be confined to the Bible. We cannot say that the Bible is the Word of God in a simplistic way ….
The uniqueness, the authority, and the value of the Bible, therefore, continue to be central for contemporary theological work. By means of Scripture, Christ is pictured and proclaimed as God’s message and answer to the human predicament. Subsidiary to this central idea, the Bible is also treated as a collection of ancient documents which give us information about the history of Israel and the beginnings of Christianity. The Bible is also appreciated as a library of great literature …. The Bible is also a source document for the imaginative construction of church doctrines …. The Bible is also a devotional book full of inspiring passages to cultivate the religious life. But beyond all these viewpoints, the Bible is the unique book of the church because of its original and intrinsic connection with the history of the promises of God and its astonishing climax in the career of Jesus the Christ. (I:74-76)
So even those in the ELCA who oppose homosexuality mock “the theory of inspiration,” and treat the Bible as a human document to be interpreted in light of something else. Braaten says that something else is the gospel. That’s what those in favor of homosexuality say. That’s what led them to say the forgiving, accepting Jesus, would not turn any away. The Bible has been stripped of any claim to divine inspiration, and is reduced, in Marcionite fashion, to a proclamation of Gospel, not Law.
In this situation where the Bible has no divine authority as Law, for either party, it is not surprising that Benne says,
Sola Scriptura, a Lutheran principle adopted by evangelicals, did not seem to be sufficient in such circumstances. An authoritative tradition of interpretation of the Bible seemed to be essential. More was needed than the Bible alone.
Sola Scriptura only works when Scripture is accepted as God’s authoritative self-communication. When it is reduced to merely another human voice in the conversation, it’s not surprising that Benne must appeal to a human referee.
It is disingenuous for Benne to say, “The ELCA has formally left the Great Tradition for liberal Protestantism.” The ELCA has been a part of liberal Protestantism since it was founded in 1988. It was formed of three liberal Protestant denominations, the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches–and this latter group had its origin in a battle within the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod over Biblical inspiration. The liberals were driven out from the LCMS seminaries to form their own “Seminary in Exile” (Seminex). This was the seedbed from which the ELCA grew.
The solution to the questions of how Christians should address issues of morality and theology is not to turn from one human authority to another; it is to embrace Scripture as the inspired Word of God. It is to affirm what Paul told Timothy:
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Our refuge is in Christ, who has revealed his will to men in this book. It is our firm foundation.
God’s Word is our great heritage
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant while words endure,
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations.
To abandon it, or to treat it as just some other human book, to turn to either the authority of the individual or the authority of an individual, is to build on sand. That was the foundation of the ELCA from the very beginning.