Lutheranism 101

Session Two: Authority and Accountability

How Do We Know?

“Epistemology” is the issue of how we know. While we can know something about God from Creation and introspection and even reason – something of the “image of God” remains after the Fall – it’s not much! Fortunately, God has kept in touch! In ancient times, He would literally speak to leaders (such as Abraham or Moses) or through Prophets (such as Isaiah or Micah) but He also has spoken to us in enduring ways via writing – the first example of Scripture being the Ten Commandments written by God on two tablets of stone, which immediately became the Rule (“straight edge”) or Canon (measuring stick) for morality. This is how we know about God – right from God, whom we affirm as the Author of Scripture.

We believe that the written word is God’s very word to us (1 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Corinthians 2:13, 2 Peter 1:21). God used various penmen as His instruments (some known, most not) – and seemed to have often used their personalities and such in the process, but the final result, we believe, is His. We thus believe that Scripture is reliable and dependable in its purpose, embracing it as indeed “inerrant” (John 17:17, John 10:35). We use it to learn about God, His promises and counsel, and to provide a “rule” for Christian teachings and claims. And we believe that God’s Scripture is “authoritative” because of its Author, whom we believe is God.

What is the Bible?

The word literally means “books” or “library” and it is the collection of all the books regarded as God’s holy written word – God’s Scriptures. It contains 66 books in two main sections: 39 in the Old Testament (all before Christ, written roughly 1400-400 BC) and 27 in the New Testament (all after Christ, written roughly 45 – 90 AD).

Of course, these books were written over 1500 years and by dozens of different authors! Their collection together, their recognition as God’s Scriptures, was a process we believe was guided by God.

Orthodox and Catholics have a larger official Bible. The additional books are controversial Old Testament books around which there has never been a historic and ecumenical consensus. These extra controversial books are known as Deuterocanonical or the Apocrypha. It’s mostly a irrelevant issue of little significance (thus of not much debate) since virtually nothing in them has ever been of any consequence or importance – and thus little attention has been given to them and whether they are or are not God’s Scripture. The Oriental Orthodox have more of them than the Eastern Orthodox, which, in turn, has more than the Roman Catholic Church. Luther included the Catholic’s “set” in his German translation (and Lutheran tomes continued this practice well into the 20th Century), but generally Lutherans (like all Protestants) don’t regard them equally with the 66 books that have the universal and historic embrace of all Christians. Technically, Lutherans neither affirm OR reject them (we have no formal stance on them at all – leaving them in the “disputed” category). Lutherans don’t read from them in the Sunday Readings and rarely quote them in sermons. Since none of the “sets” of them contains anything of consequence, it’s just not much of an issue.

The Old Testament was originally written primarily in Hebrew and the New Testament in koine Greek. Scholars and pastors study them in those originals, but since most Christians are not trained in those ancient languages, translations (versions) are needed. These became popular after the printing press (15th Century) made books far more accessible. The King James was an English ecumenical translation from the 17th Century that served well for centuries, but in the 20th Century, many other translations became available. Most are reliable enough for general reading. The English Standard Version is often used today in Lutheran congregations in the USA. “The Lutheran Study Bible” (Concordia Publishing House) contains the ESV and very excellent notes and resources.

Using the Bible

The Bible (which is a collection or type of library of Scripture) contains two sections, the Old and New Testament (before and after Jesus). The Old Testament contains 39 books, the New Testament 27 books. Each book has a title and has been divided into chapters and verses to make it easier to study (all supplied by us). A verse might be written as Mark 4:38. Mark is the book (the second book of the New Testament), 4 is the chapter and 38 is the verse.

Roughly speaking, the Old Testament is organized as: History (Genesis – Esther), Wisdom Sayings (Job – Song of Songs), Major Prophets (Isaiah – Daniel) and the Minor Prophets (Hosea – Malachi).

The New Testament is organized as: Life and Teachings of Jesus (Matthew – John, the first three called “synoptic”), History (Acts), Letters of Paul (Romans – Philemon, going from longer to shorter), General Letters (Hebrews – Revelation).

Sola Scriptura

The words mean “Scripture Alone” and it affirms that God’s written word is the final “Rule” (straight edge) or “Canon” (measuring stick) for the evaluation of Christian teachings (especially doctrines). It affirms that God’s words are above our words, that our teachings are accountable to God’s teachings (and not the other way around). The practice goes all the way back to the first Scriptures as Moses directed the people’s attention to the supreme Authority of the Ten Commandments of God. Jesus used the Rule of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) some 50 times during His ministry, as just recorded in the Bible (no doubt there where MANY examples not so recorded),

Lutherans reject that a teacher or denomination may self-claim to be the sole authority or to functionally be above God and His written word. We reject that any teacher among us is unaccountable and “above” examination. This idea that the teacher or institution is unaccountable and that it itself is the final Authority is known as “Sola Eccelsia” and is embraced by Catholics and Mormons and to a lesser extent by Orthodox Christians. This is one of the key differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism.


Of course, God’s written words usually need to be interpreted and applied! There may be honest disagreements about that. Lutherans would STRESS that the actual words of the text must be supreme and the norm, and usually that resolves much. We’d also stress the context of the verse – both immediate (the chapter, for example) and greater (the whole of Scripture). This concept of embracing context is sometimes referred to as “Scripture interpreting Scripture” (“clarifying” might be a more accurate verb there). But again, valid differences of interpretation might be possible.

“Tradition” (big “T”) refers to the historic, ecumenical, universal consensus of God’s people, especially in terms of interpretation of Scripture. In nearly all the important areas, Christians struggled with these verses and issues – intensely and prayerfully looking at the Scriptures, debating and discussing and praying and studying, often for centuries – and eventually, a consensus developed that was textual and ecumenical. Lutherans take this very seriously. Lutherans see no reason to “reinvent the wheel” in every generation as if no one has thought or studied about these things before (the Bible is 3400-1900 years old!). We respectfully embrace the “wisdom of the past.” We call this Tradition. It is of great importance in finding the best interpretation.

However, Lutherans consider such “Tradition” as under Scripture and not equal to or above it. Catholics consider the Tradition of The Catholic Church (as opposed to ecumenical tradition) as at least equal in Authority and normative function with God’s Scripture, but Lutherans place ecumenical consensus just a notch below that. This consensus or Tradition – however wise – is OUR “stuff” and not equal to God’s Scripture anymore than we are equal to God. Our interpretation and application is not equal with the text itself, we believe. Lutherans tend to embrace Tradition more than other Protestants but less than Catholics. Lutherans study the Church Fathers and Christian history, we look to the true Ecumenical Councils and we regard highly the greats of our past – we just don’t consider them as equal to or above God and God’s writings.

Luther is credited with saying, “We must be bold where God’s Scripture is bold and silent where God’s Scripture is silent.” The second is just as important as the first. Lutherans approach Scripture with firm embrace but with awe and humility. We are comfortable with tensions and balances and admitting that we just don’t have all the answers. Lutherans call this “mystery” and note that we are called to be “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Lutherans are fond of insisting, “God gets the last word.” While Catholics are more eager to apply Tradition and human philosophy, and whereas some other Protestants are more eager to apply human logic or reason, Lutherans are more comfortable with just embracing the mystery and leaving it as Scripture leaves it.