He distinguishes special books, from this point of view. He says: The main books in which this criterion is fulfilled are the Fourth Gospel, Paul’s Epistles, and I Peter. These are the books in which Christ is dealt with centrally. From there, other books can be judged. And even beyond the Bible, Luther can say very courageous things.
He says, for instance, that Judas and Pilate would be apostolic if they gave the message of Christ, and Paul and John wou1d not if they gave not the message of Christ. He even says that everybody today who had the Spirit as powerfully as the prophets and apostles, could create new Decalogues and another Testament; only because we have not the Spirit in this fullness must we drink from their fountain.
This of course is extremely nominalistic and anti-humanistic. This is emphasizing the Spiritual character of the Bible. It is a creation of the Divine Spirit in those who have written it, but it is not a dictation! From this he was able to give a half-religious, half-historical criticism of the biblical books. It does not mean anything whether the five books of Moses were written by Moses or not. He knew very well that the texts of the prophets were in great disorder. He also knew that the later prophets are dependent on the earlier ones. He also knew that the concrete prophecies of the prophet often proved to be errors. He says that the Book of Esther and the Revelations of John do not really belong to the Scripture; the Fourth Gospel excels the Synoptics in value and power, and James’ Epistle has no evangelical character at all.
Now I would say that although Lutheran Orthodoxy was not able to preserve this great prophetic tradition of Luther one thing was done by his freedom – namely it was possible for Protestantism to do something which no other religion in the whole world was able to do: it could receive the historical treatment of the biblical literature – we call it often with very misleading words “higher” or biblical criticism. It is simply the historical method applied to the holy books of a religion.
Now this is something which is impossible in Catholicism – or at least in a very limited way only possible there. It is impossible in Islam – Prof. Jeffery once told the faculty that every Islamic scholar who would try to do what he did with the text of the Koran, would be in danger; research into the original text of the Koran would imply historical criticism of the present text, and this is impossible in a legalistic religion. So if we are legalists with respect to the Bible, in terms of dictation, we fall back to the stage of religion which we find in Islam, and we have felt nothing of the Protestant freedom which we find in Luther.
Now that is the main thing I wanted to say. There are many other problems. There is one with which you often probably deal when you discuss the relationship of systematic theology to the historical departments, especially to the Old and New Testament departments. There the question is: What has the biblical department to do with the systematic, and vice versa? And I don’t know that this is very often in your minds. Let me say one thing about it. Luther was able to interpret the ordinary text already in his translation, and then in his preaching and writings, generally, in such a way that he did not have to take refuge in a special pneumatic, let us say, or spiritual interpretation besides the philological interpretation. The ideal of a theological seminary – against which the historical departments are sinners as much as the systematic departments, including myself – would be to give biblical interpretations in such a way that the philological exactitude, including all that we call higher criticism, is combined with an existential application of the biblical text to the questions which we have to ask, and which are supposed to be answered in systematic theology. The separation into “experts” is a very unhealthy state of things – where the New Testament man tells me “I cannot discuss this problem with you because I am not an expert,” and I say – -which is always sinful – sometimes to an Old and New Testament colleague, “I cannot say that because I am not an expert in Old or New Testament.” And insofar as we all do it, we rally against the original meaning of Luther’s attempt to remove the allegoric interpretation and to return to a philological interpretation which is at the same time Spiritual.
So you see these problems are very actual ones, even today, and I think here the student body can do a good deal: you can simply not accept that from us, that we are “experts” and not theologians any more – only “experts.” Don’t accept that. Ask the biblical man about the existential meaning of what they give you, and the systematic theologian about the biblical foundation – in the real biblical texts, as they are philologically understood.