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A Reader in
Second Edition

Concordia Seminary, now in Exile
St. Louis, Missouri
Advent, A. D. 1974



(CTCR Publication, 1969 )



(The projected study on this subject will run to five or six chapters,
more than half of which are already completed. What follows is not a
chapter-by-chapter outline but only a highlighting of some of the
study’s findings so far.)


The Fourth Article of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession may yield
help for Biblical interpretation today. But it can do so only when we
heed how that article’s own Biblical interpretings stick to the specific
theological issue at hand, justification solely by faith, or to put the issue
as a question: How to “commend works without losing the promise.” In other
words, it is not enough to look merely for the general literary procedures in
Melanchthon’s exegesis (like his interpreting passages in their own context or
according to their grammatical-historical meaning) , which for the most part
were by then the common stock of northern European humanism and by now have
virtually become truisms. But justification entirely by faith, together with
what this means for interpreting Scripture, was at that time hardly a truism.
Nor is it now. But that already has hermeneutical significance. For then it is
impossible to ask how Scripture is to be interpreted without constantly asking
how men are to be saved. Biblical hermeneutics is at no point separable from
Biblical soteriology.

The hermeneutical situation of Apology IV contains not just the two components
of a Bible and an interpreter but at least a third component as well: the
interpreter’s critics -in this case the Roman Confutatores. Yet in concrete fact
isn’t that the hermeneutical situation still today? The interpreter’s task is to
cope not only with the text but with the text in the face of his own contemporary
“accusers” (adversarii), who accuse on the basis of a contrary Biblical
interpretation of their own. It is noteworthy that in the case of Apology IV the
opposition was coming from the theological “right,” and the Reformers were here
being accused of innovating and of betraying the heritage of the past- worst of
all, the Scriptures. At other times during the Reformation the opposition came
from the theological “left. ” But even then the opponents were no less
Scripture-quoting than the Roman Confutatores were.

But why did a Biblical interpreter like Melanchthon have to take his opponents
so seriously as all that? Why not simply ignore them? Why dignify their criticism
as if it were itself an essential ingredient in his own exegesis? Answer: Because
these critics, for one thing, had had a great deal to do with formulating the
question before the house, defining the very issue. True, one of Melanchthon’s
monumental achievements in Apology IV is the way he succeeds finally in
reformulating the question. Here too is a moral for hermeneutics today: Embattled
as the Biblical interpreter may be, he need not supinely accept the question in
the legalistic form his critics put it to him but may instead have to restate it
until it becomes a question directly about the Gospel. What this demands of the
interpreter, however, is that he must then interpret not only Scripture but his
opponents as well – or rather reinterpret them- so as to avoid having his
Biblical exegesis dragged down to the subevangelical level of their question.

For Melanchthon, however, there was still another reason for taking his critics
seriously: Their criticism had quoted in its own support very formidable evidence
from Scripture. This Biblical counter-evidence he could scarcely ignore. On the
contrary he subjects it to a most careful cross-examination. His intention is to
get down to the bottom, to the “sources” {fontes} of his opponents’ objections.
And these sources of theirs were at least in large part Biblical. In the course
of this source analysis Melanchthon does isolate also a non-Biblical source, the
critics’ opinio legis. But even that non-Biblical factor of theirs seems to get
some encouragement from Scripture, at least from that motif in Scripture which
Melanchthon classifies as lex. Though their opinio is merely that; an exaggerated
opinion, still what it is an exaggeration of is thoroughly Biblical, the Biblical
lex. They have elevated to a saving truth what, though it is not saving. is
still truth. And the lex motif in Scripture does on the face of it seem to
contradict the evangelical motif, the “promises.” That the promises are ours
entirely by our faith and independently of our “works of the Law,” Scripture does
at times seem to deny. Question: Could it be then that there is “bad” Scripture
which drives out “good” Scripture? This delicate question, which the Confessors
boldly faced ( and faced it when even their own critics had not dared to do so)
dare not be faced any less boldly by the Biblical interpreter today.

Although Melanchthon finally answers this question- this question of Scripture
versus Scripture- with a no, his answer is by no means automatic. One of the most
treacherously difficult operations he first has to perform is to distinguish the
lex motif in Scripture from its promissio motif- a distinction his critics saw
no need to make, preferring as they did to regard Scripture as a self-evident
unity. And what makes Melanchthon’s distinguishings more difficult than ever is
that as a matter of fact large and important sections of Biblical literature-
for example, passages about repentance or about rewards- do indeed combine both
lex and promissio into a most intricate togetherness. The critics saw no need to
put asunder what God had joined together.

But neither of course was that Melanchthon’s intention. The trouble was that
the togetherness which the critics saw in Scripture was not the togetherness
which is really there. They misjoined lex and promissio unbiblically because of
that “source” (admittedly Biblical) from which they had taken their start and to
which they had erroneously given priority: the lex. But you cannot start from
just anywhere in Scripture, no matter how true and divine that may be. Unless you
start from Scripture’s promissio, you wind up with a legalistic mishmash which is
neither promissio nor lex.

This is why Melanchthon first had to distinguish these two motifs, the legal
and the promissory, in order ultimately to relate them back together the way they
belong: internally at odds with one another yet able to coexist effectively in
one and the same passage, really in one and the same sinner- provided that sinner
takes Christ’s victory over the law sola fide, entirely on faith. Only in Christ
is the Law given its full Biblical due and yet reduced to its Biblical position
of subdominance. And the only way to “have” this Biblical Christ- and hence to
keep both promise and Law intact in their Biblical togetherness- is by faith, not
first by actualizing Him in faith’s works. That, that and no other doctrine of
Scripture’s wholeness (not even the doctrine of its whole inspiredness, which of
course Melanchthon’s critics likewise believed) is the secret of Scripture’s
deepest diversity and its ultimate unity. Could anything be more significant
hermeneutically than that?

To have the promised Christ altogether by faith is the only way to “use” Him
for what He historically was and is: the coming true of sheer merciful promise.
Any other way than the sola fide is to render Him and His whole history
“unnecessary.” For what else was that whole long Biblical history, both fore and
aft, but the history of God’s promissio- not only His revealing of it but His
making the promise and keeping it, historically- the historic judgments of His
lex to the contrary notwithstanding? Throughout that Biblical history, as in
human experience generally, promises are made to be trusted. Not only does faith
need the promise, but as Melanchthon adds, the promise also needs faith. This is
the only way to benefit from a promise at all and still honor it as the promise
it is: by trusting the promissor’s own goodness, especially when he is known to
have no illusions about ours. To try Instead to insure his promise by realizing
it on our own is to make his promise needless.

Melanchthon’s reply to his Roman accusers is that by obscuring the sola fide
they have let Biblical history (which is nothing if it is not promissory) simply
go to waste. In that case it might just as well not have happened. Then Christ
has died in vain, and there is no “need” of Him. Here we might interject: Could
it be that some exegetes today (including those who speak most glowingly about
“faith”) require only a minimalist Biblical history because, with a kind of
subconscious and perverse honesty, they are living out Melanchthon’s warning?
Having lost the promissory secret of Biblical history (which for Melanchthon was
the one reason faith “needs” that history) , perhaps they have now done the only
consistent thing of discounting that history. How ironic that would be! .

Melanchthon’s solution, on the other hand, is not merely to insist ,that all
Biblical history did in fact take place. That much the Roman Confutatores would
also have insisted, and still he claimed that for them the history’s happening
was really quite pointless. No, his solution was rather to recover within that
history its basic “need” of having happened at all: Jesus Christ, God s promise
kept, who is ours only by faith. Melanchthon’s sort of interpreter- and Luther
was only one of his models, the Biblical writers themselves having set the pace-
realigns the Biblical record again and again with what was really going on there:
God subduing His lex with His promissio, so that good works could freely be
commanded and “commended without losing the promise.”

If here and there in the Biblical record the accent on promissio had been
“omitted”- conspicuously by the Confutatores and sometimes seemingly at least by
the Biblical writers themselves- then that accent needed now to be “added” by the
faithful interpreter. Still that “adding” was not a case of making Biblical
history over into something it was not, into some allegorizing re-creation by the
interpreter’s own pious imagination. It was simply a case of having no good
evangelical reason for saying that a Biblical event happened until it was clear
first of all what it was that happened. And those Biblical passages which were
the most “clear” passages of all, and hence the clearest clues to what God was
doing throughout, were those which announced that He was justifying the ungodly
by faith alone- as He does still.