Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sign Language

So far in my "hermeneutics" thread, I haven't said much that will surprise anyone who has studied hermeneutics in a Lutheran seminary. But after accumulating 7 principles of biblical inspiration, I find myself at the point where I can propose something - well, if not new, at least off the well-worn trail on which Protestant hermeneutics run. I will try to make it brief, so that you have ample time to gasp in awe afterward. (Ha, ha.)

In my ramblings through doctrinaire, Protestant blogs and online essays, I have repeatedly run into the same poisonous assessment of Luther's theology, particularly where it comes to the Sacraments. The general gist of it is: God says our salvation requires nothing but faith. Luther says Baptism and the Lord's Supper are necessary. Therefore Luther is an evil, antichristian heretic whose teaching contradicts the sola fide (faith alone).

Such a persistent and serious charge - false charge that it is - could be compared to a political problem that cannot be solved by having Congress pass a law; it actually calls for a constitutional amendment. This case can be traced to a basic issue of biblical hermeneutics. So, in my opinion, it demands an answer that can be regarded as a key principle of Bible interpretation.

Let's start with my friend, now a pastor, who came to the Christian faith by reading the Bible. Even he would admit that this is an extremely unusual route from unbelief to belief. In spite of what the Gideons tell you when they make their fundraising spiel, Bible reading alone does not win many souls for Christ. In fact, setting aside statistics on books disappearing out of hotel dressers every year (which do not translate into conversion statistics), and blather about "decisions for Christ" (which some people go through 3 or 4 times a decade), the impact of the printed word of Scripture by itself appears to be negligible.

So we can readily see how important the issue of "biblical interpretation" is. Before the written Word of God reaches most people's hearts, it goes through some type of interpretation. Perhaps it becomes an evangelical tract; perhaps a sermon; perhaps an instruction class; perhaps a discussion around a kitchen table with a Bible open on top. People are constantly being led, and often misled, by somebody's Bible interpretation.

To the extent that these tracts, sermons, lessons, and Bible chats faithfully represent the teaching of Scripture - analogy of faith, context, sedes doctrinae, and all - they are not just the word of an individual Christian; they are God's Word. Before you jump on that statement, take note of the words "to the extent that." As interpretations of Scripture, they are subject to being judged by Scripture. If they contain anything new or troubling, a vigilant Christian will check them against Scripture (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1). If the teacher/preacher/songleader turns out to be a bad interpreter of Scripture, he should be corrected and/or dumped (2 Timothy 2:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).

My point, before you forced me on the defensive, was that God's Word isn't permanently stuck to the pages of the Bible. It gets up and moves around. The writer of a religious essay processes the biblical revelation and publishes it in a new form. The preacher, evangelist, or catechist ponders it and proclaims it, applying it to the situation, background, and comprehension-level of his hearers. If the interpreter has been faithful, then what strikes the reader's eye or the hearer's ear is God's Word.

If printed and spoken words, above and beyond literal quotes from the Bible, can be regarded as God's Word, the same can apply to more than words. Words, after all, are not the only possible vehicle of meaning. Bodily gestures, visual art, and music can also convey meaning. So liturgical customs, religious imagery, and sacred music - even instrumental music - can communicate God's Word. Actions, garments, pictures, and melodies are often significant because of the words and concepts with which they are associated. They are, in a word, signs. And signs are language - not just for deaf people!

The sacraments are sign language by which God speaks His gospel to us. I am not saying the sacraments are mere representations, in the sense that the water of Baptism "represents" the Holy Spirit, or that the bread and wine "represents" Christ's body and blood. Rather, I am saying the body and blood that Christ gives us to eat and drink are a sign of His death on the cross and what it means for us: "the forgiveness of sins." Our baptimal bath in the Holy Spirit is a sign that our "old man" (sin) is sealed in the tomb with Jesus, and we are now "a new creature," "born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5; Romans 6:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

These are not merely chores that we carry out in obedience to God's command; these sacraments are God's sign language, like the dumb show Jesus used to communicate with the deaf-mute in Mark 7:32 ff. He is communicating to us that all is accomplished for our salvation; that we are forgiven, cleansed, reborn, renewed, adopted as His children and heirs; that we have been removed from the kingdom of this world and transferred into God's kingdom; that we have the Holy Spirit and even the vital flesh and blood of Christ living in us and transforming us; that we live in communion with the Son of Man who is at the right hand of God; and that we worship Him in unison with the angels and saints of all times, in heaven and on earth.

One could go on for ages using words to communicate what God tells us in His Word-signs of Baptism and Communion; and quite possibly, one might never express all of it. Conveniently, God gets over all that in a moment, simply by using these signs. Clearly this is a form of communication purer and more direct than words themselves; though interpretation can make a lot of difference. Also, these language-signs convey more than mere information. Remember what I have already said about the efficacy of the Word; like the spoken Gospel, these signs hook us up on a direct line to the very things they promise. God's Word and Sacraments deliver more than comforting assurances of forgiveness and salvation; they deliver the blessing itself. Scripture teaches of no other way God will give these blessings.

Alas, before I can lay down the Hermeneutical Principle this demands, I have to treat the distinction between Law and Gospel. It is so hard to keep these in order! Hermeneutical Principle 8 is going to trot out a well-broken Reformation warhorse (and not, after all, unique to Lutheranism): Any act of biblical interpretation that confuses Law and Gospel, blends them, or makes do with one but not the other, stands in contradiction to the analogy of faith. It's a nice rule of thumb that makes lots of false doctrines easy to spot. But I have enough interesting stuff to say on this to fill another post, so I'll spare you the details for now.

Now we're ready for Principle 9: Any act of biblical interpretation that fails to locate Christ's presence, forgiveness, help, and comfort in His Word and Sacraments is, at least by implication, a confusion of Law and Gospel. You should be impressed with me for including those words "at least by implication." I know I'm impressed with myself; what else is new? That little phrase recognizes that even a conscientious interpreter can, unknowingly and unintentionally, fail his audience by not directing them to where God's gifts and blessings may be found.

Given the state of American Protestantism today, it's not hard to guess where people will assume you want them to look. By habit and inclination, they will search for Christ in flights of imagination (cf. Peter Marshall's famous "Were You There" sermon), in private meditation, in spiritual exercises, in works of emulation, etc., etc., etc. In Catholic countries the reflex response might be different (e.g. pilgrimages, relics, laps around the rosary, etc.). But while the details may differ, the destination is always the same: inward, on their own religious devotions and works of piety. This impulse is so strong and universal that every godly preacher, teacher, catechist, and tractarian must fight against it in all his works of biblical interpretation, so his audience can be reminded as often as possible where Jesus has told us to expect Him to meet us.

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