Installment 7 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
In this article, I will examine the origin of the biblical writings, how they became a collection of books, and the significance of the canon. I will
present Bible translations, focusing on translations into Finnish. In this article there is an emphasis on Luther’s Bible interpretation and the
principles of Lutheran Bible interpretation. I will also address the relationship between the written and spoken Word and the effectiveness of
the sermon of God’s Word.
The Bible Was Written as Inspired by the Holy Spirit
The Bible itself describes the significance and nature of the sacred writings. Peter encourages us to trust in the prophetic word. We are to fix our gaze upon it as onto a lamp shining in the darkness. He also states that the holy Scripture cannot be explained by any person on their own, for “the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:19–21). According to Paul, “all scripture is given by the inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
God’s Holy Spirit has thus guided the writing of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit can also open the understanding of the written Word of God. According to Christian Doctrine (1948), “We should read the Scripture thus, that praying we seek from them the living God and are obedient to His voice when He speaks to us in His Word” (Christian Doctrine, item 8). The Holy Spirit’s work also includes the birth of faith in Christ.
The Bible has a divine aspect and a human aspect. In the Bible the divine and the human aspects are unmixed and unchanging. The Bible is the instrument of God’s revelation.
The Origin of Bible Writings
According to current understanding, the writings in the Bible have, almost without exception, gone through a long process with multiple phases before assuming their current written form. This is especially true for the writings of the Old Testament. Many narratives existed in oral format long before they were put into the written form found in the Bible.
The Old Testament contains poetry and prose. The poetry is probably an older literary form. Its most important characteristic is parallelism (parallelismus membrorum), which is structured on dual lines of poetry. The second line either complements the premise in the first line, or else it presents an opposing premise. The basic form of prose is a story or narrative which is usually about ten verses in length. The narratives have a straightforward structure, with a beginning and an end.
Individual poems and narratives became parts of larger literary works and ultimately, after many editorial phases, became books in the Old Testament. Nowadays the role of the editors in the creation of the Bible books is considered central. Editorial work has likely continued for centuries. The Book of Psalms, for example has gone through at least three editorial phases. Of most importance to the Bible reader, however is what the writing contains and proclaims as a completed entity.
The New Testament books were written in a significantly shorter period of time, over the course of less than a century. In addition, there has been less editing done than in the books of the Old Testament. Paul’s letters, for example, are Paul’s actual letters as they were originally written. The evangelists used various sources in writing their unique books. Mark was the first to present the joyous message of Jesus Christ around 70 A.D. Matthew and Luke used the Gospel according to Mark as the basis for their writings. The Gospel according to John is the most recently written gospel and is by nature almost a sermon-like, theological take on Jesus’ words and deeds. John describes the purpose of his writing thus: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31).
The Biblical Canon
Our current Bible contains 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. In addition, the old Finnish Bible (Biblia, 1776) contains fourteen books of the Apocrypha. Apocryphal means “hidden” and refers to the fact that these books never belonged to the collection of books in the Hebrew Old Testament. In the Lutheran church, the apocryphal books have no canonical status. Luther states that they are beneficial to read but they should not be considered to have equal status to other books of the Bible.
The word canon means a normative collection of books. The earliest definition of the Christian canon is from the year 367 when Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, listed the books that belong to the current Bible and then stated, “These are the wells of salvation…Let no one add to these. Let nothing be taken away from them.” This is, therefore, a normative collection from which books cannot be removed and to which new books may not be added. This also implies a great respect for the contents of the books that have become part of the canon.
The Origin of the Old Testament Canon
The Biblical Canon was formed over a long period of time. Due to the fact that the Old and New Testament canons were formed in different ways and at different times, I will examine them separately.
The Law (also known as the Torah, the five books of Moses), was the first set of writings to be established in approximately 300 B.C. The Prophets were established in about 200 B.C., and the Writings were the last to be established. Ben Sira (in approximately 180 B.C.) was familiar with the law and the prophets, but otherwise he only knew the Psalms. The final writings to be considered for inclusion were Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon and the books of Esther and Ruth. This took place at the end of the first century A.D.
The decisive event that caused the Old Testament canon to be formed was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Jewish people lost their national existence and the temple in Jerusalem, which was the symbol of their religious identity. Following that the Jews had to establish their identity based on a “portable homeland”, i.e. the Scriptures.
The early Christians read the Old Testament in what language they were able to read: Aramaic speakers in Hebrew, Greek speakers in Greek, and Latin speakers in Latin. The Greek Septuagint translation influenced the Bible such that the Old Testament writings came to have a four-part structure: the Torah, historical books, wisdom books and prophetic books. The positioning of the prophetic books at the end of the collection allowed Christians the opportunity to read the New Testament as a fulfillment of those prophecies.
Formation of the New Testament Canon
Although for Jesus and His disciples the Old Testament was the holy book, new writings came to exist alongside the Old Testament over time. Paul was the first to write letters to the congregations. The gospels were a new literary genre written based on the Lord’s words and deeds. The Acts of the Apostles told about the apostles’ journeys as the gospel was spreading. All of these books were given canonical status by the end of the first century. The New Testament canon reached its current state by 200 A.D. The last books to be accepted were the letter to the Hebrews and the Revelation.
The writings selected for inclusion in the Bible spoke to their listeners and readers, and therefore they began to be considered normative. Professor Timo Veijola posits that the birth of the canon was guided by the community’s understanding of what faith is. After the fact it has been possible to determine three bases for inclusion: the writings of prophetic and apostolic origin were first accepted into the normative collection. Next came the writings that were in use throughout Christendom, and finally those that otherwise represented correct doctrine. This third basis meant that e.g. Gnostic texts were left out of the canon.
The Significance of the Canon
From a historical viewpoint, the biblical canon has had a significant effect on preservation of ancient Israeli and early Christian literature. This is how Paul’s letters, for example, have been preserved for us to read.
In a spiritual sense, the significance of the canon is much greater. The Bible must be read and interpreted in its entirety. Faith must not be built on the basis of one Bible portion or one book in the Bible. Individual books must be read along with other books, in which case they complement and correct one another.
The individual pieces of a puzzle are interesting per se, but only when they are put together do they form a meaningful whole, which is more than the sum of its parts. According to this so-called canonical reading method, an individual portion of the Bible takes on a new, broader meaning when it is placed alongside another portion. For this reason as well the Bible is an extremely rich work. The red thread throughout the book is the great salvation works of the Triune God, which are manifested in Jesus Christ.
The Translations of the Bible
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, except for some of the most recent portions, which were written in Aramaic. Approximately 200 B.C. the Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek, the predominant language of that time, for the Jewish diaspora (Jews living outside Israel). This Septuagint translation became especially significant since the first Christians used it and it became part of the Christian Bible. Paul’s Old Testament references were also based on the Septuagint translation. Early on the Bible was also translated into Latin, which had become the new predominant language.
The Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible, was used by the entire western church until the Middle Ages. Only after the Reformation were there any large-scale efforts to translate the Bible into local languages. Luther began translating David’s seven Penitential Psalms in 1517. The New Testament was published in German in 1522, and in 1534 the whole Bible was published in German. Soon thereafter the New Testament was translated in the Netherlands (1526), France (1530), Sweden (1541), Finland (1548) and Denmark (1550).
Luther was not the first person to translate the Bible texts into German, but he was the first one who made use of original biblical languages in his translations. Luther’s translation can be characterized as theological in nature. Its main goal was to emphasize the principal of justification by faith: alone by faith, alone by grace, alone by the merits of Christ. Luther attempted to translate the Bible into good, clear German which the ordinary people would understand. It is said that he often interrupted his translation work and went out to the field to ask the peasants how they would express a particular item.
One of Luther’s students was Mikael Agricola from Finland. Along with other Finnish students, he began translation work with the Psalms. Following the publication of the New Testament (1548), the translation of the Psalms was published in 1551. Agricola used the Latin Vulgate, Luther’s German translation and the new Swedish translation as the basis for his translation. He translated one fourth of the Old Testament before he died. The translation of the entire Bible was completed in 1642. The translation committee also used Hebrew and Greek texts in translating the remaining books.
This work continued in the form of Henrik Florenius’ translation (1685), in which the Finnish text was edited and some portions were revised based on the Hebrew text. The verified translation by Antti Litzelius (1758) and its revised edition (1776) continued along the same lines. The 1776 translation is known as the Biblia. Language revision was continued in 19th century editions of the Biblia (1862, 1878), which however did not contain any changes to contents. In 1886, the [Finnish] Church Council appointed a committee to prepare an entirely new Bible translation. The long, complex process finally resulted in a new translation of the Old Testament (1933) and of the whole Bible (1938). The committee aimed for a literal translation and avoided interpreting the text.
A new Bible translation committee was appointed in 1973. They took a new approach to the translation work. Their goal was a translation into modern Finnish that would adhere to the content and style of the original texts. The translation work considered the latest findings, such as the Qumran texts found between 1947 and 1956 and the latest findings in Bible research.
Translation work is demanding and always requires interpretation to a greater or lesser degree. There is no sense in simply comparing translations or ranking them because they are based on differing principles and viewpoints. The SRK has published the so-called Trio Bible which contains three translations (Biblia, 1938, 1992) side by side. This gives readers a good opportunity to compare the translations and ponder their contents.
Luther as a Reader and Interpreter of the Bible
Luther was an eminent scholar and interpreter of the Bible. At the University of Wittenberg, he lectured on e.g. the Psalms, Genesis and the letter to the Galatians. Luther considered the Bible a single, unified work in terms of its doctrinal content. Here he referred to the doctrine concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is “divinely inspired doctrine.” In this respect, the Bible is unerring, for faith does not err. For Luther, the biblical inerrancy did not pertain to how the writings came to be but rather to its Christ-centered grace doctrine.
For Luther, God’s Word was that “which gives me Jesus Christ bright and pure.” The following thought of his has become well known: “What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or Paul taught it; again, what preaches Christ would be apostolic, even though Judas, Annas, Pilate and Herod did it” (The Prefaces to the New Testament). Luther noted that there are clear and obscure portions in the books of the Bible. He instructed, ““Leave the obscure [portions] and hold to the clear ones.” According to Luther, the Bible is “clear enough for as much as is needed for salvation.” Meanwhile, it is nonetheless obscure enough for “pious souls to examine” (Refutation to Latomus).
Luther’s interpretation of the Bible was part of the long tradition of the church. The method he used was an ancient church method of interpretation, in which four levels of explanation were sought for the text in question: first the literal interpretation, secondly an allegorical interpretation, thirdly the moral interpretation and fourth of all an analogical interpretation. The problems associated with such a mechanical manner of interpretation were already known in Luther’s time. Therefore he adapted them in his own way. He condensed the four levels of Bible interpretation in the ancient church into one prophetical Christ-centered interpretation.
This method was very useful due to the fact that Luther valued the Old Testament very highly. In his preface to it he wrote, “And what is the New Testament except an open preaching and proclamation of Christ, appointed by the sayings of the Old Testament and fulfilled by Christ”. The principle of “what makes Christ” (quid Christum agit) became the core of Luther’s Bible interpretation.
In Luther’s words, “Christ is the Lord and King of the Bible” or “Christ is the King and the Light of the Bible”. The Reformation’s Christ-alone principle (solus Christus) means that in examining and interpreting the Bible, attention is paid to Christ’s person and duty. This is explained by e.g. the following words of Paul: “The grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (Rom. 5:15).
According to Luther, the Bible is the highest authority for faith and life. He based his teaching on the Bible and rejected the abuses of the Catholic church by citing portions of Scripture. No doctrine or order which was not found in the Bible could not, according to Luther, bind the Christian conscience. He created the “by Scripture alone” principle (sola scriptura) to oppose the Catholic church’s tradition of “the Bible and church tradition.” Luther only rejected those church traditions that went against the Word of God.
The Bible is indeed the highest authority of faith and life, but not the only one. Earlier we referred to the church tradition (traditio), which includes the early church creeds and the decision of Church Councils, confessional books, liturgical texts and writings of the Church Fathers insofar as they are consistent with the Bible. Faith and life belong together. Faith shines light into one’s life. But it is also important to emphasize that human reason and experience also have their own place in everyday life. According to Luther, human reason must be given a dominant role in areas of temporal life, such as politics, science and judiciary issues. Meanwhile, in the realm of faith reason must be harnessed to serve faith (Bondage of the Will).
The reformer is said to have used two or three hours a day studying the Bible. Luther says that the Catechism is like a road into the Bible. The Catechism contains the law (what God demands), the Creed (what God gives as a gift) and the Lord’s Prayer, which explains how we can own that which God gives as a gift. Luther recommended spending time with the Bible, to ruminate and ponder on it and even to repeat words and phrases out loud. According to Luther, the Holy Spirit may begin to reveal God’s Word to its reader as he or she prayerfully ponders it (Large Catechism).
Principles of Lutheran Interpretation of the Bible
According to the instruction of our Church [Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland], the Bible reveals to people who God is and what His will is. To this end the Bible has a special status which is evident in church law and order: “The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church confesses that Christian faith, which is based on the holy Word of God, the prophetic and apostolic books of the Old and New Testament and which is expressed in the three Creeds of the Ancient Church and the unaltered Augsburg Confession and the other Lutheran confessional documents of the Books of Concord. The Church holds, as its highest authority, the principle of the confessional books that all doctrine in the Church is to be examined and evaluated according to the holy Word of God” (Church Order, Section 1)
First, this means that anything that is contrary to the Word of God cannot be accepted. Secondly, this means that faith and doctrine must not be based on something of which there is no revelation in God’s Word. Thirdly, the Bible sentences cannot be arbitrarily combined without considering the textual context.
Lutheran interpretation of the Bible can be condensed into five principles: First the Bible must be interpreted from the viewpoint of its message of salvation. The Bible testifies of God’s great salvation works, which culminate in Christ. This principle defines what is central in Christian faith and what is peripheral. In addition, it means that some portions of the Old Testament (for example the ordinances of worship), no longer pertain as such to Christians. After examining the teaching of the Old Testament, one must always ask what the New Testament teaches about the same matter.
Secondly, the Bible is explained with the Bible. Individual portions and themes find their place in the overall context when they are placed alongside other Bible portions. This principle therefore rejects a method of interpretation in which a certain viewpoint is adopted in advance based on which only certain Bible portions are selected. Nothing can be filtered out of the Bible; even portions that seem charged or contradictory must be understood with the help of other text portions or in the overall context. Different texts’ backgrounds and historical contexts may have differed greatly. This is the case in e.g. Paul’s instruction on righteousness of faith (Rom. 3:21-31) and James’ teaching on works effected by faith (James 2:14-26). They are to be understood as being parallel with one another and as such do not contradict each other.
The third principle of interpretation is that the Bible is a spiritual book. It is God’s Word, and correct understanding of it requires faith. Earlier we discussed the work of the Holy Spirit in understanding the Bible. The Bible places its reader and interpreter into the place of a learner, into Mary’s role (Luke 10:42). Only through faith is born the internal assurance of the divine nature of the Bible (testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti). This results in obedience to the Word of God in everyday life.
Fourthly, the Bible is a book that belongs to all Christians. No one individual Christian has the ultimate wisdom with which to interpret the Bible’s texts; rather the truth must be sought together. The church has the right and the obligation to examine and interpret the Bible from the standpoint of the church’s understanding of faith. The church and the Bible belong together, but the church cannot rise above the Bible. The church must not be the master of the Bible, but rather as a hearer and believer of it. Paul taught that the instruction that edifies the congregation is always grounded in love (1 Cor. 13:1,2,9).
The separation of the law and the gospel can be considered the fifth principle. God’s revelation in the Bible exists as an expression of God’s will (the law) and a proclamation of God’s saving works (the gospel). The duty of the law is to show people their sin. The law awakens awareness of one’s sins and in this way drives one to Christ. The gospel—God’s promises—frees the sinful one and comforts him or her. The gospel brings joy and peace to the heart. It was of utmost importance to Luther that the law and the gospel not be mixed in order to maintain the purity of the gospel.
Responsible Interpretation of the Bible
The interpretation of the Bible is both a responsible and challenging task. The Bible has often been misinterpreted and used to support ideas that are foreign to the overall message of the Bible. In order to be able to interpret Bible texts responsibly and correctly, we must first attempt to determine what a given writer was originally trying to express. The better we can answer that question, the better prepared we are to apply the text to our own time. Meanwhile we must note that the Word of God can nourish the Bible reader even if he or she does not have knowledge of the historical context of the text portion.
Bible research has produced a wealth of knowledge about life and the world during biblical times. There are many additional tools available that help one learn about the world of the Bible: maps, dictionaries, reference books, commentaries and scientific articles. When using such tools it is necessary to understand their role as research tools. They in and of themselves are not God’s Word, nor are they food for the soul.
When a Bible reader has comprehended what a text meant in biblical times, the next step is to ponder what the text in question means to me, to us in modern times. This is known as hermeneutic reasoning. Responsible Bible interpretation is based on the premise that the text in question and its application to the modern day correlate to one another, i.e. they must speak of the same issue.
It is necessary to acknowledge the difference between the biblical world and the modern world, but that does not mean that Bible texts would no longer have a relevant message. We people today with our fundamental questions, fears and hopes are the same as people two thousand years ago. Many modern phenomena were already familiar to people in those times, though perhaps partially in different ways. Of course there’s also phenomena which were completely unknown in those times, such as the environmental crisis or questions of medical ethics. Nevertheless, the Bible’s creation theology and its overall message offer clear insight even on these types of questions. In order to understand and interpret Scripture, God’s Holy Spirit is necessary.
The Relationship between the Written and Preached Word
It was previously stated how Luther taught Christians to spend time with the Word of God. He greatly valued the daily reading of God’s Word. His reformational findings were made in studying God’s Word. A Christian of today as well is strengthened in faith by reading the Word of God. It gives one wisdom (2 Tim. 3:15) and weapons to battle against the attacks of God’s adversary (Matt. 4:1-11). God’s Word gives strong roots that hold fast in many kinds of storms.
Luther gave a special significance to the spoken Word of God. He called it the living voice of the gospel (). In the Large Catechism he wrote: “We, you and I, could not obtain any knowledge of Christ nor could we believe in Him and receive Him as our Lord, unless the Holy Spirit would offer that treasure, through the sermon of the gospel, and would gift that in our bosom.” The sermon of the gospel, effected by the Holy Spirit, gives birth to faith. God may have also already done His work in the person earlier. God’s Spirit works how and when He wills (John 3:8).
According to Paul’s instruction, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Paul also spoke of the office of reconciliation: “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:19,20). Jesus sent His own into all the world to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; John 20:19-23).
In 1919, preacher Matti Suo aptly described the relationship between the written and spoken Word: “If a person were able to become a believer by reading, all we would have to do is send Bibles all over the world and everyone would have been able to read their way to salvation.” In Lutheran theology, the Word of God is understood to be sacramental. It means that the Word of God and its sermon relay God’s grace. The gospel is not a mere description of God’s grace and forgiveness, but rather—as Luther tells it—the chariot of the gospel brings before us all the gifts of salvation, Christ Himself.
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- Refutation of Latomus. Original work “Rationis Latomianae confutatio” 1521.
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