Protestants believe in saints

To the Protestant and Catholic understanding of the Bible

Lutheran reflections on an ecumenical horizon

Hans-Martin Weiss
(Lecture in Ortenburg on October 31, 2013)

On October 17, 1563, Joachim Graf von Ortenburg introduced Luther's teaching into the former county. That is the occasion for your Reformation Festival half a millennium later. In the context of the preparations, your parish and the kindergarten had the idea of ​​creating their own Ortenburg Bible by hand. There were various “Bible transcription days” in the Protestant parish hall. The end product proves your congregation's love for the Bible, as is well suited to a Reformation-influenced congregation.
Of course, the Holy Scriptures belong not only to Protestants, but also to Catholics. But there are disputes between the denominations about the meaning of Scripture, that is, about the appropriate understanding of the Bible. You invited me to talk about that this evening.
As a Protestant Council observer, Wolfgang Dietzfelbinger once emphasized in his little book “Catholics for Evangelicals”: ​​Christians of all denominations are involved in the dissemination of the Bible, “which has made it the undisputed bestseller on the book market.” That is of course true. But one can also say that the denomination of Protestantism has a special share in this. And not only because of Luther, who created the best-known and most effective translation of the Bible in the European-speaking area, but also because of the great importance that the Bible is used to play in evangelical spirituality. One notices this, for example, when attending a Protestant church service: the liturgy is saturated with biblical quotations, readings or allusions; the interpretation of a biblical text is at its center. But also in community groups, at Bible evenings, on Christian calendars, in the popular watchwords and, last but not least, at evangelism events - almost everything revolves around texts from the Holy Scriptures again and again.
My great-grandmother, along with other people, is an example of my personal relationship to scripture. She was a simple, pious woman. She had endured a lot, lost her husband and her child at an early age, got into the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, experienced the Second World War with its horrors in the East and the hardship of displacement, and finally settled in Bavaria with her daughter and son-in-law where she spent the last twenty years of her long life. She attended church services and Bible study as long as she could. Her main reading was the Bible. Your warm-hearted and deeply religious way of life is a role model to me to this day. I draw from their faith and their piety. Her original and lively trust in God was firmly established in what she read in the Bible and heard from the Bible.
The fact that Protestants and Catholics have long held the Bible in high esteem can be clearly seen over and over again. But in the Protestant area there is a very special reference to Holy Scripture. Here, unlike in Catholicism, the principle is in the foreground: Only the writing - sola scriptura! What's it all about?
In the different weighting and the different understanding of the Bible of the two major denominations in our country, fundamental differences between them become clear - above all in the question of the understanding of ministry and the meaning of the Eucharist. These differences are related to differences in understanding the meaning of Scripture. I want to show you this by first outlining the basics of the Protestant and then the Catholic understanding of the Bible. I would like to conclude with a brief ecumenical outlook.

1. Three principles for the evangelical view of the "Word of God"
A specifically evangelical understanding of the Bible emerged in the course of the Reformation. In developing his doctrine of the justification of the wicked by grace alone, Martin Luther came more and more to question the authority of the Pope and the councils. For, according to his conviction, it obscured the Christ truth more than it would illuminate the word of God. He systematically criticized the church doctrine of the time based on the Holy Scriptures. This approach of juxtaposing Church and Scripture was new at the time.
As a result, Luther developed the threefold conception of the word of God. His first form is Christ himself: he is the one word of God that became man in him. The second form of the Word of God is the ecclesiastical testimony of Christ: Luther sees oral preaching taking precedence over written fixation in the biblical text. By the gospel he understands less what is in books than the living sermon and the public testimony of Christ. Finally, the third form of the Word of God is the proclamation as Scripture as a book of the Bible.
The Protestant principle “Scripture alone” should not be understood as if Protestant Christianity was based just as directly on the Bible as, for example, Islam on the Koran. Scripture alone - this principle therefore cannot stand for itself; rather, it is assigned to the principle “Christ alone!”. All Reformation principles should serve faith in Christ, its correct understanding: only grace, only faith, only Scripture.
I summarize: In terms of reforming, the principle “Scripture alone” serves entirely to emphasize the importance of the living Christ for the faith who makes us free and redeems us. This completely outlines the evangelical understanding of the Bible. Now I can make it clear what the decisive differences to the view of the Roman Catholic Church are.

2. The Roman Catholic understanding of the Bible
What I have said about the Protestant principle of writing, I now want to relate to the traditional principle in Catholicism. Not only the scriptures but the oral tradition becomes important here. From the Protestant side, the Catholic Church can undoubtedly be admitted that it was once the Church that collected and laid down the canon of Scripture in the first place. On the other hand, Protestant theology adheres very strongly to the beginning of the Gospel of John, where Christ is spoken of as the Word of God that precedes everything in general; the Church also owes to him. That is why the living Christ is the inner center of Scripture, and from him it can even be commanded to criticize Scripture itself. The same applies from the evangelical point of view of church tradition: it may be valued, but it must in turn be able to be criticized from the point of view of Christ. Christ alone, as the one Word of God, is the Redeemer; therefore Mary cannot and must not be venerated as a “co-redeemer” as in Catholicism. Divine grace alone matters; therefore the gospel to be preached is not to be linked with any church hurdles or conditions. In the end, it is only Scripture that guarantees the content of the Christ message - and not an ecclesiastical tradition that is supposedly still necessary for this.
That is why the Church of the Reformation sees itself less as the bearer of the word of God, but primarily as his creature. In the course of his numerous controversies, Luther became certain that there is no balance between Scripture and Church, that Scripture is always ahead of the Church. He has always remained convinced that the Bible and the Church belong together. Christ himself as the first figure of the word of God and the church as his body form a unity. And the same is true of Scripture as the third figure of God's Word, which is most closely connected with the Church. But just as Christ is the head of the church, so scripture is also placed before the church. It is true that the church not only has to pass on the scriptures, but also to interpret them. But such an interpretation must be done with humility to the scriptures; it is an act of service and not of ruling.
That goes without saying, so that every Catholic can agree. In the world catechism it is explicitly stated: “The magisterium does not stand above the word of God, but serves it…” But what does “service” mean here more precisely? The magisterium - this is how the sentence just quoted goes on - serves the word of God by “only teaching what has been handed down ...” It “serves” him precisely by making its interpretations and determinations on the basis of scripture and oral Lore. The so-called tradition principle forms the decisive point of difference.
From the Reformation perspective, such service simply means: listening to what Scripture has to say from itself. Before the church sets out to interpret it, the Bible first interprets itself; according to Luther, she is her own interpreter. The fact that Scripture is to be interpreted by the Magisterium, on the other hand, is a prime sentence for Roman Catholic theology. For Protestant theology, however, this can only be a secondary proposition. Because according to the Reformation conviction, the Bible has its own clarity. According to Luther, “Scripture is by itself quite certain, very easily understandable, quite evident and its own interpreter by examining, judging and illuminating everything.” This clarity means that the scripture is interpreted according to its literal meaning must become. Luther differentiates between two types of clarity: an internal and an external. The external clarity of Scripture consists in its comprehensibility, to which the Refomator wanted to contribute not least through his translation of the Bible. The inner clarity, however, is only given by the Holy Spirit: “What sublime things can remain hidden in Scripture after the seal has been broken, the stone rolled from the door of the grave and thus that highest mystery has been revealed: Christ, the Son of God, be Incarnate, God be threefold and one, Christ suffered for us and will reign forever? "
Such internal clarity and also external clarity of the scriptures make magisterial obligations appear secondary, if not superfluous, and possibly even dangerous. The clarity presupposed by Protestants does not just refer to the individual conscience of the Bible reader, which it enlightens. Rather, it must be clear for the Christian community as a whole what the word of God means. The great majority of the Church must discover what the Gospel means as a promise and a claim; this is the principle of the evangelical understanding of the Bible. Luther trusts the Bible to be clear in its actual meaning related to Christ. This cannot be surpassed by the church teaching office and cannot be secured in an authoritarian manner.
But why this insistence on the Reformation “alone”? This is by no means an abstract negation of everything else. Rather, in the age of the Reformation, and to this day, “alone” is directed against the Roman Catholic “and” with regard to scripture. From the Roman point of view, Holy Scripture and tradition actually stand side by side on an equal footing, because they both come from tradition through the apostles. Vatican II can even name “Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture” side by side in this strange order - and then emphasize: “Originating from the same divine source, both flow together in a sense and strive towards the same goal”. Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition are both due to the Holy Spirit. Both of them had to be considered intact, because the bishops who passed them on would have “received the certain charisma of truth” with their office. That is why the Roman Catholic Church teaches bindingly, so to speak, “not alone”: It teaches, as Vatican II and also the World Catechism expressly state, that “the Church does not derive its certainty about everything revealed from Holy Scripture alone”. Rather, according to the counsel of God, Sacred Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium are so interlinked that none exist without the other.
Why have the Catholic brothers and sisters in faith always so firmly adhered to this not-alone? The emphasis on the "and", the alleged oral tradition next to Scripture, gives rise to the suspicion that Scripture alone is not considered sufficient for understanding the message of salvation. But where the biblical clarity as claimed by Protestantism is actually disputed, an additional criterion outside of the Bible necessarily gains weight. And it can by no means simply be said that it is just as reliable as the Bible itself. This is all the less true as it involves content that is not biblically guaranteed and possibly contradicts the clear meaning of the Scriptures. In any case, such an externally coming criterion should actually submit to the biblical judgment. But that is again impossible if it is asserted that this biblical judgment as such is not at all clear.
In fact, when the Roman Catholic Church insists on the weight of tradition, it is concerned with very specific contents which, on closer inspection, stand outside the New Testament. There are essentially three interrelated complexes:
1. To understand the Eucharist as a sacrifice to be administered priestly,
2. to emphasize the ecclesiastical office with its ordination and teaching power,
3. The teaching of Mary as the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven.
It is no coincidence that all of these issues are neuralgic points in ecumenical discussion. If, for example, the Roman Catholic conviction is: "The holy must be administered holy", then this understanding of the sacrament establishes a special priesthood. By virtue of its essential contribution to the performance of the altar sacrifice, it itself comes dubiously close to the idea of ​​participating in the redemption sacrifice of Christ. Such participation can actually be all the more important as the unique Atonement of Christ is expressly “repeated” in a cultic update during the Roman Mass, even if bloodlessly.
As for Mary as the representative of the “congregation of the redeemed”, Pope Pius X praised her around a hundred years ago as “steward of all gifts of grace that Jesus acquired for us through his death”! The Second Vatican Council therefore expressly granted Mary the title of “mediatrix”, a mediator: the mother of the Lord shared in Christ's work of redemption insofar as she supported it through her obedience of faith.
It is obvious that Reformation theology has to protest at such statements. She sees the Roman Catholic position in connection with the fact that he denies the sola scriptura principle. According to the judgment of the above-mentioned council observer Wolfgang Dietzfelbinger, the Second Vatican Council "did not take any steps to teach any critical function of the Holy Scriptures in relation to all other phenomena in the church, as well as in relation to tradition." No wonder that as a result For example, Karl Rahner, one of the most important theologians of modern Catholicism, in his well-known “Basic Course of Faith” only deals with the relevant section on the Bible in the last quarter of the work - under the significant title “Scripture as the Book of the Church”!
But also Joseph Ratzinger, who once taught in Regensburg, today Pope Benedict XVI., Has always classified the Bible in a typically Roman Catholic way. As a systematic theologian he had emphasized that Revelation preceded Scripture and was reflected in it; so it is not simply identical with it. But that means that revelation is always greater than what is merely written. And that in turn means that there cannot be a pure Sola scriptura! Rather, the understanding subject church belongs to Scripture, "which already gives the essential meaning of tradition". According to Ratzinger, the fact that there is tradition is based on the fact that the two variables of revelation and scripture are not congruent: but the script is not simply itself. Revelation therefore transcends Scripture to the same extent that reality transcends the knowledge of it. One could also say: Scripture is the material principle of revelation ... but it is not revelation itself. ”Ratzinger believes that the reformers were still well aware of this. Only in the later dispute between Catholic and Protestant theology did this difference become increasingly blurred.
After his election as Pope, Ratzinger declared on the occasion of taking possession of the Lateran Basilica that the Magisterium and the Pope naturally serve the Word of God - and that therefore his papal interpretation is under the Word of God.An interesting positioning for Protestant ears! When understanding the interpretation method, Benedict XVI orients himself. at the Second Vatican Council. This council followed a fundamental rule for the interpretation of any literary text: Scripture must therefore be interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written. So she points out three basic elements in order to take into account the divine, pneumatic dimension of the Bible. First, care should be taken to ensure that the unity of the whole of Scripture is taken into account when interpreting the text. Second, the living tradition of the whole church is also important. And thirdly, the “analogy of faith” is important. Only where both the historical-critical and the theological level come into play in the methods of interpretation can one speak of an exegesis appropriate to Holy Scripture.
The Pope therefore regrets that most of the exegetes in Germany did not take this theological level into account. They would come to interpretations with which they denied the historicity of the divine elements. Quote: “Where exegesis is not theology, Holy Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and vice versa, where theology is not essentially the interpretation of Scripture in the Church, theology no longer has a foundation. It is therefore absolutely necessary for the life and mission of the Church and for the future of faith to put an end to this dualism between exegesis and theology. "
Joseph Ratzinger tries to do this as Pope in the first volume of his Jesus trilogy. Here he confirms the decidedly theological approach to the historical-critical method. Precisely because this is proving to be a child of the Enlightenment that has become independent, it needs spiritual embedding. It led to the program of “demythologizing” - and thus opened the door to a large amount of exegetical arbitrariness under the guise of scientific research. The biblically handed down image and understanding of Jesus was said to have broken into a thousand pieces in the course of this development. The Pope from Bavaria complained in the preface: “The rift between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith grew deeper and deeper, both of which were noticeably falling apart. But what can faith in Jesus the Christ, in Jesus the Son of the living God mean if the man Jesus was so completely different from what the evangelists portray and when the church preaches him from the Gospels? "
Not that the German Pope wanted to sweep the historical-critical method off the table of science with his work! Rather, he gratefully acknowledges that he owes a great deal of knowledge to her. In addition, he emphasizes that his book is not presented to the public with the authority of the papal office, but as the personal fruit of his scholarly life. What he would like, however, is to supplement this method with a second one, namely that of the so-called "canonical exegesis". According to this, a biblical text is to be interpreted and illuminated in the overall horizon of the Holy Scriptures. The Pope is surprisingly close to Martin Luther's insight that the Bible is its own interpreter.
By using these two methods in combination, Ratzinger produces a colorful and - in my opinion - very expressive image of Jesus. It corresponds to the church dogma of the dual nature of Jesus Christ, the so-called doctrine of dual nature. The historical-critical method pays tribute more to the human nature of Jesus - and to his divine nature more to the "canonical exegesis". Both are inseparable from a spiritual point of view. Nevertheless, they can also be clearly distinguished.
This approach is proving to be quite fruitful. For in fact, if the historical-critical method is merely applied, the figure of Jesus breaks down into many uncertain aspects with few clear features. And then it is inevitably exposed to a limitless pluralism of arbitrary interpretations - be they essentially of a theological, philosophical or other nature. Just think of the abundance of different Jesus books on the market - and in the end even of the pseudoscientific theses about the supposedly married and never resurrected Jesus that were spread in a movie! On the other hand, it must be in the spirit of the Christian Church to record on the one hand the historicity of Jesus Christ - and on the other hand also his divinity, which is already partially attested in the New Testament. The biblically stated meaning of Christ must be conveyed in the church today as it was in the past, if the church does not want to promote its own religious irrelevance. In this respect, Ratzinger's three-volume work on Jesus is also to be welcomed from a Protestant point of view.
From a Protestant point of view, however, there are two limitations to such an appreciation. On the one hand, where the Pope does not make an appropriate distinction in a typically Catholic way between Holy Scripture and oral tradition as authoritative sources of ecclesiastical proclamation. And on the other hand in the respect that the weight of the “canonical method” in Ratzinger's sometimes inappropriately undermined or neglected the historical-critical method. The New Testament scholar Jörg Frey explained: In the biblical writings one has to reckon with “the possibility that potentials of meaning are no longer carried forward, insights are pushed back and images are rewritten. Some of the statements and narratives that diverge or compete between the Gospels cannot simply be thought together in an additive and harmonistic way. As a hermeneutic setting, the model chosen by Ratzinger harbors the danger that the historical concerns and perspectives of the biblical witnesses will be leveled out… “Of course, with a view to exegetical research under the sign of the historical-critical method, I mean emphasizing "Editorial" differences in the New Testament can also exaggerate. That is why I agree with the Pope overall when he sums up: "I think that this Jesus - the one of the Gospels - is a historically meaningful and coherent figure." From my point of view, this book by the Pope has something ecumenical about it.

3. Ecumenical outlook
Given the differences in the understanding of scripture and ministry, is there even a chance for ecumenical understanding? “The Bible is a book of fellowship,” explains the Evangelical Adult Catechism. This sentence can be applied excellently to the ecumenical problem. The basic fact that all denominations hold up the Bible as Holy Scripture together, and that there are even translations together, gives hope. Should it not be possible for this figure of the Word of God, as well as for Christ, who is commonly witnessed as the living Word of God, to increasingly transform the Church as a creature of his Word into a unity in the spirit of love and truth? Of course, the word only has this possibility if it is heard better and better and such listening is encouraged through brotherly instruction.
I see the bilateral study “Communio Sanctorum. The Church as a Community of Saints ”from the year 2000. Together, Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians could say here that“ the Holy Scriptures were recorded under the breath of the Holy Spirit ”and that they“ testify to the word of God ”. There is also agreement here in their unsurpassable and irreplaceable authority in the sense of the “norma normans”. Last but not least, one confesses with one another that the Bible is never isolated, but should always be consulted in the context of the church's community of faith and witness. The dispute over the relationship between scripture and tradition can be resolved today. Because from the Lutheran side it is recognized that the Holy Scriptures themselves emerged from early Christian tradition and were handed down through the church tradition. Conversely, the Catholic side recognizes that the Bible sufficiently contains the revelation, i.e. that it does not need to be supplemented. Seen in this way, scripture and tradition could neither be isolated from one another nor set against one another. Rather, both churches agreed "that receiving, recognizing and bearing witness to the truth is the task of the church as a whole and that various cognitive and witnessing bodies must work together."
The way in which these witnesses - i.e. the Bible, tradition, office, the people of God and theology - are to be assigned to one another, however, remains to be clarified between the two churches. And that's no small matter: Didn't the Reformation begin with the fact that the Holy Scriptures were invoked against all other witnesses?
The conclusion from this study, but also from other ecumenical processes in the last few decades, is: We have moved towards one another in mutual understanding. But there can unfortunately be no talk of real agreement - especially on the above-mentioned allocation questions, which are really not marginal questions. In my opinion, that must be openly admitted. The dialogue must therefore of course not be questioned or even broken off. The constant new encounters give rise to opportunities for new, advanced knowledge and learning processes. Of course, it can also be painful to learn that certain contours of the various churches will remain unchanged for the time being, because they define the respective denominational identity and authenticity.
But I firmly believe: In any case, there is cause for well-founded hope for ecumenical progress. Especially with regard to the struggle for a theologically appropriate understanding of the Bible. For from the evangelical side, as I have already explained, Scripture is only understood, so to speak, as the third-tier figure of the Word of God, which is ahead of the living Christ with his Spirit in the ever present ecclesiastical proclamation. And from the Catholic side, as I have also shown, the Scriptures, together with the tradition, are surprisingly similarly traced back to the divine source of the mystery of Christ himself. Thus, a stable basis, yes a challenging motive, is given in mutual listening to Christ again and again to seek theological and ecclesiastical coexistence. This motive is the living Lord himself, who sends his spirit to all of us in order to draw us to himself. We all want and are allowed to be servants of his kingdom. And such a servant - we can say and record this ecumenically - is also the Holy Scriptures themselves.
All the more, however, both major denominations are challenged by the current circumstance that the knowledge of biblical content in society is getting worse and worse. Word has to get around again inside and outside the churches that the Holy Scriptures hold wonderful treasures ready, which are helpful for inner strengthening and liberation. We need more people with a love for the Bible again, such as my great-grandmother had.

- Matthias Haudel: The Bible and the Unity of the Churches, Göttingen 2012 (3rd edition)
- Ulrich H. J. Körtner: Theology of the Word of God, Göttingen 2001
- Matthias Petzold (ed.): Authority of Scripture and Teaching Power of the Church, Leipzig 2003
- Werner Thiede: Protestant and Catholic understanding of the Bible. Study letter Bible B 16 (supplement to: Focus on the community 4/2012)
- Ulrich Wilckens: Critique of the Biblical Criticism. How the Bible can become Holy Scripture again, Neukirchen-Vluyn 2012