Saturday, March 05, 2005

Maps and the Bible

During my first year of seminary we studied the hermeneutics textbook by Dr. James Voelz, “What Does This Mean?” This essay borrows what I have found to be a very helpful analogy from Dr. Voelz’s book. I would like to expand and explore it, and use it to help illuminate one of those perplexing questions that many first year students face. That question is, “What is the relationship between our Lutheran Confessions and the Bible?”

The analogy which I have found so helpful compares the Lutheran Confessions (as they are contained in the Book of Concord) to a “collection of maps gathered into an atlas” (Voelz 350). Envision with me that the Bible, that is, the Holy Scriptures, is represented by the physical land of America. As varied and rich as the topography and geography of America is, so we can picture the Scriptures. The Bible is a giant landscape full of colorful and varied landforms expressing different Biblical themes—and yes, they are not all beautiful—there are dark and shadowy places in the Biblical landscape. Just as America has its deserts, polluted waters, and ghettoes, so also the Biblical landscape has features that portray the ugliness of sin and its effect on mankind and the world.(1) But these are contrasted by the pure sparkling rivers and verdant meadows and soaring mountaintops of the glorious Gospel in Jesus Christ.

Now we can better grasp how the Lutheran Confessions function as a map to the Scriptures. To use Voelz’s words, “They map out the doctrinal content of the Scriptures” (Voelz 350). So what they do is to mark out the teaching contained in the landscape of Scripture. Very importantly, they distinguish the boundaries between what is Biblically true and false on many issues, much like the borders on a map. Voelz clarifies their function again;
"Maps are not intended to replace or avoid taking the trip through the country they survey. They are made in order to provide a guide for taking the trip. The one taking the trip will use it confidently, and only if something does not agree with it does a question concerning the map itself arise. On the other hand, to take a trip without a map heightens the odds of getting lost."

This addresses several issues for us. First of all, have you ever heard someone claim that Lutherans hold up the Confessions as being equal to Scripture, or an equivalent authority to Scripture? Or that we substitute them for the Bible? This is just as illogical as saying that the map replaces the geographical reality that it represents. Or likewise, that the map has its own authority apart from the geography. Both are ridiculous. The Lutheran Confessions are formed and shaped by the Scriptures, just as a map is shaped by the land it represents. The Confessions have authority only because they accurately reflect the Scriptural landscape. Take away the Scriptures and the Confessions have no authority or meaning.

And as Voelz points out, they do not have the purpose of preventing you from entering the Scriptural countryside, but to help guide you into and through it. One can certainly walk through the Bible without a map, but as Voelz remarks, it increases the odds of getting lost. In theology and in daily Christian living, it is possible, and even common to “lose the forest for the trees”. In this way, we can become so focused on certain landforms or points of doctrine, that we lose sight of the greater picture, i.e. the Gospel. So the Lutheran Confessions map out the lay of the land, and above all they draw attention to the central and uniting theme of the Biblical geography: Salvation for Sinful Mankind is Found in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is another significant point that is illustrated well by this analogy. In your systematics courses the professors will talk to you about the difference between a quia and a quatenus subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. When, God-willing, a seminarian is called and ordained as a pastor, he is required to confess his belief in the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, the three Ecumenical Creeds, and that the Lutheran Confessions are a true exposition of Scripture and are in agreement with the one Scriptural faith (LW Agenda, 211-12). The Latin word quatenus refers to subscribing to the Confessions “insofar” as they agree with Scripture. The Latin word quia refers to subscribing to the Confessions “because” they agree with Scripture. As your professors will tell you, a quatenus—insofar subscription is really no subscription at all. The map analogy helps to illustrate the difference between an “insofar” and a “because” subscription. For a person wandering across the Biblical countryside, of what use is a map that is correct only insofar as it represents the geography? You might have a map for the completely wrong place, but maybe a small portion corresponds in a crude way to the roads and cities of the Biblical countryside. The map matches insofar as some small portion of it coincidentally overlaps with some part of the reality, but for the traveler, the map is useless. It doesn’t truly represent the land, and worst of all, it is misleading. Or similarly, you may have a crude and poorly drafted map that is only correct in some areas. On the other hand, a true map is only useful quia—because it correctly represents the reality. In this way the Lutheran Confessions are true because they correctly restate and summarize the Scripture. We can and do test this out as we study here at the seminary. As we daily live and walk through the Scriptures, we should test the map of the Lutheran Confessions against the Bible and see if it is true.

In summary, the relationship between the Lutheran Confessions and Scripture has been shown to be like a map is to the geography and topography of America. The Confessions outline and summarize the centrality of Christ and His teachings. They do not replace the Bible, but lead us into and help guide us through Scriptures. They are helpful and true because they correctly set forth what the Bible teaches.

1 In referring to ‘dark and shadowy places in the Biblical landscape’ in the previous sentence, I meant precisely this and nothing else: that the Bible portays sin in its full ugliness and depravity. I am NOT using this metaphorical picture of how the Bible depicts sin to in any way suggest that the Scripture contains errors or passages for which we should be ashamed. Nor am I suggesting a Gospel-reductionistic view of Scripture. I fully maintain the inspiration and inerrancy of the entire Scriptures, as given by the Holy Spirit.

1 comment:

Keith A. said...

Thank you for this exposition. It's certainly a useful analogy.