The Right Question Answered in Plain Words

An email comment on More Seeds of Discord highlights two challenges we face in achieving genuine agreement on a statement of doctrine.

I agree with your point about asking the right questions. But how to find those right questions?

Also, how to define something that ought to be simple, “What are plain words of Scripture?”

Since I don’t have easy answers to these questions, I’ll pronounce them “good questions.” That’s how it’s usually done, right? But they are good questions, also because they can help us to avoid discord and promote harmony.

How to find the right questions? I think we’d have to take a practical approach to this. We don’t need to go looking for theological questions to answer. Instead, we can address only the questions that arise from the circumstances in which we find ourselves. One of the first things we should do is identify the question being asked, and determine if it’s merely speculative, or what authority is needed to produce a real answer. A question of language usage, for example, can be authoritatively answered by the speakers and writers themselves: “What are the various senses in which we use the term ‘office of the ministry’?” A question of God’s will, on the other hand, can only be answered by holy scripture — if at all: “How does God wish us to regard Baptism?” With some questions, it may be impossible to tell what authority is required. I’d suggest that it may be easier to make headway by first rephrasing or even redefining the question. Only the authority of God’s Word can provide a definitive, unchanging answer, and only questions that can be answered this way require complete agreement among Christians.

The commenter elaborated on the second point:

In this case, I think there are people at both ends of the continuum that claim the higher ground of adhering to the specific words of scripture. On the one hand are those who believe that Christ in specific places instituted a specific Ministry that is entrusted with the preaching of the word and administering of the sacraments.

There are on the other end of the continuum, those who see clearly in Scripture words that seem to indicate or imply or from which can be inferred the clear institution of a wider sense of the ministry.

And so you see, we have a difference in defining something that in English sounds very clear cut, “What does plain mean?”

Here we have suffered from some overlap of meaning. “No kidding,” you say. In this example, we have the term “ministry” (capitalized or not), used in two different senses. In other parts of the whole ELS ministry conversation, we’ve seen the same thing with the term “office” (capitalized or not). If we really want to promote harmony, we will have to agree to some arbitrary language conventions that allow us to avoid this kind of imprecision and the resulting misunderstanding. I think the PMW attempts this rather well, but more can be done. For example, what if we agreed upon the convention of using “office” or “office of the ministry” for only one thing (the current “narrow sense,” for example) while using “ministry” for the other? Artificial and arbitrary? Sure. But helpful, too. We would have to notice that these words were used with less precision (or at least a greater reliance upon context) in years past, and read our fathers’ writings — including the Confessions — with that in mind.

If we could reliably distinguish these two related things that Scripture says have been instituted by God, then we’d see that there are really two categories of questions to be answered, one about “the ministry” and one about the “office of the ministry.” No wonder, then, that each party can claim the higher ground, since they are talking about subtly different questions.

As far as what “plain” means — as in “plain words of Scripture,” my guess is that asking the right kind of questions will help a whole lot. We can expect no plain answer for speculative questions, or those that require only a human authority for their answer. Yet the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture is an article of faith. If we believe that Scripture is clear, then we will either find where it addresses the question plainly, or we will conclude in the end that God has not revealed the answer.

I welcome your further comments.

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