Why read Scripture with the early American Lutheran fathers?
Some things are rightly consigned to history’s dustbin. Some words and some works may be safely taken out never to return. Only the most minutely focused antiquarian could disagree. “Of the making of many books there is no end,” so that what was said before will likely be said again elsewhere at another time. Bible commentaries may be the chief of sinners in the “making of many books” and among the most numerous of all the volumes relegated to being forgotten. Browsing through a used bookstore, one can find many commentaries once common and now largely unknown: Jamieson-Fausset-Brown’s single-volume commentary, Adam Clarke, J. Vernon McGee, the old run of The Interpreter’s Bible so redolent of mid-twentieth-century mainline American Protestantism.
Why then pick up and read through what is still more obscure—American Lutheran commentaries? One of the largest forms of Protestantism in the United States, Lutherans are notoriously theologically reclusive, speaking largely to themselves and with themselves. If you aren’t a Lutheran, you have now found an undiscovered and far country. As we first take up G. Gösswein’s Scriptural and Upbuilding Explanation of the Revelation of St. John (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1900), you may find an understanding of Revelation relatively uncommon in American Christianity. If you are a Lutheran, especially in a church body descended from the old Synodical Conference, you may be familiar with Siegbert W. Becker’s Revelation: The Distant Triumph Song (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1985) or the more recent Revelation – Concordia Commentary by Louis Brighton (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1998). Some non-Lutherans and Lutherans will have heard of R. C. H. Lenski’s The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943). Becker and Brighton are nearly unknown outside Lutheranism, and Lenski’s star has faded from previous years. You may find him alongside J. Vernon McGee, standing in a pile on the floor of that used bookstore.
To take up again books now forgotten is to awaken to the height and breadth and length and depth of the cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Gösswein’s originally German book is available in English but is little known and less studied. He lived in very different times for American Christianity, American Lutheranism, and his own Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (now the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) than Lenski, Becker, Brighton, or anyone reading this. His stresses and excurses, his emphases and his givens will be different from Lenski, Becker, Brighton, or anyone reading this. The first reason to take up Scripture with the early American Lutheran fathers in hand is to let them speak on their own terms, whether we are interested in them merely historically or because they are our spiritual fathers as confessional American Lutherans. Their works should be saved from the demons of disinterest and forgetting.
Never do we come to Scripture alone. Scripture shapes us and molds us and is its own interpreter, but it has already shaped and molded and interpreted and refreshed and perfected many, many before us. It has created the cloud of witnesses whose testimony so strongly urges us to take hold of Scripture more and more even as it takes hold of us more and more. If we do not understand how the witnesses speak or what they said or what they meant, we are the poorer for it. If we do not know our fathers (I speak chiefly to Lutherans), we do not know ourselves. Reading Scripture with the fathers is an exercise in not letting our own thoughts be obvious. We cannot be self-critical or fruitful in growing in the Scriptures if our own presuppositions, thought processes, and conclusions are obvious to us, whether because we share them with our contemporaries or share them with our fathers. We need to follow what moves the fathers make in understanding Scripture, what they chose to comment upon, what they left aside, and what Scripture made of them to understand ourselves, our readings, and our place in what the Spirit is doing throughout time in His church.