The Fear of God’s Word

by Franz Pieper
translated by Andrew Hussman

Franz Pieper expounds on the meaning of “fearing God’s Word” in the sense of revering it and treating it as holy and as God wants us to treat it. He warns against trying to rationalize God’s Word, as the Zwinglians in Luther’s time did and even Lutherans in Pieper’s day were doing. True Christian unity only exists when there is agreement in doctrine and practice. This article is the Forward to volume 35 of Lehre und Wehre¸ January and February 1889, pp. 1-6, 33-37.

But do not all those who call themselves Lutheran fear God's Word? Let us realize what is implied in “fearing God’s Word.”

Above all it implies that we acknowledge the entire Holy Scripture as inspired by God, and for this reason, as God’s majestic and infallible Word. Holy Scripture itself proceeds with this claim when it says, πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος (all Scripture is inspired by God), 2 Timothy 3:16. And no less than the Son of God himself also testifies in regard to the individual words of Scripture: οὐ δύναται λυθῆναι ἡ γραφή (the Scripture cannot be broken), John 10:35. The denial of the inspiration of Holy Scripture is therefore from the start the exact opposite of the fear of God’s Word. And whoever accuses Holy Scripture of error in any one part, or even just gives it up as capable of error, has abandoned the fear of God’s Word. The fear of God’s Word demands that we say with Luther, “the Scripture has not yet erred,”1 and with the Formula of Concord, “Toto pectore prophetica et apostolica scripta Veteris et Novi Testamenti ut limpidissimos purissimosque Israelis fontes recipimus ac amplectimur” (with all our heart we accept the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fount of Israel).2 Indeed, the one who fears God’s Word must also say with Quenstedt, “In canonical Holy Scripture there is no lie, no falsehood, nor even a little error, whether it is in facts or in words. Rather, each and every thing recorded in it is true, whether it may concern doctrine or morals or history, the calendar, the description of countries or names. And no ignorance, thoughtlessness and forgetfulness, no errors of memory can or may be ascribed to the instruments of Holy Spirit in the recording of the Holy Scriptures” (Didactic-Polemic Theology I. 112).

However, some in recent times think that the fear of God’s Word and the fear of Holy Scripture are two different things. But John Gerhard says quite rightly that there is no essential difference between God’s Word and Holy Scripture.3 Holy Scripture is God’s Word, and God’s Word is Holy Scripture. All the words of Holy Scripture are God’s words because they are inspired by God. In Holy Scripture God has become man in his speaking. And as God approaches men in his incarnate Son, and consequently all are to honor the Son as they honor the Father, and whoever does not honor the Son also does not honor the Father, so also there is no honor and fear of God and his Word except that which is given to Holy Scripture. It is great blindness when those who want to deny the inspiration of Holy Scripture and distinguish between Scripture and God’s Word still think they stand in the true fear of God and his Word. But it is a sad fact that even the theologians of Germany, who call themselves Lutheran and have a good reputation, almost unanimously deny with complete determination that Holy Scripture is the majestic and infallible Word of God inspired by God. Instead of bowing down before every word of Scripture as before the majesty of God himself, they make Scripture into an object of criticism. Yes, as the Jewish scribes and Pharisees once pronounced those who believe in Christ as the Son of God to be wrong and deceived (John 7), so one of the “scribes” of our time has declared that those who still regard Holy Scripture as God’s infallible Word are hardening themselves against the truth.4 Unfortunately, this total renunciation of the fundamental principle of Lutheran church has spread far, particularly in Germany. Yes, it has come so far that some see the church’s salvation in surrendering the doctrine of inspiration.5 It can only improve in this part of the church if this dreadful injury is removed, if the deceivers and the deceived accept Scripture as God’s Word again and thus turn back to the true fear of God’s Word.

Yet the fear of God’s Word entails not only that we acknowledge Holy Scripture as God’s infallible Word, but second, it includes regarding and accepting all teachings of Scripture as binding. Again, it is the exact opposite of the fear of God’s Word to want to take a selection of the doctrines revealed in Scripture according to the importance attached to the individual doctrines and to accept and inculcate the doctrines that are seen as important, but to surrender the doctrines that are seen as less important, that is, to declare as less important those doctrines which individual Christians and Christian congregations can accept or reject. It is always blasphemy if someone does not want to recognize an important or less important law of a king as binding. By disavowing some law issued by the king, a person makes it known that he regards the king’s authority as absolutely nothing. This is also how it is with the recognition of the teachings which God presented to faith in Holy Scripture. Whoever refuses to recognize a doctrine of the divine Word (this may also be compared with other doctrines of secondary importance for the emergence of faith and the obtainment of salvation), shows through this that he by no means acknowledges the authority of God and the divine Word, that foundations other than the divine Word influence him, when he declares that he still accepts certain teachings included in Scripture. It is certainly true that Scripture itself makes a distinction between the revealed teachings. It pronounces certain teachings to be such that no man can be a Christian without the believing acceptance of them, but on the other hand it pronounces others to be such that someone can err out of weakness in them and still be a Christian, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. But this does not mean the loss of certain parts of divine revelation is permitted. Let someone show just one passage of Holy Scripture in which God excuses him from accepting any teaching revealed by him. Such a passage is not found in all of Scripture. Rather, many passages with the opposite meaning are found in it. No one should be so bold as to add to God’s Word or subtract from it, Deuteronomy 4. And whoever removes just one of the smallest commands and teaches the people in this way is called least in the kingdom of heaven, Matthew 5. All teachings of Holy Scripture, although not equally necessary for obtaining salvation, nevertheless have a completely equal binding force on all people, since they are divine revelation to mankind. Luther says, “Absit, absit, ut ullus apex in toto Paulo sit, quem non debeat imitari et servare tota universalis ecclesia.”[^6} It is a crimen laesae majestatis divinae, an intrusion upon the divine majesty, to want to surrender a teaching which is revealed in Scripture. The principle which the “Lutheran Visitor” has made its motto and which the “Lutheran” cites in its issue from December 20th: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” expresses ungodliness, if under “non-essentials” in Scripture are understood revealed teachings. Some object, “It is not meant so badly!” That is certainly true. Indeed, most of those who want to follow God's revealed Word think they are doing God a service in this. They think they act in a very God-fearing way if they urge only the acceptance of some main teachings and put the rest into the freedom of Christians. But that is a very foolish notion that does not even have the smallest basis in Scripture. God wants to be honored and feared in his Word, and certainly in every one of his words.

This fear of God’s Word must dominate the attempts at unity which are meant to heal the divisions within the Lutheran church. Only then is there a chance that a God-pleasing agreement may take place. Negotiations for making a union among Lutheran church bodies have been fostered both here and in Germany. But if a part, particularly from the English-speaking Lutherans, have directly spoken their minds, saying that a union on the basis of agreement in doctrine is to be disregarded from the start, then the fear of God’s Word is thereby also disregarded from the start. The Lutheran church is not benefitted through such negotiations, only harmed. In the negotiations which were fostered most recently in smaller circles among the Lutherans in Germany, they have stated from the beginning that they want to achieve agreement in doctrine. There are also statements from the Breslau Synod that show not only love for peace, but also love for the truth, that is, the proper fear of God’s Word. But what a writer divulged quite briefly in the “Breslau Church Magazine” is very disconcerting. We cite this comment here because it is unfortunately typical in many circles. The mentioned writer says, “We do not at all demand that everyone confess to our view. If we would succeed in persuading our opponents of the rightness of our view, then that would naturally be most agreeable to us. In the meantime, such unification can hardly be hoped for in our difficult days. We would already be considering it a substantial gain if we succeeded in producing such a mutual understanding of different doctrinal views that no side would accuse the other of doctrinal error.” This talk cannot coexist with the fear of God’s Word. In this instance it concerns the doctrine of the church and church authority, and thus a doctrine which is definite and clearly taught. It is not in the power of any Christian or church association to call the different opinions about this doctrine equally right, hence, to say that one or even more sides should be allowed to depart from God’s Word in this respect and therefore give way to their own opinion. Discussions which do not have the aim of truly achieving unity in a teaching revealed in God’s Word, i.e., of bringing all those involved to recognize God’s Word––discussions in which they, on the contrary, want to practice how they can take “different doctrinal views”––such discussions from the beginning lack the true foundation, the fear of God’s Word. And if the desired result would be reached, then it would not be a “substantial gain,” but a substantial injury. To be sure, the writer in the “Church Magazine” gave up hope for a union on the basis of the one truth revealed in God’s Word. But why did he despair like this? He remembered the “difficult days” in which we live. But in these difficult days do we not have God’s Word, which clearly, plainly, and in a way understandable to every Christian, says what is right and proper in doctrine and life in the Christian church? Some truly act as if there were no Scripture, or yet, as if Scripture were a “dark and incomprehensible book.” We are of the firm conviction: Christians who consider Holy Scripture to be clear and sincerely seek unity in the entire revealed truth, these will not come together in vain. The result of discussions conducted in love and patience will not be the mutual recognition of “different doctrinal views,” but the common recognition of the one teaching revealed in Holy Scripture. In this way the injury within the Lutheran church would be properly healed and the Lutheran church would be real salt for the unionistic and indifferently-minded sects.

The true fear of God’s Word not only entails that the entire Word of God and all its teachings are declared binding, but it also includes simply believing the Word of God in everything which it lays out, taking it as it reads, and subjecting one’s own mind to the Word of God throughout. Whoever swears with words to accept the entire Word of God, but then, as soon as it becomes a matter of accepting this or that specific doctrine, follows his own rational thoughts instead of the clear words of Holy Scripture, and in accordance with these thoughts, twists and turns God’s Word––he denies the fear of God’s Word. That at the same time he bows politely to the Word of God, perhaps saying, “It is impossible for Scripture to present such incomprehensible, indeed, contradictory things for men to believe,” does not change the clear fact of his contempt for God’s Word, but adds to his contempt for the Word further mockery of it.

Here is the reason for the church’s fragmentation at the time of the Reformation. Recently some have considered it the result of a necessary “historical development” that there is a Reformed church with its army of sects in addition to the Lutheran church. The perception of divine truth, so they maintain, had to develop differently according to the different “personal and national characteristics.” O. Schmidt is of the opinion in Herzog’s Realencyklopaedie: “It is unproductive to wish that those contrasts (between Luther and Zwingli) might not have come to the fore. They had to arise and develop according to their personalities and circumstances, for we men are destined to go the way of history.”6 So common is this view of the formation of the Reformed church, so absurd and foolish it is. The reason for a Reformed church in addition to the Lutheran church comes simply from this: the former makes reason into the principle of theology in a number of doctrines, and thus actually ignores the fear of God’s Word, in spite of their assurance that they deeply revere it. Luther proved this origin of the Reformed sects again and again and showed their leaders how they were “thoughtless despisers of Scripture.”7 To be sure, the enthusiasts maintained that they had God’s honor in mind when they did not take hold of the words in the Lord’s Supper as they actually are. For if someone accepted that Christ’s body and blood actually and essentially were in the Lord’s Supper, then he would have to believe contradictory things, namely, that Christ’s body and blood are in heaven and earth at the same time, and indeed in many places on earth at the same time. But Luther was not deceived by this. Rather, he showed the enthusiasts again directly from this contradiction that they were lacking the fear of God’s Word, in that they wanted to determine according to the thoughts of their reason, instead of according to God’s Word, what a contradiction in divine matters was. Therefore, when they also discussed at Marburg how they could end the conflict between the Lutherans and the Zwinglians, Luther said, “I know no other way, than that they (Zwingli and his associates) give God’s Word the honor and believe with us.”8

Very recently, we in this country have also had to mourn over a division within the Lutheran church. The Ohio Synod and a part of the Norwegian Synod have left our fellowship. Why? Because they denied the fear of God’s Word and in its place followed the thoughts of their heart. In all the passages that deal with the relationship of the faith of Christians in time to their eternal election, God’s Word says that faith, indeed the entire state of being a Christian, is a consequence and result of eternal election. In no passage of Scripture is there even one indication that faith––or as they explain faith in more detail––Christians’ good behavior precedes their election, or that eternal election happened in view of faith or good behavior. Nevertheless, our former friends denied the former and affirmed the latter. Thus they have removed the fear of God’s Word from their sight. And when they similarly swore, as the Zwinglians, that in their doctrine of an election in view of faith or good behavior they only had God’s honor in mind, in that without this doctrine God could not be thought of as impartial, or his gracious will as universal, they revealed through this argumentation again only that they had removed the fear of God’s Word from their sight. For it is tantamount to despising God’s Word when people, amidst the denial of a whole series of the clearest passages of Scripture, want to determine what God’s honor is according to their own thoughts. God’s honor is his revealed Word. The first part of God’s honor is that we take God’s Word as it reads, without asking how it makes sense or adapting it to our assumptions of God and divine matters. God has revealed his Word to us not so that we might put together from it a religion that agrees with our thoughts. God has, as Luther says, given his Word to us men so that we are drawn away from the thoughts of our own understanding and reason, so that our delusion and understanding might cease and count for nothing at all, and we might keep the real Sabbath in the Word.9 In this way alone we truly fear God’s Word. If we let go of this fear, if we do not let our own understanding in divine matters cease completely, then the devil deceives us and we consider as God’s honor what is his dishonor, and vice versa. Finally, our opponents have asserted (for the preservation of God’s honor) that a person’s conversion and salvation are not dependent on God’s grace alone, but also on the person’s behavior. They want to honor God by not giving honor to God alone! O how soon we poor people are done for! How we fall again into godless error, when the fear of God’s Word no longer rules us!

Therefore, if the schism, which the Ohioans and their followers have caused, is going to be healed, then it can only happen in one way. The true fear of God’s Word, which they have denied, must enter into their heart again, the fear of God’s Word, which does not ask: “How does it make sense?” but says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” That is the one, but certain, way to remove the existing “difference.”

Finally, the fear of God’s Word also entails that we, as much as it is in us, make God’s Word respected in practice, and ultimately, that we leave those who persistently deny God’s Word and turn their backs on it. If someone concedes that this or that doctrine is contrary to God’s Word, that this or that church practice directly contradicts the Word of God, but at the same time no initiative is taken to abolish the false doctrine and practice that denies God’s Word, but afterwards, as before, keeps church fellowship with those who stubbornly reject God’s Word, then that is not in keeping with the fear of God’s Word. And if someone cites the “historically developed circumstances” as substantiation for his behavior and furthermore alleges that asserting God’s Word will cause too much unrest and disorder and do more harm than good, then again it truly becomes evident that he places the historical circumstances, his own rest and comfort, as well as his notions of good and harm, over God’s Word and its judgment. And that is again the opposite of the fear of God’s Word. The Lutheran church in Germany is such a small group because so many, who still want to be Lutherans, instead of fearing God’s Word, are afraid of the historically developed circumstances and the disturbances that are possibly, indeed, probably arising from the fluctuation of these circumstances. The question of pulpit fellowship also belongs to the points which are in dispute here in America between us and so-called American Lutheranism. The representatives of American Lutheranism, as they call themselves, want to occasionally exchange pulpits with sectarian preachers. At the last assembly of the General Council in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a pastor of the Pennsylvania Synod declared that he wanted to adhere to this practice. “He for one will invite pastors from other denominations to his pulpit and he himself will preach in other pulpits, if he ‘feels’ like it.”10 We most emphatically condemn this practice. What is the reason for this difference? The “American” Lutherans have thought the difference comes from this: they were born and raised in America and we in Germany, or at least from this: they were raised in the eastern part and we in the western part of United States of America. It is already clear that this reason is not true, since some who were born and raised abroad and in the west agree in practice with the natives and those raised in the east, and vice versa. The true reason is that the “American” Lutherans view and treat the clearest expressions of God’s Word as nonexistent. God’s Word says that we should avoid false teachers. Romans 16:17, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.” The “American” Lutherans say to the contrary that people must join with false teachers and keep fellowship with them. Consequently, what the representatives of American Lutheranism are lacking is the fear of God’s Word. If they would stop acting as they “feel” and instead begin to fear God’s Word, then the difference between “American Lutheranism” and the “Foreigners” would soon be removed.

In short, the fear, the true fear of God’s Word is the cure for all the injuries within the Lutheran Church. The fear of God’s Word guards against the misuse of knowledge in theology. The fear of God’s Word also causes us to act according to God’s Word. The true fear of God’s Word, therefore, would soon make all those who call themselves Lutheran of one mind and lead them into a union in the truth, for God’s Word, to which all their mind would be subjected, is truth.

  1. Foundation and Reason of all Articles, etc. 1520, XV. 1758. 
  2. Formula of Concord, Mueller, pg. 568. 
  3. On Holy Scripture, 7. 
  4. Kahnis. Cf. Baier’s Compendium, ed. Walther, I. 103. 
  5. Cf., e.g. “Lehre und Wehre” 1888, pg. 379. 
  6. Volume IX, pg. 275, 2nd ed. 
  7. E.g. “That these words of Christ, “this is my body” are still certain.” 1527. E.A. 30. 41. 
  8. Cited in Herzog a. a. O. pg. 274. 
  9. On Genesis 30:9-11. St. Louis Edition II, 560f. 
  10. Report of the Iowa Journal.