The Place of Scripture in the
Modern Christian University
Mark A. Noll

For a historian to consider the place of Scripture in the modern Christian university is to be drawn immediately to two conclusions. The first is that the place of Scripture poses a real problem in the modern Christian university. The second is that the Lutheran tradition contributed a great deal to creating that problem. This essay explores the general problem briefly before trying to explain how Martin Luther and the Lutheran tradition contributed to the problem. But it then finds in Luther and historical Lutheranism pointers toward a better way in the use of Scripture for the challenges of intellectual life.

The place of Scripture in the modern Christian university is a problem because Christian intellectual life in the contemporary Western world requires an exercise in tight-rope walking. The wire is strung between faithful devotion to divine revelation and responsible engagement with modern learning. It is much easier to fall off this wire than to maintain your balance.

In the current American scene, we have several obvious examples of falling off the wire into a crass biblicism that disregards the legitimate benefits to higher learning that are gained from simply assuming a humble place in the academy. The most obvious example of this destructive biblicism is creation science, where a determined promotion of nineteenth-century literal biblical hermeneutics and commitment to persuasion by adversarial populism overwhelms the critically constructed best results of worthy scientific work. But there are other examples where zealous adherents of Scripture simply toss out the baby of well-grounded learning with the bathwater of learning abused for God-denying purposes. They include manic single-issue public advocacy that claims to represent “biblical politics”; or run-away Americanism that depicts our nation’s early history as the land of the converted and the home of the true-blue evangelical; or the cruder forms of “intelligent design” that repeat William Paley’s mistake of using God to fill in the gaps of contemporary scientific knowledge.

The common mistake of those falling off the wire in this direction is to neglect central teachings of the Scriptures themselves. If God made all humans in his image, if the ability to learn about the external world is a gift given by God to all those made in his image, if Scripture teaches that believers in God are also susceptible to error, and if Scripture testifies repeatedly that all people have a significant capacity for genuine insight on some aspects of human affairs—then Bible believers should be the first to expect genuine intellectual insights from the entire human community, especially in the study of the material world, mathematics, and those aspects of experience that do not deal explicitly with humans standing directly before God.

These problems are more obvious where the Christian element predominates when speaking about the modern university. A different set of problems emerges where the modern or the university elements predominate. Falling off the wire on this side means simply receiving elite opinion in any academic specialty with no effort to assess that opinion by Christian beliefs rooted in Scripture. Examples are again legion. This mishap occurs when Christian students of nature banish tele­ology from their scientific efforts; or when Christian ethicists agree that if something can be done in medicine or the human sciences, it should be done; or when Christian historians rest content with economic, political, gender, or ideological forces as the total picture in depicting the past; or when Christian economists treat all human choices as mere calculations of maximized personal advantage; or when Christian legal scholars, literature professors, or religionists degrade potential laws of nature into mere constructions of the human appetite for power.

The common mistake in this fall from the high wire is to relegate Christian belief to a private space that never intersects meaningfully with the public spaces in which learning takes place.


If this account of problems about the Bible in the modern university is anywhere near accurate, why should Martin Luther and Lutheran traditions be held in any way responsible for the problems besetting Christian universities today? The following discussion is limited to Protestant institutions, but for those institutions the place to begin is at the beginning. (Outstanding accounts of what follows are found in Bainton 1950 and Kolb 2009.)

The furor over Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses of 1517 is properly regarded as the flash point that instigated the Protestant Reformation. In light of later Protestant insistence on Scripture as the defining norm for doctrine and life, it is noteworthy that the Ninety-Five Theses contained very little direct appeal to the Bible as such. Instead, the Theses mostly took up questions about the theology and practice of indulgences.

When, however, Luther’s Latin proposal for an in-house academic debate was translated into German and republished by several enterprising printers, it is well known that a wide populace responded with enthusiasm even as the pope and his associates responded with outrage. The ensuing controversy witnessed an almost immediate explosion of print. What the Gutenberg Revolution would mean for Western society became much clearer when Luther’s theses precipitated a blizzard of publication. But this publicity also led to another almost immediate consequence—a shift in the controversy’s center of gravity.

Specific questions of Christian doctrine certainly remained important, but almost immediately they were frequently superseded by questions concerning Christian authority: How could faithful believers know what was true, and who could guide them in finding out? The Ninety-Five Theses were posted on 31 October 1517; less than a year later Luther was called from his home at Wittenberg to meet a representative of the pope, Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, in the imperial city of Augsburg. At Augsburg the controversy over the doctrine and practice of indulgences almost instantly expanded into controversy over the use and authority of Scripture. Luther wanted to cite the Bible to defend his positions, but Cajetan never took this bait; he insisted instead that Luther return to the established teachings of the church.

Since the spheres of religion and society were so intimately conjoined in early modern Europe, Luther’s challenge to religious authority was quickly perceived as a challenge to authority in general. That broader challenge was apparent when Luther traveled in April 1521 to an Imperial Diet convened by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. If Charles lacked experience as emperor and if everything spoken in German had to be translated for him into Latin, he nonetheless represented at Worms the personal embodiment of Christendom. The Christendom ideal, built up over the previous seven centuries, held that the interests of religion and society could be harmonized in one completely integrated whole. Before such an august personage representing such a well-established ideal, Martin Luther appeared as a solitary monk who in his private spiritual journey had become convinced that Scripture taught much that the pope, the Emperor, and all Christendom had tragically misconstrued.


When Luther came before the imperial court, he said he would recant what he had written, but only upon one condition. That condition amounted to a quintessentially Protestant challenge: “Therefore, I ask by the mercy of God, may your most serene majesty, most illustrious lordships, or anyone at all who is able, either high or low, bear witness, expose my errors, overthrowing them by the writings of the prophets and the ­evangelists” (“Luther at the Diet of Worms,” 111, emphasis added).

But that statement did not satisfy the Emperor, who asked Luther to say more. Then came these famous words: “Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it.... Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience” (Ibid., 112, emphasis added).

This dramatic statement in this most august setting defined a baseline for all later Protestants: they would follow the Bible before all other authorities—even when, as many of them later concluded, the Bible taught truths at considerable variance from what Luther found in Scripture. The statement also defined a second landmark that has exerted almost as much influence: “my conscience” or the individual Bible-reader aware of standing before the face of God, would be the final guide for interpreting the supremely authoritative Scripture.

Immediately after Luther had finished speaking his piece, the Emperor’s spokesman called him to account for setting himself up as superior to the great councils of the Catholic church that had already ruled on many of the issues he was addressing. “In this,” the imperial secretary told Luther, “you are completely mad.” Then he went on with words that forecast any number of problems in the history of Protestant university life: “For what purpose does it serve to raise a new dispute about matters condemned through so many centuries by church and council? Unless perhaps a reason must be given to just anyone about anything whatsoever. But if it were granted that whoever contradicts the councils and the common understanding of the church must be overcome by Scripture passages, we will have nothing in Christianity that is certain or decided” (Ibid., 113).

The Emperor was obviously not impressed with Luther’s declaration of Protestant principle. Yet Charles and the pope’s representatives dawdled after Luther’s dramatic appearance. By the time they figured out what they wanted to do with him, he had long since left Worms. Luther’s prince, the Elector Frederick of Saxony, was torn between a desire to protect the theologian who was bringing renown to his land and the need to show proper deference to the Emperor. Frederick’s creative response was to maintain a public position of noncommittal impartiality while arranging, under strictest secrecy, for Luther to be “kidnapped” and spirited away to a secret retreat, the Castle Wartburg near Eisenach.

As soon as Luther was settled in the Wartburg castle, he turned his great energy immediately to preparing a German-language translation of the New Testament. As with all such efforts, much was at stake, implicitly as well as explicitly, in Luther’s path-breaking translation. His 1522 German New Testament was immediately noteworthy for the chance it gave Luther to accentuate the themes of Scripture that most directly fueled his reforming fire. A much-noticed instance was his translation of a key passage about faith and justification found toward the end of the third chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Luther added the word “alone” to the Apostle’s statement that believers are “justified without the works of the law by faith” (Strand, 10).

A second noteworthy feature of Luther’s first momentously important New Testament was its annotations, which came in two forms. In slender margins alongside the translated text of Scripture, Luther inserted quotations from what he considered pertinent Old Testament texts and also explained what he felt the New Testament authors were trying to say. He also supplied prefaces, first to the New Testament as a whole and then to each of the individual books.

In the general preface to the entire New Testament, Luther set out why such an introductory statement was necessary. His very first sentences explained, “It would be right and proper for this book to go forth without any prefaces or extraneous names attached and simply have its own say under its own name.” Yet Luther did provide an introductory preface because “many unfounded [wilde] interpretations... have scattered the thought of Christians to a point where no one any longer knows what is gospel or law, New Testament or Old.” It was, therefore, a “necessity” for Luther to give some “notice... by which the ordinary man can be rescued from his former delusions, set on the right track, and taught what he is to look for in this book, so that he may not seek laws and commandments where he ought to be seeking the gospel and promises of God” (“Preface to the New Testament,” 357).

This very first Protestant Bible translation, thus, mingled the ideal and the real as they would be consistently mingled in Protestant history, and nowhere more thoroughly than in American experience. The ideal was biblical authority alone; the real was constant effort by those with authority to make sure that others were carefully guided so that they could grasp what “the Bible alone” really meant.

Two more incidents in Luther’s early reforming career are pertinent. While Luther was hidden away in the Wartburg castle, colleagues who d his desire for reform got to work in Wittenberg. They were led by an older university professor and cleric, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, who believed that a right interpretation of Scripture demanded more and faster changes than Luther desired. In short order, Karlstadt drastically simplified the ritual of the Mass, led the destruction of artistic images in Wittenberg churches, and took many other radical steps. Luther and the Elector Frederick were furious. To check what they saw as not reform but a rush into chaos, Frederick called Luther back to Wittenberg to deliver a series of sermons during Lent. And then Frederick, with Luther’s full backing, banished Karlstadt from Saxony because Karlstadt’s interpretations of Scripture seemed so dangerous to both the Elector Frederick and the theologian Luther.

The last incident involves Luther’s famous debate with Desiderius Erasmus in 1525 over the theological question of the freedom of the human will. The key matter for our purposes is that Erasmus argued that the Bible was obscure on this point and so allowed for a great deal of theological latitude. Luther, by contrast, insisted that the Bible on this issue was entirely clear. It was perspicacious, and this perspicacity justified the strong position that Luther took in this controversy. But because Erasmus was in Basel, Switzerland, far beyond the authority of any Saxon prince, Luther had no means to compel Erasmus to agree with his interpretation of Scripture.

So here is how things stood with the Bible before the Protestant Reformation was even ten years old. Scripture, as God’s written revelation that could be corrupted by self-seeking church officials, was nonetheless the supreme authority for all of life’s important questions. Moreover, the individual standing humbly before God could follow his own conscience (and, quite a bit later, her own conscience) in grasping the message of Scripture. In turn, that clear perception could purify Christian teaching, reform church corruption, and bring new life in the Holy Spirit to individuals and Christian communities alike.

But, of course, that is not all. Since few could read the Bible’s original Greek and Hebrew for themselves, it was necessary for translations to be prepared so that people could read Scripture in vernacular languages. Inevitably, as has become a commonplace observation, all Bible translations “are, by their very nature, partisan” (Prickett, v). Traduttore, Traditore,” say the Italians with characteristic overstatement: a translation is a traitor (to the original). It really isn’t quite that bad. But wherever translation takes place, the labors of the translators shade the final product. For Scripture, a translated text is no longer “the Bible alone.”

And there is more. As soon as there was a Protestant movement appealing to Scripture as ultimate authority, there were Protestant movements differing on how best to interpret the supremely authoritative Scripture. Some of those differences were minor, some were literally deadly in the effect they had on those who maintained them. And so began the Protestant swinging to and fro that has gone on since late in 1517 to this day: strong assertions of conscience captive to the Word of God are pulled back by authoritative directives from religious or intellectual or political leaders about what the conscience is supposed to find when it opens the Scriptures.

For myself, I remain by conviction a Bible-believing Protestant. While many of the criticisms that Roman Catholics and the Orthodox direct at Protestant use of the Bible are legitimate, both the Catholic appeal to magisterial teaching authority and the Orthodox appeal to unbroken liturgical tradition appear to me to have just as serious problems in using Scripture as Protestants do—though their problems are admittedly different. Nonetheless, especially as a Protestant historian, I’m very much aware that if Martin Luther’s appeal to his conscience as captive to the Word of God solved some very important problems, it also created other and quite serious problems as well.

For the history of higher education, later Lutherans did one wise thing and made two questionable moves. The wise thing was to view Luther’s declaration about his individual conscience captive to the Word of God as hyperbole when they set about reconstituting educational practice for the new Lutheran tradition. One instance is especially telling. Throughout much of his reforming career, Luther railed vehemently against Aristotle. Luther’s complaint against the Greek philosopher was that official Catholic teaching had taken Aristotle’s categories to define key church doctrines like the Eucharist. Famously, official Catholic teaching mandated that the faithful had to believe, using Aristotle’s categories, that the substance of bread and wine was changed into the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents (or appearances) of the bread and wine remained unchanged. Luther had some problems with the formula itself, but much bigger problems with Aristotle’s categories being used to define what Christians had to believe in order to enjoy the mercies of God. And so Luther railed against Aristotle. In one of his comments fit for a mixed audience, he said that “God has sent him as a plague upon us on account of our sins” (“To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” 201).

But soon after the Reformation began, Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon was charged to work with others in setting up the curriculum for universities in the new Lutheran lands. One of Melanchthon’s very first moves was to require several works by Aristotle as the mandated course texts in philosophy classes and also to put much of Aristotle to use in some parts of the new theology curriculum. Luther saw what was happening and let it pass. The tacit agreement was that narrowly biblical religion could not serve to establish the entire program of study for a university. Put more generally, in a formula that Luther used for other purposes, it is appropriate for enterprises of Christian learning to use at least many aspects of well-considered general human learning (like Aristotle) if that form of human learning does not contradict the central message taught by the Bible.

The wisdom of this early Lutheran move was in cushioning the impact of the appeal to “the Bible alone.” In practice, Luther really meant: In the Bible above all other authorities, which authorities may be employed if they do not violate the message of salvation that is the fundamental reason the Bible exists at all.

This wise Lutheran move, to which I will return, was compromised, however, by two developments that caused considerable difficulty. The first was Luther’s and later Lutherans’ over-­reliance on government authority to handle matters like education. The Elector Frederick was indispensable for protecting Luther in the early days of the Reformation. The Lutheran payback was, in effect, to give Frederick and later governing officials pretty much a free hand to do as they pleased in operating institutions of higher learning.

The second later problem was a theological move that complemented the decision to rely on the Elector Frederick. This move was to picture God’s interaction with the world as involving Two Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Christ, or the church, or the proclamation of redemption, would be governed directly by Scripture interpreted in such a way as to highlight the Bible’s message of salvation (justification by faith alone). The Kingdom of the World, by contrast, was the realm of politics, economics, education, and social order. God also ruled this second Kingdom, but indirectly through authorities he ordained for that purpose. For Lutherans, efforts at applying the Bible’s message of salvation to the Kingdom of the World represented a major mistake in categories that would lead only to misguided zeal, clerical over-reach, theological triumphalism, and never-ending clashes between church and state. (As an aside, the problems that Lutherans wanted to avoid with a theology of Two Kingdoms were pretty much the challenges that Calvinists welcomed as they set about their reforms, including educational reforms. There is much at stake in the Calvinist-Lutheran debate over such matters but that is the subject for another day.)

In sum, Lutheran practice in higher education was never as open-ended as Luther’s early stance on Scripture might indicate. The practical use of human wisdom that did not contradict the biblical message of salvation, the theology of Two Kingdoms, and a willingness to defer to secular authority in the organization of life beyond the church led to significant positive results—first in Europe and then in the United States. Serious higher learning in a broadly Christian framework has been going on at European Lutheran universities for nearly five centuries; in the United States the same has been true for over a century and a half.

But there have also been problems in this Lutheran style of higher education. Because of the large role given to secular rulers, Lutheran institutions have had difficulty resisting political authority that compromised or contradicted the Christian gospel. In American history, this Lutheran deference to secular authority has often been transferred into deference toward intellectual elites who function as the equivalent of secular authority in our American polity that separates church and state. Even the most confessional of Lutherans have rarely been noted for challenging the anti-Christian foundations or the anti-Christian procedures advocated by some of the elite intellectual authorities of the modern age. Lutheran higher education, in the worst case, can come to mean only that a Lutheran university maintains a chapel where the constituency can hear sermons on Sundays about justification by faith, but sermons that have only a vague or amorphous relationship to what goes on in the classroom during the rest of the week.


Luther and the Lutheran tradition in fact offer much more about how Bible-based learning might be carried out in a modern Christian university. For this purpose, a key comes from the preface of his first German translation of the New Testament in 1522. Luther’s main reason for supplying a preface in which he instructed readers how their consciences should respond to the written Word of God was straightforward. He wanted “the ordinary man” to be rescued from misreadings of Scripture that—with the rise of literacy, spread of printing, and onset of religious controversy—were spreading like wildfire. The most important thing to Luther was that “the ordinary” reader “know what is gospel and law.” He wanted those who took up the New Testament in German “not [to] seek laws and commandments where [they] are to be seeking the gospel and promise of God” (“Preface to the New Testament,” 357).

It is carrying coals to Newcastle to explain to a Lutheran readership what Luther meant in those opening words of his New Testament preface. His own spiritual breakthrough and the entire edifice of his trust in Scripture was based on a proper grasp of Law and Gospel. If the Bible was to function as the instrument of God’s mercy as God intended it to function, readers had to understand the difference between God’s law, which condemned everyone as unrighteous, and God’s gospel, which in Jesus Christ joyfully welcomed sinners into fellowship with God. Law, which predominated in the Old Testament, explained what God required. Gospel, which predominated in the New Testament, explained how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ met the requirements of God’s law and made it possible for guilty humans to stand in Christ as fully reconciled to God. So while it is not incorrect to say that Luther freed up Scripture for all to read and heed, it is more accurate to say that Luther freed up Scripture so that all might confront God’s law and the gospel found in Jesus Christ.

The implications for educators from this particularly Lutheran view of “the Bible alone” are profound. One is that the Bible per se does not provide a satisfactory grounding for Christian learning. The Bible per se is too easily the source of what Luther called “delusions” that arise when the individual conscience runs wild through the scriptural landscape. Instead of the Bible per se, Luther presented the Bible as narrating a particular account of how God encounters human kind. That account is certainly biblical, but it is the narration or message of redemption in Scripture as a whole that can become a satisfactory grounding for Christian learning. For educational purposes, therefore, it is necessary to define the foundational character of Scripture carefully. It is not the Bible alone in any simple sense that can serve as platform for Christian learning. It is rather the Bible’s narrative or story or existential offer of redemption that provides the necessary clarity, depth, and capacity upon which education can be based. The first positive implication from Luther, therefore, is that a modern Christian university needs a forceful sense of the Bible’s message, and not just the Bible alone, as it sets upon its work.

The second implication from Luther concerns the message he found in Scripture. All consequential attempts at Christian higher education have, in fact, been based on a message or narrative found in the Bible, rather than on the Bible alone. For Catholics, there has been Thomistic Aristotelianism; for some Calvinists, it has been covenant theology; for some fundamentalists and evangelicals, it has been dispensational theology. The advantage that the historical Lutheran message of Law and Gospel enjoys for higher education is its depth of insight into the Scripture itself. (Some of what follows is expanded on in: Mark A. Noll. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.)

Luther and the Lutheran tradition are not unique in the kind of message they find in Scripture, but their reading makes a contribution of the greatest potential worth. When Lutherans are asked, what does the Bible mean, the answer is, “We must say two things at once.” We must say that the Bible teaches Law, we must say that the Bible teaches Gospel, and we must say that the biblical message of Law and Gospel is not two messages but two ways of describing the same thing. Crude efforts to explain Law and Gospel can sometimes simplistically equate Law with the Old Testament and Gospel with the New Testament. But Luther at his clearest and later Lutherans at their best do not make this mistake. On this question, C. F. W. Walther explained matters clearly in his great ­nineteenth-century exposition of Law and Gospel: “Do not think that the Old Testament reveals a wrathful and the New Testament a gracious God, or that the Old Testament teaches salvation by a person’s own works and the New Testament salvation by faith. No... the moment we understand how to distinguish between Law and Gospel, it is as if the sun were rising upon the Scriptures, and we behold all the contents of Scripture in the most beautiful harmony” (70). The point Walther made is the crucial point: a Lutheran understanding of the Bible finds one message in all of Scripture, but it is one message that requires two things at once to internalize the message.

The implication of this understanding for education is profound, especially when reinforced by another insight from Luther. It is his famous definition of a Christian believer as someone who is at the same time justified and a sinner (simul justus et peccator). Luther developed this definition in his important commentaries on Romans and Galatians, but it is present throughout his work. The formula led to seemingly contradictory statements like this one: “In myself outside of Christ, I am a sinner; in Christ outside of myself, I am not a sinner” (quoted in Althaus, 243).

Such simultaneity, which is of first importance for both theology and the Christian life, has almost as much potential as a foundation for Christian learning. The crucial realization is to see that defining the message of salvation as “Law and Gospel” and understanding Christian existence as “at the same time saint and sinner” reflects the essence of the biblical message as that message has been defined by the great classical norms of Christian faith itself. Thus, at the heart of the Nicene Creed’s effort to summarize the message of Scripture is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, one reality about whom it is necessary to say two things: “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God... consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be; for us humans and for our salvation he came down from the heavens and became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, became human” (“The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed,” in Pelikan and Hotchkiss, 3:163). When a century or so after the Nicene formula was composed, bishops met to clarify this statement, they did so in the definition of Chalcedon that affirmed again that the one Jesus Christ is two things, fully God and fully human: “So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man” (“The Council of Chalcedon,” in ibid., 181).

Luther’s insistence that the most basic Christian teaching must always say one thing by affirming two things accords perfectly with the classical affirmations of Christian faith made in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. Lutherans, of all practicing Christians, should therefore be in excellent position to balance on the high wire strung between historical Christian faith and modern worlds of learning. They, of all Christian educators, should be predisposed by theological inheritance to advance on this high wire.

But can such abstruse theological speculation actually touch the ground? Are there examples of scholarship in the Lutheran tradition that show what the balancing act can mean? The ones that spring most readily to mind come from domains related to theology, but still indicate what might be done in all fields. The German university world contains a solid record of Lutheran worthies who have been marked by the highest standards of technical academic expertise. The great pietist scholar of the eighteenth century, Johann Albrecht Bengel, was a renowned master of textual critical scholarship, but also a noted representative of orthodox biblical teaching. With variations, the same could be said about the polymath F. A. G. Tholuck of Halle in the nineteenth century and about Adolf Schlatter of Tübingen, who maintained the highest standards in his New Testament scholarship while resolutely opposing the ­modernist ­theology of Adolf von Harnack. The acclaim accorded to Søren Kierkegaard in our own day points to another example of a Lutheran scholar whose philosophical skill at combating Hegel and the Hegelians grew directly from a sharply articulated vision of the practical Christian life. Much closer to home, one of President O. P. Kretzmann’s star recruits as he strove to make Valparaiso a first-rate Lutheran university was the young Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor Jaroslav Pelikan. Pelikan stayed at Valparaiso only three years, 1946 to 1949, but he left with President Kretzmann’s blessing to go on at Chicago and Yale to write the most learned and most comprehensive history of Christian doctrine attempted in the last century. Jaroslav Pelikan’s impeccable historical scholarship won wide recognition in the academy, but his own commitment to classical Christian faith is suggested by words he spoke shortly before his own death: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. If Christ is not risen, nothing else matters” (Marty, 47).

Perhaps the supreme example of the high-wire act of faithful Christian learning is also close to home at Valparaiso, but in a different way. Johann Sebastian Bach was an absolute master of his craft. As such, his exercises, canons, preludes and fugues, and more have provided an extraordinary musical genealogy with an inexhaustible source of technical instruction. From Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Stravinsky to teachers of music theory throughout the world today, the renown of Bach the Musicologist is fixed. Yet as all who have benefited from the Bach Institute at Valparaiso know, Bach the Musicologist was also Bach the Evangelist. No one in history has expounded the Bible’s definitive narrative of redemption so evocatively, so profoundly, so beautifully, so simply, and so filled with complexity as the Cantor of Leipzig. And nowhere is the message of artistry and devotion more clearly manifest than in the many duets found in his church cantatas or in several movements of the Mass in B Minor. Of those duets, especially engaging are the ones where two voices sing completely different texts in one expressively moving whole. One extraordinary example is the last movement of Cantata BMV 49, which Bach wrote to accompany the Sunday Gospel reading from Matthew 22 that describes a great royal wedding. In this movement, the bass sings of his love for the bride while the soprano sings a stanza of Philip Nicolai’s “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” to express the church’s love for her Savior. Though there are two voices, or even three if the instrumentalists are counted, and each one sings with integrity unto itself, together they coinhere perfectly in a single harmonious whole.


There can be no doubt that keeping one’s balance on the high wire strung between classical Christian faith and contemporary intellectual life is difficult. It means heeding Scripture and staying engaged in a discipline’s ongoing discussions. It means attending to the creator and attending to the creation. It means believing in divine purpose and opening oneself to insights from all of God’s creations. To shift metaphors—when it comes to a modern Christian university, doing right by both “Christian” and “modern university,” narrow is the gate and few there be that find it.

But Lutherans have been pointed in that direction. In the Lutheran heritage are found unusually bold resources for educational enterprises that remain faithful to both Christianity and modern intellectual life. The place of Scripture for the modern Christian university is indeed a problem. But grounded in an understanding of “Law and Gospel” as the Bible’s main message, the scholars and their students who recognize themselves as “at the same time saints and sinners” are in an excellent place to get on the high wire and show the rest of us how to go forward and not fall off.




Mark A. Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is author, most recently, of Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans 2011). This essay was first presented as the Albert G. Huegli Lecture on Church-Related Higher Education at Valparaiso University on  16 February 2011.



Works Cited

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Robert C. Schultz, trans. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950.

Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Luther, Martin. “Luther at the Diet of Worms,” Roger A. Hornsby, trans. In Luther’s Works: Career of the Reformer II, Vol. 32. George W. Forell, ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958.

_____“Preface to the New Testament,” Charles M. Jacobs, trans. In Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament I, Vol. 25. E. Theodore Bachman, ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960.

._____. “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” Charles M. Jacobs, trans. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society I, Vol. 44. James Atkinson, ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.

Marty, Martin E. “Professor Pelikan.” Christian Century, 13 June 2006.

Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Pelikan, Jaroslav and Valerie Hotchkiss. Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Prickett, Stephen. “Preface.” In The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Strand, Kenneth A., ed. Facsimiles from Early Luther Bibles, Vol. II, Romans. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ann Arbor Publishers, 1972.

Walther, C. F. W. Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia, 2010.

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