An Analysis of the Kloha–Montgomery Debate:
A Plastic Theologian Versus a Staunch Confessor
by Rev. Philip Hale
The debate on Oct. 15th at Concordia University Chicago between Dr. Jeffery Kloha, a professor at the St. Louis Seminary and Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, a renowned apologist and also an ordained and rostered LCMS minister, was historic. Whether people realize it or not, issues rarely are dealt with in such a public way in the LCMS. Political maneuvering and silent teachers are the norm today when doctrinal controversy strikes. All those involved should be congratulated. And all concerned about the future of the LCMS should take note of the debate and the issues raised.
It was a strange debate in one sense. Montgomery attacked Kloha's position consistently. Kloha did little more than insult Montgomery. They had different aims. Kloha’s presentation was antiseptic. It quoted well-regarded orthodox theologians and gave a very basic introduction to textual criticism. It sounded very orthodox. The problem is that he does not speak in the same way to his academic peers. What Kloha said and implied in his previous academic writings is the real issue. But he did not even try to defend his scholarly hypotheses, for example, that not Mary, but Elizabeth, said the Magnificat—in direct contradiction to Luke 1:46. However, in his off-hand debate comments, much insight can be gleaned.
The continual refrain of Kloha was “you do not understand what I am saying.” He is the unquestionable expert in his mind, having a Ph.D in textual criticism, the field in which he still focuses. However, the whole academic spirit is antithetical to true Christian confession. Kloha was asked if he teaches that Elizabeth spoke the Magnificat. Not to laymen, he responded. But to other experts he published an article claiming that that is the preferable reading (“Elizabeth’s Magnificat” in Texts and Traditions). One should not hold that the Word of God means two different things, especially in a section of Scripture that establishes the historicity of our Lord’s conception and birth. Kloha admits that he speaks differently about God’s Word in the academic setting than with laymen. But he is teacher of seminary students in an academic context. The issue is not Kloha’s reputation or personal beliefs, but what he has said as a public teacher of the church. He was questioned at the debate about this verse: “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” a verse critics have trouble reconciling with secular knowledge (Luke 2:2). Kloha’s answer was weak: “I have no problem with that [verse].” He could have boldly confessed: “it doesn’t matter if a sinner has a problem with it—it is God’s Word to submit to.”
The most illuminating statement made by Kloha in the debate was: “I must have credibility to speak on textual problems.” He is referring to the academic theological establishment, which is not churchly or confessing by nature. However, credibility before the Father and His Scriptures should be the only concern of a pastor. To be accepted in the scholarly world, one needs to say something new and non-authoritative—a very evil thing when interpreting Scripture. So while the issue ostensibly is textual criticism, the root problem is the critical expert’s supposed authority to speak a clearer and more authoritative word than Scripture. Textual criticism is no longer a neutral and necessary task to achieve a firm text when it overrules and destabilizes the doctrine of Scripture.
No one, especially Montgomery, has a problem with the practice of textual criticism. We do not have the inspired original writings of the prophets and apostles. So someone must compare the copies we possess to get the one text we use and confess as God’s Word. This is an important task, even if it is not essentially Christian or directly useful for proclaiming Christ. It should be a scientific task, one that does not promoting personal and subjective viewpoints. But when internal criteria judged by the critic dominate the hard, factual data (the oldest and best manuscripts we actually have), textual criticism can become a jumping off point for all kinds of higher critical ideas. If the critic is the central authority, he takes the place of Christ and His doctrine. Academic theology is done in a clinical vacuum that rules out any authority higher than the learned, enlightened critic. It is by nature atheistic, refusing to submit to the plain words of Scripture, making confessing boldly in sermons and before the world an impossibility.
Oddly, Kloha has never defended, or recanted, his original controversial presentation made to academics in Oberursel, Germany in 2013. A revised essay omitting the most objectionable statements was finally published earlier this year. He originally called the Scriptures “plastic,” meaning that they are moldable and subject to continual change. Kloha seems very guarded most of the time, but among his peers he speaks in a vastly different manner. If a rejection or recantation of previous words had occurred, this would be understandable. But those who have read his academic writings and heard his simple explanations are left wondering not what he believes, but if he holds to any doctrinal conviction with certainty. He admitted at the debate that he cannot refer to the inspiration of the Bible in the academic realm (many respected theologians in the world are actually atheists). He does not cite the same orthodox Lutheran names when teaching the most respected in his field. In the 2016 sanitized essay Kloha even compares the Bible’s inspiration to the claims of Islam: “My concern is that to speak of a single act of inspiration (in much the same way that Islam describes the Koran) that produced a set of single normative books that now comprise the ‘Bible’ without fully acknowledging and dealing with the historical evidence leaves us vulnerable to rhetoric which denies the authority of the biblical text. But God works in history.” This human history is not biblical or revealed by Christ, but critical and speculative. We find not a plastic Scripture, but a plastic theologian, who changes his tune depending on the context.
The lust for academic credibility among other churches and in the world is a grave idol. While Kloha claims we just need to read the manuscripts (in unpunctuated and unspaced handwritten Greek), the academic spirit is not a technical error. Critical uncertainty infects all ultimate claims, making even Christ’s doctrine insecure to those of the critical mindset. The idol of Modernism (as detailed in Confessing the Scriptural Christ against Modern Idolatry) is putting one’s critical thoughts above the plain words of God in Scripture—a refusal to submit before investigation unconditionally to anything, especially God’s revelation. To be critical is to doubt constantly, even Scripture’s divine claims. But the academic expert is no replacement for Christ’s Scripture, nor does the scholar sit above it. Just because a certain pastor has had Kloha as a teacher does not mean he is right—all men are sinners and must be judged by God’s Word. If an expert is above criticism, he is above Christ and His Word. Kloha, as have all LCMS pastors, publicly subscribed to these words: “the Word of God alone should be and remain the only standard and rule of doctrine, to which the writings of no man should be regarded as equal, but to which everything should be subjected” (Formula of Concord SD Rule, 9).
While Kloha’s debate presentation is very straightforward, he spoke previously in contradiction to it. Kloha, rightly, spoke in Chicago of “the original copy” of a biblical writing. “We must emphasize here that textual criticism does not consider the pre-history of any writing or book.” It works with visible evidence. But in his original 2013 presentation, without a shred of proof, he states: “One of these copies [of the letter to the Romans] would go to Rome, one would be kept in Paul’s files. Perhaps one or two would go to others who were interested in the work. Each of these four or five copies, as human-produced items[!], would inevitably have differences (variants). Which of those three or four are ‘inspired’?” In this essay Kloha continually minimizes Scripture’s inspiration: “What I am challenging is the manner in which we account for the inspiration and authority of Scripture. We have an accounting that is neither specifically Christian, nor rooted in either Christ or His Holy Spirit; neither is our account plausible or persuasive in our present context ...” So which Kloha is to be trusted? Is our doctrine correct or does it need to be revised? We do not judge his heart, but the words of a public teacher. A divided confession is no confession until there is actual repentance.
The great LCMS dogmatician Francis Pieper is only cited approvingly by Kloha in the debate, but in the 2013 essay Pieper is presented as naive and unhelpful. According to Kloha, by emphasizing the Scripture's divine origin we have crashed “into the rocks of a super-naturalistic, docetic [too divine] understanding of the Scriptures.” He then suggested: “I propose that we recognize again that the canonical process [the extent and identity of the Scriptural writings] is not yet complete.” Does he hold to a fixed Bible and a steadfast teaching? In 2010 Kloha wrote: “I was puzzled even as a student by the way Pieper’s dogmatics approached the topic” of the authority of Scripture (“The Authority of the Scriptures,” 2010 Concordia Seminary Symposium). The Scriptures are not plastic, but sinners seeking to garner scholarly praise and still be considered orthodox in a confessional church body are tempted to be moldable and plastic.
It should be disturbing to LCMS laymen that a professor of our church has no problem deliberately contradicting his own words in order to fit the intended audience. This is not the Spirit of Christ, to equivocate and vacillate when confessing Christ before certain men. Pastors must give an account to only one critic on the Last Day. It is not enough to speak in an orthodox manner when under inspection or at a debate. All words spoken and written on behalf of Christ will be judged by the Lord who rose from the dead. Sin demands repentance. “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”
Kloha approves of the word “inspiration.” But in his academic writings the doctrine of inspiration plays no role, because the Holy Spirit is not allowed in academics. The wisdom of the Spirit would leave the wisdom of presumed experts lacking and overrule critical doubt. Yet, the theology of Christ is not an academic exercise or seminary game. “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). What replaces the certainty of divine words due to their historic inspiration by the Spirit? Christ, the mental idea. But without Scripture and its doctrines, we have no pure access to Christ or His Gospel. Playing Christ against Scripture is the modern power play. Kloha himself partakes of this: “the legal analogy is telling; Scripture is being viewed not as a living, active Word of God, but a static, divine, authoritative, propositional legal text” (2013 essay). If Scripture does not judge legally and clearly, we cannot settle any doctrinal dispute or establish the certainty of Christ’s teaching that we are to believe for salvation. Because he has a seemingly unrevealed, unwritten Gospel, Kloha can state: “If you want to rip Romans 15 and 16 out of my Bible, I can live with that. If you want Hebrews, James, Revelation torn out too, I can live with that” (“The Authority of the Scriptures,” 2010). If it is the Word of God, belief is not optional. The error is not technical, but an approach to God’s Word that allows no bold convicting of sin and no sure forgiveness. It affects all theology, morality, and preaching (Montgomery’s expressed concern), if we cannot be sure of the precise divine basis of our teaching.
I’ve heard the claim that Kloha’s teaching is nothing like that of the early 1970’s St. Louis professors who left the LCMS and formed Seminex. But the similarity is striking. Professors learned critical methods of dealing with Scripture from modern theologians outside the LCMS. All insisted on Scripture’s inspiration and inerrancy, but refused ground its authority with clear, simple language in the Holy Spirit who gave the divine words. It is the most educated professors who feel the pull to be accepted in the scholarly world, and thus, who face great pressure to treat Scripture like merely human words. To confess our Lutheran doctrine without equivocation in the scholarly realm would mean persecution, not acceptance. One’s theology is not purified through the arrogant repetition of traditional words to simpletons (laymen). The Seminex professors tried to prove their orthodoxy and faithfulness (in “Faithful to Our Calling, Faithful to Our Lord”), instead of defending and clearly explaining their inflammatory academic language. Montgomery, who fought the original Seminex professors, rightly sees a dangerous parallel in Kloha. Professors of both LCMS seminaries have made horrible academic statements that they do not teach in the same way to simple laymen. We must ask: “why all the plasticity?” Blind trust, except in Christ’s inspired words, is greatly akin to idolatry. But the true Christ is not divided, in Scripture or in the heart.
Not textual criticism, but textual criticism done poorly which leaves the scholar in the place of Scripture's authority, is the problem. At the debate Kloha implied that having more manuscripts makes the original text more uncertain. But basic logic tells us that more copies, even if they bring more small variances in wording, are a greater witness to the inspired originals. The critical mind desires objective truth that proves itself after doubting everything. It wants rationally consistent proof of inerrancy. But that is not how God spoke and still speaks to us in Scripture to give true, divine knowledge. “For if they believed that these [words of Scripture] were God’s words they would not call them ‘poor, miserable words,’ but would prize a single tittle [part of a letter] and letter more highly than the whole world, and we would fear and tremble before them as before God himself. For he who despises a single word of God certainly prizes none at all” (Luther, LW 37:308). Amen.