The Hermeneutical Principles of Theodore Laetsch with a Focus on the Relationship Between the Old and the New Testaments
Date of Award
Doctor of Theology (ThD)
Scripture References in this Resource (separated by semi-colons)
1 Corinthians 1:21-31; 1 Corinthians 10:16,17; 1 Corinthians 14:40; 1 John 1:1-4; 1 John 3:1-5; 1 John 4:10; 1 Peter 1:3-9; 1 Peter 2:9,10; 1 Timothy 2:6; 1 Timothy 4:7; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 2 Samuel 7:14; Acts 16:9; Acts 20:17; Acts 3:1-16; Acts 3:13; Acts 4:11,12; Amos 9:13; Amos 9:6; Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Deuteronomy 30:12-14; Ephesians 1:10; Exodus 4:14-17; Habakkuk 2:1; Habakkuk 2:4; Hebrews 1:5; Hebrews 10:20; Hebrews 10:22; Hebrews 12:18-24; Hebrews 13:4; Hebrews 13:8; Hebrews 4:14-16; Hosea 1:10 - 2:1; Hosea 11:1; Hosea 1-3; Hosea 14; Hosea 2:16,17; Hosea 2:19,20; Hosea 9:16; Isaiah 49:24-26; Isaiah 52:11; Jeremiah 11:16; Jeremiah 15:19; Jeremiah 23:5,6; Jeremiah 3:16,17; Jeremiah 30:1-3; Jeremiah 31:8; Jeremiah 33:14,15; Jeremiah 33:14-16; Jeremiah 46:26; Jeremiah 5:1; Jeremiah 6:27; Joel 2:23; Jonah 1:11-15; Lamentations 2:9; Micah 4:1; Micah 5:2; Micah 7:11; Micah 7:16,17; Proverbs 30:1-6; Psalm 17:15; Psalm 40:12-15; Psalm 50:16; Romans 8:32; Zechariah 1:8; Zechariah 11:1-3; Zephaniah 3:11-12;
This dissertation will summarize the findings which resulted from an in-depth study of all the published works of Dr. Theodore Laetsch, professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. These writings include a commentary on Jeremiah and Lamentations, a commentary on the Minor Prophets, and eighty-six articles which appeared in the Concordia Theological Monthly.
The study was undertaken with the specific goal of ascertaining the hermeneutical principles of Laetsch, particularly those principles that address the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The phrase "hermeneutical principles" will be employed in this paper in the following sense: an exegete's presuppositions or assumptions, spoken or otherwise, which govern his interpretation of individual passages. These principles may be theological or philosophical in nature, and they may cover a whole range of subjects, such as methodology of interpretation, Christology, prophecy-fulfillment, philosophy of history, theory of language, and even the personal characteristics of the interpreter.
The task of determining Laetsch's hermeneutical principles was eased somewhat by the fact that his writings provide an ample cross-section of his career as a teacher. His journal articles span a twenty-year period which roughly coincides with his seminary professorship, while his two commentaries were compiled and published during his retirement. Also there is in his writings an adequate sample of his treatment of Biblical texts: his commentaries, of course, deal with Old Testament books, whereas the majority of his journal articles discuss New Testament texts, primarily the Eisenach Epistles.
Laetsch, perhaps due to a pastoral drive to reach theological conclusions and applications, often left unsaid his hermeneutical principles. Having in view the goal of edifying his readers, Laetsch kept his hermeneutics largely in the background, perhaps as part of the "shoptalk" that preceded his writings, but not often included in the writings themselves. This situation made the present investigation somewhat more difficult and shaped it into an inductive study, a reasoning from the particular to the general.
In order to explain preliminarily the thesis of this dissertation a brief word of background explanation is in order. Within confessional churches the art of Biblical interpretation has often been described as the traversing of a "hermeneutical circle" which has upon it two reference points, the words of the Scriptures themselves and the doctrinal content of a church body's confession. Lutheran systematicians are accustomed to referring to these two points as the "formal and material principles" respectively: the formal principle reminds the interpreter that the Scriptures are the sole source and norm of all doctrine, while the material principle directs the interpreter to make sure that all his work of interpretation is done in service of what is seen as the Scriptures' own cardinal teaching, the Gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ.
It is important that this hermeneutical circle remain intact and that a healthy balance between these two poles be maintained. On the one hand, the ignoring of the doctrinal pole entails the faulty assumption that a purely presupposition less, tabula rasa (clean slate) approach to the Scriptures is a possible option. On the other hand, an overemphasis on the doctrinal pole is also possible: where the interpreter, forgetting that his teachings came from the Scriptures in the first place, fails to check continually the Scriptures themselves to see whether or not his teachings are entirely accurate. At the very least, an overemphasis on doctrine can lead to a colorization of the Scriptures, where the Scriptures are no longer fully heard in their own right and according to their own terms and categories.
In the history of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod there has been a constant watchfulness to preserve the integrity of the hermeneutical circle. However, it appears that at various times in that history there has been an accentuating of one point on the circle over against the other. In particular, the doctrinal point has received increasing attention, especially when aberrant doctrines were encountered both outside and even within the framework of American Lutheranism. To be sure, the Scriptures have never been totally ignored; they have been appealed to unceasingly. But the real question here is concerning which point on the hermeneutical circle receives more emphasis and attention.
Against this historical backdrop and as the result of a careful reading of all the writings of Theodore Laetsch a threefold thesis regarding the hermeneutics of Theodore Laetsch has emerged. First of all, Laetsch, this dissertation contends, is one of those exegetes in the Missouri Synod who emphasized the doctrinal point on the hermeneutical circle in the face of doctrinal opponents both within and without his church. Secondly, it is maintained that Laetsch's chief hermeneutical mentor for this doctrinal emphasis was Ludwig Fuerbringer, at least in terms of direct, immediate influence. It was Fuerbringer who set down in writing a whole set of hermeneutical principles for use by Laetsch's generation, although there remains the possibility that Fuerbringer was misunderstood at various points. The third sub point of the thesis flows from the first two as a practical outcome, of which mention has already been made: this concern over doctrine has the potential of creating an imbalance on the hermeneutical circle and of hampering the fresh and original, albeit confessional, exegesis of individual Scripture passages. The Scriptures may tend to be placed into a secondary position, where they merely provide aetiologies for doctrines that the interpreter already holds to be true; or even worse, out of doctrinal concern the interpreter may possibly push a Scripture passage beyond its original scope and intention.
It is hoped that this dissertation will offer a meaningful contribution to Old Testament studies in the church and that it will serve as a catalyst for further discussion, particularly in the area of prophecy and fulfillment, a major focus of this paper.
Bollhagen, James, "The Hermeneutical Principles of Theodore Laetsch with a Focus on the Relationship Between the Old and the New Testaments" (1985). Doctor of Theology Dissertation. 121.
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