Luther on the Perspicuity of Scripture

By Obbie Todd

The Imperial Diet of Worms (1521) may be the most unfortunately named council in the history of the church. However, it’s also where a monk named Martin Luther challenged the Catholic Church in a way no other sinner had before. Following the meeting, Luther’s friend and governor Frederick the Wise kindly “kidnapped” him on the road home to Wittenberg, whisking him away to Wartburg Castle for protection from Catholic authorities. It’s here, during his hiding, that Luther began translating the Greek New Testament into the language of his people. For many, Luther stands as a controversial figure remembered for his theological brilliance and even sharper whit. Still, it’s important to remember that he was also a dedicated student of Scripture. Before he began teaching Romans as a teacher of theology, Luther’s very first lectures were on the Psalms. He was a man well versed in God’s Word. Consequently, his time at Wartburg wasn’t wasted in cowardice. While his teaching of the Bible is proof of his belief in the authority of Scripture, his translation of the Greek New Testament into German is proof of Luther’s belief in the perspicuity of Scripture. The word “perspicuity” is a funny word derived from the Latin word perspicuitas meaning “transparency” or “clearness.” Therefore perspicuity is the property of God’s Word denoting its clarity and readability. Luther believed that if delivered the Scripture in their native tongue, Germans could and would read these eternal truths for themselves – truths obscured by the Latin mass of the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, despite the abundance of English versions of Scripture available today in countless bookstores and the exponential growth in literacy from the 16th century to the 21st, numerous Christians continue to impugn the perspicuity of the Scriptures by their negligence in seeking after God’s Word. What thousands of Christians in Luther’s day desperately desired but could not attain, millions of modern Christians have at their fingertips only to give excuses for not reading their Bible. Statements like “I don’t know how to read the Bible,” or “the Bible is hard to understand,” or the all-too-common “we’re not supposed to understand everything in the Bible anyway” all collectively point to an apathetic church still struggling to simply open the cover to God’s precious, saving revelation to His people.

For Luther’s doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, one might not think to look inside his magnum opus Bondage of the Will (1525). However, B.B. Warfield’s assertion that De Servo Arbitrio is “in a true sense the manifesto of the Reformation” is a strong indication that this magisterial work contained so much more than an examination of the will. From sola gratia springs sola Scriptura.

One of Luther’s assertions in his discussion of the Bible’s clarity is that we learn to interpret obscure passages of Scripture by examining the clearer ones: “Thus is it unintelligent, and ungodly too, when you know that the contents of Scripture are as clear as can be, to pronounce them obscure on account of these few obscure words. If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another.” (71)

Someone who struggles exegeting Romans shouldn’t be made to feel stupid. After all, even the Apostle Peter found Paul’s epistles difficult at times. (2 Peter 3:16) Rather, the answer for the frustrated reader of Scripture is found in simply continuing to read the Word – allowing the Bible to help interpret the Bible. This is why consistent reading of God’s Word is essential for its understanding. Perspicuity doesn’t mean that the oracles of God are simple, nor does it negate the value of studying the whole counsel of God. This is what Luther called “external” perspicuity: “nothing whatsoever is left obscure or ambiguous, but all that is in the Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world.” (74)

Luther also contended for an “internal” perspicuity by defying the interpreting authority of the Pope and emphasizing the office of the Spirit – who lifts the veil from the hearts and minds of unbelievers. (2 Cor. 3:15, 4:3-4) The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture never implies a strictly natural, unaided interpretation. Our sin prevents us from perceiving these deep truths on our own. Therefore we must have our eyes opened so that we can read Scripture the way its Author intended. (Luke 24:27,31) The Spirit is our primary hermeneutical lens. In the words of the Paul, “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. 2:11) According to Luther, “The Holy Spirit is no Sceptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions – surer and more certain than sense and life itself.” (70)

The Bondage of the Will (1525) is a polemic against Desiderius Erasmus, a man of satirical genius. In his Diatribe (1524), Erasmus dismisses the discussion of the will as “irreligious, idle, and superfluous,” calling attention to the hopeless obscurity of certain passages and even questioning whether the true meaning could be found! Erasmus’ claims sound very much like those of the modern Christian who uses the obscurity of certain passages of Scripture as license to dismiss the reading of the whole. But for Luther, the so-called “obscurity” of certain passages isn’t inherent, but is due to the sinfulness of the reader: “I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due, not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness, in that they make no effort to see truth which, in itself, could not be plainer.” (72) When we grow in sanctification, we grow in interpretation! Our piety affects the way we approach the Scriptures.

Erasmus takes the road of countless Christians today when he argues that texts like the conclusion of Romans 11 point to the hopeless complexity of the divine Scriptures. But Luther turns this exegesis on its head. When Paul writes, “How unsearchable are his judgments,” the pronoun “his” isn’t referring to Scripture but to God Himself! As Luther contends, “God and His Scripture are two things.” (71) He goes on to admonish those who would deduce God’s merciful self-disclosure to His church to a hopeless, undecipherable code: “So let wretched men abjure that blasphemous perversity which would blame the darkness of their own hearts on to the plain Scriptures of God!” (72)

Luther’s harsh words serve as a warning to the well of American pulpits today that hesitate to preach the whole counsel of God. Preachers must come to embrace the fact that a church will suffer in its understanding of the whole Bible if they don’t receive the whole Bible. We learn to interpret the difficult passages of Scripture by learning from the less difficult. Still, many churches fall victim to the myth that the meaning of many difficult passages in the Bible are never meant to be discovered. But if our churches believe that God’s Scripture is mysterious rather than difficult, sinners confuse the precious, grace-filled message of the Bible with the ramblings of a distant God who doesn’t desire us to know Him! The Bible isn’t mysterious. It’s God’s merciful self-revelation to His church for their salvation, preservation, and enjoyment! Churches must not only be saturated with God’s Word; they must consistently be fed the good news that God is not silent. He desires us to know Him. That relationship begins with the Scriptures. The next time someone from your church quotes Isaiah 55:8-9 (“my thoughts are not your thoughts”) to contend for biblical obscurity rather than holy majesty, teach them the perspicuity of Scripture. God’s Word is a gift to be read and understood so that His church may be “wise unto salvation.” (2 Tim. 3:15)

Obbie is married to Kelly. He attended the University of Kentucky (B.A.) and SBTS (M.Div and Th.M). Obbie is Associate Pastor of Students at Zoar Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Obbie is currently a doctoral candidate in Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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