Friday, November 19, 2010

The Clarity of the Scriptures in De Servo Arbitrio and Luther's writings on the Lord's Supper

(painting by Etienne Parrocel "St. Paul" 1770)

Luther maintains in his writings that the Scriptures are both clear (claritas Scripturae), accessible and intelligible.  The goal of this paper is not to present a comprehensive compilation of what Luther said regarding the clarity of Scripture, but rather to show through a few systematic passages, particularly in his writings concerning the Lord’s Supper and Bondage of the Will, what Luther meant and confessed by the assertion that Scripture is indeed clear.  It is difficult to take this on without saying anything of Luther’s understanding of epistemology and his hermeneutic in dealing with the Scriptures.  It of course was Luther’s firm belief that theology was wholly biblical, and that to encounter the Scriptures was to encounter the God who speaks and creates faith.  Theology is a matter of meditation, literally an “intercourse” with the text in a lifetime of suffering and prayer. 

It is my understanding that Luther’s faith and confession of Christ and Him crucified is inextricably linked with his view on the clarity of Scripture “There is no doubt that all the Scripture points to Christ alone.”[1]  The view that Holy Scripture interprets itself is presupposed by a confession that Christ is the content of the Scriptures – the sum and substance of divine revelation.  For the Christian, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament have been flung open by the person and work of Christ “The New Testament is nothing but a revelation of the Old; it is as if somebody had a sealed letter and later on broke it open.”[2]  Scripture possesses a unity similar to the two natures in Christ; that is, as Christ came to earth to become flesh for us, so he comes to us in the language of men revealing Himself in his written word.  Highlighting the sublime clarity and simplicity of the Scriptures, Luther writes in his preface to the Old Testament:

“Dismiss your own opinions and feelings, and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise to quench all pride.  Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds.  Simply and lowly are these swaddling clothes (of the Scriptures), but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them”.[3] 

Luther therefore does not relegate the Holy Scriptures to obscurity, but likens them to the swaddling clothes that were wrapped around the Christ child.  This view is in keeping with the Confessions, “These testimonies are so manifest that, to use the words of Augustine…they do not need an acute understanding, but only an attentive hearer.”[4]

It is especially in his polemical attacks on the methodology of his opponents that we see a highly crafted view on the clarity of the scripture.  Against Rome, he attacks the notion that Scripture is obscure, and can only be rightly penetrated by an allegorical or analogical interpretation.  This interpretive work is the work of the external church, the trained clergy, and the pope himself.  Only the papal church may establish canon and therefore the church stands above the Scripture as one who authenticates, validates, and interprets.  For Luther, the relationship must be reversed and Holy Scripture validates the church rather than the other way around.  He writes, “This queen must rule, and everyone must obey, and be subject to her.  The Pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or even an angel from heaven – these should not be masters, judges, or arbiters but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of Scripture.”[5]  Therefore Scripture itself is the highest authority and judge.  It must be said, however that Luther never advocates an individualistic isolation in Scriptural interpretation.  More so than Rome he believed that Scripture and church exist together in harmony.        

More than Rome, Luther is incredibly disturbed by the notion of the radical reformers, that whenever Scripture presents a doctrine at odds with empirical reality that another interpretation ought to be sought.  For the fanatics it was a peculiar gift of the Spirit to individuals apart from the external Word that was so infuriating for Luther.  Whereas Rome asserted that only Mother church could navigate the obscurity of Scripture, the radical reformers privatized their interpretation apart from the consensus of the church, good grammer, and logic (most importantly Scripture itself). In this way, the Spirit apart from the external and perspicuous text, held an authority above Scripture.  For Luther, it is in fact the Spirit that allows for clear interpretation of the Scriptures, and that it is the Spirit, bound up with the external Word of God that brings about its reception.  In Bondage of the Will the bold claim is made that the Scriptures have a clarity that cannot be denied.  This stands in direct conflict to Rome and the fanatics understanding that the Scriptures are themselves obscure.     

In “Against Latomus” (1521) Luther responds to the teachers at Louvain concerning good works, free will, and penance.  In it we see Luther developing an explanation of the clarity of Scripture against Latomus’ view that Scripture is ambiguous and unclear, needing an illumination by the interpretation of men:

“Shall we be perpetually enslaved and never breathe in Christian liberty, nor sigh from out of this Babylon for our Scriptures and our home?  Yet you say they were saints and illuminated the Scripture.  Who has shown that they made the Scriptures clearer – what if they obscured them?...But doesn’t obscure Scripture require an explanation?  Set aside the obscure and cling to the clear.  Further, who has proved that the fathers are not obscure?...The Scriptures are common to all, and are clear enough in respect to what is necessary for salvation, and are also obscure enough for inquiring minds.”[6]

For Luther the Christian life is shaped by the Word of God that comes in promises.  Faith receives those promises and we recognize His presence where He desires to be found.  For Luther there is a perversity in seeking God outside of this Word (Scripture) and promise.  He insists, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a word of promise, as I have said.  We in turn cannot deal with God otherwise than through faith in the Word of his promise.”[7]  This Word and promise in the Scriptures are indispensible in the Christian life, so that we hear and receive from the God preached and revealed, rather than the hidden God, in all his terrifying indecipherability.  The advent of Jesus in the New Testament has blown the doors off any last locked or inaccessible clarity for Luther.  After all, the Word has been made flesh to be among us as Lord and God.  Faith in the clear promise of God is rooted in the self-giving of Christ, whose Words do in fact call forth life and bring it into existence.  Receiving the gifts of God is based upon His clear Words rather than human reason alone.  He writes:

“When we are dealing with the works and words of God, reason and all human wisdom must submit to being taken captive, as St. Paul teaches in II Corinthians 10:5, must allow themselves to be blinded and led, directed, taught, and instructed lest we presume to be God’s judges in his words, for we shall surely lose out when we try to judge him in his words as Psalm 50 testifies.”[8]

It must be noted that Luther in no way slights reason in Biblical interpretation, but highly esteems it as the handmaiden of faith.  Reason attends to the clarity of God’s word in a ministerial way, with humility and faith, being led by the Word.  Those who challenged the clarity of Scripture were not simply playing with a secondary order of doctrine for Luther but assaulting the Gospel itself.[9]

In Luther’s treatises on the Lord’s Supper, he associates the clarity of the Scripture with the concrete form of the biblical text.  Placed in a given context, words have a definite meaning which can be discerned and appropriated.  Luther writes in 1520 regarding the Roman practice of withholding the cup:

“But there are good grounds for my view, and this above all – no violence is to be done to the words of God, whether by man or angel.  They are to be retained in their simplest meaning as far as possible.  Unless the context manifestly compels it, they are not to be understood apart from their grammatical and proper sense, lest we give our adversaries occasion to make a mockery of the Scriptures.”[10]

Therefore, unless the context compels an interpretation outside the sensus literalis, the text must stand in its clear meaning.  When Luther writes against Zwingli regarding the Lord’s Supper he insists that the text must stand, “For the text must be quite unambiguous and plain, and must have one single, definite interpretation if it is to form the basis of a clear and definite article of faith.”  If an alternative interpretation outside the literal sense is to be taken, it must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore the onus of proof must lie with the him who produces the new interpretation:     

“Not only are they under obligation to prove from Scripture that “body” is the same as “sign of the body,” and that “is” is the same as “represent or signify,” but one thing more: even though they should produce such an example in one passage of Scripture (which, however, is impossible), they are still under obligation to prove that it is necessarily so here in the Supper as well, that “body” is “sign of the body”…Our present quarrel is not primarily whether somewhere in the Scriptures “body” means “sign of the body,” but whether in this text of the Super it has this meaning.”[11] 

Luther requires that Zwingli not only prove that a metaphorical use is used elsewhere in the Scriptures, but that it is also employed here in the Supper.  This is especially difficult given that Luther had also debunked Zwingli’s use of metaphor concerning the “I am” saying of Jesus, being expressed in terms of being or “essence” rather than mere representation.[12]

Luther also observes that God deals with his people moving from type to anti-type, from sign to reality.  This movement never moves backward.  Therefore, to go from the Lord’s Supper back to its sign is preposterous.  For this reason Luther rejects Oecolampadius’ spiritual interpretation as “a backward-pointing, inverted trope.”[13]   

In De Servo Arbitro, Luther deals in greater detail with the question of Scriptures’ clarity.  In Erasmus’ diatribe his arguments are quite enticing.  He is interested in humanism, education, peace throughout the land, and Christian love.  Precise conformity on various doctrines is not a matter of life and death for Erasmus and obscure parts of Scripture need not be poked at and investigated.  Some things in Scripture simply need not be discussed for the sake of peace and harmony, “How many questions, or rather squabbles, have arisen over the distinction of person, the mode of generation, the distinction between filiation and procession; what a fuss has been raised in the world by the wrangle about the conception of the virgin as Theotokos!  I ask what profit has there been so far from these laborious inquiries, except that with the loss of harmony we love one another the less, while seeking to be wiser than we need.”[14]  Erasmus does in fact attribute to scripture a clarity when Scripture “simply confesses” certain matters of dogma, but does not seek to explicate how such doctrines can be.  His diatribe begins with this rather shadowy commentary on the obscurity of Scripture:

“For there are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply and, if we try to do so, then the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes, by which means we are led to acknowledge the unsearchable majesty of the divine wisdom, and the weakness of the human mind.  It is like that cavern near Corycos of which Pomponius Mela tells, which begins by attracting and drawing the visitor by its pleasing aspect, and then as one goes deeper, a certain horror and majesty of the divine presence that inhabits the places makes one draw back”[15]

This must be contrasted with Luther’s view cited earlier where he likens the Scriptures to the “swaddling clothes of Jesus.”  This view that the Scripture is murky and unintelligible, more than anything, seems to move Luther into his more furious polemical chastisement of Erasmus, whom as far as Luther is concerned, is only increasing the power and authority of the papacy.  Luther chides Erasmus for seeking a cardinals hate from the Pope.  It is due to the erroneous assumption of obscurity that Rome finds it necessary to appeal to the fathers, the council, and the pope and final arbiter of Scripture:

“It is on this account also that I have hitherto attacked the pope, in whose kingdom nothing is more commonly stated or more generally accepted than the idea that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, so that the spirit to interpret them must be sought from the Apostolic See of Rome.  Nothing more pernicious could be said that this, for it has led ungodly men to set themselves above the Scriptures and to fabricate whatever they pleased, until the Scriptures have been completely trampled down and we have been believing and teaching nothing but the dreams of madmen.  In a word, that saying is no human invention, but a virus sent into the world by the incredible malice of the prince of all demons himself.”[16]  

Luther goes on to suggest the entire work of the diatribe is to cast doubt upon the clarity of the Scriptures and to frighten people away from reliance upon the Scriptures and to rather rely wholly on Rome.[17]  Luther vehemently attacks and dismantles the idea that much of Scripture is indeed obscure. 
After Luther goes to task on the hiddenness of the church, he approaches a central argument on the internal and external clarity of the text.  If popes, the councils, and the fathers cannot be believed, wherein does the Christian find any certainty?  All spirits are to be tested and proved by two judgments – one an internal clarity and the other an external clarity.  Internal clarity is found “whereby through the Holy Spirit or a special gift of God, anyone who is enlightened concerning himself and his own salvation, judges and discerns with the greatest certainty the dogmas and opinions of all men.”[18]  This inner clarity takes place solely by the Holy Spirit who in His activity makes use of Scripture and reveals the true meaning of a text.  Concerning this inner clarity “no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scripture unless he has the Spirit of God.  All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it.  They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God.”  In this way, a blind sinner is encountered by the Word of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Although this grace comes extra nos, it nevertheless enters man and converts him to a saving faith.  In this way, a man is awakened individually and comes to believe internally that the external Word and promises of God are for him.  This conversion and internal clarity of course is never a mere episodic event but one that takes place during a lifetime of prayer, meditation, and suffering.  Luther writes to Erasmus: “For it is not due to the weakness of the human mind (as you make out) that the words of God are not understood, but, on the contrary, nothing is more fitted for understanding the words of God than such weakness; for it was for the sake of the weak and to the weak that Christ both came and sends his word.  It is due to the malice of Satan, who sits enthroned in our weakness, resisting the Word of God.  If Satan were not at work, the whole world of men would be converted by a single word of God once heard, and there would be no need of more.”[19]

Luther speaks of the external clarity synonymously with an “external judgment” that in turn, “belongs to the public ministry of the Word and to the outward office, and is chiefly the concern of leaders and preachers of the Word.”[20]  The questions then arises, where do leaders and preachers of the Word find this clarity?  They return back to the Scriptures themselves, for the confession (for Luther) is that the Holy Scriptures are “a spiritual light far brighter than the sun itself, especially in things that are necessary for salvation.”  Luther points out that this appeal to the “outward office” as an arena for external clarity is not a novel idea, pointing to Deuteronomy 17:8 “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose.”  This outer clarity eliminates the need for other factors (pope, councils, etc.) to understand Scriptures literal sense.  His understanding of the public ministry of the Word presupposes that the Scriptures are clear.  Luther can even make the bold claim that with respect to the whole of Scripture, “I will not have any part of it called obscure.”[21]  Scripture does not need the light that comes from the interpreters.  It shines in its own light.  For this reason any pagan may understand the clear external Word, “For even if I were a Turk, Jew, or heathen, who held nothing of the Christian faith and yet heard or read such Scripture concerning the Sacrament, I would have to say: ‘I indeed do not believe in the Christian doctrine, but this I must say: If they want to be Christians and adhere to their doctrine, then they must believe that Christ’s body and blood are eaten and drunk bodily in the bread and wine.” 

Though Luther does point to the consensus of the church and the “outward office” of the Word, I would hesitate to assert that he weaves external clarity solely to the pastoral office of minister.  His understanding of the office of the Word is broader and more universal in scope, inviting all Christians into its activity, “If you are speaking of the external clarity, nothing at all is left dark or doubtful, but everything contained in the Scriptures is brought out by the word into the clear light of day and explained to all the world.”[22]

The distinction Luther gives to the clarity of Scripture does not make him insensitive or ignorant of the wide range of ways that words can be used.  He was well aware of the debates relating to signification,[23] and the legitimate use of allegory and metaphor and he makes plenty of allowance for it when the context permits it.  It seems that Luther’s discipline and restraint in the use of metaphor and allegory is his great strength, being set against a backdrop of mystic and highly allegorized spiritual interpretation.  The obligation of proof lies with those who claim that a spiritual interpretation is necessary, not with those who are content with the words as they read.[24] 

Luther also takes careful consideration of the context of Scriptural passages.  It is true that he believed in the clear and lucid words of the biblical text, yet he never insisted that the words exist by themselves, for they occur within the larger body of Scripture itself.  The grammar, syntax, and context all matter.  In fact isolating the words of Scripture from the context was precisely was Luther identified as a stratagem of his opponents:
“But our fanatics proceed the other way around: they tear out of a text an obscure ambiguous word which pleases their fancy, ignore the context, and then run around trying to use it to make a lucid, clear text obscure and ambiguous, and then claim that is it the pure truth.  This is the method of the devil, who is lord of darkness and tries with darkness to extinguish the light…Not that the Scriptures are obscure; but their imagination is blind and lazy, so that it cannot view the clear words correctly, just as a lazy man does not open his eyes to see the real light but takes a glimmer to be the light.”[25]       

All of Scripture, therefore has a unity that cannot be compromised or compartmentalized.  If individual passages need clarity, the corpus of Holy Scripture will shed light for the individual passage within it.  As has already been noted, this unity was possible because Christ, for Luther was the very heart and center of the Scriptures.  The Scriptures ultimately hold one author, the Holy Spirit. 
In Bondage of the Will Luther also asserts that the clarity of the Scriptures is also disturbed by a refusal to properly distinguish between the Law and Gospel.  These two fundamental ways that God encounters his people is essential to rightly understanding Scripture.  Luther observes that Erasmus in his Diatribe “makes no distinction whatever between expressions of the Law and of the Gospel; for she is so blind and ignorant that she does not know what law and gospel are.”[26]  In Erasmus’ attempt to support the free will, Luther accuses him of making the Law out of the Gospel and the Gospel out of the Law, “Such a person is bound to confound everything – heaven and hell, life and death – and he will take no pains to know anything at all about Christ.”[27]  Therefore, the mark a discerning hearer of Scripture must see that there are words of law and words of grace that cannot be fuddled up.  Luther warns that the result of Diatribe failing to observe the distinction between words of promise and of law: “If that is how in our blindness we wish to read and understand the Scriptures, what wonder is it if they are obscure and ambiguous?[28]       

Concerning the clarity of Scripture and its authority, a word must be said about Luther’s view of the oral word.  The clarity of the Scriptures and Gospel were first and foremost to be preached.  He emphasized the priority of the oral proclamation of preaching and teaching in the life of the church.  God encounters His people in a living Word of promise:

“So it is not all in keeping with the New Testament to write books on Christian doctrine.  Rather in all places there should be fine, goodly, learned, spiritual, diligent preachers without books, who extract the living Word from the old Scripture and unceasingly inculcate it into the people, just as the apostles did.  For before they wrote, they first of all preached to the people by word of mouth and converted them.”[29]

We see that in these writings Luther is absolutely convinced that without constraint by the ordinary rules of grammar there could be no certainty for interpretation.  It is evident that he regarded the very words of the text themselves, understood naturally and in terms of their context, as clear and lucid.  He never tries to prove this clarity in a purely empirical way or through experience.  There is for Luther, a great chasm at times between the preached and written Word of God and the daily experience of the Christian.  The clear Word and promise of God is often in fact at odds with daily experience and life under the cross.  Therefore, like all other aspects of Luther’s theology, even a confession of the clarity of the Scriptures fits under a “theology of the cross,” and is thereby lived out in tension until the Resurrection.           

[1] LW 35:132.
[2] LW 52:41
[3] LW 35:236
[4] Apology, Trigl., p. 129,133.
[5] AE 26:58
[6] LW, 32, p. 217
[7] LW 36:42
[8] LW 37:296
[9] LW 37: 162
[10] LW 36:30
[11] LW 37:34-35
[12] Ibid., p. 255-257
[13] LW 37:253
[14] Rupp., p. 40.
[15] Rupp., p. 38. 
[16] Rupp,Gordon. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Library of Christian Classics. Philadephia: The Westminster Press, 1995.
[17] Rupp., p. 168.
[18] Rupp., p. 159.
[19] Rupp., p. 167.

[21] Rupp., p. 163.
[22] Ibid., p. 164
[23] LW 37:253
[24] Ibid., p. 209
[25] LW 37:96
[26] Rupp., p. 194
[27] Ibid., p. 197
[28] Ibid., p. 198
[29] AE 33:26


  1. Doesn't Forde have a section about this in "The Preached God"?



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