Luther, in his assertion of the articles condemned, by Leo X., in the preface, says that the scripture is its own most plain, easy, and certain interpreter, proving, judging, and illustrating all things. This is said by him most truly, if it be candidly understood. The same author, in his book of the Slavery of the Will against the Diatribe of Erasmus, writes almost in the beginning, that in the scriptures there is nothing abstruse, nothing obscure, but that all things are plain. And because this may seem a paradox, he afterwards explains himself thus: he confesses that many places of scripture are obscure, that there are many words and sentences shrouded in difficulty, but he affirms nevertheless that no dogma is obscure; as, for instance, that God is one and three, that Christ hath suffered, and will reign for ever, and so forth. All which is perfectly true: for although there is much obscurity in many words and passages, yet all the articles of faith are plain. Stapleton, Lib. x. cap. 3, interprets these words of Luther, as if he said, that all the difficulty of scripture arose from ignorance of grammar and figures; and he objects to us Origen and Jerome, who certainly were exquisitely skilled in grammar and rhetoric, and yet confess themselves that they were ignorant of many things, and may have erred in many places. We answer, that what he blames in Luther is most true, if it be rightly understood: for he who can always arrive at the grammatical sense of scripture, will, beyond all doubt, best explain and interpret the scriptures. But hitherto no one hath been able to do this every where and in all places. Certainly the grammatical meaning of scripture, as it is ever the best and truest, so is it sometimes the hardest to be found; so that it is no wonder that Origen and Jerome himself, although both of them most skilful grammarians, may have erred in the interpretation of scripture. Luther adds besides, that the things themselves are manifest in scripture; and that therefore we need not be put to much trouble, if the words be sometimes in many places less manifest. His words are these: "The things themselves are in light; we need not care, therefore, though some signs of the things be in darkness 1." But some persons complain greatly of the obscurity of the things also, so that this distinction of Luther's between the things and the signs of the things may seem to be idle. Luther answers that this occurs, not from the obscurity and difficulty of the things themselves, but from our blindness and ignorance. And this he very properly confirms by the testimony of Paul, 2 Cor. iii. 14, 15, 16, where Paul says that "the vail is placed upon the hearts of the Jews until this very day, which vail is done away in Christ;" and from 2 Cor. iv. 3, where the same apostle says, "If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them which are lost:" and he illustrates the same thing by the similitude of the sun and the day, both of which, although very clear in themselves, are invisible to the blind. "There is nothing," says he, "brighter than the sun and the day: but the blind man cannot even see the sun, and there are some also who flee the light 2." Stapleton endeavours to take this answer from him. He says that Luther, in this way, condemns all the fathers, and so all antiquity, of error and blindness. But I answer, that Luther is speaking of things, that is of the nature of the doctrine and of the articles of the christian religion: the truth of which (though not of all, yet of those which are necessary to salvation), it is manifest from their writings, was thoroughly seen by the fathers. He is not speaking of the several words and passages wherein they might sometimes easily err, without, nevertheless, in the least incurring the blame of blindness on that account.
But Erasmus, in his Diatribe, contends that even some dogmas are obscure, as the doctrine of the Trinity, of the distinction of Persons, of sin against the Holy Ghost, and such like; and to this sense he tortures that passage which is contained in Rom. xi. 33, where Paul says that the "judgments of God are unsearchable, and his ways past finding out." Luther answers, that these doctrines are indeed obscure in themselves; but that they are plain so far forth as they are proposed in scripture, if we will be content with that knowledge which God hath propounded and conceded to his church in the scripture, and not search into every thing more curiously than becomes us. But as to the passage from Paul, he answers, that indeed the things of God are obscure, but that the things of scripture are clear; that the judgments of God concerning the number of the elect, the day and hour of the judgment, and such-like, are unknown and inscrutable; but that those things which God hath revealed in his word are by no means inscrutable to us; and that Paul in that place spoke of the things of God, not of the things of scripture. Furthermore he says, that the reason why so many dispute about the things of scripture is to be found in the perversity and depraved desires of men, especially the sophists and schoolmen, who, not content with the simplicity of scripture, have rendered every thing obscure and intricate by their traps and devices; but that the scripture must not be falsely blamed on account of men's abuse of it. Luther uses another distinction also in that place. He says that the perspicuity or obscurity of scripture is either internal or external; the internal is that of the heart itself, the external is in the words. If we speak of the internal obscurity or perspicuity of scripture, he says that not even one jot is in this way clear in the scripture without the internal light of the Holy Spirit; for that all things in this view and respect are obscure to the fleshly understanding of men, according to that which is said in Ps. xiv.: "The fool hath said in his heart, that there is no God." But if we understand the external clearness or obscurity of scripture, he says that all doctrines are in this way clear, and brought to light in the ministry of the word. And this distinction is very necessary: for although, in the external way, we perfectly hold all the doctrines of religion, we yet understand nothing internally to salvation, nor have learned any dogma aright, without the teaching of the Holy Spirit.
Assuredly, this is the difference between theology and philosophy: since it is only the external light of nature that is required to learn thoroughly the arts of philosophy; but to understand theology aright, there is need of the internal light of the Holy Spirit, because the things of faith are not subject to the teaching of mere human reason. We may, in a certain manner, be acquainted with the doctrines of scripture, and obtain an historical faith by the ministry of the word, so as to know all the articles of faith, and deem them to be true, and all without the inward light of the Spirit, as many impious men and devils do; but we cannot have the irXtipocpop'iat that is, a certain, solid, and saving knowledge, without the Holy Spirit internally illuminating our minds. And this internal clearness it is, which wholly flows from the Holy Ghost. Other arts serve our purpose when only externally understood; but this is of no avail unless understood internally. Meanwhile Luther was far from such madness as to say, that there was nothing difficult in scripture, or that it did not need an interpretation. Yea, on the contrary, in the preface to his Commentary upon the Psalms, he acknowledges that there are many obscurities and difficulties in the scripture, which God hath left us, as if on purpose to keep us constantly scholars in the school of the Holy Spirit. And in the same place he affirms, that a man must be impudent who would say that he understood even any one book thoroughly: and the same hath ever been the opinion of us all.
The state of the question, therefore, is not really such as the papists would have it appear; but our fundamental principles are these: First, that the scriptures are sufficiently clear to admit of their being read by the people and the unlearned with some fruit and utility. Secondly, that all things necessary to salvation are propounded in plain words in the scriptures. Meanwhile, we concede that there are many obscure places, and that the scriptures need explication; and that, on this account, God's ministers are to be listened to when they expound the word of God, and the men best skilled in scripture are to be consulted. So far concerning the state of the question.
[1 Nihil refert, si res sit in luce, an aliquod ejus signum sit in tenebris.— Opp. Witeberg. T. n. p. 459. 2.]
[2 Eadem temeritate solem obscurumque diem culparet, qui ipse sibi oculos velaret.—Ibid. p. 460.]
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Overview of Luther on the Clarity / Obscurity of Scripture by William Whitaker
William Whitaker of a section of Luther's argumentation from The Bondage of the Will. This passage is from William Whitaker's Disputations on Holy Scripture.