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Friday, March 5, 2010

Martin Luther on Scripture

(All of this quoted from Luther's reply to Erasmus' Diatribe. Not my own material. Hope you enjoy it.)

Now I come to another point, which is linked with this. You divide Christian doctrines into two classes, and make out that we need to know the one but not the other. 'Some,' you say, 'are recondite, whereas others are quite plain.' Surely at this point you are either playing tricks with someone else's words, or practising a literary effect! However, you quote in your support Paul's words in Rom.11: 'O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!' (v.33); and also Isa. 40: 'Who gave help to the Spirit of the Lord, or who hath been his cousellor?' (v.13). It was all very easily said, either because you knew that you were writing, not just to Luther, but for the world at large, or else because you failed to consider that it was against Luther that you were writing! I hope you credit Luther with some little scholarship and judgment where the sacred text is concerned? If not, behold! I will wring the admission out of you! Here is my distinction (for I too am going to do a little lecturing--or chop a little logic, should I say?): God and His Scripture are two things, just as the Creator and His creation are two things. Now, nobody questions that there is a great deal hid in God of which we know nothing. Christ himself says of the last day: 'Of that day knoweth no man, but the Father' (Matt. 24-36); and in Acts I he says: 'It is not for you to know the times and seasons' (v 7); and again, he says: 'I know whom I have chosen' (John 13. 18); and Paul says: 'The Lord knoweth them that are his' (2 Tim. 2.19); and the like. But the notion that in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain was spread by the godless Sophists (whom now you echo, Erasmus)--who have never yet cited a single item to prove their crazy view; nor can they. And Satan has used these unsubstantial spectres to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church. I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light--that Christ, God's Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign for ever? And are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures--and what more will you find in them? You see, then, that the entire content of the Scriptures has now been brought to light, even though some passages which contain unknown words remain obscure. Thus it is 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 those few obscure words. If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another. What God has so plainly declared to the world is in some parts of Scripture stated in plain words, while in other parts it still lies hidden under obscure words. But when something stands in broad daylight, and a mass of evidence for it is in broad daylight also, it does not matter whether there is any evidence for it in the dark. Who will maintain that the town fountain does not stand in the light because the people down some alley cannot see it, while everyone in the square can see it?

There is nothing, then, in your remark about the 'Corycian cavern'; matters are not so in the Scriptures. The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no more hidden away, but are now brought out of doors and displayed to public view. Christ has opened our understanding, that we might understand the Scriptures, and the Gospel is preached to every creature. 'Their sound is gone out into all lands; (Ps. 19.4). 'All things that are written, are written for our instruction' (Rom. 15.4). Again: 'All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for instruction' (2 Tim. 3.16). Come forward, then, you, and all the Sophists with you, and cite a single mystery which is still obscure in the Scripture. 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. As Paul said of the Jews in 2 Cor. 4: 'The veil remains on their heart' (2 Cor. 4.3-4). They are like men who cover their eyes, or go from daylight into darkness, and hide there, and then blame the sun, or the darkness of the day, for their inability to see. So let wretched men abjure that blasphemous perversity which would blame the darkness of their own hearts on to the plain Scriptures of God!

When you quote Paul's statement, 'his judgments are incomprehensible,' you seem to take the pronoun 'his' to refer to Scripture; whereas the judgments which Paul there affirms to be incomprehensible are not those of Scripture, but those of God. And Isaiah 40 does not say: 'who has known the mind of Scripture? but: 'who has known the mind of the Lord?' (Paul, indeed, asserts that Christians do know the mind of the Lord; but only with reference to those things that are given to us by God, as he there says in 1 Cor. 2 (v. 12)). You see, then, how sleepily you examined those passages, and how apt is your citation of them--as apt as are almost all your citations for 'free-will'! So, too, the examples of obscurity which you allege in that rather sarcastic passage are quite irrelevant--the distinction of persons in the Godhead, the union of the Divine and human natures of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. Here, you say, are problems which have never been solved. If you mean this of the enquiries which the Sophists pursue when they discuss these subjects, what has the inoffensive Scripture done to you, that you should blame such criminal misuse of it on to its own purity? Scripture makes the straightforward affirmation that the Trinity, the Incarnation and the unpardonable sin are facts. There is nothing obscure of ambiguous about that. You imagine that the Scripture tells us how they are what they are; but it does not, nor need we know. It is here that the Sophists discuss their dreams; keep your criticism and condemnation for them, but acquit the Scriptures! If, on the other hand, you mean of the facts themselves, I say again: blame, not the Scriptures, but the Arians and those to whom the Gospel is hid, who, by reason of the working of Satan, their god, cannot see the plainest proofs of the Trinity in the Godhead and of the humanity of Christ.

In a word: The perspicuity of Scripture is twofold, just as there is a double lack of light. The first is external, and relates to the ministry of the Word; the second concerns the knowledge of the heart. If you speak of internal perspicuity, the truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it. They do not believe in God, nor do they believe that they are God's creatures, nor anything else--as Ps. 13 puts it, 'The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God' (Ps. 14.1). The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture. If, on the other hand, you speak of external perspicuity, the position is that 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.

And in another section:

But because we have been so long persuaded of the opposite, by that pestilent dictum of the Sophists, that the Scriptures are obscure and equivocal, we are compelled to begin by proving this very first principle of ours, by which all else must be proved (a procedure which to philosophers would seem irrational and impossible!).

First, Moses says in Deut. 17 (v.8) that, if a difficult matter comes into judgment, men must go to the place which God has chosen for His name, and there consult the priests, who are to judge it according to the law of the Lord. 'According to the law of the Lord,' he says; but how will they thus judge, if the law of the Lord is not, externally, as clear as can be, so that they may be satisfied about it? Else it would have been enough to say: 'according to their own spirit!' Why, under any and every government all issues between all parties are settled by the laws. But how could they be settled if the laws were not perfectly clear, and were truly as lights among the people? If the laws were equivocal and uncertain, not only would no issues be settled, but no sure standards of conduct would exist. It is for this very reason that laws are enacted, that conduct may be regulated to a definite code and disputes may find settlement. It is necessary, therefore, that that which is to be the measure and yardstick for others, as the law is, should be much clearer and more certain than anything else. If laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them? For He wills that His people should not set store by temporal things! 'If God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven,' how much more us (cf. Matt. 6.30)? But let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.

Ps. 18 (Ps. 19.8) says: 'The commandment of the Lord is clear (or pure), enlightening the eyes.' I am sure that what enlightens the eyes is neither obscure nor equivocal!

Again, Ps. 118 (Ps. 119.130) says: 'The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding to babes.' Here it says of God's words, that they are an entrance, something open, which is plainly set before all and enlightens even babes.

Isa.8 (v. 20) despatches all questions 'to the law and to the testimony,' and threatens that unless we comply the light of dawn must be denied us.

In Zech. 2 (Mal. 2.7), God commands that they should seek the law from the mouth of the priest; 'for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts.' But what a fine messenger and spokesman from God would he be, who should deliver messages that were unclear to himself and obscure to the people, so that he did not know what he was saying, nor they what they were hearing!

And what is more commonly said in praise of Scripture through, the whole Old Testament, especially in the 118th Psalm (Ps. 119), than that it is in itself a most clear, sure light? That Psalm makes mention of its clearness in these words 'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my paths' (v. 105). The Psalmist does not say: 'thy Spirit alone is a lamp unto my feet,' though he assigns to the Spirit His part when he says: 'thy good spirit shall lead me into the land of uprightness' (Ps. 143.10). Thus Scripture is called a way and a path, doubtless by reason of its entire certainty.

Come to the New Testament. Paul says in Rom. 1 that the gospel was promised 'by the prophets in the holy scriptures' (v.2), and in the third chapter that the righteousness of faith was 'testified by the law and the prophets' (v. 21). But what sort of testifying is it, if it is obscure? Yet throughout all his epistles Paul depicts the gospel as a word of light, a gospel of clarity, and makes this point with great fulness in 2 Cor. 3 and 4, where he treats of the perspicuity of both Moses and Christ in a very exalted manner.

Peter says in 2 Pet. 1: 'We have a most sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place' (v. 19). Here Peter makes the Word of God to be a bright lamp, all else being darkness. Should we then make obscurity and darkness out of the Word?

Christ repeatedly calls Himself 'the light of the world' (cf. John 8.12, 9.5) and John the Baptist 'a burning and a shining light' (John 5.35). This, doubtless, was not on account of the holiness of his life, but by reason of his word. So Paul calls the Thessalonians shining lights of the world, because, he says, 'you hold forth the word of life' (Phil. 2.15-16). For life without the word is unsure and dark.

And what are the apostles doing when they prove what they preach by the Scriptures? Is it that they want to hide their own darkness under greater darkness? Are they trying to prove what is better known by what is less well known? What is Christ doing when in John 5 he teaches the Jews to 'search the Scriptures,' because they testify of Him (v. 39)? Did he want to make them uncertain about faith in Himself? What were those mentioned in Acts 17 doing, who, after hearing Paul, read the Scriptures night and day to see 'whether those things were so' (v. 11)? Does not all this prove that the apostles, like Christ Himself, appealed to Scripture as the clearest witness to the truth of what they were saying? With what conscience, then, do we make them to be obscure?

Tell me, are these words of Scripture obscure or equivocal: 'God created the heavens and the earth' (Gen. 1.1): 'the Word as made flesh' (John 1.14): and all the other items which the whole world has received as articles of faith? Whence were they received? Surely, from the Scriptures! What do preachers to-day do? They expound and proclaim the Scriptures! But if the Scripture they proclaim is obscure, who will assure us that their proclamation is dependable? Shall there be a further new proclamation to assure us? But who will make that proclamation? (At this rate we shall go on ad infinitum!)

In a word: if Scripture is obscure or equivocal, why need it have been brought down to us by act of God? Surely we have enough obscurity and uncertainty within ourselves, without our obscurity and uncertainty and darkness being augmented from heaven! And how then shall the apostle's word stand: 'All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction?' (2 Tim. 3.16). No, no, Paul, you are altogether unprofitable; such blessings as you ascribe to Scripture must be sought from the fathers, who have found acceptance down the long line of the ages, and from the see of Rome. You must revoke the judgment which you express when you write to Titus that a bishop should be mighty in sound doctrine, to exhort, and convince gainsayers, and stop the mouths of vain talkers and deceitful teachers (Tit. 1.9f); for how shall he be mighty, when you leave him Scriptures that are obscure--arms of tow, and feeble straws for a sword? Christ, too, must needs revoke the words in which he falsely promises us: 'I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist' (Luke 21.15). For they are bound to resist, when we fight them with mere uncertainties and obscurities! And why do you, Erasmus, draw up an outline of Christianity for us, if the Scriptures are obscure to you?

I am sure that I have already made myself burdensome, even to slow-witted readers, by dwelling so long and spending so much strength on a point that is as clear as can be. But I had to do it in order to overthrow that shameless blasphemy that the Scriptures are obscure; so that even you, my good Erasmus, might see what you are saying when you deny that Scripture is clear. In the same breath you ought to be telling me that all those saints whom you quote must needs be much less clear; for who gives us information about the light that was in them, if you make the Scriptures to be obscure? Those who deny the perfect clarity and plainness of the Scriptures leave us nothing but darkness.

Here you may say: all this is nothing to me. I do not say that the Scriptures are obscure at every point (who would be such a fool as to say that?), but just on this point, and on those like it. I reply: my remarks are not aimed at you only, but at all who hold such views. Against you particularly, I would say of the whole of Scripture that I do not allow any part of it to be called obscure. There stands within it the statement which we quoted from Peter, that the word of God is to us a lamp shining in a dark place. If part of the lamp does not shine, then it is a part of the dark place rather than of the lamp! When he enlightened us, Christ did not intend that part of His Word should be left obscure to us, for He commands us to mark the Word; and this command is pointless if the Word is not clear.

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