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How the German Reformer defended the clarity of Scripture.
Luther’s masterpiece Bondage of the Will (1525) was not just a diatribe against Erasmus of Rotterdam’s views on free-will, but more fundamentally it had to do with the perspicuity of Scripture.
Erasmus’ airy-fairy approach to Christian doctrine was based upon his scepticism regarding the clarity of the Word of God. Hence his allergic reaction to anything that sounded even remotely dogmatic.
Such liberal cynicism really got up Luther’s nose. It was the clear assertions of Scripture –particularly Romans 1:17- that had delivered the German Reformer from his lack of assurance of salvation and turned the medieval monk into a Reformation theologian and preacher.
Luther was concerned that Erasmus’ wishy-washy manner was going to do away with the true source of Christian hope, namely, the truth and promises of God Almighty. How could a believer be strong in the faith without infallible Word of the Most High? This was no mere academic debate; Luther saw that the very essence of Christian faith, joy and peace was at stake.
Without explicit affirmations of truth, believers could have no certainty whatsoever with respect to their faith. From his own drawn-out personal experience of soul anguish, the Augustinian was well-qualified to ask Erasmus: “What is more miserable than uncertainty?”
Luther, therefore, launched an all-out attack against his freethinking counterpart in the name of the faithfulness of God and the welfare of the Lord’s people.
1.- Erasmus’ double-standards
Firstly, he hit out against Erasmus’ slimy tongue which revealed an out-an-out intellectual dishonesty. On the one hand Erasmus submitted (conservatively) to the Roman Catholic Church’s authority in matters of faith and practice but he also (very liberally) called the Scriptures into question. “Being ever like yourself,” complains Luther, “you take the most diligent care to be on every occasion slippery and pliant of speech; and while you wish to appear to assert nothing, and yet, at the same time, to assert something, more cautious than Ulysses, you seem to be steering your course between Scylla and Charybdis”.1
Luther could not stand how Erasmus was willing to brush over issues of truth in the quest for socio-political and ecclesiastical peace. “With you it matters not is believed by anyone anywhere if the peace of the world be but undisturbed”.
The truth of Luther’s Gospel was far too important to sacrifice for the purpose of a false peace. Erasmus’ flowery peace-loving literary style offered little substance. Luther warns his nemesis: “Fear the Spirit of God, who searches the reins of the heart, and who is not deceived by artfully contrived expressions”.
2.- Scripture over the Church
Secondly, Luther made clear that the church herself has no authority over Scripture. It was rather the Word of God that which was to govern over the church. “What can the church decree that is not decreed in the Scriptures?” As Luther-admirer John Calvin put it some years later, “A most pernicious error has very greatly prevailed, i.e. that Scripture is of importance only insofar as conceded to it by the suffrage of the church; as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. […] What is to become of miserable consciences in quest of some solid assurance of eternal life, if all the promises with regard to it have no better support than man’s judgment? On being told so, will they cease to doubt and tremble?” (Institutes, 1.7.2).
As in the case of Luther, Calvin recognized that the authority and clarity of Scripture was as much a pastoral issue as a theological one. The Frenchman appealed to Ephesians 2:20 in order to prove that the Word precedes the church (and not vice-versa). It was this emphasis upon Scripture as standing over and against the church that would come to be a theological distinctive of Protestantism.
3.- The Spirit convinces us of Scripture’s origin
Thirdly, Luther was adamant that the believer could be sure of the truth thanks to the work of the Spirit of God. In one of the greatest quotes from Bondage of the Will the German pens the following: “The Holy Spirit is not a sceptic nor are what He has written on our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience”.
Not only was there the external clarity of the Word in its assertions but the illuminating inner work of the Holy Ghost made Scripture as plain as could be. “The clearness of Scripture is twofold […] the one is external, placed in the ministry of the Word; the other internal, placed in the understanding of the heart. If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that has the Spirit of God. […] For the Spirit is required to understand the whole of the Scripture and every part of it”. Without the ministry of the Spirit in the preaching of Scripture and the inner-illumination of the heart, no understanding of Scripture could be possible.
4.- The real source of obscurity
Fourthly, then, what could account for the so-called obscurity of Scripture as Erasmus proposed? Luther sees things crystal clearly: the fault lies within humankind’s fallen and sinful mind. In the absence of an effectual ministry of the Word and the regeneration of the heart, Scripture cannot be understood. “If many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not rise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth”.
And again, “With the same rashness any one may cover his own eyes, or go from the light into the dark and hide himself, and then blame the day and the sun for being obscure. Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God”.
Erasmus’ scepticism, as far as Luther was concerned, was nothing more than an outworking of rank unbelief harbouring within his own heart.
5.- Christianity depends upon assertions
Fifthly, in the light of all that has been said, Luther underscored the dogmatic and doctrinal nature of Christianity. Truth-affirmations were vital for the Christian religion to flourish in the world. In Luther’s terms, “Not to delight in assertions is not the character of the Christian mind: nay, he must delight in assertions or he is not a Christian [...] By assertion I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, defending and invincibly persevering [...] I speak concerning the asserting of those things which are delivered to us from above in the Holy Scriptures”.
Luther’s love for propositional truth explained his disgust for theological scepticism. “Be sceptics and academics far from us!” The lifeblood of faith was made up of assertions: “Nothing is more known and general among Christians than assertions. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. [...] What Christian would bear that assertions should be contemned?”
In the light of contemporary doctrinal indifference, a good dose of Luther is much needed in our Evangelical world. We need to recover the great “assertions” of Scripture and the Reformation: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, solus Christus, sola fide and soli Deo gloria.
We should be suspicious of any liberal, sceptical, emergent or post-modern voice which tries to downplay the need of sound doctrine in the name of the so-called “obscurity” of Scripture. Scripture’s key tenets are as clear as can be. And not only are they perspicuous, but they are vital for the present (and future) flourishing of the Christian faith throughout the world.
Let us say together with Luther today: “Allow us to be assertors and to study and delight in assertions!” Such assertions are the anchor of our believing souls.
1 Scylla and Charybdis were two mythical sea monsters in classical Greek mythology.