Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the Clarity of Holy Scripture

Dear Readers,

This post contains a portion of a longer paper written by the sainted Pastor and Professor, Rev. Carl Lawrenz, long-time President of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. The longer paper was delivered at the Minnesota District Convention in June of 1974. He was asked to address the convention on the matter of the length of the days of Creation, as this was a major point of discussion at the time, especially in reference to talks between the WELS and SELK (The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany). What was intended as a "short essay," according to Prof. Lawrence, became a much longer treatise entitled,
The Clarity Of Scripture As It Affects The Message Of The Church (With Application To The Creation Account). You can find the complete paper in the WLS Essay file on the seminary's web page.

Prof. Lawrenz' premise is very simple and straightforward, "A true understanding of scriptural authority and inerrancy always presupposes the truth of the clarity of Scripture."

The discussions involving the so-called NNIV or NIV 2011 can sometimes leave the impression that the Bibles we hold, read, and use in our everyday lives of faith are substantially imperfect, unclear, inaccurate, and/or deeply flawed in such a way that we cannot be sure they are the very Word of God. This is sometimes even said to include quite accurate translations which have been cherished and used by generations of believers.

It is true that "paraphrases" of the Bible, or translations done with a very particular and specific theological bent in mind, say, by those of the so-called "higher-critical" school of theology, can indeed be quite inaccurate and flawed.

Still, when translators make a good-faith attempt to do an actual word for word "translation," and not a kind of "thought for thought" paraphrase – which is really a commentary or interpretation, people can trust that their Bibles are indeed the very Word of God, and not merely in a derived sense. You will note that in Prof. Lawrenz' writing, he does not posit clarity of Scripture for only the "original manuscripts" of Greek and Hebrew, but of the Bible, and quotes an English translation (AV) when doing so!

I hope this brief portion of Prof. Lawrenz' paper brings comfort and reassurance to all who read it.

Pastor Spencer

The Involvement of the Clarity of Scripture in the Message of the Church

The message which Christ’s church is to proclaim is sometimes simply stated in Scripture as being the gospel. Our risen and victorious Lord and Savior said to His believers: “Go ye into all, the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). To the Romans Paul as the called apostle of. The church writes (1:15) that he is ready to preach the gospel to them that are at Rome also. He tells them that he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. In parting from the elders at Ephesus (Ac 20: 24) Paul states that in his ministry in Christ’s church, which he had. Received of the Lord Jesus, he was “to testify the gospel or the grace of God.” He told the Corinthians (1 Co 2) that he was determined not to know anything among them save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. Still, Paul also pointed out to the elders at Ephesus (Ac 20:27) that he had not neglected to declare all the counsel of God to them. He directed Timothy to the Holy Scriptures as able to make him wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. He then stressed that the Scriptures, all inspired by God, were the comprehensive equipment of the man of God, the minister of Christ’s church, to fit him fully for all branches of his work.

Both the gospel and the entire Scriptures can therefore be designated as the message of the church and of its ministry. This is possible because all Scripture stands in the service of its central message of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, the message of the gospel. This is true even of the Scripture’s important message of the law. The law, too, properly proclaimed by the church, stands in the service of the gospel, both before and after conversion. As far as the unregenerate are concerned, the only express purpose for which the church is to proclaim the law is that of bringing them to the knowledge of their sins and of thus preparing them for the comforting proclamation of the gospel. The church cannot, of course, control the effect of its law preaching in those exposed to its testimony. If it effects mere outward reform and civic righteousness this is, however, a by product and not a part of the church’s mission. To those who have already come to faith in Christ the church is to preach the law as a mirror, curb, and guide, yet only in the interest of the edification of the believers in Christian faith and life. The preachment of the law cannot, of course, effect anything positive, supply any motivation, but is necessary because of the Christian’s Old Adam.

To remain a proper part of the message of the ministry, every truth and statement of Scripture must constantly be kept in context with the central gospel message. As soon as any truth or statement of Scripture A wholly divorced from its relation to the gospel and no longer stands in its service, it ceases to be a proper part of the proclamation of the Christian ministry. This is something that must constantly be emphasized in our day when many attempts are being made to widen the message and mission of the church to pertain to the total needs of man. It must be emphasized our day when many fail to distinguish between the actual entrusted mission of the church and the tasks and obligations of Christians in human society for which the church indeed supplies the proper Christian motivation but not detailed direction.

The message of Christ’s church is essentially God’s message of salvation. It is Heilsgeschichte, salvation history in the true sense. Yet it is not Heilsgeschichte in the perverted sense as understood by many modern theologians. They teach Heilsgeschichte as though it consisted in the human reflections of religious geniuses with extraordinary religious insights concerning what they regard to be God’s saving acts in behalf of mankind. That is why they also hold that these reflections must be modified and updated by every new generation in accordance with man’s gradually expanding understanding.

No, the message of Christ’s church is God’s own account of His saving intervention in behalf of fallen mankind, His own authoritative interpretation of His saving activity in behalf of sinful man ever since the fall, of His saving activity as it culminated in the finished redemption of His incarnate Son Jesus Christ; and in His victorious exaltation as the Lord and Savior of all. The message of the church is God’s own gracious and effective offer of all the fruits of this redemption, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. This message of the church comes to us, by direct divine revelation. We have that revelation in the Holy Scriptures, which were written by God’s chosen instruments in human language, but which are the inspired and inerrant Word of God in all that they say. Yet all of Scripture stands in the service of the gospel message entrusted to the church.

These Holy Scriptures assert clarity for themselves. Only because Scripture possesses clarity, only because it is able to convey and impart its divine message can the Psalmist in the 119th Psalm speak of it as a lamp unto his feet and as a light unto his path. A Scripture that lacks objective clarity cannot serve as a guiding lamp upon a treacherous path, nor can it serve as a helpful light in the midst of gross spiritual darkness. The Psalter particularly abounds with statements affirming the clarity of Scripture. Psalm .19:7-8 states, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” In Psalm 94:12 we. read: “Blessed is the man whom thou chasteneth, O Lord, and teacheth him out of thy law.” In the 118th Psalm, verses 104 and 130, we are told, “Through thy precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. The entrance of thy words give us light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.” Only because the Word of God, the Holy Scripture, possesses clarity can it make wise, impart blessedness, move us to hate every false way, and give understanding to the simple.

Through the Apostle Peter we have an equally explicit assertion of the clarity of Scripture. He says, (2 Pe 1:19): “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye we do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn and the daystar arise in our hearts.” In eternity God’s children will no longer walk by faith but by sight. Until judgment day, however, the Scriptures are the one illuminating light to which they are to give close heed... Yet a word that in itself lacks clarity; that needs an interpreter, a word to which someone else must first give clarity could not serve as an illuminating light. Earlier we already considered how the Apostle Paul reminded Timothy: “From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tt 3:15). In this reminder there is a definite assertion of the clarity of Scripture. The Scripture had come to Timothy, as a child without benefit of any profound Jewish interpreters. The Scripture had been presented to him by his mother and grandmother, simple, common people; yet, by virtue of its own clarity this Scripture had imparted full wisdom unto salvation. This is written also for our learning, we are considering, the message of the church. Scripture clearly sets forth all that we need to know for our salvation. That is why it is able to make people wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Probably even more abundantly Scripture asserts its clarity by simply presupposing it as a self-evident fact in various situations. In the Savior’s story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, Abraham counters the rich man’s plea that Lazarus be sent from beyond the grave to enlighten his five living brothers, with the statement: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them.” This clearly implies that these Old Testament Scriptures clearly present everything that the brothers needed to know in order to prepare them for a blessed eternity. In John 5:32 Jesus encouraged His Jewish hearers in their searching of the Scriptures. He asserted that they would indeed find life eternal thereby because the Scriptures testified of Him as their Savior. Such encouragement would be meaningless without a Scripture that is clear. The Bereans, as we are told in Acts 17:11, though just ordinary members of a Christian congregation, carefully compared everything that Paul had preached to them with what they themselves found in their diligent searching of the Scriptures. They believed that the Scriptures were clear; by commending their activity and designating it as noble, Paul likewise asserted the clarity of Scripture.

Every admonition of Scripture to beware of false prophets (Mt 7:15) and to mark those who depart from apostolic teachings (Rm 16:17), every exhortation to hold fast the form of sound Word (2 Tm 1:13), and to hold fast the faithful Word (Tt 1:9) that by sound doctrine the gainsayers might be exhorted, presuppose a Scripture which is clear. This clarity is also asserted in every earnest warning against adding anything to God’s inspired Word or against subtracting anything from it (Dt 4:2, Re 22:18.19, Mt 5:19). How could anyone know whether he was adding or subtracting if Scripture were not clear? Jesus states (Jn 8:31) that we are His disciples indeed as we continue in His Word. This again implies that He has given us a clear Word, so that it is possible to know whether we are continuing in it or not.

The Nature of the Clarity of Scripture

The clarity which Scripture ascribes to itself is, first of all, an outward clarity. It consists in this that in the words and sentences of intelligible, comprehensible human language Scripture clearly expresses all the truths which God has been pleased to reveal, to us and which we need to know for our Christian faith and life now and for our eternal salvation hereafter. Because of the human language of Scripture many have doubted and continue to doubt its divine nature. Our reaction should rather be that of thanking God, however, for the miracle of His grace that for our benefit He chose to reveal all of His gracious truths to us through the medium of lucid human language which we can understand.

Any rational being who reads and studies the statements of Holy Scripture, who carefully marks and notes the meaning of the words which Scripture employs, the grammatical construction with which these words are joined together in sentences, the figures of speech, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, and hyperbole, if any, in which the statements are clothed, and the immediate or wider context and setting in which these statements are found will have to say: This and this alone is what Scripture is stating here. He will have to say this even though he may not accept what Scripture is saying.

In Genesis 1 to 3 Scripture speaks historically, and it must be understood as speaking of literal, historical facts. In Revelation 20, Scripture speaks symbolically. In John 15, Jesus speaks metaphorically of Himself as the true vine and of His believers as His branches. In Acts 15, Paul speaks metonymically of Moses being read and preached in the synagogues every Sabbath day. Moses here means the Pentateuch given by God through Moses as His inspired writer. In Nark 1:5 the evangelist states hyperbolically “that all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem went out to John and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” All is here not meant in the absolute sense. This is hyperbole; as the context indicates. In each case Scripture must be interpreted on its own terms to get at its one proper sense, revealing its intended divine message. When Scripture is pleased to use a round number, rather than a precise number, it is not less clear and factual. The message that human language commonly conveys through a round number is then also the message that Scripture wants to convey with its own use of a round number. When Scripture uses phenomenal language, language which speaks of things as they appear to our senses, the clear message to be apprehended will be the truth which is commonly conveyed through such phenomenal language. It is in this sense that the Book of Joshua speaks of the sun standing “still upon Gibeon,” and the moon, “in the valley of Ajalon.” It is in this sense that the Scripture frequently speaks of the rising of the sun. All this is included when we say that every statement of Scripture must be understood in its native sense according to vocabulary, grammar, context, and the linguistic usage of a specific era or of all times.

Scripture clearly presents the truths that we need for our Christian faith and life, the truths of creation, also, of man’s creation in God’s image, the truths of the fall and of original sin, of our total depravity by nature, of our separation from God, of our inability to make restitution or to contribute anything to it, the truth of God’s free and unmerited saving love, of His justification of the whole world through the atoning sacrifice of His incarnate Son, of the personal justification of the sinner through faith, of faith as the gift of God, of the new life of the Christian and of its holy fruits as the creation of the Holy Spirit.

In considering the message of the church we will constantly remember that none of these truths or any other point of Christian faith and life can be certain and remain certain for us, unless we hold firmly to the outward clarity of the Scriptures, to this that the message of Scripture lies in the message contained in the very words of Scripture in their full linguistic usage and in their closer and wider contextual setting.

When we cling to the outward, objective clarity of Scripture, we know that we are dealing with certainties: When in our worker training program, when at our Seminary, we cling to the outward, objective clarity of Scripture, we know that we will be sending out servants of the Word who will have certainties to present. How unenviable in contrast is the plight of seminaries that have lost sight of the clarity of Scripture in the sense of God’s authoritative presentation of the truth of Christian faith and life in human language. Those who follow the historical critical approach to Scripture, and see in the statements of Scripture merely the religious insights of the writers, are never sure how much they will have to be updated and adjusted to make them valid and relevant for modern man.

Take Romans 22b-24: “For there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Because of the outward, or external, clarity of the Scripture, even the unbeliever who reads these statements, carefully marking the meaning of every word as St. Paul uses it and observing likewise the whore context; will have to say, though he refuses to accept these truths and bow under their verdict: Here Scripture teaches that all men are of themselves under condemnation before God and that justification in His sight is a pure gift of God’s grace for Jesus’ sake. Referring to the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, Luther maintained: “For even if I were a Turk; a Jew, or a heathen who thought nothing of the Christian faith, and yet heard or read this scriptural account of the Sacrament, I would still have to say: ‘I do not believe the Christian doctrine, of course, but this I must admit: if they wish to be Christians and maintain their doctrine, they must believe that Christ’s body and blood are physically eaten and drunk in the bread and wine.’”

So throughout, Scripture clearly expresses the truths which God wishes to convey and teach. More often than not the unbeliever, and frequently even the believer, insofar as he unwittingly still clings to error, lets his own prejudices and misconceptions hinder him in ascertaining even the outward meaning of Scripture. Such failure to understand is, of course, due to the sinful depravity of man’s inborn nature. It is not due to Scripture’s lack of external clarity.

Yet the clarity Which the Holy Scripture asserts for itself goes deeper than this outward, this external, clarity, vital and basic as the outward clarity always will remain. The clarity of Scripture is above all a spiritual one and consists in this, that Scripture possesses the power to win acceptance for the truths of faith and life, of law and gospel, which it clearly teaches. It has the divine power to effect a change in us, to effect in us a spiritual understanding and comprehension. of these truths, a blessed comprehension of faith.

Paul tells Timothy: “And that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tm 3:15). Scripture and .Scripture make us wise unto salvation and it makes us wise through faith in Christ Jesus. There is only one way of salvation for sinful man and that is through the free gift of God’s grace, through the gift of the perfect righteousness which His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, has won for us with His holy life and His innocent suffering and death. Salvation is through this gift appropriated by us sinners in faith. The one great message of Scripture is the message of this gift of salvation through Christ Jesus. All that the Scriptures tell us serves the purpose of imparting this gift of salvation to us through faith and of making us blessed, rich, and fruitful in its possession for time and eternity.

St. Paul tells us that all Scripture, given by inspiration of God, is profitable for reproof. Natural man, though he may outwardly understand Scripture’s message of sin and grace, of himself rejects it. Vainly he wants to work out his own salvation. Vainly he insists on recognition of his own merits, yet Scripture is equal to the situation. Scripture has power to reprove natural man, to convict him of his utter guilt and condemnation before God. Scripture manifests this power through its message of the law: “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rm 3:20).
Yet even when the sinner is thus reproved and convicted of his sin and condemnation he still is at enmity with God. Of himself he has no power to trust in Jesus and His grace. Rut Scripture is profitable for correction. Through its gospel message it awakens faith in the sinner’s heart and in such faith comforts him with the assurance of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Finally, Scripture is profitable for instruction, for training. It constantly nourishes, strengthens, preserves believer in faith, fills his heart with thankful love, helps him to fight against all that is sinful, constrains and guides him in striving ever anew and ever more fully after all that is pleasing in God’s sight.

Scripture and Scripture alone has such power to reprove, to correct, to instruct, such power to produce and sustain spiritual .life. It has it because it is inspired, God breathed from beginning to end, because it is the Word of God. Jesus said: “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life” (Jn 6:63). That is the spiritual clarity of Holy Scripture. When you read the Scriptures, when you hear the Scriptures, it is the same as though God Himself were standing before you in person in all His holy majesty and were addressing only to you the words of His love. The Scriptures are not merely a record of a past revelation of God, they are also and above all His ever present and powerful revelation. The gospel of Christ is ever replete with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is well that we never lose sight of this spiritual clarity of the Holy Scriptures with reference to the message of the church. Mindful of the spiritual clarity of the Holy Scriptures, public servants of the Word need not anxiously endeavor to prove the truths of Scripture, or attempt to demonstrate their reasonableness or vindicate their relevancy for modern man. They will confidently content themselves with clearly and joyfully presenting the precious saving truths of Scripture, and let God’s Word at its own time manifest its blessed power.

Points to Note as We Uphold the Clarity of Scripture

1.That Scripture is clear does not mean, first of all, that it satisfies our curiosity in all that we may be inclined to ask.

Almost any scriptural account may leave a host of questions unanswered. This is certainly true when. you think of the creation account. Many things that we would like to know about the origin and beginning of all things are not related to us. This is true even of questions which, in themselves could be the object of our legitimate interest. We must learn to be content that it is that way. We will learn to be content with this if we always keep in mind that God gave us His Word to make us wise unto salvation and not to satisfy our curiosity. He alone knows what was necessary and beneficial for the former purpose. Studying a larger or smaller portion of Scripture means carefully noting just what is said in so many words, what is clearly intimated and suggested, and what is stated elsewhere in Scripture on this matter. When this has been ascertained, our attention ought to be taken away from everything which Scripture has left unanswered and be directed wholly on what is actually set forth.

Biblical interpretation all too frequently succumbs to the temptation of theorizing endlessly about questions which Scripture has left unanswered and then treating much too lightly what is clearly set forth. Seminarians readily fall into this temptation in their first efforts at biblical expo¬sition. Yet this temptation is by no means confined to seminarians. If this procedure is not corrected by precept and good example in our worker training, it may characterize the later sermon and catechetical work of our workers. It may hinder pastors as good stewards in apportioning what God has principally put at their disposal for distribution.

Let me cite an example. In expounding the account of Abraham’s call a great deal of time and attention is often devoted to such matters as to whether Abraham, too, had been an idolater before his call, what that idolatry might have been like at Ur, or whether through his call saving faith was for the first time awakened in his heart, or whether such faith was merely strengthened and confirmed. All these are questions which Scripture does not answer definitely. What as a result is not adequately unfolded, when too much attention is devoted to these unanswered questions, is the wonderful complex of promises to Abraham, in which every individual promise gets meaning and purpose through the final Messianic promise that in him all the families of the earth, would be blessed. These revealed certainties need our full attention. This unit of promises is the program according to which God’s entire Old Testament plan of salvation is unfolded.

It is generally more beneficial to dwell on the obvious than to elucidate the obscure. Our appreciation of the clarity of Scripture demands that in presenting the message of the church we direct all attention on unfolding what Scripture clearly teaches. Matters which Scripture does not clearly answer or even touch upon we will, on the other hand, readily put aside in the confidence that these are matters which God has not deemed vital for our salvation.

2. That Scripture is clear; does not mean that it makes every truth which it reveals for our salvation fully comprehensible for us.

A great many truths which Scripture reveals as the blessed object of our faith, and which make God’s gift of pardon and salvation certain for us, nevertheless embrace aspects which far transcend our comprehension.
God has revealed Himself in Scripture as a Triune God, one in essence yet three distinct Persons, equal in divine majesty, power, and glory. Through this revelation we rejoice in faith over all that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost have done and still do for our salvation. Yet we are quite unable to grasp the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

To assure us that in Jesus Christ we have an all-sufficient Savior, Scripture clearly teaches that God’s eternal Son became incarnate by the virgin Mary and effectively fulfilled the law in sinners’ stead and bore all the curses of sin for us; humbling Himself even to the death of the cross. We are quite unable; however, to comprehend how He can be true God and true man in one wonderful Person.

Scripture clearly reveals how Christ instituted a holy supper for His believers in which under bread and wine He offers us His very body and blood, given and shed for us, as a seal of our pardon and salvation. Still, we cannot grasp the real presence of Christ’s body and blood, its oral manducation by all communicants, or the sacramental union of this body and blood with the earthly elements. This is not necessary for us to enjoy the benefits of this blessed Means of Grace.

Scripture clearly comforts us who believe in Christ our Savior that our faith is not something incidental but the result of the blessed fact that already from all eternity God for Christ’s sake has set His heart upon us individually, so that our faith and salvation and all that pertains to it flows out of this election of grace which cannot fail. We lose this comfort only when we try to delve into questions concerning our election which lie beyond our comprehension and which Scripture does not solve for our reason.

Also with respect to all these truths the outward clarity of Scripture restricts itself to this that Scripture clearly sets forth the truths themselves to the extent that God has deemed a knowledge of them vital for our comfort and salvation. In its spiritual clarity Scripture leads us to embrace these truths in faith though they may in many respects transcend our comprehension.

It is important that we understand the clarity of Scripture in this way. This includes distinguishing between naming something and explaining it. In presenting the truths of Christian faith and life which are clearly taught in Scripture, especially those involving aspects which transcend our human comprehension, the church has coined many special names and terms. Concerning the doctrine of Christ’s person, for example, we speak of the hypostatic or personal union of Christ’s human and divine nature, of the communication of the two natures and of their attributes, of Christ’s humiliation and of His exaltation. The Formula of Concord among our Lutheran confessional writings particularly, uses many names and terms of this kind in its precise delineation of scriptural truths. This is often misunderstood and decried as a piece of Lutheran scholasticism. This criticism fails to understand the real purpose of the technical theological terms used at times by the Formula of Concord, fails to understand also the careful theological distinctions which it makes. It is, of course, a common fallacy to think that naming something explains it. The Formula of Concord, however, is not guilty of this fallacy. With its doctrinal terms it is not seeking to explain or prove any of the mysteries of faith. These terms get their meaning and content from the clear statements of Holy Scripture and serve the sole purpose of helping us hold on to the truths of Scripture and to refer to them readily. Also the fine doctrinal distinctions made by the Formula of Concord all serve the sole purpose of noting just what scripture does and does not say concerning the cardinal truths of our faith, whether we can grasp the individual feature with our understanding or not.

In this connection it is equally vital that we distinguish carefully between the ministerial and magisterial use of human reason. In the study of Scripture our reason is to serve as an instrument of apprehension: That is its ministerial use; its use as a servant. Since God has revealed all the truths of Christian faith and life that we need for our salvation through the medium of human language, we are to use our reason to determine according to all the rules and devices of language and composition just what it is that Scripture tells us. In all this Scripture functions as a servant. When that has been ascertained, our reason has done its work. It is not to do more and assume also the function of a teacher and judge and presume to decide whether what Scripture states can be permitted to stand or whether it must be modified in some way to make it more reasonable and more acceptable to current human teaching. By such a magisterial use of human reason every truth of Holy Scripture has been corrupted in the course of the history of the church. Luther himself employed the ministerial use of reason most conscientiously in his study of Scripture but inveigled heavily against any magisterial use.

3. That Scripture is clear does not mean that every statement or portion is subjectively clear to every hearer and reader.

Scripture asserts an objective, not a subjective, clarity. That it be clear also to us individually calls for careful, patient study, some parts more, others less. We need to let Scripture explain Scripture, to compare Scripture with Scripture considering all the texts in which Scripture teaches any certain truth: We need to study every statement carefully in its closer or wider context to gain full understanding. Scripture is not a collection of disconnected definitions for our faith and life. Yet it does abound with many passages which sum up vital truths in a very precise manner. These convey their full meaning even without consideration of the specific context in which they are found. Of this John 3:16 is a fine example.

In spite of the objective clarity of Scripture, parts of Scriptures may for various reasons remain obscure even after much diligent study. There are passages which, though clear in themselves and perfectly intelligible to those to whom they were first addressed, are difficult for us in one point or another because we no longer possess the exact meaning of this or that term used in the original language. It is impossible for us, for example, to identify with certainty all the precious stones which were found in the Old Testament high priest’s breastplate. In the creation account Moses refers to the branches of the river of Paradise with names that expressed some type of relation to rivers which were familiar to his first hearers and readers, the people of Israel. Only two of those rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, are familiar to us. We can identify them because they are referred to elsewhere in Scripture under the same names. This is not true of the names of the other two branches of the river of Paradise, the Gihon and the Pison. We cannot identify them because they are not referred to elsewhere in Scripture.

All this does not in any way impugn the clarity of Scripture as the absolute authority in matters of faith and life. For though we will consider every statement contained in Holy Scripture as inspired and factually true and as a precious part of the Scriptures given for our salvation, not every statement in and by itself establishes a truth or is an article of faith. Take the statement that each of the twelve stones of the high priest’s breastplate were inscribed with one of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and that each was a very specific precious stone. All this does not establish but only illustrates and symbolizes the truth, that each of these tribes was a precious part of God’s chosen people, in whose name the high priest was to function. The same is true of many historical statements of Scripture. Though they contain elements that illustrate, exemplify, and elucidate certain truths of faith and life, and for this reason are all written for our learning and worthy of our earnest study, they do not themselves constitute an article of Christian faith and life.

Scripture does not cease to be a clear authority for our faith and life even though this or that statement which actually teaches an article of faith should for one reason or another remain unclear for us individually. For the truths of Christian faith and life are for the most part taught again and again in a great abundance of Scripture texts. In addition they are clearly illustrated by a wealth of examples. These vital truths are also taught in such simple, lucid statements that even a child can comprehend them, as the Scripture proof passages in our Catechism show.

In the accounts of Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, we do meet with some statements of historical details which, though clear enough in what they assert, nevertheless present a difficulty as we compare them with other scriptural statements with which they do not seem to agree. We refer to such statements as Bible difficulties. In our faith wrought confidence in Scripture we will simply let every clear statement of Scripture stand; we will add, never subtract. We will let that which is clearly stated in both statements stand, even though we may not be able to harmonize them. A lack of sufficient details may make this difficult or impossible. Scripture tells us, for example; of the two sons of the patriarch Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Yet these two sons of Isaac are also referred to in Scripture by two altogether different names, Edom and Israel. This does not present a difficulty, since Genesis gives us the life history of these two men in sufficient detail that we know just how each came to bear a double set of significant names. When we compare the names and the fathers of the three wives of Esau, however, as they are listed in Genesis 36 with the names and the fathers of his three wives as they are listed in Genesis 26:34 and 28:9 and find a disparity of names, we face a Bible difficulty. The matter may be just as simple as in the other instance, only here we lack sufficient details to know why these individuals bore different names. Thus we are not able to effect a harmonization.

Luther offers three fine thoughts to guide us in handling such Bible difficulties in his comments on Genesis 11:10. There we are told that Shem was 100 years old and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood. Here it is asked: How can this be? Not only are we told that Noah begat Shem in his 500th year and that the flood began in Noah’s 600th year; but in addition Arphaxad is listed as the third son of Shem born after the flood. Luther first of all comments: “Our faith is not imperiled if we do not know these things.” Then he immediately adds: “For this is certain that Scripture does not lie.” His final suggestion is: “But what can be adduced to vindicate the authority of Scripture is useful, even though it may not be altogether certain.” Also for the difficulties in Genesis 11:10 Luther is not at a loss in offering suggestions for harmonization. He points out that two years after the flood means two years after the beginning of the flood. He supports this by pointing to another state-ment which makes this explanation evident. He also offers the suggestion of multiple births. In that same calm and undisturbed spirit we, too, shall want to offer our suggested harmonizations of Bible difficulties, confident that Scripture does not lie and that our faith is not imperiled if we cannot solve such difficulties for want of the required details which God did not deem necessary to supply. We will also be undismayed if our offered harmonizations should not always be the ultimate solution. The clarity of Scripture is not impaired by such things.

But does not Scripture itself admit a measure of unclarity when in 2 Peter 3:16 it says of Paul’s epistles, “In which are some things hard to understand which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest as they do also, the other Scriptures unto their own destruction”? If we carefully note this passage we will see that criticism is here not raised against Paul’s epistle or against Scripture, but against their abuse by the unlearned and unstable. There are indeed profound truths touched upon in Holy Scripture. This includes truths that still lie beyond our human experience. Of the latter nature are the matters specifically under discussion in this passage of 2 Peter, matters which deal with the last things, those things that will come to pass on judgment day and thereafter. When Scripture does speak of such things, we have all the more reason to note with the greatest of care just what Scripture does say and does not say, so that we do not fall into the pitfalls of the unlearned and unstable, of wresting Scripture, of doing violence to it.

The warning against wresting Scripture, that is, of forcing it to say what we want it to say, is still very much in place. All too many cling tenaciously to their own human thoughts and judgments as they read Scripture, instead of listening humbly to what God clearly tells them. Strong human prejudices blind many against the messages of Scripture in spite of the clarity in which they are set forth. The Jews who read the entire Old Testament from their legalistic and work righteousness approach wholly missed its gospel message. For the Reformed, who approach Scripture with the axioms that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite and that God does not bid us to believe anything that we cannot comprehend with our reason; the special comfort of the Lord’s Supper remained hidden. Because of antisupernaturalistic and evolutionistic presuppositions endless Bible scholars have been drawn into the hopeless quagmire of Old Testament source criticism, into JEDP source theories and multiple variations of them.

It is indeed true that we have differences in interpretation of individual scriptural passages even among orthodox teachers who extend to each other the hand of Christian fellowship. But to allow a difference in exegesis is not tantamount to admitting that Scripture texts are unclear. If the varying interpretations exclude one another, only one can be the correct one. For, every Scripture statement has only one proper intended sense. If, therefore, a difference of interpretation exists, we have every reason to ascertain what that one intended sense really is. An interpre¬tation for which no reasonable basis in the text and context can be supplied has no place in the Christian church.

If someone establishes a truth on the basis of a faulty interpretation of a specific biblical statement but this truth itself is clearly taught in other clear passages of Scripture, such an unwarranted interpretation does not in itself become a matter which is divisive of church fellowship. This will be borne as long as the individual who propounds it does not in principle want to say something else than what Scripture says. Likewise, if a fellow Christian still fails to see a truth of faith or life in a Scripture passage in which it is clearly set forth, but holds to that truth on the basis of other Bible passages, his weakness as an interpreter in a given instance need not become a divisive matter.

4. It is vital that we do not confuse the spiritual clarity of Scripture with its outward clarity.

Some in our day say Scripture becomes God’s Word when it convinces me, awakens a response in me. No, Scripture is God’s clear Word of itself as it comes to us, but it becomes spiritually clear to us, and we experience it as God’s saving Word, when it humbles us with its message of the law and wins our hearts in faith with its gospel message of pardon, life, and salvation.

The outward and the spiritual clarity of Scripture are not understood and distinguished properly by those who confuse enlightenment with inspiration. The writer of the 119th Psalm did not confuse the two. In the 105th verse he confesses, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” He designates the Scripture of which he is speaking as God’s Word. He thereby acknowledges that Scripture is God’s Word of itself; he likewise acknowledges the truth of inspiration. In addition he confesses that this divine Word is a light and a lamp, thus paying tribute to the outward objective clarity of that inspired Word. At the same time he prays in the 18th verse: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” That is a prayer for enlighten¬ment, a prayer that God would overcome all the human weaknesses by which some of the wondrous things clearly stated in God’s Word might remain hidden. We, too, as often as we approach the study of God’s Word will want to ask for the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment. But this is not a prayer by which we ask God to make His Word clear in itself. It is a prayer that God make His clear Word both outwardly and spiritually clear
to us; to do that not apart and aside from His Word but through that divine Word itself. Such prayers ought to be the daily accompaniment as we hear and read God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures; the message of Christ’s church.


Anonymous said...

Wait, you're claiming that a simple layman like me can read the Bible and understand it on my own without having a booklet published by Seminary professors to tell me what the Bible is supposed to say?

Mr. Adam Peeler

Pastor Spencer said...

Thank you, Mr. Peeler! That is precisely and exactly what I, the Intrepid Lutherans, and Prof. Lawrence, are indeed saying!

Pastor Spencer


Thank you for highlighting this resource, Pr Spencer. The clarity of scripture needs to be robustly defended these days. In my personal discussions with Lutherans who've gone Rome-ward, I've observed that in most cases questioning of the clarity and sufficiency of scripture has led to the decision to convert (most often as a result of exposure to modern and post-modern methods of reading the Bible). Only subsequently has doubt set in re the doctrine of justification; the 'posteriori' reasoning seems to be 'if Rome is right on scripture it must be right on justification too'. The two doctrines, the formal and material principles of the Reformation, seem to stand or fall together these days.

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