In Lecture 8, Walther’s introduction to Thesis IV offers a fascinating discussion of perspicuity.
If the Holy Scriptures were really so obscure a book that the meaning of all those passages which form the basis of articles of the Christian Creed could not be definitely ascertained, and if, as a result of this, we should have to acknowledge that without some other authority it would be impossible to decide which of two or several interpretations of Scripture-passages is the only correct one — if these conditions, I say, were true, the Scriptures could not be the Word of God. How could a book that leaves us groping in darkness and uncertainty regarding its essential contents serve as a revelation? The old Jewish Bible scholars of the Middle Ages, in particular, declared the meaning of the Scriptures was, indeed, plain, but that there was a secret meaning of Scripture that is of the highest importance, and this secret meaning could not be explored without the aid of the Cabala. For instance, they pointed out that in the first as well as in the last verse of the Hebrew text the letter aleph occurs six times. Now, an ordinary person, they say, cannot know why that is so, but the Cabala gives the explanation, vis., that the world is to last six thousand years.
This claim is, of course, quite absurd. However, even with the Christian Church, in the Papacy, the teaching is current that the Scriptures are so obscure that you can scarcely understand a single passage in them; at any rate, very many important teachings of the Christian religion, it is asserted, cannot be substantiated from Scripture. To this end the traditions of the Church are said to be absolutely necessary. This claim of the papists is evidence of their blindness. To them applies what Paul says 2 Cor. 4, 3: “If our Gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.”
Luther is right when he says in his exposition of Ps. 37 (St. L. Ed. V, 335): “There is not a plainer book on earth than the Holy Scriptures. It is, in comparison with all other books, what the sun is compared with all other luminaries. The papists are giving us their twaddle about the Scriptures for the sole purpose of leading us away from the Scriptures and raising up themselves as masters over us in order to force us to believe their preaching of dreams. It is an abomination, a disgraceful defamation of Holy Writ and the entire Christian Church, to say that the Holy Scriptures are obscure, that they are not clear enough to be understood by everybody and to enable everybody to teach and prove what he believes.”
In his Appeal to the Counselors of All Cities of Germany in Behalf of the Establishment and Maintenance of Christian Schools, Luther says (St. L. Ed. X, 473): “The sophists have claimed that the Scriptures are obscure, meaning that it is the very nature of the Word of God to be obscure and to speak in strange fashion. But they do not see that the whole trouble is caused by the languages. If we understood the languages, there would not be anything that has ever been spoken easier to understand than the Word of God. Of course, a Turk will talk obscure things to be because I do not know Turkish; but a Turkish child seven years old understands him readily.”
Luther is entirely right. The Holy Scriptures are not only as perspicuous as the plainest writing of men, but they are much clearer, because they have been set down by the Holy Spirit, the Creator of the languages. It is therefore absolutely impossible to prove an error or even a contradiction in Scripture if you stick to its words. It is truth, then, what we express in our beautiful Communion hymn “Lord Jesus, Thou Art Truly Good,” when we sing:
Firm as a rock Thy Word still stands,
Unshaken by the en’mies, hands,
Though they be e’er so cunning.
However, while the historico-grammatical meaning of Scripture can readily be opened up by any one who understand its language, it is impossible without the Holy Spirit for any one to understand the Holy Scriptures unto his salvation, no matter how great a linguist, how famous a philologist, how keen a logician he may be. The Apostle Paul declares, 1 Cor. 2, 14: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Again, the same apostle says, 1 Cor. 1, 23: “We preach Christ Crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block and unto the Greeks foolishness.”
Now, the primary requisite for a salutary knowledge of the Holy Scriptures is the correct understanding of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The Bible is full of light to every one who has this knowledge. Wherever this knowledge is lacking, all Scripture remains a book sealed with seven seals.
We now proceed to
The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.