Martin Luther and the Perspicuity of Scripture
We spent a quiet Saturday evening reading in the kitchen – I finished Stephen J. Nichols’ Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought and a housemate was working her steady way through John Bunyan’s excellent Pilgrim’s Progress.
Had an argument with some Second Year Associates on Friday about the old issue of the perspicuity of Scripture.
Not sure how accurate a representation of Luther is set out in Nichols’ book, but for what it’s worth:
For Luther, the authority is Scripture alone. We need to be clear as to what Luther fully intends by the doctrine. He does not mean that everyone can understand and interpret it without help. He views the church, especially the church’s activity of preaching the Word, as God’s intended means to enable one to better understand Scripture, and he does not disavow tradition, as some might conclude from the sola Scriptura principle. Rather, the history of interpretation of texts can be an important safeguard for testing our interpretations. Again, sola Scriptura concerns the authority question. It reminds us that we submit to the text; it does not submit to us. (p78)
The reforms also greatly impacted the laity. Two doctrines come to the fore here. First, Luther’s idea of the priesthood of the believer overturned centuries of a hierarchical mindset that depreciated the laity, leaving it, and salvation, captive to the official church order. Contrary to the Medieval Catholic view, Luther restored the view expressed in 1 Peter 2:5, which affirms that all believers constitute a “holy priesthood” and “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. As Luther exclaims, “Every shoemaker can be a priest of God.” This priesthood grants access to God and his grace.
Again, however, careful understanding is in order. Luther did not abolish the clergy. In fact, he vehemently opposed the Anabaptists on this particular point. He maintained the necessity of a clergy, and a well-educated clergy at that, and of a church hierarchy. He rejected, however, any scheme that sets up one class, the priests, as having privileged and special access, relegating the rest of believers as second-class Christians…
…For Luther, the office of the priesthood had to do solely with one’s function in the church. As for one’s relationship to or standing before God, he heralded the universal priesthood of believers. (p83)
Luther clearly acknowledges that different believers serve different functions within the body of Christ. He also emphasizes the clergy’s need to guide believers in both biblical understanding and in living the Christian life. In fact, once Luther’s movement got underway, he sharply criticised those, such as his colleague in Wittenberg, Andreas Karlstadt, for their attempts to abolish any distinctions altogether. He argued “that there is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status.” (p89)
…Luther further explains that “the subject matter of the Scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms”. He expresses the accessibility of Scripture as the doctrine of both the internal and external clarity of Scripture. By external clarity, Luther essentially means that Scripture, conveyed in ordinary human language and employing human customs, may be read and understood. As for the internal clarity, this engages the Holy Spirit’s ministry of enabling us to understand Scripture. Luther observes,”If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God…For the Spirit is required for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture.” (p110)