Luther on the Authority and Clarity of Scripture

October 27, 2017

[Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the event that many cite as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther’s nailing 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. While the Theses primarily address the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, the underlying issue was the relative authority of Scripture and the Roman Church. The issue of the authority of Scripture remains of vital importance today; we’ll focus on it this coming Sunday as we celebrate 500 years of the Reformation.  To honor Luther’s role in the recovery of Scriptural authority, here are some of his own words on this topic – Coty]

[When Luther was under trial in the city of Worms for his writings, after being commanded to recant:]

I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

[Luther’s enemies mocked him for this stance, yet clearly recognized his position on Scripture. Here is part of the Edict of Worms, the final judgment from that trial:]

This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and has invented new ones. . . . His teaching makes for rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christendom. He lives the life of a beast. . . . We have labored with him, but he recognizes only the authority of Scripture.

[Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German. He wrote these words on the flyleaf of a German Bible:]

God will not be seen, known, or comprehended except through his Word alone. Whatever therefore one undertakes for salvation apart from the Word is in vain. God will not respond to that. He will not have it. He will not tolerate any other way. Therefore, let his Book in which He speaks to you be commended to you. For he did not cause it to be written to no purpose. He did not want us to let it lie there in neglect, as if he were speaking with mice under the bench or with flies on the pulpit. We are to read it, to think and speak about it, and to study it, certain that He Himself, not an angel or a creature, is speaking with us in it.

[Luther’s response to Erasmus’ claim that Scripture is obscure. From Bondage of the Will:]

God and his Scriptures 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. . . . But the notion that in Scripture . . . all is not plain was spread by the godless [without evidence.] . . . And Satan has used these unsubstantial specters to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own 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 the 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 forever? Are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures—and what more will you find in them? . . .

The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no [longer] 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. . . . 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. . . . They are like men who . . . go from daylight into darkness, and hide there and then blame . . . the darkness of the day for their inability to see. . . .

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. . . . The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture.

[From Luther‘s exposition of Psalm 45:4, delivered as a lecture to his students. He here comments on the words “go forth and reign” (translated “ride out victoriously” in the ESV):]

Everywhere there is nothing but misfortune: outside they persecute the Word; among us they despise and neglect it; pastors almost die of hunger and receive no other reward for their godly labors than ingratitude and hatred. Where is the prosperity here? Certainly only in the spirit.

Therefore rouse yourself. Do not give in to evils, but go forth boldly against them. Hold on. Do not be disheartened either by contempt or ingratitude within or by agitation and raging without. . . . It is in sorrow, when we are the closest to despair, that hope rises the highest. So today, when there is the greatest contempt and weariness with the Word, the true glory of the Word begins. Therefore we should learn to understand this verse as speaking of invisible progress and success. Our King enjoys success and good fortune even though you do not see it. Moreover, it would not be expedient for us to see this success, for then we would be puffed up. Now, however, he raises us up through faith and gives us hope. Even though we see no fruit of the Word, still we can be certain that fruit will not be wanting but will certainly follow; for so it is written here. Only we should not be discouraged when we look at present circumstances that disturb us, but we should much rather look at these promises.



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