The Reformers & Scripture’s Clarity

From G. Sujin Pak, “The Perspicuity of Scripture, Justification by Faith Alone, and the Role of the Church in Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers”:

Martin Luther Translating the Bible, Wartburg Castle, 1521

Among several legacies that could be identified, three rise to prominence in my own reflections: the Protestant Reformers’ assertions of the prime authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, and the perspicuity of Scripture… They function as natural corollaries to one another and together embody the theological core of the Reformers’ message, particularly that of Martin Luther and John Calvin.


First, the Reformers’ affirmation of the perspicuity of Scripture was a crucial tenet of their assertion of Scripture’s prime authority and their challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Reformers grounded Scripture’s authority and clarity on the biblical principle of justification by faith alone as the very perspicuous heart of Scripture and as a principle that reinforces Scripture as self-authenticating and self-interpreting. We might more accurately understand the Protestant Reformers’ teachings on the perspicuity of Scripture if we understand its deep foundations in the principle of justification by faith alone. Yet even as the Protestant Reformers displaced church authority in favor of the prime authority of Scripture, this did not mean that they stripped the church of all authority concerning matters of Scripture’s interpretation. Rather they strongly affirmed the authority of the church insofar as it acts under the guiding rule of Scripture.


In this way, Luther argued that God’s Word is prior to the church—prior in both existence and authority. Accordingly, it cannot be the case that the authority of Scripture relies in any way on the consent and authority of the church. Rather, the church is brought into being by the Word of God; the church is built on the very foundation of Scripture as God’s ordained and sufficient revelation. Indeed, Luther defined the church precisely by its relationship to this authoritative Word of God: the church is the community that hears and obeys the Word of God revealed in Scripture.


[The Reformers’] point was not that any person, even any Christian, has what they need to interpret Scripture in and of their own ability. More specifically, the Reformers’ point was not that by the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit one’s own abilities were purified and empowered. Rather, their very point was that Scripture is clear and accessible not by virtue of any human efforts or abilities, even sanctified abilities, but solely by virtue of the gift of faith through the work of the Spirit—precisely the gift of faith given when one is justified by faith alone. Just as the Protestant Reformers affirmed that only God can initiate faith and do the work of salvation in a person, so also they insisted that only God is the actor in any true interpretation of Scripture. Just as the human must despair of making any contribution to her salvation, so Luther insisted that to interpret Scripture rightly one must despair completely of one’s own intelligence and ability.


Luther thereby connected the principle of justification by faith alone directly with the prime authority of Scripture and the assertion of God’s Word as the only actor that can accomplish the true applications and fruits of God’s Word. He clarified that though any Christian has the right to proclaim God’s Word (i.e., the priesthood of all believers), God alone has the power to accomplish what God intends in and through its proclamation. These fruits belong solely and ultimately in the hands of God. This, in essence, disciplines all human attempts to interpret Scripture, so that one must wait and see whether and how God acts in and through a proposed interpretation to accomplish God’s purposes.


To put it another way, in the view of the Reformers, the primary goal of Scripture is to reveal Christ. Luther and Calvin affirmed that all of Scripture points to Christ. This goal of revealing Christ connects directly to Scripture’s soteriological telos: to reveal Christ is to reveal God’s ordained path of salvation (i.e., justification by faith alone). For the Protestant Reformers, the true act of reading Scripture is a moment of transformative encounter with God… In this way, reading Scripture creates a sacred space in which the Holy Spirit illuminates the words of Scripture so that one may be transformed into greater conformity to Christ and glimpse the very heart of God.


Read the full article here.


G. Sujin Pak