(The Divine Perspicuity of Holy Scripture)


by John Theodore Mueller TH. D




When we say that Holy Scripture is perspicuous, or clear, we mean that it sets forth all doctrines of salvation in words so simple and plain that they can be understood by all persons of average intelligence. The Lutheran dogmatician Baier expresses this thought as follows: "Any man acquainted with the language, possessed of a common judgment, and paying due attention to the words may learn the true sense of the words… and embrace the fundamental doctrines." The perspicuity of Scripture is definitely taught in clear passages: Ps. 119:105, 130; 19:7, 8; 2Pet. 1:19; 2Tim. 3:15. In addition to this, it is presupposed in all those passages in which all men are exhorted to search the Scriptures for salvation, John 5:39; Luke 16:29; Acts 17:11; 2Thess. 2:15; Is. 34:16; 1John 2:13, 14. Whoever, therefore, rejects the perspicuity of the Bible (papists, enthusiasts, modern rationalistic theologians) must also reject the basic truth that Scripture is the only principium cognoscendi, thus compelling the Christian believer to base his faith upon the human expositions either of the Church or of individual Bible scholars. <page 139>

Keeping in mind that Holy Scripture is a clear book, the Christian exegete must scrupulously refrain from foisting upon its sacred text his own subjective views (eisegesis) and regard it as his sole function to exhibit the true meaning of God's clear Word (exegesis: the leading forth of the sense of Scripture); in other words, he must allow Scripture to interpret itself. (Scriptura Scripturam inter pretatur; Scriptura sua luce radiat.) Negatively the function of the Christian exegete may be described as the removal of all textual difficulties by proper grammatical instruction and of all misinterpretations by erring expositors; positively, as the exhibition of the true sense of the text (manductio ad nudam Scripturam) in the light of its context and parallel passages.


Hence a true Christian exegete must possess the following qualifications: a) He must regard the whole Bible as the inerrant Word of God; b) he must treat Holy Scripture as a book which is clear in itself; c) he must conscientiously point out the real sense of the text; and d) he must be able to refute the erroneous human opinions which false teachers or misguided orthodox theologians have foisted upon the text.


With regard to the perspicuity of Holy Scripture we may yet observe the following points :

a. Holy Scripture is preeminently clear with respect to those things that are necessary for salvation. We readily admit that Scripture contains passages which are more or less obscure not only to the average Christian, but also the Christian theologian. But this fact does not disprove the doctrine of the perspicuity of the Bible. The passages which in themselves are obscure do not set forth fundamental articles of the Christian faith, but pertain, as our dogmaticians have said, commonly to "onomastic, chronological, topographical, allegorical, typical, or prophetical matters" (Quenstedt). Of the passages which propound doctrines some are less clear than others or, as Gerhard remarks: "What is obscurely expressed in one passage is more clearly explained in others," and in all such cases the more obscure must be intepreted in the light of the clear (sedes doctrinae; analogia fidei). But also this fact does not disprove the doctrine of Biblical perspicuity. In his exposition on Ps. 37 Luther comments very aptly: "But if any one of them (the papists) should trouble you and say: ‘You must have the interpretation of the Fathers, since Scripture is obscure,” then you must reply: 'It is not true. There is no clearer book upon earth than is Holy Writ, which in comparison with all <page 140> other books is like the sun in its relation to all other lights.’ They say such things only because they want to lead us away from Scripture and elevate themselves to the position of masters over us in order that we might believe their dream sermons,… For that is indeed true: Some passages in Scripture are obscure, but in these you find nothing but what is found in other places and in clear and plain passages. Then came the heretics and explained the obscure passages according to their own reasonings, and with these they combated the clear passages and foundation of faith. So the Fathers fought them with the clear passages, and with them they shed light upon the obscure, proving in this way that what is said obscurely in some passages is set forth clearly in others. Do not permit yourselves to be led out of, and away from, Scripture, no matter how hard they [the papists] may try. For if you step out of Scripture, you are lost; then they will lead you just as they wish. But if you remain in Scripture, you have won the victory and you will regard their raging in no other way than when the crag of the sea smiles at the waves and billows. All their writings are nothing else than waves that rock to and fro. Be assured and certain that there is nothing clearer than the sun, I mean, Holy Scripture. If a cloud drifts before it, nothing else than the same clear sun is nevertheless behind it. If then you find an obscure passage in Scripture, do not be alarmed, for surely the same truth is set forth in it which in another place is taught plainly. So if you cannot understand the obscure, then cling to the clear." (St. L., V, 334ff.) These defiant statements of Luther reecho the clear truths which Holy Scripture itself teaches concerning its perspicuity, Ps. 119:105; 2Pet. 1:19f. (Cf. also Luther's defense of the perspicuity of Scripture in his famous work De Servo Arbitrio. St.L., XVIII, 1681 ff.)


b. The perspicuity of Scripture must not be identified with comprehensibility of its mysteries of faith (perspicuitas rerum). The very doctrines which we must believe for our salvation, for instance, the incarnation of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the personal union of the two natures in Christ, the atonement through Christ's vicarious suffering and death, etc., will always remain unintelligible to human reason (res inevidentes). But these incomprehensible mysteries of our faith are set forth in words so intelligible (perspicuitas verborum) that every person of ordinary intelligence who understands human speech can receive them into his mind (apprehensio simplex) and through the supernatural

<page 141> operation of the Holy Ghost can apprehend them also spiritually (apprehensio spirituals sive practica). For this reason our Lutheran dogmaticians have called the perspicuity of Scripture a claritas verborum, or claritas externa, or, etc. On this point Gerhard quotes Luther (1, 26), who writes: "If you speak of the internal clearness, no man understands a single iota in the Scriptures by the natural powers of his mind unless he has the Spirit of God; for all men [by nature] have obscure hearts. The Holy Spirit is required for the understanding of the whole of Scripture and of all its parts. If you refer to the external clearness of Scripture, there is nothing that is left obscure or ambiguous, but all things brought to light in the Word are perfectly clear." (Doctr. Theol., p. 73.) The whole doctrine of the clearness of Scripture may be summed up as follows: Scripture is clear externally (claritas verborum) to all men of sound minds, internally (claritas spiritudlis) only to believers, and essentially (claritas rerum, the understanding of the mysteries of the faith) only to the saints in heaven, 1Cor. 13, 12.


From all this it is obvious to whom Holy Scripture must remain an obscure book, namely, to all —

a. Who understand neither human speech in general nor

Scriptural speech in particular;

b. Who are so filled with prejudice that they refuse to give

the words of Scripture honest consideration;

c. Who foolishly endeavor to comprehend the divine mysteries

by means of their blind reason;

d. Who are filled with enmity against the divine truths which Scripture teaches, Ps. 18:26; John 8:43-47; 2Cor. 4:3, 4. This explains why so many errorists arrogantly reject Holy Scripture as an obscure book. "Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain." (Cowper.)


"Blind unbelief" has also suggested the objections which have been preferred against the perspicuity of Holy Scripture. Among these we may note the following :

a. The institution of the holy ministry. Answer: Christ did indeed institute the public ministry, not, however, to render the Bible clear, but to preach the Gospel, which the Bible propounds so clearly, Mark 16:15-16; Matt. 28:19, 20, and by this means to guide men to heaven, Heb. 13:17; Ezek. 3:18.

b. The dissensions and factions within the visible Christian <page 142> Church. Answer: These, alas! exist, but only because men insist on rejecting the clear doctrines of Scripture, John 8, 31. 32; 1 Tim. 6, 3 f .

c. Obscure passages occur in Scripture. Answer: Such passages do not disprove the perspicuity of Scripture since the doctrines of salvation are taught with great clarity. St. Augustine rightly says: "In the clear passages of Scripture everything is found that is necessary for faith and life."

d. The unintelligible mysteries of the faith. Answer: These mysteries are indeed beyond the grasp of human reason, but they are taught in language so plain that it is intelligible even to a normal child.

e. Special passages of Scripture allegedly admit its obscurity. Passages such as 2 Pet. 3, 16 and 1Cor. 13, 12 have been pointed out by those who deny the perspicuity of Scripture. Answer: St. Peter declares that among the things which St. Paul writes in his epistles there are some that are hard to be understood. Holy Scripture indeed contains many things which admittedly are "hard to be understood." However, this does not disprove its perspicuity; for wherever it teaches the way of salvation, it is perfectly clear.


In 1Cor. 13, 12 St. Paul does not speak of Holy Scripture, but of our knowledge of God and divine truth, which now is mediate and imperfect, but which in heaven will be immediate and perfect. Hence also this passage does not disprove the perspicuity of Scripture.


The perspicuity of Scripture is denied both by the papists ("The Scriptures are not of themselves clear and intelligible even in matters of the highest importance." Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, p. 111) and the enthusiasts. The papists claim that the Scriptures must be interpreted by the Church, or the Pope, while the enthusiasts assert that they must be expounded by means of the "inner light." In the last analysis both papists and enthusiasts resort to human reason to expound Scripture, just as modern rationalists do, who aver that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of modern intelligence. In all three cases the charge against God’s holy and clear Book of salvation is prompted by deliberate opposition to the blessed Gospel of Christ, 1Cor. 1:22, 23.


[Note: From “Christian Dogmatics,” by John Theodore Mueller TH. D., professor of Systematic Theology, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. Copyright 1934 by Concordia publishing house.]


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