Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1
Dr. Francis Pieper
Pp. 359-367

Holy Scripture and Exegesis

 All exegesis, whether it be in general the unfolding of the sense of Scripture or in particular the explanation of (or rather the attempt to explain) the more difficult passages of Scripture, is based on the belief that the entire Christian doctrine is revealed and set forth in Scripture passages so clear that the learned and unlearned alike can understand them; they do not stand in need of “exegesis” for explanation.  If Scripture did not have this quality, it would not be for all Christians “a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their path,” nor would all Christians be able to establish the truth of their faith by Scripture and in the light of Scripture to mark and avoid false teachers.  The great teachers of the Church, Augustine, Luther, Chemnitz, etc., have always insisted that God gave His people a Bible which presents the entire Christian doctrine in all its parts in passages which need no clarification on the part of the exegetes.  We have brought the proofs from Augustine under the heading of the perspicuity of Scripture.  As Luther expresses it: “If you cannot understand the obscure, then stay with the clear” (St. L. V:338).  No one need fear that if he follow this course, he may be deprived of one or the other doctrine of faith or life.
 Good Papists and poor Protestants object here that in that case the special gift of explaining the Scriptures, which God gives to some Christians in preference to others, would be of no use.  The objection is not valid.  There is a wide territory open for the profitable exercise of the gift of interpreting Scripture in spite of the perfect clarity of Scripture in the sense just described.  In the first place, Harless declares in his preface to Luther’s explanation of John 17: “Even though the Word of God in itself does not need interpretation, still our hard hearts and deaf ears stand in need of the voice of the heralds and the preachers in the wilderness.  And this again not as though Christ’s words were too high and deep, too obscure and mysterious, but because, as Luther correctly saw, we human beings in our perverse desire to reach false heights, like blind idiots, take no notice of the divine simplicity of the words of Christ.”  The first and foremost duty of the exegete consists in holding the flighty spirit of man to the simple word of Scripture and, where he has departed from it, to lead him back to the simple word of Scripture.  Luther says that the sole purpose of all his writings and particularly of his exegetical works is to lead back into Scripture, to get every Christian and every teacher to base his faith on the bare Scripture, on the “nuda” Scriptura, minus any ”gloss,” the good glosses no less than the false interpretation.  Luther therefore, as is well known, frequently uttered the wish that also his books might perish in order that Christians might base their faith on the “nuda” Scriptura, without any interpretation; every interpretation is less clear than Scripture, and every interpretation must be examined in the clearer light of Scripture.  “No clearer book has been written on earth than Holy Scripture.  Among all other books it is like the sun among all lights.” (St. L. V: 334)

 Fortunately Luther’s wish that all his books might disappear was not fulfilled.  For the writings of Luther cannot but lead the flighty spirit of man to the bare Scriptures, without interpretation, and keep it there, so that every Christian and particularly every public teacher in the Church can say with Luther: “The Word they still shall let remain,” the “nuda” Scriptura.  This manuductio ad nudam Scripturam was necessary not only in Luther’s day.  The Church in all ages, up to the Last Day, needs it; for men will always be inclined, “in their perverse desire to reach false heights, like blind idiots, to take no notice of the divine simplicity of the words of Christ.”  Thus our day, too, needs exegetes - they do not have to be in every case professional theologians - who by God’s grace possess principally four qualities: 1) they know Scripture to be God’s own Word and treat it accordingly; 2) they have learned, from Scripture’s own testimony, that Scripture is clear; 3) they concentrate their efforts upon the manuductio ad nudam Scripturam; 4) they uncover the deceit practiced when men propose, under the good name of exegesis, to shed light on Scripture by means of their human opinions.  Zwingli asserted that “the most precious words concerning the eternal deity and the true manhood of Jesus Christ: must” by figures and tropes be made to agree with the right sense which faith demands.”  Also modern theologians assert that Scripture must be “subordinated” to “faith” as the highest principle in theology; “faith” meaning the pious self-consciousness of the theologizing individual (See, Dogmegesch., 2d ed., II, p. 289).

 And this constitutes the second part of the work of the true exegete: he must be able to expose the abuse connected in ancient and modern times with the “exegesis according to the faith” or “according to the analogy of faith.”  Scripture must certainly be interpreted “according to the analogy of faith.”  But this term is used in a twofold, contradictory sense, with totally different results.  Rightly used, it serves the proper interpretation of Scripture.  Wrongly used, it serves utterly to pervert Scripture.  Luther and the old theologians, who with him took the right course, understand by analogy of faith the clear Scripture passages that require no interpretation, but are lucid in themselves.  The sum of these passages constitutes the “analogy,” or the “rule of faith.”  The Apology defines the “rule of faith” when it says “Besides, examples [as the life of the Rechabites] ought to be interpreted according to the rule; i.e., according to certain and clear passages of Scripture.”  And Luther reminds us: “Therefore you are to know that Scripture without any explanation is the sun and the whole light, from which all teachers receive their light; they do not shed light on the Scriptures” (St. L. XVIII: 1293).  He teaches that both the instructing and the refuting of error must be done “with clear passages, as with a bared and drawn sword, without any glosses or commentaries.”  These clear passages are the rule according to which the faithful teacher is to explain obscure passages, as far as this lies in his power.  “The holy fathers,” Luther says, “explained Scripture by taking the clear, lucid passages and with them shed light on obscure and doubtful passages” (St. L. XX: 856).  These “clear, lucid” passages are, of course, to be found in those places in Scripture which deal with a doctrine ex professo, in the so-called sedes doctrinae.  Quenstedt says: “It is to be observed that every article of faith has its proper and native seat, from which it is determined” (Systema I, 349).  Only in this way the principle is maintained: Scriptura ex Scriptura explicanda est.  Luther: “In this manner Scripture is its own light.  It is a fine thing when Scripture explains itself.  Therefore do not believe the Pope’s lies; freely regard as dark whatever is not approved by clear passages of Scripture.  Thus we have first had to remove the error that the Scriptures are obscure and must be illuminated by the doctrines of men; this had taken a deep hold.  It is certainly a capital error and a blasphemy; in fact, it amounts to taking the Holy Ghost to school and teaching Him how to speak.” (St. L. XI: 2335 f.)

 Diametrically opposed to this view is the false conception of “faith,” or the “analogy of faith,” held by all those who do not permit the “certae et clarae Scripturae,” the “clear, lucid passages of Scripture,” to constitute the rule, or analogy, of faith, but substitute for it a “faith” which, with complete disregard of the clear and lucid passages, they have constructed out of their own notions.  This “faith” is to be the light with which to elucidate the clear passages of Scripture, which need no elucidation whatever!  The Sacramentarians were exegetes of this type.  In order to evade Scripture and retain their own thought concerning the Lord’s Supper, they proposed that Luther should disregard all passages dealing with the Lord’s Supper and, like themselves, construct the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper from John 6.  The modern theologians belong in the same class of exegetes.  In order not to be instructed and reproved by Scripture, but to be able, undisturbed by Scripture, to make the “pious self-consciousness” the source and norm of theology, they take recourse under the leadership of Schliermacher and of Hofmann to the “whole of Scripture.”  And the old method of taking the Christian doctrines from the passages which treat of these doctrines they seek to discredit with the cry that this outmoded method converts Scripture into a “collection of prooftexts.”

 Exposing the fraud perpetrated by the “enthusiasts,” who, under the guise of interpreting Scripture, by referring to John 6 entirely did away with Scripture, Luther wrote: “It is the arrogance and fatuous malice of the wicked devil who would in this serious matter make fools of us through these ‘enthusiasts’ by pretending a readiness to accept the instruction of Scripture if only he be first permitted to get rid of Scripture or twist it to suit his prejudice.  Just as if I would deprive my opponent of his weapons by cunning words and gave him in place thereof painted paper weapons - just like his - and then would dare him to vanquish me with them and fight me off.  Oh, that would be a daring hero - fit to be spit upon!” (St. L. XX:780.)  Back of the proposal of the “enthusiasts” to explain the words of institution with John 6 lay the thought, more or less clearly expressed, that the sense of all Scripture passages, including the clear ones, must be determined by comparing them with other passages.  Luther had no use for such an exegetical method.  He wrote: “The result of this method will be that no passage in Scripture will remain certain and clear, and the comparison of one passage with another will never end. . . . To demand that clear and certain passages be explained by drawing in other passages amounts to an iniquitous deriding of the truth (nequiter veritatem illudere) and the injection of fog into the light (nebulas in lucem vehere).  If one set out to explain all passages by first comparing them with other passages, he would be mixing up Scripture into an uncertain and wild chaos (totam Scripturam in infinitum et incertum chaos confundere).  Is not this plain enough?  No doubt you will see that this is the case.”  Luther is unalterably convinced that God gave Holy Scripture such a form that the entire Christian doctrine is revealed and submitted in passages which need no “exegesis” (exegesis in the sense of removing obscurities).  He who would determine the meaning of the clear passages through still other passages engages in a work of interminable adjustments, makes the entire Scriptures uncertain and obscure, and converts them into an inextricable chaos.  Yes, there is the rule: “One passage must be explained by another,” but, as Luther adds immediately: “Namely, a doubtful and obscure passage (locus ambiguous et obscurus) must be explained by means of a clear and certain passage.”  The clear passage needs no further explanation.  Shall we adopt the senseless exegetical method of illuminating the light by darkness and explaining the clear matter by the obscure?  This method has been fostered carefully by the errorists of all times.  After Luther had stated that in the obscure passages of Scripture nothing else is found “than what is found at other places in the clear passages,” he adds: “Then the heretics come forward and explain the obscure passages according to their own mind and contend with them against the clear passages, the foundation of our faith.” (St. L. V:335.)
 These severe strictures of Luther apply in even a higher degree to the modern theologians who would explain the whole Bible and in particular also all clear passages of Scripture according to the “whole of Scripture.”  If anything is pure “human self-conceit” (Menschenduenkel), the very antithesis of “Scripture,” it is this “whole of Scripture,” which, introduced by Schleiermacher, has penetrated, particularly through Hofmann’s influence, into the modern so-called Lutheran theology.  This “whole of Scripture” lies entirely outside Scripture.  It is the product of the illusion that the Christian doctrine forms a whole or a system agreeable to human reason and the several doctrines of Scriptures must be adjusted to fit into this system.  Before us lies the proof that this exegetical method makes a mockery of the entire Christian truth and turns the entire Scriptures into a shapeless ruin.  Modern theologians admit that Schleiermacher by means of the “whole of Scripture” cast the entire Christian doctrine overboard.  And Hofmann, too, denied, as the result of his system, the inspiration of Scripture, the satisfaction vicaria, original sin, etc., and, by principle, the entire Christian doctrine, though he for his person did not draw this final conclusion.  In short, exegesis according to the “whole of Scripture” does not permit Scripture to be it “own light,” but this “whole of Scripture,” which Schleiermacher, Hofmann, etc., extract from their own Ego, is made the light of Scripture.

 Exegesis, in its double function of the enarratio of the Scriptural content and of the removal of obscurities by means of the clear passages, is a most serious and sacred occupation.  The Scriptures are the Word of God, and adding to them or subtracting from them is strictly forbidden to everyone (Deut. 4:2).  Whoever attempts to shed more light on dark passages of Scripture than Scripture itself offers in its clear passages is adding to God’s Word.  And whoever obscures clear passages by bringing in obscure passages is taking away from God’s Word.  Let the exegete particularly study the words . . . (1 Pet. 4:11).  What he cannot speak as God’s Word, he should leave unuttered.  If he is not certain that he is speaking God’s Word, he should say so and - following Luther’s advice - leave the passage unexplained.  If the exegete wishes to hold the right course and keep the fountain of the Christian doctrine clear, he must ever bear in mind the divine truth (Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19) that “the Scriptures are a light in themselves,” that Scriptura sua radiat luce.  He must reject every interpretation which is based on something outside Scripture.

 This principle takes in both the linguistic usage and the historical circumstances of the text.  Interesting and important for apologetics as it is, e.g., to compare the New Testament Greek with the earlier Greek of Homer and with the contemporary Greek of Philo and Josephus and the monuments, etc., in the last analysis the linguistic usage of the New Testament alone decides the matter.  We would be violating the fundamental tenet: Scripturam ex Scriptura explicandam esse, and introducing an element of uncertainty into our understanding of Scripture if we invested a word or a phrase with a meaning which it does not bear in Scripture itself.  This is generally admitted.  Our theologians lay particular stress upon it.  As Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Athanasius, Jerome, etc., must be understood according to the linguistic usage which is peculiar to each, so Scripture, as it emphatically declares, demands the same treatment; otherwise we would be practicing eisegesis instead of exegesis.  Compare, e.g., the chapter in Quenstedt: An Sacra Scriptura seipsam interpretetur?

 The same applies to the historical statements and circumstances.  All historical and chronological data which are needed to the end of time for the correct understanding of Scripture are furnished by Scripture itself.  The study of the Old and New Testament contemporary history has been given an undue importance in our day.  Recently an essayist at a sectarian conference in St. Louis took occasion to assert that the layman could never be positively sure of the meaning of Scripture because the meaning of Scripture depended on the “historical background” with which only the experts were familiar.  There you have again the Roman fundamental article of the obscurity of Scripture; only instead of the Pope you have the experts in Old and New Testament contermporary history to “hatch the eggs and become our idol” (Luther).  To be sure, acquaintance with contemporary history, as it is based on what secular writers, historical monuments, etc., say, is important; important, for instance, for apologetics, with which we cannot entirely dispense.  It enables us to show that the historical, etc., data of Holy Scripture are not fables but are largely confirmed by secular history.  But, on the other hand, it must be maintained that the sure understanding of Scripture in no wise depends on the acquaintance with its secular-historical background, since the entire “historical background” necessary for a correct understanding of the meaning of Scripture is given in Scripture itself.

 In fact, we go astray in our exegesis of Scripture as soon as we think that the historical background given in Scripture needs to be supplemented by material from secular history and permit this supplementation to have a decisive influence on our exegesis.  Such a procedure, too, would be an infraction of the truth that Scripture shines in its own light and would introduce also an element of uncertainty into the interpretation of Scripture, for who will guarantee the correctness of the background taken only from secular history?  The Bible is the only book in the world in which no historical errors can occur. - The most flagrant misuse of contemporary history is committed when men undertake to correct, or cast doubt upon, the historical data of Scripture on the basis of “contemporary history.”  We have pointed out above how modern theologians, who do not accept the Bible as God’s Word, correct, or at least cast doubt upon, the historical statements of Scripture by means of the contemporary history furnished by Josephus.

 We close this chapter with Luther’s oft-repeated admonition never to substitute a human interpretation for the “text,” i.e., for the words of Scripture themselves.  He says: “With the text and from the foundation of the Holy Scriptures I have silenced and slain all my opponents.  For whoever is well founded and practiced in the text will become a good and fine theologian, since a passage, or text, from the Bible has more weight than many commentators and glosses, which are not strong and round and do not help in the controversy.” (Erl. 57, p. 7.)  Again: “When the fathers teach anything, they do not trust their teaching, fearing it to be too obscure and uncertain, but they go to the Scriptures and take a clear passage out of it to shed light on their teaching.  How should they have overcome the heretics if they had fought with their own explanations?  They would have been regarded as fools and madmen; but when they brought forward clear texts which needed no glosses, so that reason was brought into captivity, the evil spirit himself with all his heresies was completely routed.” (St.L. XVIII:1293.)  And so Luther further admonishes: “It must be the prime concern of a theologian to be well versed in the text, a bonus textualis, as it is called” (St. L. V:456).  He complains about the many “commentaries and books,” through which “the dear Bible is being buried and covered up so that no one takes note of the text.”  He refers to his own experience: “When I was young, I familiarized myself the Bible, read it often, and became well acquainted with the text; so well acquainted that I knew where every passage that was mentioned was to be found; thus I became a good textualis.  Not till then did I read the commentators.  But finally I had to disregard them all and put them away because the use of them did not satisfy my conscience, and I had to take my stand again on the Bible; for it is much better to see with your own eyes than with another’s.” (St.L. XXII: 54 f.)  Thus Luther and his conscience stood on the bare text of Scripture, excluding all human interpretation.

 The talk common in our day that all church bodies stand on Scripture and differ only in their interpretation of it is not in accordance with the facts.  The Roman Catholic Church does not stand on Scripture, but on the papal interpretation of Scripture.  The Reformed Churches, as far as they differ from the Lutheran Church, do not stand on Scripture, but on Zwingli’s, Calvin’s, etc., interpretation of Scripture.  The Lutheran Church, however, does not stand on an interpretation of Scripture, but on Scripture itself.  This is not a mere assertion.  It can be proved by induction in the face of universal contradiction.

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