This article first appeared in the October 15, 1993 (Vol.70, #2) issue of the Standard Bearer and was penned byProf. David J. Engelsma, then professor of dogmatics in the PRC Seminary and editor of the SB.
"Far Brighter even than the Sun"
It is well known that Martin Luther's great work, The Bondage of the Will, sets forth the Reformation's central doctrine of salvation by the sovereign grace of God alone. The introduction to J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston's translation of The Bondage (London: James Clarke & Co., Ltd., 1957; the quotations that follow are taken from this fine translation) calls the book "the greatest piece of theological writing that ever came from Luther's pen." It quotes the Reformation scholar E. Gordon Rupp as approving the description of The Bondage as "the finest and most powerful Soli Deo Gloria to be sung in the whole period of the Reformation." Accurately, it identifies the message of The Bondage as the heart of the theology of all the Reformers: "the sinner's entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only."
What is not so well known is that this grand work on the central message of the gospel also puts forward a splendid defense of Holy Scripture as the source and standard of the gospel. This defense focuses on the clarity, or perspicuity, of Scripture. Clarity is a quality of Scripture that is somewhat overlooked in the struggle of the Reformed church today to maintain a sound doctrine of Scripture. To the mind of Luther, clarity is basic to a sound doctrine of Scripture and to the functioning of Scripture as the Word of God in the church. Denial of Scripture's clarity is the destruction of the doctrine of Scripture.
The defense of Scripture's clarity is no incidental aspect of The Bondage. With this, Luther begins. It is a recurring theme in the book, under-girding the message of sovereign grace. The Bondage presents the two great truths of the Reformation, sovereign grace and the authority of Scripture, in their unity.
The reason for Luther's consideration of the clarity of Scripture lay in the book that occasioned his writing The Bondage. This was Erasmus' defense of free will, A Diatribe or Sermon concerning Free Will. In his attack on Luther's teaching that the will of fallen man is enslaved to sin, Erasmus suggested that Scripture is not clear on the issue of the bound or free will:
If (wrote Erasmus) you turn your eyes to Scripture, both sides claim it as their own. Furthermore, our controversy is not merely over Scripture (which is somewhat deficient in clarity at present), but over the precise meaning of Scripture; and here not the numbers, learning and distinction on the one side, much less the paucity, ignorance and lack of distinction on the other, can advance either cause (p. 123).
The implication, Luther notes, is that "the matter is therefore left in doubt."
Luther regards Erasmus' opinion that Scripture is obscure as grave error. The result of this notion in the church will be that the views of men replace the Word of God:
No more disastrous words could be spoken; for by this means ungodly men have exalted themselves above the Scriptures and done what they liked, till the Scriptures were completely trodden down and we could believe and teach nothing but maniacs' dreams. In a word, that dictum is no mere human invention; it is poison sent into the world by the inconceivable malevolent prince of all the devils himself! (p. 124)
It was exactly this doubt concerning Scripture's clarity that enabled the pope to subdue the church, and Scripture, to himself:
On the same account I have thus far hounded the Pope, in whose kingdom nothing is more commonly said or more widely accepted than this dictum: "the Scriptures are obscure and equivocal; we must seek the interpreting Spirit from the apostolic see of Rome!" (p. 124)
Expressing a conviction that would become the foundation of the Reformation, Luther asserts that the Scriptures are clear - "far brighter even than the sun":
It should be settled as fundamental, and most firmly fixed in the minds of Christians, that the Holy Scriptures are a spiritual light far brighter even than the sun, especially in what relates to salvation and all essential matters (p. 125).
The entire Scripture is clear. Scripture is clear in its totality. The whole of it is light, not darkness. The difficult passages are clarified by the other passages.
The clarity of Scripture is twofold, internal and external. The internal clarity is the enlightening of the Holy Spirit, which gives understanding of all the teachings of the Scriptures. Every believer has this enlightening. The external clarity is the inherent perfection of Scripture itself. The Holy Book is not obscure or ambiguous. Rather, its meaning is plain (pp. 73, 74; 124, 125).
Two important qualifications attach to the external clarity of Scripture. The first is that Scripture is clear to believers through the preaching of Scripture: "all that is in the Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light" (p. 74; my emphasis-DJE). This is intriguing. Luther personally and the Reformation generally refused to separate Scripture from the preaching of Scripture. Scripture is light, but it shines through faithful preaching, not otherwise.
The second qualification attaching to the external clarity is that Scripture must be interpreted in its simple, natural sense. Clarity rejects, indeed abominates, the allegorizing methods of interpretation. Luther condemns Origen and Jerome for their "pestilent practice of paying no heed to the simple sense of Scripture" (p. 240; cf. pp. 191, 192).
What proof is there that Scripture is clear? This is an urgent question especially because Erasmus had raised the argument that many men of superior ability did not understand Scripture on the issue of the bound will as Luther explained it. Does this not prove that Scripture is obscure? The proof of Scripture's clarity, says Luther, is the testimony of Scripture itself. Scripture claims to be clear. Luther cites and explainsDeuteronomy 17:8; Psalm 19:8; Psalm 119:105, 130; Isaiah 8:20; Malachi 2:7; II Corinthians 3, 4; and II Peter 1:19. Luther readily acknowledges that this way of proving Scripture's clarity amounts to "arguing in a circle": One appeals to Scripture to prove that one can appeal to Scripture. But this is the "circle" of the Reformation faith that Scripture is the Word of God.
The reason why many of superior ability have not understood Scripture rightly is their own natural, sinful blindness. Indeed, Erasmus himself, the most learned scholar in Christendom, denies Scripture's clear I teaching of the bound will because he is a blind man standing in the bright rays of the "external clarity" of Scripture:
The Diatribe (of Erasmus' that is, Erasmus himself - DJE) and its beloved Sophists, standing open-eyed under the bright light of Luke's words and of clear fact, continue in blindness; such is their lack of care in reading and marking the Scriptures. And then they have to brand them "obscure and ambiguous"! (p. 247)
The church must know the clarity of Scripture for two main reasons. The first is eminently practical: only then will Christians read Scripture. What fool will bother to study and to hear preached an obscure book? By suggesting that Scripture is obscure, Erasmus "well-nigh frightened us off reading the Bible altogether- though Bible-reading is something to which Christ and the Apostles urgently exhort us" (p. 99). In Erasmus' charge that "in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain," Luther sees the horns and hooves of Satan:
Satan has used these unsubstantial spectres to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church (p. 71).
The second reason why the church must be convinced of Scripture's clarity is that only then will the church make "assertions." Concern that the church make "assertions" is the heart of Luther's defense of the clarity of Scripture in The Bondage. By "assertions," Luther means firm confessions of all the teachings of Scripture. Included is the rejection of all errors.
By "assertion" I mean staunchly holding your ground, stating your position, confessing it, defending it and persevering in it unvanquished (p. 66).
So uncompromising is the asserting Christian that he is ready "to die for what you confess and assert" (p. 67).
Luther takes up this matter of asserting at the outset of The Bondage because Erasmus had disparaged assertions. Erasmus found no satisfaction in assertions, preferring "an undogmatic temper to any other." Erasmus of Rotterdam, uncharacteristic Dutchman, was the compromiser, ready to give up doctrine for peace. This marked him, as far as Luther was concerned, as no genuine Christian, for "to take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all" (p. 66). Asserting is the essence of Christianity: "Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity" (p. 67).
The true church of Christ is an asserting church. Every real Christian is an asserting Christian. Particularly, every true church and every real Christian assert the bondage of the will of the natural man and the salvation of every sinner by sovereign grace alone.
The alternative is doubt and uncertainty about the doctrines of the Bible, that is, skepticism. This is impossible, in Luther's glorious statement, because
the Holy Spirit is no Sceptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions - surer and more certain than sense and life itself (p. 70).
The church must assert, but she can assert only if Scripture is clear, since she asserts "what has been delivered to us from above in the Sacred Scriptures" (p. 66).
How evident it is that Protestant churches and professing Protestant Christians at the end of the 20th century have lost the faith that Scripture is clear!
They cannot assert!
They cannot assert the bondage of the will. They cannot assert biblical creation. They cannot assert the cessation of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. They cannot assert the exclusion of women from the government of the church. They cannot assert the wickedness of divorce except for fornication. They cannot assert the lawfulness of sex only in the lifelong bond of marriage between a husband (male) and wife (female).
They can only assert that there ought not be assertions in the church.
Their synodical decisions and personal testimonies run like this: "Scripture does not make clear, and we cannot decide with certainty . . . ."
What use, we ask, is a Scripture that is unclear on every issue? Whatever could have been the motivation of an otherwise wise God to give us more obscurity in our already sufficient darkness of uncertainty?
But, of course, to propose obscurity as an attribute of Scripture is to open up the way of every error into the church. Pleading uncertainty and appealing to Scripture's obscurity, Desiderius Erasmus, in fact, advocated free will and opposed the gospel of salvation by the grace of God.
The need of the hour is that churches and Christians assert. They must assert every doctrine of Scripture. They must especially assert the doctrine of the bound will.
They must assert, but they also can and will assert.
For the Scriptures are "a spiritual light far brighter even than the sun."
Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)
Ordained: September 1963
Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof_D._Engelsma
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