The Reformers and the Church of Rome, as we have seen, stood in open opposition to one another on the issue of Scripture’s sole authority and all-sufficiency. Rome taught that there stood alongside of Scripture a second authority, the traditions of the church, which it claimed were received from the apostles and of equal value with the Scriptures. Rome also set the church above both Scripture and tradition as the source from which both received their authority and power.
Over against these errors the Reformers, following Scripture’s own testimony, received the Scriptures as the Word of God, the all-sufficient rule of faith and life. They also found set before them in the Scriptures the sole authority of the Word of God. Scripture’s own claim is that it is God’s Word of truth. Upon the basis of that Word of truth the Reformers labored to reform and restore the church of Christ, for the church must be brought into conformity with the Word of God, as subject and obedient to it.
Thus far we have been considering Scripture itself as the objective and sole standard of truth. We must yet also consider the subjective principle of Scripture’s interpretation, that is, who is able to understand that Word of God? In this connection we must see the difference between Rome and the Reformers regarding the priesthood and office of all believers. Before turning to this, however, there is one aspect of Scripture’s own character which we must still consider, though it is closely intertwined with the internal and spiritual principle of Scriptural understanding. That is the matter of Scripture’s own clarity or perspicuity—in itself.
The Reformers took the position that the Word of God as the sole standard of truth and God’s revelation was understandable and clear as God’s Word to man. This the Church of Rome denied. Rome maintained that Scripture was a dark book, difficult to understand, whose interpretation was far above the ability of the average believer in the church. The church as the sole authority above the Word of God could make the dark sayings of the Scriptures clear and set forth their meaning. Thus they interposed between the people and the Word of God, the priesthood of the church and the pronouncements of the church as the only means to understand God’s Word.
This conception portrays the Bible as a book on the same level as the dark sayings and utterances of heathen prophets and oracles. Because of this, Scripture was to be kept from the common people. The church, by which Rome meant the clergy of the church, and the higher councils and papacy in particular, alone had the ability and right to declare the meaning of God’s Word. Behind this teaching of the church was the desire to keep the people in ignorance of God’s Word and to silence also the Reformers.
Over against this false view of Rome the Reformers maintained that Scripture is clear and understandable in itself. Man’s failure to understand it aright was not to be attributed to the Word but to sin and unbelief in the heart of man. The Word of God itself is clear and readily understood. The reason it seemed dark to Rome was to be attributed to Rome’s misuse of the Word of God by wrenching texts out of their proper and natural context and meaning. Further, Rome broke the unity of that Word of God and set Scripture in opposition to itself to obscure its meaning for their own ends.
We live in a day and age when this same subtlety of Rome is being reintroduced into the church under the new guise of so-called scholarship, so that a new priesthood has arisen, a priesthood of scholars, who will in the name of a new hermeneutic introduce into the church the doctrine and practices of men. It is well therefore to take note of the principle that the Scriptures are clear and understandable in themselves. They can be understood and their meaning is plain to the believing heart. This does not mean that they do not require prayerful and serious study, precise and careful exegesis. But this is altogether different from saying that the Bible is an obscure book which only a select few can really understand while the rest of the common people of the church remain in ignorance.
This attack upon the Word of God the Reformers resisted in their day and we must in our own. We can well learn from them. In 1522 Ulrich Zwingli delivered a sermon or lecture to the nuns at the convent of Oetenbach near Zurich. The subject of this sermon was the clarity and power of the Word of God. We will turn to this sermon from time to time in coming articles.
Zwingli proceeds from the principle that man as created in the image of God was made a creature capable of understanding God’s Word. The Word of God is clear to him therefore in itself and is powerful, either as a savor of life unto life or of death unto death. That Word of God, whether spoken by God unto man or set down in the Scriptures is therefore inherently clear in its meaning. If man does not understand it, the fault lies with man and not with God’s Word.
Thus he writes,
The Word of God and the messenger of the Word are a sweet smell or savor
II Cor. 2;
but a savor of life to some, and of death to others. Illustration. Consider a good strong wine. To the healthy it tastes excellent. It makes. him merry and strengthens him and warms his blood. But if there is someone who is sick of a disease or fever, he cannot even taste it, let alone drink it, and he marvels that the healthy is able to do so. This is not due to any defect in the wine, but to that of the sickness. So too it is with the Word of God. It is right in itself and its proclamation is always for good. If there are those who cannot bear or understand or receive it, it is because they are sick. So much by way of answer to those who rashly maintain that God does not want us to understand his words, as though it were his will to bring us into danger. If we fail to understand him, it is because we are out of favor. A son knows that he enjoys his father’s favor even when his father speaks roughly to him or rebukes him. He is outside his grace only when he does not speak to him at all either to teach or admonish. So too it is the most bitter punishment and a sure sign of imminent calamities to be deprived of the consolation of the Word of God. (Zwingli and Bullinger, tr. G.W. Bromley, Library of Christian Classics, Volume XXIV, The Westminster Press, 1953, p. 75.)
The Word itself therefore is clear and good. It is man’s own darkness which is at fault if he understand it not. Zwingli then proceeds to demonstrate this truth by showing from both Old and New Testaments that when God spoke His Word unto His people, they understood it. This clarity may not be separated from the internal principle of the illuminating work of the Spirit of which Zwingli has more to say and to which we will return. But the principle must be established: the Word of God is clear in itself and perspicuous.
The trouble with Rome however, and also in our own day, is that man always seeks to impose his own opinions and meaning upon the Scriptures or to obscure them by taking a text out of its context. Rome would have subjected the meaning of Scripture to the church’s authority and would have added to it. It was not that Scripture was unclear, for the Word of God is a unity whose clear and natural meaning can be understood. The problem was spiritual blindness and inability to hear the Word of God. Thus they cast doubt upon its meaning by their subtlety, seeking to impose tradition, the pronouncements of the church and the fathers upon Scripture. They placed upon it the opinions of the majority and made truth subject to the vanity of man. Zwingli rather forcefully points this out.
In direct contradiction to the teaching of Paul, that all interpretation and thought and experience should be made captive to the will and service of God, they try to subject the doctrine of God to the judgment of men. Now take note of the answer: In the first place, by the Gospel we do not mean only the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but, as we have said, all that God has revealed to man in order that he may instruct him and give him a sure knowledge of his will. But God is one, and he is a Spirit of unity, not of discord. Hence we may see that his words have always a true and natural sense; may God grant it, no matter how we may wrest them this way or that. And here I beg you in the name of God not to take it amiss if I draw your attention to a common error. It is that of the majority of those who in these days oppose the Gospel—for although they dare not admit to doing this in public, in secret they do everything within their power to that end. Listen to what they say. Not everything, they say, is told us in the Gospels. There are many good things which are never even thought of in the Gospel. Oh, you rascals—you are not instructed or versed in the Gospel, and you pick out verses from it without regard to their context and wrest them according to your own desire. It is like breaking off a flower from its roots and trying to plant it in a garden. But that is not the way: you must plant it with the roots and the soil in which it is embedded. And similarly we must leave the Word of God its own proper nature if its sense is to be the same to all of us. And those who err in this way we can easily vanquish by leading them back to the source, though they never come willingly. But some of them are such confirmed dunces that even when the natural sense is expounded in such a way that they cannot deny it, they still allege that they cannot presume to understand it thus unless the Fathers allow that it may so be understood: on the ground that many expositors will always have a better understanding than one or two. Answer: If that is the case, then Christ himself was in error, which God forbid, for most of the priests of the time held quite a different view and he had to stand alone. And the apostles were also mistaken, for they were opposed by whole nations and cities. And even today the number of unbelievers far outweighs the number of believers: are we to conclude then that their view is right and ours wrong simply because they are more numerous than we? No. Consider for yourselves; truth is not necessarily with the majority. What then of the argument? It has no force in the present controversy. Indeed, I see that even popes and councils have sometimes fallen into serious error, especially Anastasius and Liberius in the Arian heresy. Will you concede that? Yes. Then your case is lost, for you must allow that if they erred once there is always the fear that they will err again, and therefore we cannot trust in them with any certainty. Once we have discovered that—for: omnis homo mendax, all men are liars, deceiving and being deceived—we see that ultimately only God himself can teach us the truth with such certainty that all doubts are removed. (ibid., pp. 86-87.)