The Word of God is clear and understandable to the believing child of God. This is the position of the Reformation. Over against Rome, which set aside Scripture’s sole authority and clarity in order to teach the doctrines of men, the Reformers exalted the Word of God to its proper place as the all-sufficient rule of faith and life. This objective principle of truth was the guiding principle of the church’s reformation. It does not stand by itself, however; the Word of God must be spiritually appropriated and its meaning understood. And this is a matter of the inner principle of understanding and interpretation.
On this point also, as we have already indicated, Rome and the Reformers disagreed. Rome limited the right and ability to understand and interpret God’s Word to the hierarchy of the church. This they did in a particular way. Rome took the position that the Spirit of truth was not given to all believers, but only to the special priesthood of the church. The ordinary members of the church were bound to receive the authoritative pronouncements of the church’s hierarchy, councils, and papacy, as the authoritative declaration of the truth of God’s Word. The believers might not search or study the Scriptures for themselves to interpret or expound them, for no one had the right to disagree with the church’s interpretation or to teach anything contrary to it. By so doing Rome sought to impose from above the opinions of men and to compel the consciences of men, demanding blind acceptance and obedience. The will of the majority, the opinions of councils and decrees, the vanity of men, were set above the truth of God’s Word.
Rome’s opinion is clearly expressed in the decrees of the Council of Trent, 1546, which is Rome’s answer to the Reformation. In the fourth session we read the following:
Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, it decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall—in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine,—wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,—whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,—hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.
In the light of this position Rome charged the Reformers with schism and error and persecuted the Reformation with fire and sword.
It is to the answer of the Reformers that we must now direct our attention in our study. Before we focus upon the teaching of the Reformers in detail, however, it might be well to set before our minds the broad scope of their teaching.
The Reformers took the position that it was the Spirit alone Who illumined the heart and mind of man to understand God’s Word. Not the church therefore, but God Himself, Who gave His Word of truth, is the expounder and interpreter of His Own Word. Scripture interprets Scripture. This is the principle of all Reformed exegesis. Truth therefore is not a matter of opinion, but under the leading of the Spirit, a matter of certainty, for God’s Word of truth is clear and certain in its meaning. It is objectively and concretely knowable in itself, and the Spirit given to the church, consisting of all believers, leads the believer to know and understand that Word of God for Himself. That work and operation of the Spirit is not limited to one person or group within that church, but is given to every believer, who is anointed with the Spirit to understand God’s Word for himself. Denying the restriction of the priesthood to the clergy of the church, the Reformers taught the principle of a priesthood of believers, all anointed by the Spirit to know and understand God’s Word. This principle is embodied in Lord’s Day XII of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the anointing of Christ and the believers’ partaking of it. Thus, the Word of God set forth in Scripture and addressed to the heart of the believer by His Spirit makes that Word spiritually clear and understandable.
Thus Zwingli writes in his sermon on the clarity of the Word,
When the Word of God shines on the human understanding, it enlightens it in such a way that it understands and confesses the Word and knows the certainty of it. This was the inner experience of David, and he spoke of it in
“The entrance of thy words, O Lord, giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple, . . .” (Zwingli and Bullinger, tr. G.W. Bromley, Library of Christian Classics, Volume XXIV, The Westminster Press 1953, p. 75)
In this is embodied the right of the believer to study the Word of God for himself, to know it. This is a right which is guaranteed to the least of all believers in the church. The conclusions of faithful Bible study by believers are not the opinions of men, but are knowledge given by God Who is the Teacher of truth. Such Bible study requires an attitude of spiritual submission to the Word of God, in which we come to it to hear what God has to say to us, for it is a matter of the Spirit’s illumination and not men’s wisdom. This principle necessarily stands in opposition to the idea of Rome which would exalt the wisdom of men above the Word of God, and which would manufacture out of the papacy and its pronouncements a new head for the church other than Christ.
Zwingli writes in his sermon on the clarity of God’s Word,
Away then with that light of your own which you would give to the Word of God with your interpreters. In
John the Baptist says: “A man can receive nothing except it be given him from above.” If we are to receive and understand anything it must come from above. But if that is so, then no other man can attain it for us. The comprehension and understanding of divine doctrine comes then from above and not from interpreters, who are just as liable to be led into temptation as Balaam was. See
II Peter 2.
The Samaritan woman was clever enough to say to Christ
“I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he cometh, he will tell us all things.” And our theologians have not yet learned that lesson. Ask them if they understand the words: Christ is caput ecclesiae, that is, Christ is head of the congregation or church which is his body. They will answer: Yes, they understand them very well, but they may not do so apart from the official pronouncements of men. What poor creatures! Rather than allow themselves to be vanquished by the truth, they deny that they are men, as if they had no ordinary intelligence and did not know the meaning of caput. And all that in order to subject the truth to the Caiaphas’s and Annas’s, its official interpreters. It is not of the slightest account to them that Christ Himself said
“They shall all be taught of God,” in the words of
But if all Christians are taught of God, why can you not leave them the certainty and freedom of that teaching according to the understanding which God himself has imparted? And that God himself is the teacher of the hearts of believers we learn from Christ in the words immediately following, when he says
“Every man that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.” None can come to the Lord Jesus Christ except he has learned to know him of the Father. And note who the teacher is: not doctores, not patres, not pope, not cathedra, nor concilia, but the Father of Jesus Christ. And you cannot say, we are taught of men as well. No, for just before he says: “No man can come to me, except my heavenly Father draw him.” Even if you hear the gospel of Jesus Christ from an apostle, you cannot act upon it unless the heavenly Father teach and draw you by the Spirit. The words are clear; enlightenment, instruction and assurance are by divine teaching without any intervention on the part of that which is human. And if they are taught of God, they are well taught, with clarity and conviction: if they had first to be taught and assured by men, we should have to describe them as taught of men rather than of God. (Ibid. pp. 79-80.)
This principle of the spiritual illumination of the believer to know and understand the truth of God’s Word is fundamental. It is the inner principle and subjective foundation upon which the study of Scripture is possible. By it, the Word of God is clear not only in itself, objectively, but also to the believer. And he, being taught from above, may know and understand it aright.
On the basis of this truth our creeds call us to discern out of the Word of God for ourselves the marks of the true church; we have both the right and calling to do so. For the same reason we have embodied in our whole system of church government the right to correct the church when it errs, by bringing matters to its attention in the way of protest and appeal. Likewise, we do not set the creeds above Scripture but under it, giving the believer the right also to bring to the church’s attention by way of gravamen, errors in the creeds. This right of believers to study and search God’s Word, to know and understand it, is fundamental and sacred. The Spirit is given us to illumine us that we might know God’s Word, believe the truth, and discern the truth from the lie. As God Himself gives His Word of truth, so also it is His work by which we understand that Word and that is not limited to only a select few, neither to the clergy, nor to a special priesthood, nor to so-called scholars.
Do not misunderstand the Reformers however, concerning this illuminating work of the Spirit in the office of believer. In teaching this, Zwingli and the other Reformers were not opening the door to chaos and confusion in the church. Nor were the Reformers sanctioning a spirit either of lawlessness or individualism. This was the error of the Anabaptists which the Reformers also soundly condemned. The illuminating work of the Spirit belongs to the believer as he stands in organic connection with the church, in the communion of the body of Christ, manifested in the church institute. The union of the church to Christ and of the believer to Christ are the same union, by faith, through the Spirit. The church’s anointing and the believer’s are one and the same and may not be separated. But that illuminating work of the Spirit extends to the whole church and every believer and is not limited, as Rome would have it, to just a holy few.