Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers (3): Scripture’s Perspicuity and the Problem of Method

Focusing in the first instance on the Protestant reformers’ exegetical methods tends to obscure the significant shared aspects of their vision of Scripture with which this series began (see parts 1 and 2), such as shared assertions of Scripture’s self-authenticating and self-interpreting character and authority and Scripture’s larger purpose of transformative encounter with the Triune God. Yet, one cannot do justice to the complexities of the Protestant reformers’ engagement with Scripture without having some understanding of the differences that emerged and their causes. For, it was precisely concerning the plain sense of Scripture that the Protestant reformers began to part ways. They increasingly discovered that they neither agreed on the exact clear content of Scripture nor on the exegetical methods to illuminate it.

In the broad contours of Scripture’s perspicuous content, the Protestant reformers agreed. They agreed that all Scripture points to Christ. They agreed that Scripture reveals the Triune God’s saving activities centered on the life and work of Jesus Christ, who became human, died, was buried, resurrected, and ascended and who, with the Father, sends the Holy Spirit for the strengthening and equipping of the church. In sum, they agreed on the Christological, Trinitarian, and soteriological scope, content, and purposes of Scripture. Yet, when one digs into the finer details of this perspicuous content, differences among the Protestant reformers increasingly emerge. Such differences appear most clearly in their interpretations of the OT. For example, while Luther and Calvin both assert that all Scripture points to Christ, the way this principle plays out in their exegesis does not look the same. For Luther, the primary reading of the OT is its prophecy of Christ. Indeed, Luther maintained that the Christological reading is the literal sense of the OT (Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan and H. Lehman, 55 vols. [Fortress, 1957-86], 11:517). Equating the literal sense of the OT with Christ meant for Luther a specifically Christological-prophetic reading of the OT, namely, the OT prophesies the saving events of Christ’s life — Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, ascension, and kingdom. Hence, he asserted in his preface to the Psalms, “Every prophecy and every prophet must be understood as referring to Christ the Lord, except where it is clear from plain words that someone else is spoken of. For thus He Himself says: ‘Search the Scriptures… and it is they that bear witness of Me’ (Jn 5:39). Otherwise it is most certain that the searchers will not find that for which they are searching, [such as those] who explain very many psalms not prophetically but historically” (Luther’s Works, 10:7).

Calvin, however, applied the principle that all Scripture points to Christ quite differently. Indeed, Luther would see Calvin as one of those guilty of reading the psalms “historically” rather than prophetically. For Calvin, the affirmation that the plain sense of the OT ultimately points to Christ did not mean that it always did so as literal prophecies of the saving events of Christ’s life. Sometimes this is the case, but more often than not Calvin preferred a method of reading the OT that he believed was more true to a “plain sense” reading by attending first to the human author’s context and intent (The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and Thessalonians, ed. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Eerdmans, 1960], Preface to Romans, 1). For example, Calvin read Ps 22 first in terms of the powerful insights the psalm offers from David’s context and experiences. Calvin proffered David as a supreme example of faithfulness and godly piety in the face of profound affliction through whom the church may be assured that God’s “hand had always been stretched forth to preserve God’s faithful people” (Comm. Ps 22:4). In this way, argued Calvin, “David includes himself in the Church of God,” so that whenever “we are overwhelmed under a great weight of afflictions” this psalm serves to “encourage us to hope for deliverance” (Comm. Ps 22:6). Thus, Calvin’s assertion that David “sets before us in his own person a type of Christ” entailed a very different Christological reading than that of Luther. Rather than highlighting the prophecies of the saving events of Christ’s life (i.e., incarnation, passion, resurrection, ascension), it is an ecclesial-Christological reading, where in the experiences of David, one glimpses the experiences of the church called to hope and believe in the God who remains eternally faithful to God’s covenant with God’s people, the church. David as a type of Christ is equally a type of the church. Thus, in the experiences and figure of David, one sees the experiences of the Body of Christ; one sees the ecclesial-Christological perspicuous sense of the text.

Alongside these divergent Christological readings are differing understandings of the key historical elements of salvation history. For Luther, the key elements of salvation history are precisely the saving events of Christ’s life — Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension — prophesied by the OT author. For Calvin, the OT author’s historical experiences depict the Triune God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant and God’s consistent actions with God’s people in any time, place, or situation. The OT author’s history itself portrays a vivid picture of the Triune God’s providential care of the church across the ages, in which Christ as Mediator makes accessible to the church all the promised blessings of God. While Christ as Mediator implies the saving events of Christ’s life, Calvin prioritizes the OT author’s history as a picture of God’s providential care of the church to set forth the one covenant that spans both testaments.

Both Luther and Calvin believed that their methods enabled a “literal” reading of the OT that avoided the pitfalls of allegory and rendered the clear content of Scripture. For Luther, much of the OT teachings are literally clear prophecies of Christ, in which there is no need to turn to allegory. For Calvin, attending to the plain, historical sense of Scripture (again, with no need to resort to allegory) enabled the historical experiences of the OT authors to point plainly to God’s consistent actions with and faithfulness to God’s people, the church, who are the Body of Christ, for it is ultimately Christ who makes all the blessings and gifts of God accessible to God’s people. Calvin maintained that “the covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same” (Institutes 2.10.2). The one covenant of God that spans both testaments has the same content: the promise of eternal life obtained only by the mercy of God (and not by human merits) through the work of Christ as Mediator.

Consequently, Luther and Calvin’s divergent Christological readings point to different understandings of the unity of the Testaments and, ultimately, differing conceptions of the perspicuous content of Scripture. Whereas for Calvin the one covenant of God best expresses the unity of the testaments and the perspicuous content of Scripture, for Luther, the distinction between law and gospel spans both testaments and best constitutes their unity and Scripture’s clear content. For Luther, the distinction between law and gospel renders most clearly the fact that all Scripture points to Christ. The law reveals humans’ inability to keep God’s law and thereby reveals human sin and their need for Christ. The gospel provides the answer to human sinfulness through the promise of forgiveness offered only in Christ. In this way, law and gospel precisely constitute the unity of the testaments by pointing to Christ in different ways. In the law Christ is presented as example, while in the gospel, Christ is presented as gift. Luther counseled, “The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as gift … for when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you” (Luther’s Works, 35:119, 120). Thus, the right distinction of law and gospel feeds directly into right understandings of faith, works and salvation itself — that one is saved by faith alone and that works are rightly understood as an outgrowth of this faith.

In the end, these differing assertions of the perspicuous content of Scripture — the one covenant for Calvin and the distinction of law and gospel for Luther — point also to different methodologies of illuminating the clear teachings of Scripture. Distinguishing between law and gospel becomes precisely Luther’s key interpretive strategy for reading Scripture and revealing Scripture’s clear content. Attending to the biblical author’s intent — an intent always in line with the divine Author — in the context of the biblical author’s historical circumstances becomes precisely Calvin’s key exegetical principle for reading Scripture and unearthing its clear content.

The Protestant reformers affirmed the authority of Scripture and accentuated its self-authenticating and self-interpreting character. Crucial to these affirmations is a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit. A key outcome of the reformers’ view of Scripture as self-interpreting and their keen optimism that the Spirit will indeed show up as the true interpreter of Scripture is their confidence in the perspicuity of Scripture. Yet, the reformers increasingly discovered that they differed in what they identified as the precise elements of Scripture’s clear content and the methods by which to uncover it. Here some of the reformers’ own exhortations bear repeating, as well as a few words of caution. First and foremost are the Protestant reformers’ appeals for humility. Such exhortations recognize the continuing impediments of human sin — that we are simil iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner). Human sin precisely urges us to master Scripture and make it into what we want it to be rather than humbly opening ourselves up to God revealed in Scripture (Luther’s Works, 10:332). The Protestant reformers remind us that the true purpose of reading Scripture is not mastery over its content, but a transformative encounter with the Living God. Moreover, the recognition that humility is the proper, faithful starting point to reading Scripture entails the recognition that no one person possesses “full and perfect knowledge of every part.” Consequently, God’s purpose “in so limiting our knowledge was first that we should be kept humble and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellows” (Calvin, Preface to Rom, 4). In this way, the Protestant reformers exhort us to read in, with, and for the church. They encourage us as Christians — and particularly Christian leaders — to live in a posture of teachableness and humble willingness for our readings of Scripture to be corrected, supplemented, reoriented, refined, and/or amplified by faithful brothers and sisters in Christ through the hopeful leading of the Spirit.

Yet, at least a few cautions are also in order. The Protestant reformers’ insistence that the Holy Spirit persuades hearts and minds and gives certainty of Scripture’s authority can too often get confused with certainty about Scripture’s clear content. Indeed, the very assertion that Scripture is clear also lends itself to an attitude of certainty in identifying this clear content, and, I think we have to admit, the Protestant reformers too often proceeded in this manner, forgetting their own appeals for humility. Yet, in the first instance, the reformers meant by “certainty” the certainty of Scripture’s authority that comes only by the aid of the Holy Spirit and, in the second instance, the certain power of Scripture to bring to fruition what it declares (Huldrych Zwingli, “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” in Zwingli and Bullinger, ed. and trans. Rev. G. W. Bromiley, Library of Christian Classics 24 [Westminster, 1953], 49-95; Calvin, Institutes 1.7.4; 1.9.3; Isa 55:11). Nonetheless, assertions of the perspicuity of Scripture that lack the necessary corresponding practices of humility risk becoming arrogant, dangerous, even tragic readings of Scripture.

A second and related note of caution also pertains to another possible consequence of the reformers’ assertions of Scripture’s perspicuity, especially as it relates to the plain or “literal” sense of Scripture. With this legacy of the reformers, we are often faced with the danger of the “literal sense” of Scripture becoming a narrow, singular sense. Coupled with claims of clarity and divorced from a posture of humility, the even greater danger is that this “literal sense” becomes a totalizing sense employed for a particular, all-too-human agenda. Such struggles can be seen in the exegesis of the reformers themselves, as they aimed to get at the “best” sense of the biblical text or uncover the “one,” central meaning that demonstrates the perspicuous content of Scripture. Yet, in their noblest intentions, the Protestant reformers sought to proffer an expansive, flexible, yet unified sense of Scripture better equipped for the dual purposes of revealing, on the one hand, the clear Word of God accommodated to human capacity that accomplishes what it intended (i.e., a usable, edifying, clear revelation of God) and, on the other hand, revealing an infinite God whom human words ultimately can never contain. Let us read Scripture with the Protestant reformers, attending even more carefully to the exhortations to read Scripture humbly with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the hopeful leading of the Holy Spirit for the edification of the church and the anticipation of the Triune God’s transformative and saving purposes.

Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers (2): The Role of the Church in Reading Scripture

As seen in part one of this series on “Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers,” the reformers established claims for Scripture’s perspicuity precisely on a profound optimism about the clear, unified work of the Holy Spirit as the true interpreter of Scripture. In affirming that the Holy Spirit is Scripture’s true interpreter and that Scripture by its very nature is thus self-interpreting and clear to those gifted with faith and the Spirit, then it seems Christians should hear and proclaim the same things. But such was not the case in the reformers’ ensuing experiences! Hence, if, in fact, the Spirit “cannot vary and differ from himself” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20 [Westminster, 1960], 1.9.2), then any fault or disconnection must be with the listeners. It thereby became necessary for the Protestant reformers to demarcate the proper role of the church — both concerning the ministerial offices of the church and the laity — in faithful proclamation and interpretation of Scripture.

The challenge to do so became even more pronounced for a number of reasons. Alongside asserting Scripture’s perspicuity, the Protestant reformers proclaimed Scripture’s accessibility to all believers. Against certain Roman Catholic teachings that Scripture is obscure and therefore only those of the spiritual estate can interpret Scripture authoritatively for the church, the Protestant reformers proclaimed the perspicuity of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers. All that is needed, argued the Protestant reformers, to read Scripture well is the gift of faith and the gift and aid of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, every believer receives these gifts and therefore has the necessary equipping to read Scripture. For example, in his 1520 address to the German nobility, Luther declared that “all Christians are of the spiritual estate … because all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and all are Christians alike, for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people” (Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan and H. Lehman, 55 vols. [Fortress, 1957-86], 44:127). Hence, argued Luther, the Roman Catholic Church is incorrect to claim that only the pope and priests may interpret Scripture for the church; rather, all Christians are called to read Scripture and judge whether a teaching is in accordance with Scripture (Luther’s Works, 44:126, 133-35). Thus, instructed Luther, when the pope — or any Christian, for that matter — “acts contrary to the Scriptures, it is our duty to stand by the Scriptures, to reprove him and to constrain him, according to the word of Christ in Matthew 18, ‘If your brother sins, go and tell it to him…’” (Luther’s Works, 44:136). Luther and Zwingli both appealed to the text of John 6:45, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God,’” to argue that since all Christians — and not merely the “tonsured and anointed ones” — are taught by God, then all Christians “certainly have the Spirit and the Word of God” (Luther’s Works, 36:151; Huldrych Zwingli, “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” in Zwingli and Bullinger, ed. and trans. Rev. G. W. Bromiley, Library of Christian Classics 24 [Westminster, 1953], 88-89). Indeed, Luther viewed the Roman Catholic magisterium’s claim of authority over biblical interpretation as one key facet of a larger tyranny, in which the Roman Catholic Church sought to protect itself from any reform or challenge to its authority (Luther’s Works, 44:126).

The Protestant reformers’ proclamation of the priesthood of all believers fell on fertile ground. Particularly in Germany from 1520 to 1525, there was an eruption of laypeople who took up this very call to read and interpret Scripture and correct what they believed to be wrong teachings by bringing them into alignment with Scripture (Paul Russell, Lay Theology in the Reformation: Popular Pamphleteers in Southwest Germany, 1521-1525 [Cambridge University Press, 1986], 133-34; Miriam Chrisman, “Lay Response to the Protestant Reformation in Germany, 1520-1528,” in Reformation Principle and Practice: Essays in Honor of Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, ed. Peter Brooks [Scolar, 1980], 36), and many did so through the publication of lay treatises. In these early years (1520-1525), the Protestant reforming activity was a large organism of multiple stripes and strands that was not yet clearly demarcated into what would later become separate groups of “Lutherans,” “Reformed,” “Anabaptists,” “Spiritualists,” “Calvinists,” and others. Indeed, the pressures and conflicts that resulted from the responses to this strong advocacy of the priesthood of all believers and, specifically, the call for all believers to read Scripture, led the Protestant reformers down a path that required a rearticulation of what biblical church order and offices look like and what was the church’s role in the interpretation of Scripture, if, indeed, the interpretation of Scripture belongs in the hands of all believers.

For instance, some laypersons and leaders of reform responded to the call of the priesthood of all believers and the emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in ways that Luther and Zwingli had not intended. Specifically, some emphasized direct and even new revelation from the Holy Spirit that could be apart from Scripture. The figure of Thomas Müntzer serves as a helpful example. Müntzer argued that new revelation from the Holy Spirit was necessary to discern true teaching. Indeed, he contrasted the “living Word of God” from the “dead” word of the written biblical text (The Collected Words of Thomas Müntzer, ed. and trans. Peter Matheson [T&T Clark, 1988], 359, 365). In this way, Müntzer took the emphasis on the necessary role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture and illuminating its clear content to an extreme, for he contended that not only is the Spirit necessary to clarify its content, but new revelation from the Spirit is necessary for Scripture to be an ongoing, living Word.

Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and later Calvin responded rather sternly, even harshly, to these persons and groups, who were increasingly demarcated as “radicals” for their differing views of the role of the Holy Spirit, their desire for more extensive and faster reform of worship and sacramental practices, and/or their divergent understandings of church order, in which any person might publicly preach and baptize without any formal training. Specifically concerning Scripture, Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin reasserted the mutual bond of the Word and Spirit. Thus, in a 1537 statement in the Smalcald Articles that was specifically aimed against radicals of this kind of “spiritualist” bent, Luther proclaimed that “God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word that comes before. Thus we shall be protected from [those] … who boast that they possess the Spirit without or before the Word and who therefore judge, interpret, and twist the Scriptures according to their pleasure” (The Book of Concord, ed. T.G. Tappert, [Muhlenberg, 1959], 312). Similarly, Calvin asserted that the Spirit never utters new revelations or invents new doctrines; rather, the Holy Spirit is known precisely by confirming the teachings already revealed in Scripture. The sure mark of the true Spirit of God is precisely the Spirit’s consensus with Scripture (Institutes 1.9.1-2). In other words, the leading Protestant reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, insisted that the Holy Spirit never speaks apart from God’s Word. This meant that in the first instance, God’s Word — Scripture and the preaching of Scripture in particular — is the prime medium of the Spirit’s working and, in the next instance, any true stirring of the Spirit reiterates or illuminates something already present in Scripture.

Consequently, going forward, Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin (and their followers) defined faithful engagement with Scripture within the opposing pressures of Roman Catholicism and radical Protestantism. Luther asserted that the common mistake of the Roman Catholics and radicals (whom he called “Enthusiasts”) is that they both misconstrue the proper role of the Holy Spirit in relation to Scripture. They insist alike that the Spirit must be added externally in order to endorse a proper interpretation. Hence, Rome believed the Spirit is conferred to the magisterium, whereas the radicals believed the Spirit is bestowed to individual believers. On the contrary, contended Luther, the Spirit “comes in and through Scripture itself” (Klaas Runia, “The Hermeneutics of the Reformers,” Calvin Theological Journal 19 [1984]: 134). The Holy Spirit never operates apart from the Word of God as revealed in Scripture; indeed, this Word is the very means by which the Spirit comes. Therefore, no claim of the Holy Spirit apart from the Word revealed in Scripture can be valid. Similarly, Calvin also diagnosed this as the common problem between the Roman Catholics and radicals when he wrote, “For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God that they may make room for their own falsehoods” (John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate, ed. John C. Olin [Harper & Row, 1966], 61). Both Luther and Calvin affirmed the need of the Holy Spirit’s guidance in interpreting Scripture, but they demarcated Scripture itself as the proper bounds of the Spirit’s working.

Yet, Calvin added another layer of critique by addressing the issue of what is the right role of the church in the interpretation of Scripture. Calvin maintained that both the Roman Catholics and the radicals misconstrue the proper role of the church in the proclamation and interpretation of Scripture. Many radicals, on the one hand, despise the ministerial offices and “even Scripture itself in order to attain the Spirit” (The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and Thessalonians, ed. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Eerdmans, 1960], on 1 Thess 5:20). Here, Calvin pointed to the common radical belief that having the Spirit trumped all else, often leading to their rejection of traditional church structures, church offices, and training for ordination. On the contrary, argued Calvin, God designated human ministers as the means by which the Word of God should be proclaimed and the faithful edified (Institutes 4.1.5; 4.3.2). Hence, Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli strongly affirmed the need for authorized ministers who take on the public leadership of the church through the means of being properly called, trained, and ordained. They continued to affirm the priesthood of all believers, but clarified that the priesthood of all believers should not operate in a disorderly fashion, and it should not disregard the ministerial offices God has ordained. Rather, “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40); hence, all have the right of judging the degree to which a public proclamation concurs with Scripture, but such is not a public disruptive practice but first a private reproof along the lines of Matt 18:15 (“first point out the fault when the two of you are alone…”). In this way, the Protestant reformers sought strongly to affirm both the public ministry of the church and the priesthood of all believers.

At the other end of the spectrum, on the other hand, were the Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholics stoutly affirmed the role of human ministers and church offices, an affirmation with which Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli agreed. Yet, contended the Protestant reformers, the Church of Rome left little to no room for the priesthood of all believers. The reformers viewed the Roman assertion that only the “spiritual estate” can interpret Scripture authoritatively for the church as a demand that Christians receive church teaching unquestioningly. On the contrary, insisted the reformers, Christians should not mindlessly accept what is preached and taught; rather, Christians are called to test all things in accordance with their agreement with Scripture. Consequently, the reformers sought to carve out a middle path between the errors of the radicals and Roman Catholics, as seen in this admonition from Calvin: “Let us remember that the fact that the reading of the Scripture is recommended to all does not annul the ministry of pastors, so that believers should learn to profit both by reading and by hearing, since God has not ordained either in vain” (The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. T. A. Smail [Oliver & Boyd, 1964], on 2 Tim 4:1).

Similarly, the next generation of Protestant reformers, led by the work particularly of Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin, distinguished between the “tyranny” of the Roman Catholics and the “sedition” of the Anabaptists. They encouraged ordained clergy not to act like tyrants, but allow room for lay voices. This included an admonition to the clergy to cultivate the necessary virtues of humility and teachableness, for “God has never so blessed his servants that they each possessed full and perfect knowledge of every part of their subject. It is clear that God’s purpose in so limiting our knowledge was first that we should be kept humble and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellow Christians” (John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and Thessalonians, Preface to Romans, 4). Hence, pastors, even as they preach and teach, continue to be lifelong learners, for it is incumbent upon them “to determine whether what they say conforms to that which God has given through the Scriptures” (Calvin, as cited in Ward Holder, “Ecclesia, Legenda atque Intelligenda Scriptura: The Church as Discerning Community in Calvin’s Hermeneutic,” Calvin Theological Journal 36 [2001]: 283). The next generation of Protestant reformers equally urged the laity to avoid sedition (Philip Melanchthon, Corpus Reformatorum: Philippi Melanthonis opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. K. Bretschneider and H. Blindseil, 28 vols. [Schwetschke, 1834-60], 15:1176). That is, they should refrain from any disregard for God’s public ministry or eschew any incitement to disorderly practices; rather, they should follow the biblical orderly procedures outlined in texts such as Matt 18:15-17 and 1 Cor 14:29-33.

In these ways, the Protestant reformers affirmed a robust ecclesial reading of Scripture. On the one hand, God bestowed church ministerial offices to guide the public proclamation and interpretation of Scripture, in which pastors and teachers of the church took responsibility to be humble in ensuring the conformity of their words to the Word of God. On the other hand, all Christians are called to read Scripture and test the preaching and teaching of church leaders in their own minds and hearts and through, at least initially, private processes of admonition and correction. Such practices supported both the integrity of the church’s ministerial offices and the priesthood of all believers. In the end, all preaching and interpretation of Scripture aimed at the edification of the church — for the church’s “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Lastly, the church discerned God’s voice, not so much by discerning who had the Spirit, as if the Spirit were external to the Word, but by discerning the Spirit’s perspicuous teaching in Scripture.

Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers (1)

The Protestant reformers have long been known for their turn to the “literal sense” of Scripture in the history of biblical interpretation. For some this entails an “inflated literal sense,” in which the reformers collapsed the medieval fourfold sense into an expansive plain sense. Richard Muller describes the reformers’ exegesis in these terms: “The exegetical practice is far more textual, the hermeneutics is far more grammatical and philological, and the sense of the text is focused in its literal meaning, but the underlying assumption that the meaning of the text is ultimately oriented to the belief, life, and future of the church retains significant affinities with the quadriga” (“Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: The View from the Middle Ages,” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation, ed. Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson [Eerdmans, 1996], 11-12). Brevard Childs points to a similar view of the reformers’ contributions to the history of biblical interpretation, with a slightly different emphasis when he writes, “The Reformers’ achievement was to offer an interpretation of the literal sense which, at least for a short time, held together the historical and the theological meaning” (“The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem,” in Beitrage zur Alttestamentalichen Theologie, ed. Herbert Donner, Robert Hanhart, and Rudolf Smend [Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977], 87). In other words, the Protestant reformers championed the theological (spiritual) content set forth in the plain words (letter) of Scripture, in which there was no need to turn to allegory because this plain sense (i.e., what the words actually say) already robustly imparted the intended theological teachings.

Such a turn to the “literal sense” of Scripture certainly has direct consequences for method, so scholars have typically focused on the Protestant reformers’ exegetical principles. Yet, I contend that the concerns of the Protestant reformers were not, at least in the first instance, primarily methodological — though method became a growing focus as Protestants increasingly discovered they disagreed concerning both the clear content of Scripture and methods of reading. Nonetheless, in the first instance, the Protestant reformers sought to recapture certain convictions about the nature, authority, and telos of Scripture that they believed the Roman Catholic Church of their day had perilously lost sight. Much can be said about the reformers’ continuities with early and medieval views of Scripture: they affirmed Scripture as the divinely inspired Word of God set forth by the prophets and apostles that reveals the Triune God’s saving actions through Jesus Christ. Hence, with the early and medieval church, the reformers affirmed the Trinitarian and Christological scope and content of Scripture, along with its soteriological telos (i.e., its saving purposes).

Yet, the Protestant reformers asserted that Scripture is self-authenticating and self-interpreting in ways that challenged certain Roman Catholic understandings of the church’s authority in relationship to Scripture. By insisting that Scripture is self-authenticating, Luther and Calvin attacked any claim that the authority of Scripture relied in any way on the consent or authority of the church. The church does not give Scripture its authority, for the reformers argued that God’s Word is prior to the church and, appealing to Eph 2:20, they maintained that the church is built upon the foundations of Scripture (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20 [Westminster, 1960], 1.7.2). Thus, Luther declared, “The church does not constitute the Word but is constituted by the Word” (Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan and H. Lehman, 55 vols. [Fortress, 1957-86], 36:145). Indeed, clarified Calvin, asserting that Scripture is self-authenticating affirms that God alone is a fit witness of God’s self (Institutes 1.7.4). God as the Author of Scripture chooses to speak through Scripture and is the source of Scripture’s authority.

Hand in hand with these affirmations of Scripture’s authority and Scripture as self-authenticating is the reformers’ insistence that there is a mutual bond between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Calvin wrote, “For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely in the Word” (Institutes 1.9.3). On the one hand, the bond between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God is there regardless of whether the reader affirms it. On the other hand, both Luther and Calvin believed that the “Word will not find acceptance in human hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded” (Institutes 1.7.4). This inner witness of the Holy Spirit, which is precisely the manner in which Scripture authenticates itself, is therefore necessary for any person to affirm Scripture’s authority. Such faith is precisely the principle work of the Holy Spirit (Institutes 3.1.4). Hence, for Luther, encounter with God’s Word is an encounter that demands or evokes faith (or unbelief), but not by virtue of one’s own ability or works. Rather, those who have been justified by faith alone receive the Holy Spirit, who gives faith, scatters human blindness, and persuades the heart.

Luther and Calvin believed that one cannot interpret Scripture faithfully without such faith and the aid of the Holy Spirit. Left to our own devices, human sin is an insurmountable obstacle. In his argument with Erasmus, Luther insisted that without the intervention of God, the human will is in bondage to sin. Such also applies to humans’ ability to read Scripture: “No one perceives one iota of what is said in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All humans have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture … yet they truly understand nothing of it … for the Holy Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture” (Luther’s Works, 33:28). Similarly, Calvin proclaimed, “The Word of God is like the sun shining upon all those to whom it is proclaimed, but with no effect among the blind. Now, all of us are blind by nature in this respect. Accordingly, it cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it” (Institutes 3.2.34). The necessary aid of the Holy Spirit is also at the core of the reformers’ affirmation that Scripture is self-interpreting. On the one hand, passages of Scripture should be interpreted and illuminated by other passages of Scripture, since Scripture is self-authenticating and there is nothing external to Scripture that has a higher authority than Scripture itself. On the other hand, the self-interpreting character of Scripture points again to the necessary role of the Holy Spirit, for it declares that the true interpreter of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, without whom no one can interpret Scripture faithfully. Thus, in his instructions for reading Scripture, Luther insisted that one should “despair of one’s own reason and understanding” and “pray to God with real humility and earnestness that God through his own dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding” (Luther’s Works, 35:285-86).

Directly tied to the Protestant reformers’ endorsement of Scripture’s self-authenticating and self-interpreting character and their profound emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in confirming Scripture’s authority and illuminating Scripture’s content, the reformers uniquely insisted upon its perspicuity. Luther, in his response to Rome, asserted that Scripture is “in and of itself the most certain, the most accessible, the most clear thing of all, interpreting itself, approving, judging, and illuminating all things” (Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Schriften, 6 vols. [H. Böhlau, 1883-1993], 7:97). For example, Scripture provides clarity concerning right knowledge of God and self. Hence, Calvin described Scripture as the very spectacles that clarifies one’s vision of God: “Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God” (Institutes 1.4.1). For Luther and Calvin, the perspicuous nature of Scripture stems from its divine origin and bond with the Holy Spirit. Thus, Calvin declared that the Holy Spirit “would have us recognize him in his own image, which he has stamped upon Scripture. He is the author of the Scriptures; he cannot vary and differ from himself” (Institutes 1.9.2). Affirming God’s sovereignty and immutability, God’s Word must ultimately be a unified Word with a clear message that accomplishes what it sets forth to do (i.e., Isa 55:11, “my word shall not return empty”). Likewise, the Holy Spirit as the author, speaker, intercessor, and teacher of God’s Word acts with profound clarity, for “by his Word, God rendered faith unambiguous forever” (Institutes 1.6.2). Thus, Luther asserted, “The Holy Spirit is the most simple author and speaker in heaven and on earth. Therefore, his words cannot have more than one, the most simple, meaning” (Luther’s Works, 39:178).

This insistence on the one, most simple meaning of Scripture leads directly to the Protestant reformers’ intensifying emphasis on the “literal” — or better termed “plain” — sense of Scripture. Concerning this plain sense, Protestant reformers agreed that all Scripture points to Christ. As Jesus himself instructed in John 5:39, “Search the Scriptures … it is they that bear witness to me.” Hence, Luther declared, “All the sacred books of Scripture preach and inculcate Christ” (Luther’s Works, 35:396), and Calvin proclaimed, “This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father” (“Preface to Olivétan’s New Testament,” in Calvin: Commentaries, trans and ed. Joseph Haroutunian, Library of Christian Classics 23 [Westminster, 1958], 23:70). This shared affirmation of the Christological center of Scripture came alongside a shared affirmation of the saving purposes of Scripture: Scripture teaches about human sinfulness, the inability of humans to save themselves by their own efforts, and their need of Christ; and it teaches about the God of grace who provides the path of salvation through Jesus Christ the Son of God and sends the Spirit, who continues to nourish and sustain the church in every place and time. Luther described this overarching narrative of Scripture in this way: “The proper subject of theology is the human guilty of sin and condemned and God the Justifier and Savior of the human sinner … All Scripture points to this … the God who justifies, repairs and makes alive and the human who fell from righteousness and life into sin and eternal death. Whoever follows this aim in reading the Holy Scriptures will read holy things fruitfully” (Luther’s Works, 12:311). Similarly, in his debate with Erasmus, precisely concerning Scripture’s clear content, Luther pointed to the Christological and Trinitarian scope of Scripture in revealing that “Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three and one, that Christ suffered for us and is to reign eternally” (Luther’s Works, 33:25-26). Calvin, perhaps not surprisingly, expressed Scripture’s clear content similarly, but in terms of the unified covenant that spans both the Old and New Testaments — a covenant supported not by human merits, but by the mercy of God who sent Christ as the Mediator, through whom the faithful gain access to all the blessings of this infinitely good and generous God (Institutes 2.10.1-2). Moreover, as another corrective to Roman Catholic teachings of their day, notable in the Protestant reformers’ articulation of the soteriological purposes of Scripture is the prominent understanding that one is saved by faith apart from any human contribution.

I have argued that the Protestant reformers sought to return the church to an understanding of Scripture as God’s divinely inspired Word, possessing authority from God alone and bearing a self-authenticating, self-interpreting, and perspicuous character. Essential to each of these affirmations is the crucial role of the Holy Spirit — a point too often overlooked. If we want to read Scripture with the reformers, we will need a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit pervades every step of the reformers’ engagement with Scripture. For example, one must not forget that for the reformers Scripture’s clarity and accessibility are necessarily bound to the work of the Holy Spirit. This means that Scripture is not clear and accessible by virtue of the simple clarity of the words on the page. Rather, such clarity only comes from the gift of faith and the movement of the Spirit to confirm and illuminate the words of Scripture. (It is a clarity with necessary prerequisites!) Yet, perhaps more importantly, the Holy Spirit is central to what the Protestant reformers believe happens when one reads Scripture: one encounters the living God in the words of Scripture, enlivened and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Hence, for the Protestant reformers, reading Scripture is an exercise of transformative encounter — an encounter that calls for both the recognition of human sin and the recognition of a gracious, loving Triune God. Hence, Calvin asserted, “The Word of God is something alive and full of hidden power that leaves nothing in the human untouched” (The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. William B. Johnston [Oliver and Boyd, 1963], on Heb 4:12). Luther counsels us with these wise words, “And note that the strength of Scripture is this — that it is not changed into the one who studies it, but that it transforms its lover into itself and its strengths” (Luther’s Works, 10:332). Such an encounter with the Word of God is not a matter of grasping or struggling for the “right” meaning; rather, it is a matter of being grasped by God in Christ. In this way, at least in the first instance, reading Scripture with the Protestant reformers is not about method. It is a sacred space in which through the living words of Scripture illuminated by the Holy Spirit one might be transformed into greater conformity to Christ and glimpse the very heart of God.

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