Luther’s Sola Scriptura Part 2: Clarity

In Luther’s eyes, his opponents believed Scripture to be obscure and unclear (Luther 1997b, 255): the Papists, writes Luther, “adhere to [the interpretation of the Fathers] and believe that in these interpretations they possess something that no one could reject, and claim again and again in order to keep us away from the pure Word that the Scriptures are obscure and make many heretics” (Luther 1997, 1:330).

Interpreting such claims as a rejection of Scripture’s clarity and an attack on its authority, Luther argued vehemently that Scripture was absolutely clear. That is, Luther taught that there could be no obscurity in the text of Scripture itself: any ambiguity or obscurity resulted from surmountable external obstacles—such as sin and imperfect grammatical and historical knowledge (Thompson, 204). To bolster this claim, Luther made several appeals to the purpose of God, the practice of the Fathers, and specific Scriptures.


First, Luther argued that obscurity in Scripture would nullify God’s purposes for giving Scripture. Concerning God’s promises, Luther argues that it is not enough for God to have made a promise, but the nature of His promises must be clear to those to whom they are made (Thompson, 208).  Furthermore, Luther argues that God gave all Scripture for the definite purpose of rebuking, reproving, and instructing (2 Tim. 3:16), a purpose that could only be achieved if Scripture was clear:

In a word: if Scripture is obscure or equivocal, why need it have been brought down to us by act of God? Surely we have enough obscurity and uncertainty within ourselves, without our obscurity and uncertainty and darkness being augmented from heaven! And how then shall the apostle’s word stand: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction?” (2 Tim. 3:16).  (Luther 2003, 128)


Second, Luther appeals to numerous Scriptures that he believes clearly attest to Scripture’s clarity. In Deuteronomy 17:8, Moses instructs the Israelites to bring their disputes to the priests so that they can be adjudicated in light of the law, “But how could they be settled if the laws were not perfectly clear, and were truly as lights among the people?” (Luther 2003, 125). As seen in this quote, the clarity of Scripture for Luther is partly external, an attribute of the text. It is, however, also a product of an internal work of the Spirit: quoting 1 Corinthians 2:15, Luther argues that through the internal enlightening of the Holy Spirit the individual Christian can judge the opinions and doctrines of man by Scripture; he calls this the internal perspicuity of Scripture (Luther 2003, 124). Internal perspicuity only benefits the individual; the external perspicuity of Scripture by which reasonable demonstrations of its meaning can be made is relevant to the resolution of disputes, as in the case of Deuteronomy 17 (Luther 2003, 125). Elsewhere he appeals to Peter:

St. Peter also says in 2 Peter 1:19: “And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the day-star arise in your hearts.” Does not St. Peter here agree nicely with Isaiah as to God’s Word and the dawn of the morning? And when St. Peter says that the Word alone is a light that shines in a dark place, does he not clearly show that there is only darkness where God’s Word is absent? (Luther 1997, 1:337)


In these ways, Luther argues that the words of Scripture are clear and therefore, with the internal enlightenment of the Spirit, an individual can judge the opinions of men and reason with others over Scripture’s meaning and application.


Works Cited———. 1997. Sermons by Martin Luther: Volume 1; Sermons on Gospel Texts for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Edited by John Nicholas Lenker. Vol. 1. AGES Bible Software.

———. 1997b. “Dr. Martin Luther’s Answer to the Superchristian, Superspiritual, Superlearned Book of Goat Emser of Leipzig.” In ibid.

Thompson, Mark. 2004. A Sure Ground on Which to Stand. Carlisle; Paternoster.

———. 2003. The Bondage of the Will. Edited by J. I Packer and O. R Johnston. Fleming H. Revell.

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