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

G. Sujin Pak

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.

Posted Apr 05, 2017