by Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer

Since Martin Luther, Lutherans have held to the clarity of Scripture, insisting that Scripture is clear. But what does that mean? What did 16th-century Lutherans understand by the clarity of Scripture? I suggest that the Reformers’ conception of the clarity of Scripture is best understood as a claim that Scripture can be correctly read without the interpretative authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Here I use Matthias Illyricus Flacius, a late contemporary of Luther, as a guide to historical views on the clarity of Scripture. Flacius’s Clavis Scripturae was a formative text—indeed, the hermeneutics text—for generations of Lutheran pastors as they learned to read and interpret Scripture.

For Flacius, the clarity of Scripture does not mean that Scripture is a simple book to read. Flacius holds that many things in Scripture are difficult to understand. Of course, Peter says the same thing about Paul: “As our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16). Flacius begins his work on interpreting Scripture with an extensive list of difficulties faced when reading Scripture. The list includes things such as our ignorance, the difficulties of language, and the apparent conflict between law and gospel.[1] Flacius cites Scripture to establish that Scripture is difficult to understand. Jesus himself, Flacius notes, testifies that it is not given to everyone to understand the things of God, and states his will to reveal the truth to the small while hiding it from the great. Referring to 1 Corinthians 13:12, Flacius advises that we ought to remember that now we know God in enigmas and imperfections.[2]

Taken from:
König, Gustav Ferdinand Leopold. 1900. The life of Luther in forty-eight historical engravings. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

While Scripture presents difficulties to the reader trying to understand it, none of these difficulties are insuperable. Our most gracious heavenly Father provides us with salutary remedies for these difficulties.[3] For Flacius, the clarity of Scripture is found in applying divine remedies to the difficulties of Scripture. Flacius lists remedies for the difficulties encountered when reading Scripture. The list includes both appeals to divine aid and calls for linguistic study. Divine aid comes from prayer for God’s assistance and continual meditation on the word. Linguistic study comes as the reader of Scripture gains a knowledge of the speech of sacred letters.[4] This study is best undertaken, Flacius holds, under the guidance of a faithful teacher.[5]

Flacius notes that his remedies contradict the papists’ claim that the interpretation of the pope and church councils is needed to understand a passage of Scripture too difficult to be understood on its own. Flacius counters by arguing that good translations of Scripture resolve many of the difficulties, while the rest are remedied by the preaching of the ministers and teachers that the Lord provides for his church. This is God dealing with man as a corporeal creature, instructing him through eyes and ears, word and sacrament, combined with internal movement and enlightenment. For these reasons the Lord establishes an external ministry and hands down a volume of sacred oracles.[6] A faithful teacher serves as a guide to what Scripture itself contains, not the extra authority that the papists find necessary.[7]

From these points Flacius’s understandings of the clarity of Scripture becomes clear. Clarity does not mean that Scripture is a simple book to understand. It does mean that Scripture is understood without the aid of an official interpretation from the pope or the church. It interprets itself, but only through careful study of Scripture, careful comparison of passages, and the reader’s efforts to read it fruitfully.

Flacius establishes the clarity of Scripture from various passages. When 2 Timothy 3[:16–17] holds up Scripture as sufficient for our faith and life, it speaks of its clarity. Scripture does not give similar testimonies for the fathers, the pope, or councils. Scripture alone is sufficient.[8] The Psalm [12:6] also says that Scripture is clear and pure, like silver refined seven times.[9]

Flacius understands the clarity of Scripture to mean that Scripture stands by itself, sufficient and useful for man without the need of other authorities. Its meaning is not immediately apparent to man, but is sought out through careful study and use of the remedies God provides to overcome the difficulties of Scripture. When this study has been accomplished, when the clear passages have informed our understanding, Scripture gives us a solid, clear foundation for both faith and life. It provides us with all things that are needed and useful for us to know.

[A portion of Flacius’s Clavis Scripturae is available in an English translation. The book is Matthias Flacius, How to Understand the Sacred Scriptures, trans. Wade Johnston (Saginaw, MI: Magdeburg Press, 2011).

The Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer is associate pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Beecher, Ill.

[1] Matthias Flacius Illyricus, Clavis Scripturae S. seu de Sermone Sacrarum literarum, autore Matthia Flacio Illyrico, Pars Prima in qua singularum vocum, atque locutionum S. Scripturae usus ac ratio Alphabetico explicatur (Basilae, per Ionnem oporinum et eusebium episcopium, 1567), Part II:1–5.

[2] Flacius, Clavis II:5.

[3] Flacius, Clavis II:5.

[4] Flacius, Clavis II:6.

[5] Flacius, Clavis II:14.

[6] Flacius, Clavis II:6.

[7] Flacius, Clavis II:8–11.

[8] Flacius, Clavis II:529.

[9] Flacius, Clavis II:525–526.