Full Text for Dogmatics 3- Volume 8 - The Clarity of Scripture (Video)

No. 8 There are so many different interpretations of Scripture. Everybody claims Scripture for his or her position. How can we say that Scripture is clear? It certainly would appear easy for some to say that Scripture is in fact unclear´┐Żas proved by all the differing doctrines of the Christian denominations. How do we counter that? >> Yeah, Nick, that's a good question and a question that vexed many people. If Scripture is clear, why doesn't everybody understand it in the same way? And there are several ways then out of that dilemma that you say: Well, Scripture actually is not clear. And therefore, the light that illumines you must be somewhere else. That's traditionally in Christianity. Or you've fallen into an even more radical skepticism as some post modern thinkers do. They would say: Well, it's not a property of Scripture to be unclear. It's a property of any text. Stanley Fish wrote a book, "Is There a Text in This Class?" where he investigates this question. And Stanley Fish is one of those deconstructionists that says a text does not have a meaning. Rather the reader makes the meaning of the text. The text is more like sheet music. Sheet music does not sound. Somebody has to perform. Sheet music is not music. So a text can be the occasion that a meaning originates. But the text does not have a meaning. So it would be a radical skepticism. And if you apply that to Scripture then of course any talk that we had before about the authority of Scripture is absolutely meaningless. Because the authority of Scripture presumes that you can actually say, "Well, this is what Scripture says." If everything is just, "Well, this is what I think Scripture says and any interpretation is valid." Then the only thing that binds us together maybe is that we kind of improvise on the same text. You know, we have Scripture. And that's kind of the baseline or whatever. The basic harmonies. And then like in a jazz band you have a basic harmonic outline. And everybody improvises. And you might listen to others. So it kind of fits in. And sometimes dissonances are really a cool thing. And so also in the church you have the kind of basic commitment "Well, we improvise on Scripture. And sometimes we improvise in harmony and sometimes we improvise on dissonance." But you can't say this is right or this is wrong. There is no wrong improvisation unless in some kind of funky forms of jazz. Now, that's a definitely post modern approach to the authority of Scripture. And that has to be really addressed in an overall attempt to understand where a post modernity is coming from and how to combat such skepticism. The easiest argument to begin with is in a way it's self defeating. Because if there is no meaning outside, there is no difference between right and wrong anyways and kind of the basic concept of Christianity is done with. You can also say that if God really speaks, it is not irrational to assume that God actually does want to communicate something. So that communication is possible. A lot of post modern thinking is decidedly atheistic. And ***Kevin Van Heusen, a reformed theologian, made the comment that if you look at ***shaq derida, the death of God, then it really sets forth the death of all sheep and the death of a meaning of the text. So in an atheistic world view you can come to this almost nihilistic world view. But these are very basic questions. I'm just talking just a little bit on it. Let's go back to a more conventional skepticism regarding the meaning of Scripture. Does the difference and interpretation show that there is no meaning in the text? Well, you have differences in interpretations in many other fields in society. There are differences about interpretation of the law. But rarely somebody says: Well the law does not have a meaning. You can find out what the law actually says. Most people presume that laws actually do have meaning and that there are correct and incorrect interpretations. So that should make us a little bit cautious against affirming simply that the differences in interpretation confirm that the students do not have a meaning or that the meaning of Scripture is not accessible. It could also be that there is simply a confusion on the side of the interpretive. That Scripture is actually understandable is dogmatically expressed by saying that Scripture is clear or perspicuous. Luther used the term "the clarity of Scripture," especially in his book on the bondage of the will that he wrote of Erasmus. Erasmus, a humanist who was all for the Reform of the church but he was opposed to Luther because Luther was too radical, wrote his defense of the free will. And one of the things he said: Well, you know, Scripture is not really clear on the question does man have a free will. So since Scripture is unclear, let's just stick with the Pope and the church fathers and what they have said. And Luther attacks that and says: Well, you say Scripture is not clear but the word of man is clear? So are you saying that God is not able to express himself clearly but Jerome or Augustine or Athanasios, they can actually speak clearly? Isn't that kind of a strange construct? And he affirmed that Scripture is clear. And if you look at what clear actually means, we think of it as something that is transparent, you can look through. Glass is clear. Well, if it's clear glass. There can be also opalescent glass. Let's assume clear glass. Or water, pure water is clear. You look through it. But clarity and the word ***claros in Latin has a little bit of a different connotation. It is actually something more that is luminous. The clarity of Scripture is something that produces light. That enlightens. Not just that lets light pass through it. In the Lutheran Orthodoxy they use the term perspicuity of Scripture. That Scripture is perspicuous, which means it's passive. You can look through it. But the point about the clarity of Scripture, why I also like the term. Is Scripture is not simply an object that I perceive. But that Scripture in a way is a subject. We talked about Scripture as a subject before when I mentioned that the Lutheran Confessions speak about Scripture as being a judge. Which is strange. Because Scripture is -- well, it's an inanimate object. It's a book. How can a book be a judge? Except in a metaphorical sense. But they could say that because the Scripture is not just that object but because it is the Word of God. And the Spirit of God is connected with what the book says. Therefore, it is also a subject. And because that happens, therefore also Scripture is clear, that is it illumines, it sends forth light. Any talk about the unclarity of Scripture or that Scripture cannot -- you cannot make out what Scripture says presumes that Scripture is dark -- to stay in the light metaphor that Scripture is dark and that you have to bring in your own light to illumine what Scripture actually says. So if you look at Scripture itself, it's dark. You don't see anything. You have to have your torch or your flashlight. Hold it to Scripture. And then you will see it. Now, what kind of torches or flashlights have been proposed in church history? Well, basically there are really two options. Either it is your own light, which resides in you. For example, since I have the Holy Spirit, which teaches me all things, I can tell you exactly what Scripture says. You, unfortunately, who are less fortunate or have less faith or little faith, you don't have the Holy Spirit as much as I have. So no wonder you don't understand Scripture. So just listen to me. What is thereby established is a kind of a charismatic leadership in the church. There are some that have the Spirit and understand Scriptures and others who don't. And that's the end of the argument. Period. If you don't understand Scripture, that's too bad. Pray that you get the Holy Spirit. Then you will see the same thing. Another way is that there is some kind of a collective light in the church. That would be the tradition. That while Scripture is unclear, but fortunately the fathers are bright lights. And when we follow them, then we will actually see what Scripture means. As I said before when we talked about tradition, well, somebody has to make the decision who is a father, who is a light. And who is a father and who is a false light, a misleading light. So in the end we end up again in that kind of a church authority will tell you what is the right understanding of Scripture. And we find that in the Roman Catholic church dogmatized in the Council of Trent as we heard that excerpt from the first session on the Scripture and tradition, so there is also in the same a decree on the fact that only what the church affirms as the right understanding is the right understanding. And nobody has the right to question the teaching of the church. You cannot appeal against the teaching of the church. If you don't follow it, then you are a heretic. Because the light resides in the church institution. So that's basically the two choices you have. You don't want to fall into total skepticism, either charismatic leadership or the church that has the light. Some kind of infallible teaching office in the church. Against that, Lutherans affirm, no, Scripture has a light of its own because the Holy Spirit resides in there. And human connection is possible against this post modern skepticism. God in a way has hallowed human language that it can transmit information. That it can transmit understanding. That it can be used for communication. It's not just some kind of tapestry on which you improvise. In the Old Testament the law -- the Word of God was seen as this light. And you have these famous metaphors in Psalm 119 Verse 105. "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." And in Psalm 19 Verse 7, "The law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." There it is assumed the Word of God is clear. In the New Testament Jesus says to the Pharisees "Search the Scriptures for in them you have eternal life and they are of which testify of me" in John 5:39. So the Scriptures are clear. Jesus does not say, "Oh, yeah, of course, Pharisees, you don't understand it because you don't have the Holy Spirit," which they didn't have actually because they didn't recognize him, they didn't believe in him. He says, "Look at the Scriptures. There you'll find out." He presumes you can read and understand the Scriptures even as an unbeliever. So from that we see that it is assumed in Scripture itself that people can read it and understand what is going on. Now, of course, Scripture is a pretty advanced and also sometimes pretty difficult book. When we talk therefore about the clarity of Scripture, we don't assume that everything is as easily accessible, or accessible on the same level. Rather we say when we affirm the clarity of Scripture the fundamental points of Scripture and teachings of Scripture can be found by reading Scripture, by just taking the sins of the Word seriously. And you don't have to have some kind of supernatural knowledge. Or you don't have to be part of a faith community and obeying an infallible magisterian to understand that. Now, obviously certain things make it more easy to understand Scripture. Now, if you know the basic plot, it's easy to understand what Scripture is as in any book. If you know who Moses is and what his place in the history of salvation is, it's much easier to understand certain statements by Jesus, for example. But it's not impossible. If you live in the church, for example, you have an advantage. It's like when you read a novel from let's say 19th Century Russia from Dostoevsky. First you struggle with all of those strange names. Then you try to find out what was actually the society there? Oh, they had Serbs. Okay. So you look at the historical background and there are things you just have to understand. You read let's say "The Demons" and that deals with the whole nihilistic movement and the revolutionary movement. So you need a background knowledge. Otherwise it's kind of: What's going on? Who is Earnest Renan who is mentioned at one point? So as in any book you read, context helps. You still can get something out of Dostoevsky even if you don't know anything. The story itself is enjoyable and can teach you something. But you get most of it and have a better understanding if you know the background, the setting. So also with Scripture. Now, the other thing is nobody would assume that you actually can understand Dostoevsky, "The Demons" when you start on Page 342 and read until Page 508 and then you say: Oh, I didn't understand what it was all about. Well, it must be a bad book. You always assume that if you read such a book, you would start on Page 1 and you go through. Now, Scripture is a little bit different because it's a collection of writings. It's not simply one book written in one setting. But it certainly does not help, especially with the printing of Bibles, where every is single verse is kind of isolated that you pick out a verse and say, "Well, this verse says to me or these words speak to me." And you say, "Isn't that kind of ripping out verses out of their context? Is that really how it should be understood?" "Well, it touches my heart." Well, that's good. But the text has to be understood in its context. Which means that we have to familiarize ourselves with the language, with the context. We have to familiarize ourselves with the historical background. We have to give Scripture a fair reading. We have to really see: What do these words mean? Because when we look -- for example, what does it mean when it said, "God is love"? We have all of our opinions about what love is. It can be sentimental or whatever. Is that what Scripture says when it says, "God is love"? No. Love is defined in a little bit different way. It's the self giving love. It's not that God is kind of always with this quavering emotion and just overflowing on his violins playing in the sky all the time. It is a sacrificial love. To love somebody means to do something for him. Ultimately to give yourself for this person. So now the other thing is we have to evaluate ourselves if we are prejudiced. We realize that we grew up from our nature in a sinful world. And our sin does not only influence our moral behavior but also our intellectual behavior. And therefore we have to always be careful that we do not prejudice what the text can say and what it cannot say. That's one of the reasons why we read commentaries and also why we listen to others. Because it helps us to see the text from a different perspective. If you ever lived outside of your native country, besides maybe whatever you did there, if you were an exchange student or whatever, you realized that it enriches you. Why? Because you see the world from a different angle. You suddenly realize certain things are not self-evident or a given. You can see things differently. You can live differently. You appreciate certain things. You see other things maybe more critically. It's the same thing with looking at the Bible and reading the Bible. What you see is in a way conditioned by your perspective. That's right. Of course. That's why we read our theologians. That's why you can -- with pleasure and with benefit you can read somebody like Augustine who lived in North America 1600 years ago you don't have to say: Oh, Augustine? Oh, my dear. 1600 years. What can he tell me? Well, he has a unique perspective that might help you to see where you are caught in your 21st Century western view of the text. And that's why it's also so fruitful and beneficial that you encounter people from other cultures. You don't have to say: Well what can these Africans teach me or what can south Americans teach me? They might see something which you do not see. So there is this interaction that again has to be evaluated in the reading of the text. You can't simply say, well, like liberation theology did: We are the poor. We are the oppressed. Therefore, we see what the text really means. Whereas you bourgeoise right capitalists, you are so corrupted by your wealth, you really can't see the Gospel how it is. That's not the point. But maybe they can tell us something. I heard a sermon lately where the pastor said, "Well, I was kind of uncomfortable to talk about money." Which I thought was funny because he doesn't have a problem to talk about sexual misbehavior. But you have a problem to talk about money. And it used to be that you didn't talk about sex but you could talk about money. So it's kind of -- I thought maybe that's just a sign how we live. You know, that the holy thing which you don't touch is money. Whereas sexual morals you can discuss. I don't know. But that's just one of these -- one of the points. So it's all nice and dandy you might think. But it didn't quite answer the question. And you're right, it didn't quite answer the question. When we say again that there are different interpretations of Scripture, does that mean that it's unclear? Well, logically there are at least two options. One is: Scripture is unclear. The second is: People misinterpret Scripture. Now, we would probably say there are obvious cases where people misinterpret Scripture. If you ever dealt with any cults and they are rather bizarre interpretations of Scripture, you will say: Okay. But I mean that is not exegesis. That's eisegesis. You don't draw meaning out of the text but you lay it in the text. So obviously there are misinterpretations. Okay. Now are there -- so you may actually see a judgement between valid interpretations and not valid interpretations. Let's say that's your common sense approach to that topic. Let's put it on that. Okay. There are valid and not valid interpretations. What's the criterion? Well, you would say it must somehow be appropriate to the context. It must be appropriate to the entire teaching of Scripture. And you might say if it's a totally new interpretation of Scripture, you are a little bit weary. If somebody for the first time came up with this totally new understanding of Scripture, God and Jesus, you might think: Hmmm, how big are the chances that in 2000 years of church history somebody actually overlooked that? Again, that's just preliminary. But it's a start. Another thing that Lutherans were always strong on was that they said: We have to take Scripture literally. I know that's a loaded term, too. That basically means that you take the meaning of a sentence at face value unless Scripture makes it explicitly clear that that is non-literal language. This is a metaphor. This is a parable. This is irony. This is a joke or whatever. Because otherwise you destroy the meaning of any text. For example, when Jesus says after his resurrection to his disciples: Whomsoever you forgive the sins, those sins are forgiven. And whomsoever you retain the sins, those sins are retained. I could come and say, "Oh, that's irony. Jesus was just joking. Of course he's not serious there. He's kind of kidding the disciples. Of course if you forgive them their sins they are forgiven or if you retain them they are retained" with kind of a smirk in his eyes. How do you disprove that? You realize irony, for example, is something that can be mistaken quite easily, especially if you don't see the person or you don't hear his voice. If you just read it, there actually can be an argument. Is it irony? Is it sarcasm or not? So I can destruct everything by saying: Oh, that's not literal meaning. That's figurative speech. That's irony, sarcasm, metaphor or whatsoever. Jesus loves everybody. Of course he doesn't mean everybody. That's just hyperbole. That's just an exaggeration. He means actually Jesus loves somebody or some people but not others. Well, how do you avoid saying it's hyperbole? Well, there is no other way. And that's how language functions then that the context actually denotes it. For example, if I'm -- if I'm at a restaurant or -- better example. If I am invited to a house and I say, "Oh, this is the best meal I ever had in my life," from the context it can be it actually is the best meal of my life. Or it is hyperbole which means I either say this is one of the best meals or this is really a great meal. Or some people use the word divine everywhere. "Oh, this is just so divine." They do not mean that "Oh, this thing has metaphysical deity." It just means great. We say, "It's terrific." That does not mean that "Oh, I shudder and 'm kind of afraid." But it's another term. It's great. So usage and situation shows us when terms are used non-literal. We of course have to be very careful because again we read text in a different language and from a different age that might have different conveniences than we have to denote non-literal language. But nevertheless, there is a difference. And in doubt we give the text the benefit that it is literal. Even if it conflicts with our opinions. So that's a basic argument. And when you see for example how Luther discussed with Zwingli. He didn't say: Well, Zwingli, you don't have the Holy Spirit. Obviously you can't understand why I say that the Lord's Supper actually has Christ's body and blood. But he argued grammatically. He said: Let's look at the text. What are your arguments for a non-literal understanding? And then he went through the arguments and one by one refuted them. And as he says in this context it says also: Well, you know, we have to realize that even our Lord Jesus Christ when he argued with the scribes and the high priest and he used Scripture, he did not convince everybody. He did not convince everybody. Does that mean that Scripture was unclear? No says Luther. No, it does not mean that it's unclear. It means that certain people willfully resist in understanding. That might seem like a circular reasoning. I'm right because I'm right and you are just kind of -- you have just kind of hardened your heart. The difference here is, though, that I give reasons. Okay? It's a rational argument. I'm not like a charismatic that claims deeper insights because of his Spirit. That's why grammar is important. That's why languages are important. That's why Lutheranism was always big on the study of the original languages. So that actually you can argue from the text and can reason from the text. And that's why we don't have to be afraid to enter into discussions with people who believe differently. Because we actually have a good case. And part of your education is that you can make an argument and can actually show from Scripture and don't have to say: Well, that's just the way we believe it. And either you believe it or you don't. But you can say: That's actually what Scripture says. And let me show you how Scripture teaches that and why different interpretations are wrong. So the proof is really, in a way, in the pudding. That is for every teaching of Scripture we have to show that it is actually the teaching of Scripture and set forth the exegetical basis and show that there is actually a proper understanding of Scripture and that Scripture is clear on these points. If you discuss it in a general way, it is true, you might fall into skepticism. But the skepticism can only be overcome by an encounter with Scripture. And then the clarity of Scripture will illumine you. And then you will see the clarity of Scripture. And that's again not some kind of supernatural event but simply it's a question of reading closely and understanding the text.