1938 Synod Convention Essay
Ours is an age when it would seem that every excuse has been brought for rejecting the Bible and its teachings. Among the arguments which continue to trouble many is this that the Bible is difficult to read and understand for the average person. If it is all the Word of God, and the Word of God to me, then I should be able to open it at any book or chapter or verse and receive the instruction or comfort I may need. Some undertake to read it as they would read a story, beginning at the first page and continuing on through to the end, expecting to understand all as they go. But they stop before they have fairly begun, because they meet with so much that they do not grasp. It seems as if they find themselves traveling through desert wastes or over barren rocks where there is nothing to cheer or nourish souls hungering for the Bread of Life. These forget so easily that what appears to a traveler as most unfruitful soil often hides priceless deposits, and that books are not all to be read as one reads light fiction.
The argument regarding the unclearness of Scripture becomes a formidable one to young members of our church not least when they discover that the many sects and denominations all profess to find their teachings in Scripture. They point to the same text, and one Bible student interprets thus, another so. Whole church bodies are separated because of what seems to be only a matter of interpretation. And with this situation so plainly before them, many come to believe without further investigation that it must be so, and they are satisfied that there is no use for them to try to solve the mystery of it all. In too many cases the Bible remains a closed book. And, after all, though we staunchly maintain that the Holy Scriptures are the inspired Word of God and the only rule of faith and life, of what avail is all this if we at the same time would be obliged to admit that these same Scriptures are unclear, stating the truth but vaguely and in a manner of speech which would allow of various interpretations? How is it possible to look to a book as a sure rule of faith and conduct, if its testimony is so veiled that it actually seems to invite an equally veiled understanding?
I. The Place of Reason in Bible Interpretation
From the beginning there have been controversies regarding the understanding of the Word of God. When Satan said to Eve: “Yea, hath God said,” he laid the foundation for every succeeding doctrinal controversy in the church. By that question he appealed to reason as being above the simple Word of God and succeeded in diverting Eve from the Word and its simple intent to another authority, namely reason, as the interpreter of that Word. As long as Eve permitted the Word to stand as God had spoken it, she was safe and did not sin. But by his question it is plain that the devil caused her to doubt the evident meaning of that Word, and she soon found many an argument which obscured that direct meaning and intent, so that she was made to think on this wise: “God must mean something else than He actually says, for He can not be so unreasonable and so unkind and inconsiderate that He would deliberately withhold from us, His loving and beloved children, anything that is good, particularly the knowledge of good and evil.” And to this day the devil speaks the same language to those who hear and read the Word: “Yea, hath God said?” When God says: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect;” or, “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2); then men argue as Eve argued: He can not mean it as seriously as that. God can not expect perfection from us any more than we expect perfection from our children. Or when we read: “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 Joh. 3:4); and “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23); then such a severe condemnation is unworthy of God Who is Love. That word, Sin, must be something more than any and every transgression of the law; and that word, Death, must not be understood in its full meaning. Thus men argue also when that same Word of God says: “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7); or, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24); there must be some mistake there. It is impossible for the blood of one man to cleanse the whole world of all its sin. It can not be that God justifies freely, by grace. I must, of course, make myself fit in some way for heaven and for His favor. And even old and experienced Christians are tempted to listen to that same satanic voice, when sickness and afflictions bring our sins before us in all their hideousness, so that despair would rob us of every hope. God can not mean me; He can not mean all my sins. And that same “Yea, hath God said?” goes on to trouble men’s souls and lead them from error to error, away from the hope which is in Christ to the dark, cold misery of unbelief.
On the other hand, God did not speak to stones or trees or to the dumb brutes which have no reason. His Word was given to men endowed by God Himself with the wondrous gift of reason. Certainly we have great need of, and use for, reason in dealing with the Word of God. It is Christ Who has said, “Search the Scriptures”. But that is not done with a lamp or with a staff. The strongest searchlight or the most powerful X-ray will not help us here. It is our reason God wants us to use. And when we take down the ponderous volumes of those who have made an earnest study of the Scriptures, we are made to marvel at the learning they show. Is not this learning a product of reason? Could these men have done their work if they had not applied their reason, and that in the fullest measure of God’s giving?
To all of which we reply at once: These did use their reason. In fact, God expects us to do that very thing. He demands that we use every means which He has placed at our disposal in our search. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians; Daniel, in that of the Babylonians; Paul, in that of the Jews and Greeks; Luther, in that of his country and his time, all in order that they might serve the Gospel the better. Today we demand of those who are to become ministers and teachers of the Word that they be well endowed with reason and have that reason well trained, so that it has become a sharp instrument with which to conduct that deep searching of the Word by which some of its most glorious treasures are discovered. Who will say that it is not necessary to employ reason in the learning of the Greek and Hebrew languages, in which the Bible originally was given to men? Who will say that reason is not required to uncover those facts of history, geography, or the other sciences which are so necessary to a true understanding of so many passages of Scripture? We welcome it with gratitude to God when men of high intelligence and with minds that are well trained, men of the highest scholarly attainments, will devote themselves to the study of the Scriptures; for we confidently believe that the Bible is worthy of only the best that men can offer and that the Bible is as a mine with inexhaustible treasures for scholars to seek and gather and store up for hungering souls. Today the church owes a great debt of gratitude, humanly speaking, to such men as Luther, Gerhardt, Quenstedt, Walther, Koren and many, many others who have left to later generations a precious heritage of truth which they by prayerful and diligent searching have garnered from that greatest of all storehouses, the Word of God. They could not have accomplished what they did, certainly, if they had been lacking in that noble quality of reason, which, after all, distinguishes man from the brute.
The need of reason is apparent. But what is the particular place of reason in the searching of Scripture which Jesus commands? We answer again in all simplicity: Reason is not there to make Scripture clear, as if it were unclear. Reason is not there to play the master, as if the Word of God can be made a servant to the whims and fancies of reason. Reason is not there to test Scripture in order to determine whether it speaks the truth or not; or to determine whether it speaks logically and reasonably or not; or to strain the words of Scripture as a prospector strains gold-bearing sand in order to discover what nuggets of truth may be there. It is not there to make Scripture say what it does not say, or to make it deny what it does say. It is not there to grasp what Scripture says, as if Scripture is a thing which must speak only that which may be fathomed by the mind of man and can not go beyond the limits of that mind.
Reason has its place, but it is a very limited place after all. It is there to serve as the eye to read the words, thus: “In due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). It is there to serve as the ear to hear, thus: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). It is there as the memory to call to mind and remind, as in the case of the prodigal son who remembered his father’s house and the love which had been his in this childhood home. It is there to study the laws of language, so that we may distinguish clearly between such expressions as “I went,” “They went,” “I had gone,” and the like; or to study the laws of various languages, so that we may translate from one language correctly into another.
Reason can thus in so many ways become a most useful handmaiden, even in determining what Scripture says, as when Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5), then to compare other passages and decide that water here refers not to water in general, but to the water of baptism. Reason can help us determine whether the wine used in the Lord’s Supper was real wine or grape-juice; whether Bartholomew and Nathanael were the same person or not; what is meant by the Word in John 1:1, etc. It can help us in studying the facts of history, geography and the like, so that we may form a more clear picture of the life of Christ, of Abraham, of the people of Israel, of the journeys of Paul. Unbelieving scholars who have studied the Bible diligently have often been of great assistance in showing the meaning of certain rare words and expressions in the Bible; and we may go so far as to say that these same unbelieving scholars may, by their mere reason, help us in determining and formulating doctrines taught in Scripture, and that simply because they with their trained minds may see more readily or clearly what the Bible actually says.
But, granted all of this, let us not forget that there is a steady warfare between reason and Scripture. Reason is of man, while Scripture is the Word of God. Reason is never satisfied until it has become the master; and in its perverted pride it bears the earmark and stamp of that first evil angel who in pride sought to dethrone very God. Reason is never satisfied to see or hear or accept in childlike faith and trust the word of another. It must understand; it must subject every statement to the test of its own laws of logic and of its own standards of truth. What does not stand this test is ruthlessly cast aside. That which seems to be contrary to reason can not be truth.
The confusion centers about this point. Is the Bible so clear that an ordinary man with an ordinary reasoning ability can read it and know what it says? We say deliberately “know what the Bible says” and not “understand what the Bible says”; for these expressions are altogether different in meaning. We shall ask first what the Bible says of itself. We shall find that it speaks in clear terms.
II. The Testimony of Scripture
Frequently the Bible speaks of itself as a Light. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119 :105). “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Ps. 119:130). “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (II Peter 1:19).
We admit readily that not every light is clear and bright, and the bare expression “light”, when used of Scripture, might still leave an opening for the thought that the Word is dim, flickering, uncertain, etc. But the expressions used above are explicit and definite; “light unto my path”; “lamp unto my feet”; “sure word”; “ye do well that ye take heed unto it as unto a light that shineth in a dark place”; “giveth understanding to the simple”. It is a light that actually “giveth light”, i.e., one by which we may walk with a sure tread. It leads toward the dawn of day where the bright day star, Jesus Christ Himself, in person awaits us to be our everlasting light in heaven. Of these same Scriptures we read: “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (II Tim. 3:15). A dim and flickering light does not do this, but can only add to the confusion and the fear by the dread shadows it casts.
At this point we need to remind ourselves of the weighty matters with which these Scriptures deal. They are, of all, the most important, since they pertain to our weal and woe for time and for eternity. They concern every man, woman and child, learned or unlearned, and in every walk and condition of life. They are, of all, the most difficult for the human mind and heart to grasp. They meet with the most violent opposition, the keenest contrary argument, the most searching analysis. The words and the writings which present these truths will inevitably meet with a like opposition, contrary argument and analysis. Despite all of this, the Bible uses this expression, “light”, of itself without any limitation or qualification, thereby maintaining that it is and remains a sure light under all these conditions suggested above. And let us note especially that it claims to be clear even to children, so that God commands by the mouth of Moses: “Ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 11:19). Christians in general are urged to read and study the Scriptures, implying that its message is there for all. Christ says: “Search the Scriptures” (John 5:39), and again: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31.32.) We are urged to use this same Word in our warfare against our spiritual enemies as the very sword of the Spirit. Neither a dim light nor a dull sword can serve here. In all this, it must be a light that is clear, a sword that is sharp and keen, as we read: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebr. 4:12). How bright that light must be that can discover the wolf in sheep’s clothing and reveal his lies, who is called the father of lies! And how sharp that weapon of truth must be that can pierce his armor, whose cunning and deceit dared to oppose even Truth Itself in the person of the Son of God!
III. Wherein This Clearness Consists
To a dog or a horse such passages as “The Lord is my shepherd”, “God is love,” “The heavens declare the glory of God”, would forever remain unclear, since these animals are unable to distinguish the elements of human speech. They will also continue to be unclear to those who have lost their reason, to infant children who do not distinguish words, or to those who have not learned the English language. But he who possesses the normal use of his faculties and can read or understand English speech will judge that the Lord is his Shepherd as the words actually say; that God is love, as the words actually say; and again, that the heavens do declare the glory of God, as the words declare. He may venture to disagree with, or question, these statements; he may say that he does not understand the contents of them; but he can not say that he does not know what the words say. He will be obliged to admit that the statements are clear, so that the one statement does not say: God may be a shepherd, or that He was a shepherd, but is not today, etc.
This is not written jestingly. In these simple passages quoted from Scripture we have very important truths, and we have no difficulty in agreeing among ourselves that the language and words in which they are presented are clear and allowing of only one meaning.
A search of the Scriptures will show that all teachings that are necessary to know for salvation are based on clear passages about which there should be no discussion. Regarding the unity of God we read: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). Regarding the three persons in the Godhead: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). Regarding the deity of Jesus Christ: “We are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the trueGod, and eternal life” (I John 5:20). Of the deity of the Holy Ghost: “Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:3.4.). On original sin: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:1–3). On the active obedience of Christ: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19); “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4.5.). On the passive obedience of Christ; “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1:18.19.). On salvation by grace through faith: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:4–9). “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). On baptism: “Baptism doth also now save us” (I Peter 3:21); “Be baptized, and wash away thy sins” (Acts 22:16). On the Lord’s Supper: the words of institution quoted in Matt. 26, Mark 14, Luke 22 and I Cor. 11.
It is evident, then, that the Bible contains clear passages or statements about which there should be no disagreement. If people misunderstand them, it must be because they are not normal, or because they are prejudiced, or because they wilfully change the meaning of words and sentences. Both the Catholic and the Reformed churches have become guilty of this practice of changing the meaning of passages and words, as when the Catholic Church made the word ‘grace’ denote a quality in man, and the Reformed Church changed the words “This is my body” to “This signifies, or is a symbol of, my body”.
Let us never forget that every one of the teachings that are essential to salvation are based on passages that are so clear that even children would be able to judge as to what they say. Furthermore, those who read and search the Scriptures will discover that the Lord has made doubly and trebly sure by adding passage to passage and statement to statement, the one as clear as the other, so that there can be no doubt about what He wishes to declare to us. The more we search, the more we are made to marvel at this very arrangement of the Spirit. We are made to wonder, too, at this that one statement is there to explain the other, to supplement the other, to put the other in a new light by which its beauty or its importance or its deep meaning is revealed the more clearly. Again we are made to see how one truth is linked to another, built on the other, rests and depends on the other, until the whole body of doctrine stands before us in clear outline as a glorious creation and gift of God Himself, sent down from heaven to bring gladness and peace to the creature whom He had cursed as a result of sin. Thus one statement declares: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1) Another adds that this forgiveness is from the Lord: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). A third declares that we are “justified freely by His grace” (Rom. 3:24). A fourth, that this justification or forgiveness is “by faith” (Rom. 3:28). A fifth, that this faith is a faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16). Through this justification by faith, “we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1), are “heirs” (Tit. 3:7), and enjoy “boldness and access with confidence” (Eph. 3:12). This faith is created in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as Scripture says: “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (I Cor. 12:3). The means which the Holy Spirit uses in creating this faith are the Word and the sacrament of Baptism: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5). Finally, this faith is an active faith, “which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). Similarly in the case of other doctrines.
We have emphasized that the biblical doctrine of its own clearness has to do primarily with those teachings which are necessary unto salvation. We deduce this from such passages as II Tim. 3:15, where St. Paul says of the Holy Scriptures that they “are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Similarly, when St. Peter speaks of the Word as a light that shineth in a dark place, he plainly refers to a light that points to Christ.
The student will, however, find that the Bible is clear in other matters as well: history, geography, the sciences, and so on. To us they so often seem unclear, because the references are so casual and the background of facts so long forgotten. Historically, the Bible is concerned with the growth and experiences of the Church, the course of the Gospel. It is not concerned with a complete account of the people of Egypt; for which reason the terse references here and there to the Egyptians must await the facts uncovered in profane history before they are fully understood. The historical background of the nations at the time of Abraham or of Moses or of Daniel is taken for granted when mention is made of these peoples, and when we are able to gather the information regarding this background, the Bible references are proven to be clear and true. Similarly in the case of geographical references and other statements that involve the various fields of science. It is not the purpose of Scripture to bring all these facts in detail; but the references which the Bible does contain are in themselves clear to those who have the knowledge which they presuppose.
As to doctrines that are characterized as not being among the fundamental truths which are necessary to know for salvation, the claim is made that some of these are unclearly stated, so that it is possible to disagree regarding them. Let us be very reluctant to think or speak in terms such as these. When St. Peter says of the epistles of St. Paul that “in them are some things hard to be understood” (II Peter 3:16), he does not refer to the manner in which Paul writes, but rather to the doctrines themselves. But even there Peter is quick to add: “which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction”, implying that a humble Christian will also there find a sure guide. Let us rather say that some of the teachings of Scripture are as milk, which infant Christians may receive to their eternal blessing (cp. I Cor. 3:1.2.); while others are as meat, with which only a mature, a tried and experienced Christian should venture to nourish himself. There are teachings in Scripture which are concerned with the deep things of God, mysteries which we shall know only in heaven. While we are here, they help to keep us humble. However, the language and manner of speech in which they have been revealed are clear and would be clear to us, if the matter itself were not too deep.
In some things God has purposely revealed even the simplest spiritual truths in difficult language, but He explains that this is because of the hardness of the hearts of the opponents and for a punishment, “that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand” (Luke 8:10); even, “that they which see might be made blind” (John 9:39). But Jesus addresses the disciples and says: “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:10). In other words, we must at all times keep before us this fundamental consideration that God addresses Himself in His Word primarily to His Own children, to believers. He speaks their language, and by faith they see clearly what He intends, where the unbeliever hears only meaningless words. Of the believers Paul writes: “How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:3.4.); and again: “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31.32.). But of the unbelievers we read: “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (II Cor. 4:3.4.). “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God” (John 8:43–45. 47.).
Nor do we dare to say that Scripture is unclear because it contains prophecies and makes use of symbolic language. When we view the prophecies in the light of their fulfilment, we can only wonder at the striking clearness of the language of the prophecies. It would take us too far to compare the words of the various prophecies in the Old Testament with their literal fulfilment in the New; or to compare the prophecies of Christ and the apostles with the remarkable fulfilment of these as recorded on the pages of history. Many of the prophecies regarding Christ may have been understood only in part by those who lived many hundreds of years before the events of His life took place, while today we see that the words of those prophecies were very clear. The symbolic language of the Bible must not either be laid as a charge against the clearness of its speech. To us they may seem evidences of unclearness, but only because we are not familiar with the meaning of these same symbols. And yet, when we study the terms employed, such as ‘mercy-seat’, ‘ransom’, ‘horn of salvation’, and the like, what a wonderful and beautiful meaning they portray after all! How greatly these very expressions add to the clearness and show how the Holy Spirit uses every means to lead us into a blessed understanding of His Word!
And finally, some find an argument against the clearness of Scripture in this that they themselves do not recognize unusual or archaic meanings of certain words in the English translations. Thus the word ‘prevent’ does not always signify hinder; in Scripture it frequently is used in the sense of anticipate, precede. Thus in Ps. 88:13: “In the morning shall my prayer prevent thee”. I Thess. 4:15: “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep”. Similarly ‘translate’ and ‘translation’ in the sense of transferring or removing (II Sam. 3:10; Hebr. 11:5).
To all of this we may add that the Bible must not be blamed for our ignorance of the meanings of certain words which occur so rarely in Hebrew or Greek texts that their proper translation has not been determined to this day; or our ignorance of customs, to which certain expressions refer. Cp. in this connection. Deut. 11:10: “wateredst it with thy foot.”
IV. The Difficulties
Difficulties remain, however, and we do not deny them. Some of these have been pointed out in the foregoing. A chief difficulty is this that we fail to distinguish between clearness of the language or of the doctrine itself, and our failure to comprehend this language or doctrine. In man’s unconverted state, he cannot know the things of the Spirit of God (I Cor. 2:14). And even those who are converted see only as through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12), because we are not yet glorified so that we can tolerate the full brightness of God and His eternal majesty. He has reserved much of the beauty of His holiness for that perfect bliss which shall be ours in heaven. Another chief difficulty lies in the prejudice and the preconceived notions with which so many approach their study of the Scripture. A man has been taught that children should not be baptized, or that God has elected some to damnation, or that the true Church is the Roman Catholic Church, that even grace is a thing that we must earn, and the like; and he injects these ideas into Scripture instead of letting Scripture correct him against them. Other difficulties are our ignorance of history, archeology, customs and habits, the meaning of certain words, our inability to interpret prophecy, to understand the symbolic language of certain passages, and so on. All of this we freely admit but hasten to add that these difficulties are a result of our sinful ignorance and inability, and we must be careful not to lay these as a charge against the clearness of Scripture.
But there remain those passages where the language apparently is neither prophetic nor symbolical, where simple words are arrayed together, and still it seems impossible for sincere Christian scholars to agree about their meaning. Must we, after all, admit that God has not always spoken clearly, so that there is an excuse for some to go astray themselves and lead others astray with them? Did not even the disciples complain that they did not understand?
When we consider the various doctrinal controversies in the Church since the time of the apostles, it is well to consider that each was made unnecessary by clear statements of the Bible. From the time of Paul and his battle against the Judaists, of John and his battles against those who denied the divinity of Christ, and on through the various controversies that occasioned the great confessions of our Church, and finally down to modern times and the recent bitter struggles of our own Synodical Conference and Synod, the challenge goes forth from all of them that every issue was decided in advance by plain passages of Scripture. And he who will read the history of these controversies will receive much comfort from the manner in which our Lutheran Church has survived through them all by letting the plain Word be the judge and guide. What a lesson the history of our Church teaches us just on this very point! We may be confident that this same Word will not fail to be a sure guide in whatever future differences may arise.
Another important lesson is to be learned from the attitude of the disciples. When Jesus spoke in such a way that they did not understand, they turned to Him for further explanations; or He would voluntarily explain to them what He had said. In our case, if one passage seems difficult of interpretation, we may confidently expect that other passages will more clearly present the same truth, and we should not rest before these have been found. Again, we must in all our searching of Scripture keep the main purpose of the Word continually before us, namely that of pointing out Christ as our eternal Life. We must keep before us those central doctrines of sin and grace, of law and gospel, of faith and justification by faith, which are presented so clearly that the most unlearned Christian can know them; and then we must view the difficult passages in the light of these central truths, as Luther and the great teachers of the Church have succeeded so well in doing, by the grace of God. The doctrine of Scripture, regarding justification by faith alone without the works of the law, will ever be found a test and a guide in Bible interpretation. When we take the spirit of this blessed teaching along with us in our search of the sacred Word, we shall not go far astray, since all Scripture is borne along on the wings of this teaching. That is the jewel which lights up all Scripture, since it enfolds Christ and all His work. The doctrine of justification by faith is the key which unlocks every mystery of God.
V. The Practical Importance of This Teaching
The importance of the teaching that the Scriptures are clear lies in this that we may go to the Bible expecting with all confidence that it will guide us safely, so that we may walk without doubting or questioning. Since the Bible is clear, we may go to it for a sure answer to those questions which concern the salvation of our soul. And when the answer is given, it is not one which says one thing to me, another to you, a third to someone else. That answer will not need to be interpreted to us by someone else, as if the words do not speak for themselves or were spoken in riddles or in vague mutterings like the oracles at Delphi. No professor or priest or pope or church council is required to stand between us and the Bible, as if God does not speak to each one of us directly in that Word. The fact that the Bible is clear places on each one squarely the responsibility of determining what God says or does not say, so that no one can offer as an excuse for error the common slogan: It is all a matter of interpretation. The Word of God is not as a thing of wax, which >may be turned and twisted according to the will and desire of him who reads. He Who has said to us: “Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay” (Jas. 5:12), has said of His Own Word by the mouth of the apostle Paul: “When I therefore was thus minded, did I use lightness? or the things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yea yea, and nay nay? But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, even by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea. For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (II Cor. 1:17–20). Certainty and assurance in the matter of our faith is one of those great blessings for which Christ died. This blessing He has deposited for us in a sure and clear Word. Let no enemy of our soul rob us of this blessing by the devious route of making that Word of promise unsure and unclear! Let us fortify ourselves against every such attempt to rob us, by diligent study of the Word, as Christ demands when He says: “Search the Scriptures”, noting that the original Greek signifies a careful, diligent and continued searching. And as it is we who must search, the command being directed to each one personally, so it is we who shall find Christ as our eternal Life.
In other words, when it is reproof, admonition, comfort, hope, instruction you need, go to the Bible yourself and you shall find. If others pretend to bring you this as from God, be satisfied with nothing less than the assurance and proof from the Word of God in so many words — not man-made logic or promise. In matters of confession and of strife in the Church regarding doctrine, demand as your sacred right that you be convinced by clear statements of Holy Scripture. Test the truth you own and the truth others claim to bring you by the one sure test, the clear Word. And when that clear Word is brought, do not argue or seek to evade it, but accept the correction or instruction or comfort it offers as from God Himself. Though this may at times seem to involve serious consequences now, for yourself, your family, your congregation or your church, in the end God will in this way preserve for you and for them the one sure comfort and guide and hope unto eternal life. Through childlike dependence on the sure Word of God you will be found in the blessed company of those who confess the holy name of the Lamb here and hereafter.
Looking back, we seem to understand better the spirit of those first confessors of the Christian Church — a Stephen, a James, a Peter, a Paul, a Polycarp, and the hundreds and thousands who gave their lives by the most horrible pains. Or do you say that theirs was the spirit of fanaticism, of stubborn pride, of ignorant foolishness, of hell-bent recklessness as they, men in their best years or tottering with age, women in the blush of youth or torn from the bosom of a loving family, with the eye of faith and of a sure hope turned heavenward, calmly, even eagerly, gave their bodies to be torn asunder, burned at the stake, nailed to a cross, or otherwise mutilated as their cruel torturers directed? What was it that gave strength and holy zeal to an Athanasius when he, through persecution, banishment and a long life of spiritual suffering for the sake of the pure teaching concerning the deity of His Saviour, stood boldly forth, in tender youth a David to do battle against the mighty Goliath of Arianism, and in old age still the hero of faith to wield the sword of the Spirit for the glory of His blessed Lord? And when a Luther dared to stand before the most illustrious assembly of his day, fearing neither Pope nor Emperor, with the Bible in hand defying even Hell itself, just what was the secret of his fearless daring? It is as if Luther speaks for all when he said that one word of Scripture made the whole world too small for him, raising a wall which his reason could not scale. And the fathers and mothers of our Church? When we consider the spiritual struggles through which they have established our Lutheran Church in this country under God, what is it that has characterized their noble stand? Why did they willingly endure the hardships, the privations, the separations, the misunderstandings, the heartaches, and all the rest when the one doctrinal difference arose after the other? It would be well if we could review the history of our dear Church that we might be reminded of the love these showed of the Gospel of Christ and their reverence for the sacred Word, forgetting every sacrifice that the Word might remain inviolate. Where did these same fathers and mothers of ours find their assurance and abiding comfort and strength, when their sins cried out against them and the darkness of death stole over them? It was that sure Word of God which spoke to them in clear tones of sin and grace, of law and gospel, of heaven and hell, of Christ and of an eternal salvation for all through His mercy as an overflowing and ever-flowing fountain of life.
Do we need comfort today as a Synod? Is there any one here who questions our right to exist? Do we go wondering whether the price we pay is not too great for what seems to be nothing but a never ending struggle against misunderstanding, defeat, and the many difficulties we seem to have as a Church? Then go back to that same clear Word and ask yourself as in the sight of God: What else can we do? Where shall we go but after Him Who has said: Follow Me? Each day we may and should examine our faith and confession as a whole and in those points which separate us from former brethren; and each examination will show that the clear words of Scripture are there to assure us again that, if we would be found faithful, only one course lies before us.
On the inerrancy of Scripture the Holy Spirit today teaches as of old: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16–17). Against §1 of the Madison Settlement (“Opgjør”), which acknowledges without reservation the so-called second form of the doctrine of election (“God has predestinated all those to eternal life whom He from eternity has seen would accept the proffered grace, believe on Jesus Christ, and remain steadfast in this faith unto the end”) the Bible still teaches: “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (II Thess. 2:13) and again: “having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5). Against the statement in §4 of the same document which speaks of “man’s feeling of responsibility as regards the acceptance of grace”, the Holy Spirit speaks in plain terms: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). According to the Bible, natural man, before his conversion, is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Against the spirit of union ism evidenced by the unreserved acceptance of the two forms of the doctrine of election in §1 of the above Settlement, and, as it were, laid down as a policy for the future Norwegian Lutheran Church of America by the adoption of a special resolution by which permission was granted to cooperate with other Protestants in Memorial. Day exercises, Baccalaureate Services and the like, the Holy Spirit in plain terms declares: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). Against the growing laxity in the matter of that anti-christian institution known as the secret lodge, the Holy Spirit still says: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols” (II Cor. 6:14–18). “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32.33). Against the growing toleration of the teaching of a millenium, the Holy Spirit still tells us: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened, Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be. For wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together” (Matt. 24:21–28). Against the growing practise of granting the suffrage in the church to women, the plain word of God still says; “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (I Tim. 2:11.12).
We urged that the key to the understanding of the sacred Scriptures is the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins through Christ, the doctrine of justification by faith without the deeds of the law. If that doctrine truly characterizes our public preaching and our private profession and faith, then we may lay claim to being a true Church and the true followers of Christ, of His blessed Gospel, and the spiritual heirs of a glorious Church. Against every tendency to teach any cooperation on the part of man in conversion and every endeavor to rob God of the glory due Him alone as the Author of our salvation and Fountain of free grace for fallen man, the Holy Spirit still declares: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Tit. 3:5). “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:24–28). “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace are ye saved) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:4–9). Throughout all eternity the saints of God shall cry with a loud voice, “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb”, and they shall say: “Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 7:10.12).
Here, in the clear Word of the Spirit of God, we find our sure comfort as a Synod to this day. Our public teaching and our private profession and faith remain that of the clear Word. And pray God for our Synod that this may continue to be the case! Pray God that our pastors may ever more fervently and zealously declare this full Gospel of Christ, and that our members may abide by this faith, ready to give their all that it may be preserved inviolate and delivered to our children as a sacred trust! Against every temptation to deviate from that Word and that Gospel, either as a synod or as individuals, let us gain the victory over the mighty onslaught of Satan and his “Yea, hath God said” by a faithful appeal to the “It is written” of our blessed Savior, Christ Jesus, the Eternal Truth, the Light of the World!