November 2017

November 2017

Can the Scriptures Really Be Understood?

One of the battle-cries of the Reformation is “sola Scriptura,” i.e., “by Scripture alone.” It is by Scripture alone that the truths of the Christian faith are demonstrated and confirmed. It is not the church hierarchy, the Pope, church councils, or vague traditions that determine what we believe, but the very Word of God, written by the Prophets and Apostles.

But have you ever tried to read the Bible? I mean really read it, cover to cover, with full understanding of what it says? If you have, you know that the Bible is often difficult to understand. In fact, there are many passages of Holy Scripture whose meaning remains entirely hidden from even the most careful and well-trained biblical scholars. How then can we claim to rely on “Scripture alone” as our sole source of Christian teaching?

The expression “sola Scriptura” can have no meaning if the Scriptures are obscure and impossible to understand, because if the Scriptures cannot be understood on their own, that means that there has to be an authoritative interpreter of Holy Scripture. The Pope, for example, does not claim to teach anything by his own authority. He teaches what the Scriptures teach, but only the Scriptures as interpreted by him. If I object to the Pope’s interpretation, I cannot appeal directly to the Scriptures, because they cannot be understood unless they are interpreted by the Pope. So the view that the Scriptures are unclear leads directly to the practical supplanting of the Scriptures with some other authority.

“Sola Scriptura,” therefore, depends upon the Scriptures being understandable, or clear. And yet we find that often they are not. What’s going on here?

When we say that the Scriptures are “clear,” we do not mean that anyone can pick up a Bible translation and on one cursory reading immediately see the whole meaning of every passage without difficulty. Only after years of careful study will the meaning of many passages dawn on the attentive reader. Furthermore, the meaning is often obscured until the text is studied in its original language, whether Greek (for the New Testament) or Hebrew (for most of the Old Testament). Even for someone trained in the original languages who dedicates his life to the study of Scripture, many passages remain obscure.

What makes the Scriptures “clear,” however, is not the accessibility of every passage to every student. What makes them “clear” is the fact that the body of doctrine, the sum and substance of what the Christian Church believes, teaches, and confesses, is and must ever be drawn exclusively from passages that are clear, whose plain meaning can be demonstrated to all who approach the text in honesty and reverence. The divinity of Christ, the trinity of Persons in the Godhead, the exclusive role of grace (from God’s side) and faith (from man’s side) in obtaining the forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God—these and all true Christian teachings can be confidently established on the basis of passages whose meaning is clear.

That means that what you believe as a confessional Lutheran, instructed from Luther’s Catechism, is not something made up by man. It’s not a collection of clever ideas or cute sayings. What you believe is what God has taught His Church through the Prophets and Apostles, whose writings have come down to us in the present day. The confidence that flows from this conviction is a precious gift that we have inherited from the Reformation. May we ever flee from the doctrines of men and cling only to what God has taught us by Scripture alone—sola Scriptura!


The Word of the Lord Remains Forever


Pastor Neuendorff