The Doctrine of Scripture
Martin Luther confessed, “The Scriptures are our vineyard in which we should all work.” And work in that vineyard he did. Luther’s formal education initially took him into the fields of the arts and sciences. He was schooled in the subjects laid out and developed by Aristotle. His keen mind prepared him well for master’s studies in law. All the while, he struggled deep in his soul.
The infamous thunderstorm that caught Luther on the road to Erfurt sent him into the monastery. Yet, a monk’s duties could not assuage his inner battles. His overseers, now taking a keen interest in him, prescribed more study. And so Luther embarked on a course of theological inquiry.
Studying theology and the Bible in the 1510s meant little more than studying what the masters had to say about theology and the Bible. Sources upon layers of sources—writings of earlier theologians, popes, and others—were Luther’s texts, and it was expected of him to do little more than master the sources so that he too could point future students to the masters.
As Luther transitioned from student to teacher, a new star was rising in education, a star that would light up both the Renaissance and the Reformation. Historians refer to this new way of learning with the Latin phrase ad fontes—“to the sources.” Peel back the layers of tradition and secondary sources; go directly to the original. Luther went to the source. He read Paul, he read the Psalms, he read the prophets. In the vineyard of Scripture, Luther found the resolution to his struggles and far more.
Erasmus published his Greek-Latin New Testament text in Basel in 1516. Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door a year later. The very first thesis challenges the Latin translation of the Greek word for “repentance.” With Bible in hand, Luther and the Reformation took off in earnest.
It was a few short years after the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses that Luther produced his labor of love for his own people: the New Testament in German. Later, both testaments would be made available to German readers. In 1525, Tyndale produced a New Testament, from the Greek, for the English-speaking world.
The Reformation was built upon the Bible, so we should not be surprised to find in the Reformers a robust doctrine of Scripture. One helpful construct to unpack the doctrine of Scripture involves four key terms: authority, necessity, clarity, and sufficiency.
Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli stated the authority of Scripture rather clearly by drawing attention to the two-word Latin phrase Dominus dixit, meaning “Thus says the Lord.” The Bible is God’s Word, therefore it is true; therefore, it is authoritative; therefore, it is inerrant; therefore, it is infallible; and therefore, it is our only sure guide.
John Calvin famously likened Scripture to spectacles. Apart from Scripture, we misread the natural world, human nature, and the Creator. Scripture alone gives us the clear picture of who God is, who we are, and what God’s plan for the world truly is. Without Scripture, we stumble around in the dark. Scripture is necessary to see the world rightly.
One of Huldrych Zwingli’s most important writings is titled “On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God.” The notion that Scripture is clear does not mean that everything in Scripture is abundantly and equally clear. But it does mean that the main message and thrust of Scripture is clear. Zwingli also tells us that God has given us the Holy Spirit, “the Teacher of Truth,” and God has provided His church with teachers and gifted individuals so that we may know His Word with certainty.
Just before her martyrdom, Lady Jane Grey inscribed a few words in her copy of the New Testament that she was leaving for her sister. She wrote of how outwardly it was not trimmed in gold, as some of the finer books in her library were, but “it is inwardly worth more than precious stones.” Peter speaks of God’s granting us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” in the “precious and very great promises” of His Word (2 Peter 1:3–4). God’s Word is sufficient to tell us what we must believe to be saved and how we can please God.
The Reformation plank of sola Scriptura—“Scripture alone”—is actually constructed of the four key words describing Scripture. Because it is authoritative, necessary, clear, and sufficient, Scripture is our ultimate standard in matters of faith and practice. Consequently, Scripture must be preached, read, studied, and published abroad. The Reformation was built on the sure foundation of God’s Word.
As we celebrate what the Reformation accomplished five hundred years ago, may we also look to the future, to the next Reformation. Can we imagine all that the Word of God can accomplish in the hands of God’s people in the years to come?