Dr. Carl Trueman’s first message at this weekend’s Ligonier Academy Conference was titled “Truth.” Dr. Trueman indicated that since his training is in church history he would be approaching his subject from a historical perspective.
Today the issue of Scripture’s truth is coming to the foreground again. There are two areas where a renewed scrutiny toward Scripture is being focused. The first concerns the referential truth of Scripture. Are the words of Scripture true? The second concerns the perspicuity of Scripture. Is Scripture clear?
Dr. Trueman turned to church history to explain the fundamental importance of the inspiration and clarity of Scripture. He surmised that the modern world’s suspicion and disdain for words is rooted in the desire to silence God. Why? Because, from the beginning of the church, the words of God have been absolutely basic to Christianity.
In the early church fathers, we find a constant reference to Scripture and a full confidence in citing Scripture. This implies first, that God’s words have been written down and second, that the citation of these words is enough to hang an argument on.
The early church fathers understood that Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Dr. Trueman provided several quotations from Clement, Athenagoras, and Gregory the Great, showing that they all believed in the inspiration of Scripture and connected inspiration to the very being of God. Some today argue that a high view of inspiration is a relatively modern invention, but a high view of inspiration is already assumed in the early church.
Dr. Trueman continued with a quotation from Augustine on inerrancy. Augustine’s comment is interesting because it demonstrates that he did not begin by assuming that a difficulty he encountered in the Bible was due to a problem with the Bible itself. Instead Augustine said that the problem might be with his own understanding or with the translation or with the manuscript. The Bible though is without error.
In the second half of his message, Dr. Trueman addressed the clarity of Scripture. He focused on the debate between the great Reformation humanist Erasmus and Martin Luther. Trueman noted that their debate was over more than predestination. It was also a struggle over Scripture.
Luther had stated that Scripture was clear and that theology should be formulated by comparing Scripture with Scripture. This was an explosive idea because it undermined the authority of the Roman church. Roman Catholicism is predicated on the idea that ordinary people cannot interpret Scripture rightly.
Erasmus and Luther had different conceptions of what Christianity is. For Erasmus, Christianity was about basic morality. Doctrine was not as important. For Luther, on the other hand, the basic question was: Where can I find a gracious God? Christianity for Luther is all about the Gospel.
Because the Gospel is a declaration, Christianity is fundamentally about assertions. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. For Luther, preaching should be first and foremost doctrinal. This kind of preaching requires a clear Scripture. We must grasp the Gospel by faith, so the Gospel must be clear.
Luther’s view of perspicuity or clarity involved two ideas: the internal perspicuity of Scripture and the external perspicuity of Scripture. Internal perspicuity has to do with our response in faith to the truth of Scripture. Luther explained the difference between the Pope and himself in the following way. He said that he and the Pope agreed that Christ was born of a virgin, died on the cross, was buried, was resurrected, ascended into heaven, and will come again. We both believe these propositions of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther said, but I believe Christ did these things for me. This idea of internal perspicuity is important when dealing with those who set the Spirit against Scripture. We must understand that the Spirit enables us to believe and understand the Word.
External perspicuity concerns the matter of the external judgment on what Scripture means. Luther links this to proclamation of the Word. Scripture, he says, functions within the church. When we read commentaries, we are engaging with the wider body of the church in order to bring out the meaning of the text. We see, then, that Luther had a profound understanding of the corporate church. Luther believed that Scripture is clear when we gather together, hear the Word preached, and assess these things by Scripture. Luther knew that some things in Scripture are clearer than others. This is why catechism is important. The catechism gives us the basic framework within which we may understand the harder parts.
Dr. Trueman concluded by reminding us that in the current struggles over Scripture it is important to articulate both the fact of Scripture’s truth as well as its perspicuity. Protestantism and Christianity depend on both.