Theological Conviction: Humble or Arrogant? – Martin Luther and the Perspicuity of Scripture

According to Scripture, the word of God is “flawless” (Prov. 30:5) and, in its inscripturated form, “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). As stated by the apostles, the Scriptures pass down the inspired “tradition” (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15); accordingly, those following the tradition are to hold fast to the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). In fact, those who are gifted for public ministry of the word, should speak as one who speaks God’s words (1 Pet. 4:11). Indeed, being able to “exhort in sound doctrine” and “refute those who contradict” is a requirement for being a pastor/elder (Titus 1:9).

Throughout the history of the church, however, there have been like those in the church at Thyatira, who, while abounding in love and service, tolerated those with seductive teachings, i.e., those who led the sheep astray by falsehoods: the “deep things of Satan” (Rev. 2:19-24). While their ecumenism and devotion to love are commendable, Jesus said, concerning the one sowing false doctrine: “Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead” (Rev. 2:22-23). G.K. Beale elaborates:

However, the Thyatirans, like those at Pergamum, have given space to a false teacher (probably a woman) described here as Jezebel. Their sin—toleration—is the very thing commended in our postmodern culture as the greatest virtue. This new Jezebel, like the Jezebel of old (1 Kgs. 16:31; 21:25-26), stood for compromise with idolatrous practices, and so the teaching was probably similar to that of the Balaam party and the Nocolaitans at Pergamum.[1]

In modern times, this “hermeneutic of love” and meta-ecumenism have only been strengthened by post-modernism. Brian McLaren, for example, sees theological convictions as narrow, intolerant, overconfident, and naïve. “The last thing we need,” he writes, “is a new group of proud, super protestant, hyper puritan, ultra restorationist reformers who say, ‘Only we’ve got it right!’ and thereby damn everybody else to the bin of five minutes ago and the bucket of below-average mediocrity”[2] After defining “Orthodoxy” as “straight thinking” or “right opinion,” he says, “The last thing I want is to get into nauseating arguments about why this or that form of theology (dispensational, covenant, charismatic, whatever) or methodology (cell church, megachurch, liturgical church, seeker church, blah, blah, blah) is right.”[3] McLaren calls for a “generous orthodoxy” that includes elements of liberalism and evangelicalism, for in Jesus’ day, he maintains, to be “orthodox” one needed only to trust him (right attitude).[4] Thus, doctrinal distinctives are marginal at best—what counts is “doctrine-in-practice.”[5] The orthodoxy he recommends is one you internalize and hardly need to think about.[6] He goes on to say:

Sit down here next to me in this little restaurant and ask me if Christianity… is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet…. We probably have a couple things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more spreads before us unseen and unimaginable…. To be a Christian in a generous orthodoxy way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission…. [Orthodoxy is] a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning…. doxa is orthodoxy.[7]

McLaren’s proposal seems to be clothed in humility. Orthodoxy is not in content, but in posture—a posture that allows one to be a “seed picker” (σπερμολόγος), finding “truths” through the grid of one’s own autonomy and ultimacy. Martin Luther’s proposal is different, entirely. It will be argued in this paper that, contra McLaren’s system, Luther maintained that to be humble is to have theological conviction. In this way, the McLaren-like method is merely cloaked in humility, abounding, rather, in arrogance of the highest order. For Luther, to sit at the foot of Christ, to receive His instructions, and to take Him at His word is the humblest way to live.

While he is known for his polemical tone and unfound courage, humility was also a central theme for Luther. “God has surely promised His grace to the humbled,” he wrote, “that is, to those who mourn over and despair of themselves.”[8] In his masterpiece, The Bondage of the Will, Luther engaged in a dispute with Erasmus over the notion of freewill. His closing remarks illustrate that, for him, debates over points of doctrine were not about his ego or his “system of thought,” but were about God and spreading the truth of Scripture:

By your studies you have rendered me also some service, and I confess myself much indebted to you; certainly, in that regard, I unfeignedly honour and sincerely respect you. But God has not yet willed nor granted that you should be equal to the subject of our present debate. Please do not think that any arrogance lies behind my words when I say that I pray that the Lord will speedily make you as much my superior in this as you already are in all other respects. It is no new thing for God to instruct a Moses by a Jethro, or to teach a Paul by an Ananias.[9]

Hinted at in Luther’s closing words is the belief that theological conviction comes from God.  In his debate with Erasmus, Luther pleaded for him to prove his case by Scripture,[10] and noted that theological conviction is not in his power to bring about, for “it is the gift of the Spirit of God.”[11] To despair of oneself is to be Christ-centered, taking all that he has said by faith. Luther’s belief in the ultimacy of Christ’s word looms large throughout the debate, even chastising Erasmus at one point, saying, “Your thoughts of God are too human.”[12]

It is this triumph of human reason over the revelation of God that Luther was concerned to guard against. “The Holy Spirit is not Sceptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions—surer and more certain than sense and life itself,” wrote Luther.[13] In fact, to take no pleasure in assertions, he maintains, “is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all.”[14] The opposite of making assertions is to espouse skepticism, which is unbecoming of one who loves both the Scriptures and the Church:

The Christian will rather say this: ‘So little do I like sceptical principles, that, so far as the weakness of my flesh permits, not merely shall I make it my invariable rule steadfastly to adhere to the sacred text in all that it teaches, and to assert that teaching, but also I want to be as positive as I can about those non-essential which Scripture does not determine; for uncertainty is the most miserable thing in the world.’[15]

Luther believed Erasmus to lack conviction, and summarized Erasmus as being someone who would not care what one believes so long as the world is at peace, and one who encourages people to “treat Christian doctrines as no better than the views of human philosophers.”[16] Promoting ignorance towards God is not praiseworthy, for, as Luther says, “If I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks, or serve Him.”[17] Knowledge of God is presented in the Scriptures and leads to proper worship.

Underlying Luther’s belief that theological convictions are central to Christianity, is the perspicuity of Scripture, both internally and externally. The former has to do with the indwelling Spirit of God who helps the Christian understand Scripture, while the latter maintains that “nothing whatsoever is left obscure or ambiguous, but all that is in the Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world.”[18] Luther ponders: If Christ and the apostles appealed to Scripture as a clear witness—as the light shining in darkness—“with what conscious, then, do we make them to be obscure?”[19]

Those who would side with the papists and shroud the Bible in obscurity are merely blinding themselves. Luther’s word-picture is priceless: “As little children in fear, or at play, cover their eyes with their hands and think that because they see nobody, nobody sees them,” so too do those who claim the Scriptures to be of a blurred character.[20] Besides their convulsive attempts to cover “the clearest words,” what makes them particularly dubious is that they “use every means to pretend that [they do] not see what the facts are, in hope of persuading us that our eyes are covered also and that we cannot see them either.”[21] This, Luther believes, is a sign “of a mind under conviction, recklessly resisting invisible truth.”[22]

Positing some sort of metaphysical weakness and finitude will not exempt one from theological convictions. Indeed, “there is nothing better adapted for grasping God’s words than weakness of understanding, for it was for the weak and to the weak that Christ came, and to them that He sends His Word.”[23] Unless otherwise evidenced, it is the natural and plain words of Scripture that must be maintained,[24] words given to the weak by their Creator. They are not bid to look to the doctrines of men, but to the doctrine that is from above. This has been Luther’s quest: “What else do we contend for, but that the simplicity and purity of Christian doctrine should prevail, and that what men have invented and brought in along with it should be left behind and disregarded?”[25]

What Luther has set forth is, to put it mildly, not apiece with that of McLaren’s proposal. McLaren says the way trumps content, but Luther says the way is built upon content; McLaren believes it is humble to be uncertain, but Luther roots humility in looking solely to Christ as He is revealed in His word; McLaren grounds the Christian life in the never-ending process of knowing, but for Luther, the perspicuous, sufficient, and complete inscripturated word of God acts as a “lamp unto my feet” (Ps. 119:105). Both MaLaren and Luther believe that God is incomprehensible and mysterious, but they are defining those differently. For McLaren, these categories are concluding assertions, but for Luther, this is not so. Scott Oliphint describes the biblical approach to incomprehensibility and mystery:

Here is the paradox: A true, biblical view of mystery has its roots not in a lack of understanding, but in the teaching of Scripture. As a matter of fact, it is just the teaching of Scripture that gives us the biblical truth of that which we hold to be mysterious. A biblical view of mystery, in other words, is full of truth. It is truth that has real and glorious content. That content includes truths that we must affirm as well as falsehoods that we must deny, statements that are necessarily a part of a biblical understanding of mystery as well as exclamations that point us to its truth. So mystery, if we understand it biblically, is infused through and through with the truth that is found in the Word of God. Mystery is the lifeblood of the truth that we have in God’s revelation; it flows through every truth that God gives us. [The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God (Bellingham, WA: Lexam Press, 2016), Kindle edition].

Commenting on what Luther would have said regarding postmodernism, Carl Trueman writes, “[H]is rejection of postmodern anarchy would be based on his belief that God is the supreme reality and ultimately the one who speaks and whose speech is therefore the ground of existence and of difference.”[26] “Reality,” he continues, “is determined not by the linguistic proclivities of any human individual or community but by the Word of God.”[27]

For Luther, childishly covering one’s eyes and claiming uncertainty and ignorance is a false humility; rather, to be humble is to read Christ’s word, believe Christ’s word, and live Christ’s word—with conviction. The true picture of humility is found in 1 Peter 2: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (vv.2-3). It is no wonder that at the end of their lives the apostles pointed the flock to the Scriptures as the “more sure word” (2 Pet. 1:19; c.f., 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 4:12). As pilgrims walking the narrow path to the heavenly city, the ancient words were designed to play a vital role in this pilgrimage. The written Word of God in conjunction with the Spirit of Christ and the Church of Christ is that which disciples and guides the sheep. Because of this, it can be said once more: “Denial of perspicuity is not humility; it is arrogance of the highest order.”[28]

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2017

Also see:

Sabbath Musings

Is Public School an Option for Christians?

Theological Study = Spiritual Death?

Amillennialism vs. Historic Premillennialism

Covenant Theology: Presbyterian or Baptist?

Spanking Children: 36 Thoughts

[1]G.K Beale and David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 72.

[2]Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am A Missional + Evangelical + Post/Protestant + Liberal/Conservative + Mystical/Poetic + Biblical + Charismatic/Contemplative + Fundamentalist/Calvinist + Anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + Catholic + Green + Incarnational + Depressed-Yet-Hopeful + Emergent + Unfinished Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 23.

 

[3]Ibid., 23-24.

 

[4]Ibid., 28, 33.

 

[5]Ibid., 36.

 

[6]Ibid., 38.

 

[7]Ibid., 333-334. [Brackets mine].

[8]Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. by J.I Packer and O.R. Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1957), 100.

 

[9]Ibid., 319-320.

 

[10]Ibid., 235.

 

[11]Ibid., 299.

 

[12]Ibid., 87.

 

[13]Ibid., 70.

 

[14]Ibid., 66; c.f., 67.

 

[15]Ibid., 68-69.

 

[16]Ibid., 69-70.

 

[17]Ibid., 78.

 

[18]Ibid. 73-74.

 

[19]Ibid., 127; c.f., 129.

 

[20]Ibid., 212.

 

[21]Ibid. [Brackets mine].

 

[22]Ibid., 212-213.

 

[23]Ibid., 133-134.

 

[24]c.f., Ibid., 263.

 

[25]Ibid., 117.

 

[26]Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 84.

 

[27]Ibid.

 

[28]David B. Garner, “Did God Really Say?” in Did God Really Say? Affirming he Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture, ed. by David B. Garner (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 135.