This blog post is adapted from Bondage of the Will, by the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther. Find more of Martin Luther’s writings and those of many other Christian thinkers, pastors, and leaders in the Legacy of the Faith series.
Christians throughout the centuries have been wrestling with many of the experiences and issues that we face today. But they approached those questions with the biases and background of other centuries, which can help us see God and his gospel in fresh ways—what C.S. Lewis famously described as keeping “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”
In this passage, Martin Luther is answering a recurring question: is the Bible inherently too complicated or lofty for ordinary readers to understand? Luther answers that we might still find some words confusing, but the ideas themselves are no longer mysterious—they are made clear in Christ.
But, that there are in the Scriptures some things abstruse, and that all things are not quite plain, is a report spread abroad … But they never have produced, nor ever can produce, one article whereby to prove this their madness. And it is with such scarecrows that Satan has frightened away men from reading the sacred writings, and has rendered the Holy Scripture contemptible, that he might cause his poisons of philosophy to prevail in the church.
This indeed I confess, that there are many places in the Scriptures obscure and abstruse; not from the majesty of the thing, but from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but which do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures. For what thing of more importance can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light, Christ made man: that God is Trinity and unity: that Christ suffered for us, and will reign to all eternity? Are not these things known and proclaimed even in our streets? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find remaining in them?
All the things, therefore, contained in the Scriptures; are made manifest, although some places, from the words not being understood, are yet obscure. But to know that all things in the Scriptures are set in the clearest light, and then, because a few words are obscure, to report that the things are obscure, is absurd and impious. And, if the words are obscure in one place, yet they are clear in another. But, however, the same thing, which has been most openly declared to the whole world, is both spoken of in the Scriptures in plain words, and also still lies hidden in obscure words.
Now, therefore, it matters not if the thing be in the light, whether any certain representations of it be in obscurity or not, if, in the meanwhile, many other representations of the same thing be in the light. For who would say that the public fountain is not in the light, because those who are in some dark narrow lane do not see it, when all those who are in the open marketplace can see it plainly?
But to be brief. The clearness of the Scripture is twofold; even as the obscurity is twofold also. The one is external, placed in the ministry of the word; the other internal, placed in the understanding of the heart. If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that has the Spirit of God. All have a darkened heart; so that, even if they know how to speak of, and set forth, all things in the Scripture, yet, they cannot feel them nor know them: nor do they believe that they are the creatures of God, nor anything else: according to that of Psalm 14:1, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” For the spirit is required to understand the whole of the Scripture and every part of it.
If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.