The Teacher of Conscience

We close this chapter with Luther’s oft-repeated admonition never to substitute a human interpretation for the “text,” i.e., for the words of Scripture themselves. He says: “With the text and from the foundation of the Holy Scriptures I have silenced and slain all my opponents. For whoever is well founded and practiced in the text will become a good and fine theologian, since a passage, or text, from the Bible has more weight than many commentators and glosses, which are not strong and round and do not help in the controversy.” (Erl. 57, p. 7) Again: “When the fathers teach anything, they do not trust their teaching, fearing it to be too obscure and uncertain, but they go to the Scriptures and take a clear passage out of it to shed light on their teaching. How should they have overcome the heretics if they had fought with their own glosses? They would have been regarded as fools and madmen; but when they brought forward clear texts which needed no glosses, so that reason was brought into captivity, the evil spirit himself with all his heresies was completely routed.” (St. L. XVIII: 1293.) And so Luther further admonishes: “It must be the prime concern of a theologian to be well versed in the text, a bonus textualis, as it is called” (St. L. V:456). He complains about the many “commentaries and books,” through which “the dear Bible is being buried and covered up so that no one takes note of the text.” He refers to his own experience: “When I was young, I familiarized myself with the Bible, read it often, and became well acquainted with the text; so well acquainted that I knew where every passage that was mentioned was to be found; thus I became a good textualis. Not till then did I read the commentators. But finally I had to disregard them all and put them away because the use of them did not satisfy my conscience, and I had to take my stand again on the Bible; for it is much better to see with your own eyes than with another’s.” (St. L. XXII:54 f.) Thus Luther and his conscience stood on the bare text of Scripture, excluding all human interpretation. Pieper’s Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 366-367.

One of the troubling things about some doctrinal statements — indeed, even some with official standing in the ELS — is when they cite scripture passages that don’t quite demonstrate the doctrinal point. It’s as though we are building our doctrinal expressions upon the glosses or commentaries of such passages, and then citing only the passages themselves, as though they obviously teach what was in the gloss. But often, they don’t.

Can I in good conscience claim that scripture teaches the perpetual virginity of Mary? Scripture doesn’t necessarily contradict that pious belief. But what if I made such a claim and cited Isaiah 7:14? It doesn’t quite prove the claim, does it? That’s what I’m talking about. The citation, by its very presence, claims scriptural support. But when you go look it up, something’s still missing. In fact, you could on that basis say that such a teaching is unscriptural.

Luther was wise to let his conscience be trained only by the Bible itself. Otherwise we run the risk of erring gravely with a clear conscience. That would still be sin, and all the more tragic.

To accept a commentary or interpretation as the basis for an article of faith, instead of what the scriptural passage obviously says on its own, could also become a trap into what Jesus described as “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Every Christian should be wary of this, not just pastors or teachers of the church.

One thought on “The Teacher of Conscience

  1. This brings up a point that has been seriously neglected in this whole ordeal. In order to have true doctrinal unity on any topic of scripture, those seeking unity must first have a common and shared set of hermeneutical principles. Everyone has claimed to use scripture to defend their positions, but as you point out, with a misuse of hermeneutical principles, one can make up totally bogus doctrine that really are not supported by the Holy Scriptures. Without a common hermenuetical stance, FIRST, how can anyone really think that doctrinal unity could exist. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but this is square one which was obviously skipped over, and made having unity on the doctrine of the Holy Ministry impossible (not even to mention the necessary unity needed for fellowship).

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