The word of God as the sole source of doctrine: Sola scriptura & the perspicuity of Scripture

Shall we be perpetually enslaved and never breathe in Christian liberty, nor sigh from out of this Babylon for our Scriptures and our home? Yet you say they were saints and illuminated the Scripture. Who has shown that they made the Scriptures clearer—what if they obscured them? . . . But doesn’t obscure Scripture require explanation? Set aside the obscure and cling to the clear. Further, who has proved that the fathers are not obscure?

—Martin Luther*

Scripture alone

As Franz Pieper explains in his Christian Dogmatics, Scripture interprets itself, being so clear that it needs no theologian or council to interpret it. Were Luther and countless believers before him deluded to take Christ as promising to give them his true body and true blood, the fault would not be with them but rather with Christ for breaking his promise to them. He could not break his promise to those who simply took him at his word, “This is my body . . . This is the blood of the New Testament” (Bickel, 2005, pp. 5-6).

Those who reject the Lutheran confessions thereby reveal that they submit to the authority of some “father” or “teacher” other than the Christ as heard in the simple word of Scripture (see Matthew 23:8-10). For confessional Lutherans, “All dogmatics must be exegesis; and all exegesis must be systematic and dogmatic. Our work, our confession, is exegesis. This is our confession of the clear Word of God” (Teigen, 1982, p. 164).

Creedal confusion

Indeed, it is Lutherans who have fixed their eyes on the bronze serpent lifted up, not on any strength of their own to heal them of their sins. Now, Lutherans are starting to bow down to the very serpent used to heal them. Given the history of the Israelites, it should not be completely baffling that some now turn to the Lutheran confessions to clarify the Scriptures, seen as lacking the clarity to be understood without some authoritative lense through which to view them.

That undermines the foundation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, for the confessions constitute a statement of what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess on the sole basis of clear passages of the prophetic and apostolic writings. That is why any article of faith that cannot be proven from Scripture alone cannot be proven from the Lutheran confessions or from any other true exposition of Scripture.

As a twofold solution to the problem of leaning on the confessions as if the Scriptures needed clarification, Naumann (2005, p. 25) suggested a greater study of both Scripture and the confessions:

There are two main steps involved in reaching and holding on to the right view of Scripture and the confessions. First and most important, is to study Scripture so that we recognize its unique authority, clarity, and sufficiency. If our confidence is solid there, we will not feel a need for another norm to prop up or supplement Scripture. The second step is to read the confessions regularly and in their entirety. Most of the problems with the interpretation of the Confessions today come from failing to hold on to the confessors’ view of the confessions as displayed especially in the beginning of the Formula of Concord. People cannot claim to be “confessionals” unless they agree with the confessors’ understanding of the confessions. To make the confessions a norm along side Scripture or to use them as a second source of doctrine is not confessional. The sad irony is that this is a Romanizing tendency, which feels the need to supplement Scripture and turn to the authority of the church to resolve doctrinal issues. There is, in fact, a high degree of correlation between this view of the confessions and Romanizing views of church and ministry and the sacraments. One rarely encounters one problem without the other.

A second source of trouble is reading the Confessions selectively without considering all pertinent statements in the whole context of the confessions. To cite but one example, pulling out the passages in the Confessions in which Predigtamt refers to the pastoral ministry and ignoring all those in which it refers to the means of grace. The solution to this is regular reading of the confessions in their entirety.


David R. Bickel (2005) “The Lord’s Supper and the perspicuity of Scripture: If the Bible is perfectly clear, why do Protestants still disagree?”

Paul S. Naumann (2005) “The Role of the Lutheran Confessions in Establishing the Teachings of the Church,” [A Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions, September 26-27, 2005, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary]

Erling T. Teigen (1982) “The Clarity of Scripture and Hermeneutical Principles in the Lutheran Confessions,”  Concordia Theological Quarterly 46, 147-166 [added hyperlink to “Shining the lamp on church & ministry scatters the darkness of human interpretation”]

* Teigen (1982, p. 148)