Are the Scriptures so perspicuous in things necessary to salvation that they can be understood by believers without the external help of oral (agraphou) tradition or ecclesiastical authority? We affirm against the papists
I. The papists, not satisfied with their endeavors to prove the Scriptures insufficient in order to bring in the necessity of tradition, began to question their perspicuity (as if the sense could by no one be ascertained with certainty without the judgment of the church) in order to have a pretext for keeping the people from their perusal. Having concealed the candle under a bushel, they reign in darkness more easily.
Statement of the question.
II. As to the state of the question, observe: (1) The question does not concern the perspicuity or the obscurity of the subject or of persons. For we do not deny that the Scriptures are obscure to unbelievers and the unrenewed, to whom Paul says his gospel is hid (2 Cor. 4:3). Also we hold that the Spirit of illumination is necessary to make them intelligible to believers. Rather the question concerns the obscurity or perspicuity of the object or of the Scriptures (i.e., whether they are so obscure that the believer cannot apprehend them for salvation without the authority and judgment of the church—which we deny).
III. The question does not concern the obscurity of the things or mysteries recorded in the Scriptures. We agree that there are many mysteries contained there, so sublime as to transcend the highest flight of our minds and can thus far be called obscure in themselves. Rather the question concerns the obscurity of the mode in which these most abstruse things are delivered and which we maintain are so wonderfully accommodated (synkatabasei) by the Lord that the believer (who has the eyes of his mind opened) by attentively reading may understand these mysteries sufficiently for salvation.
IV. The question is not whether the Holy Scriptures are perspicuous in all their parts so as to need no interpreter nor exposition of doubtful passages (which Bellarmine falsely and slanderously charges upon us, stating the question thus: “Are the Scriptures of themselves as perfectly plain and intelligible as to need no interpretation?”—VD 3.1, p. 96). For we unhesitatingly confess that the Scriptures have their adyta (“heights”) and bathē (“depths”) which we cannot enter or sound and which God so ordered on purpose to excite the study of believers and increase their diligence; to humble the pride of man and to remove from them the contempt which might arise from too great plainness. Rather the question concerns only things necessary for salvation, and indeed as to them, only so far as they are necessary to be known and cannot be unknown without criminality. For instance, the mystery of the Trinity is plainly delivered as to the fact (to hoti) which is necessary, but not as to the how (to pōs), which we are not permitted to know (nor is that essential to salvation). For as in nature so also in the Scriptures, it pleased God to present everywhere and make easy of comprehension all necessary things; but those less necessary are so closely concealed as to require great exertion to extricate them. Thus besides bread and sustenance, she has her luxuries, gems and gold deep under the surface and obtainable only by indefatigable labor; and as heaven is sprinkled with greater and lesser stars, so the Scriptures are not everywhere equally resplendent, but are distinguished by clearer and obscurer places, as by stars of a greater or lesser magnitude.
V. The question is not whether things essential to salvation are everywhere in the Scriptures perspicuously revealed. We acknowledge that there are some things hard to be understood (dysnoēta) and intended by God to exercise our attention and mental powers. The question is whether things essential to salvation are anywhere revealed, at least so that the believer can by close meditation ascertain their truth (because nothing can be drawn out of the more obscure passages which may not be found elsewhere in the plainest terms). As Augustine remarks: “Admirable and healthily the Spirit has so arranged the Scriptures that by the plainer passages he might meet our desires and by the obscurer remove our contempt” (CI 2.6 [FC 2:66; PL 34.39]); and, “We feed in the open places, we are exercised by the obscure; there hunger is driven away, here contempt” (Sermon 71, “De Verbis Domini,” 7.11 [PL 38.450]).
VI. The question does not concern the perspicuity which does not exclude the means necessary for interpretation (i.e., the internal light of the Spirit, attention of mind, the voice and ministry of the church, sermons and commentaries, prayer and watchfulness). For we hold these means not only to be useful, but also necessary ordinarily. We only wish to proscribe the darkness which would prevent the people from reading the Scriptures as hurtful and perilous and compel them to have recourse to tradition when they might rest in the Scriptures alone.
VII. The question then comes to this—whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation (not as to the things delivered, but as to the mode of delivery; not as to the subject, but the object) that without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers. The papists deny this; we affirm it.
The perspicuity of the Scriptures is proved from Pss. 19:8; 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19.
VIII. The perspicuity of the Scriptures may be urged: (1) from those parts of them which proclaim this clearness—“the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19:8); “thy word is a lamp unto my feet” (Ps. 119:105); “a light shining in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19); “the law is light” (Prov. 6:23). Nor is Bellarmine’s first objection of any force, that only the precepts of the law are meant and not the whole of Scripture. For the word “law” frequently means the whole word of God, and the effects (consolation and renewal) teach that it ought so to be understood. The interlinear gloss of Lyranus and Arias Montanus agree with us. Peter unquestionably calls the whole word of God a light. Bellarmine’s other objection is as untenable—that although it may refer to the whole of Scripture, it must be understood in no other sense than that it illuminates the intellect. The Scriptures are said to be luminous not only because they illuminate the intellect, but because they are in themselves luminous and naturally adapted to illuminate those who look upon them with the eyes of faith. Thus they are luminous formally and effectively because like the sun they emit rays and impress themselves upon the eyes of the beholder. Finally, nothing could be more silly. For it is the same as saying that the Scriptures do not illuminate unless they illuminate, for as they illuminate so are they understood.
IX. Dt. 30:11 (where the word is said to be not hidden nor far off from us) refers to the easiness not only of fulfilling, but also of understanding its mandates without which they could not be fulfilled. Nor must this be understood only of the law of Moses, but of the word of God in general. Hence Paul applies it to the word of faith (Rom. 10:8*), which cannot be fulfilled by works, but must be believed by faith.
X. The gospel is said to be hidden to unbelievers alone (2 Cor. 4:3) and therefore is plain to believers, not only as preached but also as written. This follows because the apostles wrote the same things they had preached and because the clearness of the gospel is here opposed to the obscurity of the Old Testament (in the reading of which the Jews were occupied and of which Paul treats in 2 Cor. 3:14).
XI. The perspicuity of the Scriptures is further proved: (1) by their efficient cause (viz., God, the Father of men, who cannot be said either to be unwilling or unable to speak plainly without impugning his perfect goodness and wisdom); (2) their design (to be a canon and rule of faith and practice, which they could not be unless they were perspicuous); (3) the matter (viz., the law and the gospel, which anyone can easily apprehend); (4) the form (because they are to us in place of a testament, contract of a covenant or edict of a king, which ought to be perspicuous and not obscure).
XII. The fathers frequently acknowledge it, although they do not deny that the Scriptures have their depths (bathē), which ought to excite the study of believers. Chrysostom says, “The Scriptures are so proportioned that even the most ignorant can understand them if they only read them studiously” (Concionis VII de Lazaro 3 [PG 48.994]); and “All necessary things are plain and straight and clear” (In secundam ad Thessalonicenses [PG 62.485]). Augustine says, “In the clear declarations of Scripture are to be found all things pertaining to faith and practice” (CI 2.9* [FC 2:72; PL 34.42]). Irenaeus says, “The prophetic and evangelic Scriptures are plain and unambiguous” (Against Heresies 2.27* [ANF 1:398; PG 7.803]). Gregory says, “The Scriptures have, in public, nourishment for children, as they serve in secret to strike the loftiest minds with wonder; indeed they are like a full and deep river in which the lamb may walk and the elephant swim” (“Preface,” Morals on the Book of Job , 1:9; PL 75.515).
Sources of explanation.
XIII. The ignorance and blindness of man are not to be compounded with the obscurity of the Scriptures. The former is often pressed upon the Scriptures, but it is not so, nor can the latter be legitimately inferred from the former no more than that the sun is obscure because it cannot be seen by a blind man. Hence if David and other believers desire their eyes to be opened that they may see wonderful things out of the law, it does not therefore prove the obscurity of the Scriptures, but only the ignorance of men. The question here is not Do men need the light of the Holy Spirit in order to understand the Scriptures? (which we willingly grant); but Are the Scriptures obscure to a believing and illuminated man? Again, illumination may be either theoretical or practical, in its first stage or in its increase. David does not properly seek the former, but the latter.
XIV. When Christ is said to have opened the minds of his disciples that they might understand the Scriptures (Lk. 24:45), this does indeed mean that man cannot himself without the aid of grace understand the Scriptures. But this does not thence prove their obscurity, nor can the darkness in the minds of the disciples be imputed to the Scriptures.
XV. It is one thing for dysnoēta (“things hard to be understood”) to be in the Scriptures, another for anoēta (“unintelligible”), which cannot be understood however diligently one studies. Peter says the former (2 Pet. 3:16*), not the latter. It is one thing to say that there are “some things hard to be understood” (dysnoēta tina), which we concede; another that all are so (dysnoēta panta), which we deny. It is one thing for them to be hard to be understood (dysnoēta) in Paul’s manner of delivering the epistles, which we deny; another in the things delivered, which Peter intimates. The relative (hois) cannot be referred to the word epistolai, as Gagnae (cf. Biblia magna commentariorum literalum , 5:1067 on 2 Pet. 3:15) and Lorinus confess, but to the things of which he treats. It is one thing to be hard to be understood (dysnoēta) by the unlearned and unstable, who by their unbelief and wickedness wrest them to their own destruction (which we hold with Peter); another that they are hard to be understood (dysnoēta) by believers who humbly seek the aid of the Holy Spirit in searching them.
XVI. From the obscurity of some parts of the Scriptures (viz., of the ancient prophecies and oracles), the consequence does not hold good as to the obscurity of the whole. Either those prophecies are not of things essential to salvation or whatever is obscure in them is elsewhere made clear. Thus, the “book shut and sealed” (mentioned in Dan. 12:4 and Rev. 5:1), teaches indeed that prophecies are obscure before their fulfillment, but does not prove the whole of Scripture to be so obscure that they cannot be understood by believers in things necessary to salvation.
XVII. Although our knowledge through the Scriptures may be obscure when compared with the knowledge in glory (where we will no longer know through a glass and darkly, but shall see God face to face, 1 Cor. 13:12*), it does not follow that it is absolutely and in itself obscure with respect to our present life. It is sufficiently clear for us here, since through it with open face we behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). (2) Paul speaks of the enigmatical knowledge common to all travellers here, himself not excepted. “Now,” says he, “we see in a mirror.” But were the Scriptures obscure to Paul? The passage, then denotes only the imperfection of our knowledge in this life and the difference between the revelation of grace and glory, but not the obscurity of the Scriptures.
XVIII. Although the Scriptures must be searched (Jn. 5:39), it does not follow that they are everywhere obscure even in things essential to salvation. First because we do not say that they are perspicuous to everyone, but only to the attentive mind and diligent seeker. Moreover there is need of scrutiny because they are perspicuous to the one who searches, for the most evident things will be obscure to the cursory and careless reader. Second we do not deny that the Scriptures have their adyta (“heights”) and depths (bathē) of mysteries to be fathomed only by the most laborious study and persevering efforts. But then there are many other things (and these essential) which readily strike the eyes of believers.
XIX. Although the apostles could not fully understand the resurrection and ascension of Christ (Jn. 16:18), it does not follow that the Scriptures were to them obscure. For each one had a knowledge sufficient for his state and the doctrines then revealed. A full revelation of these was to be expected after the resurrection.
XX. The knowledge of the Scriptures may be either literal and theoretical (by which the words are understood as to the letter and grammatically) or spiritual and practical (by which they are apprehended as true by faith). There are many things in the Scriptures theoretically perspicuous even to the natural man. The wicked may dispute most ingeniously of the principal articles of faith, but the practical knowledge is peculiar to believers alone (1 Cor. 2:14, 15; 2 Cor. 4:3).
XXI. The reasons for the obscurity of the Scriptures from the mode of delivery adduced by the papists cannot prove them to be so obscure in the essentials of salvation that they cannot be a perfect rule of faith and practice and the necessity of having recourse to the infallible authority of the church and its pretended tribunal for their explanation. For besides the fact that we are never commanded to do so, they are not such as cannot be ascertained by proper study; or the things contained in those passages are either not essential to salvation or they are elsewhere clearly explained.
XXII. It is one thing to speak of the absolute obscurity of the Scriptures in relation to all the ages and states of the church; another to speak of their comparative obscurity in relation to a particular state. We confess that the Old Testament Scriptures are obscure compared with the New Testament, and the state and age of the Christian church; but this does not destroy their perspicuity in themselves and sufficiently in relation to the state of the Old Testament church to which they were given.
~ Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 143–147.