The Protestant reformers have long been known for their turn to the “literal sense” of Scripture in the history of biblical interpretation. For some this entails an “inflated literal sense,” in which the reformers collapsed the medieval fourfold sense into an expansive plain sense. Richard Muller describes the reformers’ exegesis in these terms: “The exegetical practice is far more textual, the hermeneutics is far more grammatical and philological, and the sense of the text is focused in its literal meaning, but the underlying assumption that the meaning of the text is ultimately oriented to the belief, life, and future of the church retains significant affinities with the quadriga” (“Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: The View from the Middle Ages,” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation, ed. Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson [Eerdmans, 1996], 11-12). Brevard Childs points to a similar view of the reformers’ contributions to the history of biblical interpretation, with a slightly different emphasis when he writes, “The Reformers’ achievement was to offer an interpretation of the literal sense which, at least for a short time, held together the historical and the theological meaning” (“The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem,” in Beitrage zur Alttestamentalichen Theologie, ed. Herbert Donner, Robert Hanhart, and Rudolf Smend [Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977], 87). In other words, the Protestant reformers championed the theological (spiritual) content set forth in the plain words (letter) of Scripture, in which there was no need to turn to allegory because this plain sense (i.e., what the words actually say) already robustly imparted the intended theological teachings.
Such a turn to the “literal sense” of Scripture certainly has direct consequences for method, so scholars have typically focused on the Protestant reformers’ exegetical principles. Yet, I contend that the concerns of the Protestant reformers were not, at least in the first instance, primarily methodological — though method became a growing focus as Protestants increasingly discovered they disagreed concerning both the clear content of Scripture and methods of reading. Nonetheless, in the first instance, the Protestant reformers sought to recapture certain convictions about the nature, authority, and telos of Scripture that they believed the Roman Catholic Church of their day had perilously lost sight. Much can be said about the reformers’ continuities with early and medieval views of Scripture: they affirmed Scripture as the divinely inspired Word of God set forth by the prophets and apostles that reveals the Triune God’s saving actions through Jesus Christ. Hence, with the early and medieval church, the reformers affirmed the Trinitarian and Christological scope and content of Scripture, along with its soteriological telos (i.e., its saving purposes).
Yet, the Protestant reformers asserted that Scripture is self-authenticating and self-interpreting in ways that challenged certain Roman Catholic understandings of the church’s authority in relationship to Scripture. By insisting that Scripture is self-authenticating, Luther and Calvin attacked any claim that the authority of Scripture relied in any way on the consent or authority of the church. The church does not give Scripture its authority, for the reformers argued that God’s Word is prior to the church and, appealing to Eph 2:20, they maintained that the church is built upon the foundations of Scripture (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20 [Westminster, 1960], 1.7.2). Thus, Luther declared, “The church does not constitute the Word but is constituted by the Word” (Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan and H. Lehman, 55 vols. [Fortress, 1957-86], 36:145). Indeed, clarified Calvin, asserting that Scripture is self-authenticating affirms that God alone is a fit witness of God’s self (Institutes 1.7.4). God as the Author of Scripture chooses to speak through Scripture and is the source of Scripture’s authority.
Hand in hand with these affirmations of Scripture’s authority and Scripture as self-authenticating is the reformers’ insistence that there is a mutual bond between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Calvin wrote, “For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely in the Word” (Institutes 1.9.3). On the one hand, the bond between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God is there regardless of whether the reader affirms it. On the other hand, both Luther and Calvin believed that the “Word will not find acceptance in human hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded” (Institutes 1.7.4). This inner witness of the Holy Spirit, which is precisely the manner in which Scripture authenticates itself, is therefore necessary for any person to affirm Scripture’s authority. Such faith is precisely the principle work of the Holy Spirit (Institutes 3.1.4). Hence, for Luther, encounter with God’s Word is an encounter that demands or evokes faith (or unbelief), but not by virtue of one’s own ability or works. Rather, those who have been justified by faith alone receive the Holy Spirit, who gives faith, scatters human blindness, and persuades the heart.
Luther and Calvin believed that one cannot interpret Scripture faithfully without such faith and the aid of the Holy Spirit. Left to our own devices, human sin is an insurmountable obstacle. In his argument with Erasmus, Luther insisted that without the intervention of God, the human will is in bondage to sin. Such also applies to humans’ ability to read Scripture: “No one perceives one iota of what is said in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All humans have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture … yet they truly understand nothing of it … for the Holy Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture” (Luther’s Works, 33:28). Similarly, Calvin proclaimed, “The Word of God is like the sun shining upon all those to whom it is proclaimed, but with no effect among the blind. Now, all of us are blind by nature in this respect. Accordingly, it cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it” (Institutes 3.2.34). The necessary aid of the Holy Spirit is also at the core of the reformers’ affirmation that Scripture is self-interpreting. On the one hand, passages of Scripture should be interpreted and illuminated by other passages of Scripture, since Scripture is self-authenticating and there is nothing external to Scripture that has a higher authority than Scripture itself. On the other hand, the self-interpreting character of Scripture points again to the necessary role of the Holy Spirit, for it declares that the true interpreter of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, without whom no one can interpret Scripture faithfully. Thus, in his instructions for reading Scripture, Luther insisted that one should “despair of one’s own reason and understanding” and “pray to God with real humility and earnestness that God through his own dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding” (Luther’s Works, 35:285-86).
Directly tied to the Protestant reformers’ endorsement of Scripture’s self-authenticating and self-interpreting character and their profound emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in confirming Scripture’s authority and illuminating Scripture’s content, the reformers uniquely insisted upon its perspicuity. Luther, in his response to Rome, asserted that Scripture is “in and of itself the most certain, the most accessible, the most clear thing of all, interpreting itself, approving, judging, and illuminating all things” (Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Schriften, 6 vols. [H. Böhlau, 1883-1993], 7:97). For example, Scripture provides clarity concerning right knowledge of God and self. Hence, Calvin described Scripture as the very spectacles that clarifies one’s vision of God: “Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God” (Institutes 1.4.1). For Luther and Calvin, the perspicuous nature of Scripture stems from its divine origin and bond with the Holy Spirit. Thus, Calvin declared that the Holy Spirit “would have us recognize him in his own image, which he has stamped upon Scripture. He is the author of the Scriptures; he cannot vary and differ from himself” (Institutes 1.9.2). Affirming God’s sovereignty and immutability, God’s Word must ultimately be a unified Word with a clear message that accomplishes what it sets forth to do (i.e., Isa 55:11, “my word shall not return empty”). Likewise, the Holy Spirit as the author, speaker, intercessor, and teacher of God’s Word acts with profound clarity, for “by his Word, God rendered faith unambiguous forever” (Institutes 1.6.2). Thus, Luther asserted, “The Holy Spirit is the most simple author and speaker in heaven and on earth. Therefore, his words cannot have more than one, the most simple, meaning” (Luther’s Works, 39:178).
This insistence on the one, most simple meaning of Scripture leads directly to the Protestant reformers’ intensifying emphasis on the “literal” — or better termed “plain” — sense of Scripture. Concerning this plain sense, Protestant reformers agreed that all Scripture points to Christ. As Jesus himself instructed in John 5:39, “Search the Scriptures … it is they that bear witness to me.” Hence, Luther declared, “All the sacred books of Scripture preach and inculcate Christ” (Luther’s Works, 35:396), and Calvin proclaimed, “This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father” (“Preface to Olivétan’s New Testament,” in Calvin: Commentaries, trans and ed. Joseph Haroutunian, Library of Christian Classics 23 [Westminster, 1958], 23:70). This shared affirmation of the Christological center of Scripture came alongside a shared affirmation of the saving purposes of Scripture: Scripture teaches about human sinfulness, the inability of humans to save themselves by their own efforts, and their need of Christ; and it teaches about the God of grace who provides the path of salvation through Jesus Christ the Son of God and sends the Spirit, who continues to nourish and sustain the church in every place and time. Luther described this overarching narrative of Scripture in this way: “The proper subject of theology is the human guilty of sin and condemned and God the Justifier and Savior of the human sinner … All Scripture points to this … the God who justifies, repairs and makes alive and the human who fell from righteousness and life into sin and eternal death. Whoever follows this aim in reading the Holy Scriptures will read holy things fruitfully” (Luther’s Works, 12:311). Similarly, in his debate with Erasmus, precisely concerning Scripture’s clear content, Luther pointed to the Christological and Trinitarian scope of Scripture in revealing that “Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three and one, that Christ suffered for us and is to reign eternally” (Luther’s Works, 33:25-26). Calvin, perhaps not surprisingly, expressed Scripture’s clear content similarly, but in terms of the unified covenant that spans both the Old and New Testaments — a covenant supported not by human merits, but by the mercy of God who sent Christ as the Mediator, through whom the faithful gain access to all the blessings of this infinitely good and generous God (Institutes 2.10.1-2). Moreover, as another corrective to Roman Catholic teachings of their day, notable in the Protestant reformers’ articulation of the soteriological purposes of Scripture is the prominent understanding that one is saved by faith apart from any human contribution.
I have argued that the Protestant reformers sought to return the church to an understanding of Scripture as God’s divinely inspired Word, possessing authority from God alone and bearing a self-authenticating, self-interpreting, and perspicuous character. Essential to each of these affirmations is the crucial role of the Holy Spirit — a point too often overlooked. If we want to read Scripture with the reformers, we will need a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit pervades every step of the reformers’ engagement with Scripture. For example, one must not forget that for the reformers Scripture’s clarity and accessibility are necessarily bound to the work of the Holy Spirit. This means that Scripture is not clear and accessible by virtue of the simple clarity of the words on the page. Rather, such clarity only comes from the gift of faith and the movement of the Spirit to confirm and illuminate the words of Scripture. (It is a clarity with necessary prerequisites!) Yet, perhaps more importantly, the Holy Spirit is central to what the Protestant reformers believe happens when one reads Scripture: one encounters the living God in the words of Scripture, enlivened and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Hence, for the Protestant reformers, reading Scripture is an exercise of transformative encounter — an encounter that calls for both the recognition of human sin and the recognition of a gracious, loving Triune God. Hence, Calvin asserted, “The Word of God is something alive and full of hidden power that leaves nothing in the human untouched” (The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. William B. Johnston [Oliver and Boyd, 1963], on Heb 4:12). Luther counsels us with these wise words, “And note that the strength of Scripture is this — that it is not changed into the one who studies it, but that it transforms its lover into itself and its strengths” (Luther’s Works, 10:332). Such an encounter with the Word of God is not a matter of grasping or struggling for the “right” meaning; rather, it is a matter of being grasped by God in Christ. In this way, at least in the first instance, reading Scripture with the Protestant reformers is not about method. It is a sacred space in which through the living words of Scripture illuminated by the Holy Spirit one might be transformed into greater conformity to Christ and glimpse the very heart of God.