The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (often called the "perspicuity of Scripture") teaches that "the meanings of the text can be clear to the ordinary reader, that God uses the text of the Bible to communicate His person and will." [1] "The witness of the Church throughout the ages is that ordinary people, who approach it in faith and humility, will be able to understand what the Bible is getting at, even if they meet with particular points of difficulty here and there." [2]

This doctrine is in contrast to other positions like that of the Roman Catholic Church, which asserts that Scripture is imperspicuous (unclear) apart from the interpretative framework of the Catholic church and tradition^[1]^, and of positions like that of Postmodernism and Mormonism, which assert that subjective experience should be preferred over knowing the originally intended meaning of scripture, since it is basically unclear.

Christians who promote the clarity of the Bible encourage others to read it for themselves. Those who deny the perspicuity of the Bible have not historically encouraged a personal devotional time of studying the Bible, and have even "denied free access to the Scriptures lest [others] interpret them improperly and disseminate false doctrine." [3]

The issue of perspicuity is not entirely unique to the Bible, as it concerns the basic principles of hermeneutics which are relevant to all texts. That the scripture is clear does not ensure, however, that man will receive it for what it is. Man is depraved and needs the illumination of the Holy Spirit in order to see the meaning for what it is.

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Biblical arguments for clarity

God in His wisdom anticipated that we would fumble on this idea about whether or not His Word would be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied, and addressed this very issue through the lips (and pen) of His servant Moses to His children -

"For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

God's Word was never intended to be esoteric, dark, enigmatic, cryptic, abstruse, obscure, ambiguous, occluded, enshrouded, inscrutable, or vague. Rather, it is a perfect, sure, right, pure, clean and true light, illuminating the character and plan of God -

"The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether." (Psalm 19:7-9) "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." "The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple." (Psalm 119:105,130)

Paul asserts to the church in Corinth that his letters have been straight-forward, and there is nothing written between the lines and nothing we can't understand -

"For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and acknowledge and I hope you will fully acknowledge--just as you did partially acknowledge us, that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you." (2 Corinthians 1:13-14)

Paul also exhorts and encourages the church in Philippi regarding the clarity of God's message -

"All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained." (Philippians 3:15-16)

Paul also tells Timothy (who had understood Scripture from childhood) that the Word of God is profitable. How is it to be profitable if it is not understood? Furthermore, its purpose is that the man of God may be competent. He does not say that only the competent man of God will be equipped. No, he indicates that the Word itself has the power for teaching, reproving, correcting and training -

"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that God's Word is not some lifeless document that needs some kind of special insight to comprehend it, but that it is "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

Peter echoes these thoughts on the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture -

"His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire." (2 Peter 1:3-4) "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:16-21)

Abuses and qualifications

"When this position is taken to an extreme (as it has been by some Protestants) the individual becomes the supreme authority on the meaning of Scripture, claiming revelation from the Holy Spirit to authenticate an interpretation not necessarily validated by the Church as a whole." [4]

Common objections

If Scripture is clear, why are there so many Protestant denominations? Why can't Protestants agree among themselves about the meaning of Scripture?

The reasons for disagreement do not lie in the Scriptures themselves but in the baggage many people bring to the Scriptures. Many denominations have creeds or statements of faith that they use as a norm to define themselves. In doing so they tend to view Scripture through the lens of their stated beliefs. In other cases some have attached themselves strongly to a Biblical principle but to the neglect of other equally valid principles. In still other cases some people inherit their faith from their forefathers without questioning the belief.

It seems the tendency of people not to have any sense of history earlier than what they have experienced. They tend to believe that what they have known is the way it has always been. For this reason, they see little reason to question their own inherited beliefs and practices.

Division as a practical matter is often more a problem of the heart than an intellectual dispute. Division, after all, is a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). In many cases pride and a sectarian spirit longed for a doctrinal dispute in order to justify itself. The attitude sought out a reason for dividing, and some doctrinal difference, sometimes any doctrinal difference, became a convenient means for separation.

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Other relevant passages

  • Deuteronomy 6:6-7
  • Psalm 1:1-3
  • Proverbs 4:2
  • Acts 17:11
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14
  • 2 Corinthians 3:14-16
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-4
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21
  • Hebrews 5:14
  • James 1:5-6
  • 1 Timothy 4:13
  • 2 Peter 3:15-16

Helpful quotes

  • "When the Protestant Reformers spoke about the perspicuity of Scripture, they meant that the Bible was clear when it came to its central message. Contrary to the dominant Roman Catholic idea which said that the Bible was difficult and obscure, Protestants said that anyone who is literate could comprehend the gospel and the Scriptures. The Reformers were not saying that all of Scripture was equally understandable or even that scholarly study wasn't necessary, what they were saying was that the essential clarity of the Word of God was self-evident. Bottom line, they were saying that the Roman idea, that the Magisterium, (or the teaching office) of the church was the only one that could interpret Scripture, was simply in error. Responsible interpretation of the Bible by those in the pews was not only accepted, but also encouraged." - Hank Hanegraaff [5]
  • "Belief in the perspicuity of the Bible is ancient, going back to Jesus himself, who reproached the scribes and Pharisees, for not understanding the plain meaning of the text. As a doctrine, the perspicuity of Scripture was expressed by many of the Church Fathers, who contrasted it with the mystical writings of the Gnostics, which only the initiated could fathom." - Gerald Bray [6]
  • "But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e. lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth... Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear scriptures of God... If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that hath the Spirit of God... 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." - Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will

  • "But Ingham is wrong to suggest that everything, including Easter, is a mystery. We have learned from Heisenberg's Certainty Principle that the vast majority of the objects we encounter in the physical world are firmly in the classical domain, where they can be objectively observed and measured. Similarly in Christian theology, the core truths of the Christian faith are clearly and objectively laid out for us in scripture we are a People of the Book rather than a mystery sect. That is not to say that we have nothing more to learn about them when we meet God in heaven. Now the apostle tells us we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now we know in part; but then we shall know even as we are known (1 Cor 13:12). Yes our mortal vision is limited, but at the core of the Gospel is the good news that God, recognizing our veiled eyes, has revealed Himself in Jesus in such a way that even veiled eyes can understand the essential truths (2 Cor 4:6)." - Michael Davenport Quantum Unbelief (PDF)

Notes

  1. e.g. Augustine, in Against the Epistle of Manichaeus, wrote that he would not even believe the gospel "except moved by the authority of the Catholic Church," and in On Christian Doctrine, says "Let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of scripture, and from the authority of the Church,..."; Vincent of Lerins (AD 434) concurs, "Therefore, on account of the number and variety of errors, there is a need for someone to lay down a rule for the interpretation of the prophets and the apostles in such a way that it is directed by the rule of the catholic church."

Resources

Favorable

  • A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture, by Mark D. Thompson ISBN 083082622X

Critical

  • The Clarity of Scripture: History, Theology & Contemporary Literary Studies, by James Patrick Callahan ISBN 0830815848 (ETS Review)

See also

External links

Favorable

Critical