The Clarity of Scripture
The doctrine of the clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture affirms that in his Word God has spoken so as to be understood; Scripture is understandable.
This essay demonstrates that God has spoken in his Word with sufficient clarity so as to be understood, believed, and obeyed. It then seeks to answer the question, “Why, then, so many disagreements?”
The Protestant conviction of the clarity of Scripture is grounded both in the character of God and his activity in the world on the one hand, and in the testimony of Scripture itself on the other. Though it makes sense to describe this as a Protestant doctrine, since it was a distinguishing mark of Reformation theology explicitly rejected by the Roman Catholic writers, it was not invented in the sixteenth century. The Reformers could quote Irenaeus, Augustine, Gregory the Great and Fulgentius of Ruspe as evidence that approaching Scripture with confidence that its message can be understood by all those who come to it humbly and in faith was the conviction of Christians from the beginning.
Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them … Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.27.2
The Holy Spirit, therefore, has generously planned Holy Scripture in such a way that in the easier passages He relieves our hunger; in the more obscure He drives away our pride. Practically nothing is dug out from those obscure texts which is discovered to be said very plainly in another place. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, II. 6 (8)
There is abundantly enough for men to eat and children to suck. Fulgentius of Ruspe, Sermons 1.1
Scripture is like ‘a river broad and deep, shallow enough for a lamb to go wading, but deep enough for an elephant to swim’. Gregory the Great, Commentary on Job, prefatory letter to Leander, 4.
It is obvious from these early comments (among others) that the confession of Scripture’s clarity has always left room for difficult or obscure texts alongside simple or plain texts. It also left room for growth in our understanding. Clarity is not the same as simplicity, and not all texts are as simple and straightforward as others. Yet in the context of the whole of Scripture, with greater familiarity with the whole, and by comparing the difficult texts with the simpler texts, we can be confident that Scripture speaks clearly and that those who come to the Bible with faith in the goodness of God, with humble prayerfulness and a willingness to repent and obey the word he has given us, will come to understand it. This conviction is obvious even in the New Testament itself, where Peter could speak of some things in Paul’s letters “which are difficult to understand” (critically “difficult” not “impossible”) but which can nevertheless be approached with confidence — and it is possible to discern when they are being ‘twisted’ (2Pet 3:16).
The function of this part of the doctrine of the Scripture has always been to encourage the reading and study of God’s word by his people without the necessary mediation of the church’s teaching office. The Bible is not the peculiar possession of priests and scholars but is given to all God’s people. At the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture stood against both the Catholic claim that the authorized interpretation of the church was necessary in order for the Bible to be understood properly, but also the claim of the radicals that we stand in need of a new voice from God that is more direct and clearer than what we have in Scripture. Instead, God has given us his written word, and while we read it together (and in this way have any idiosyncratic readings challenged and corrected) our reading is not subject to institutional imprimatur, scholarly consensus, or spiritual experience. Martin Luther put it this way: “Scripture is its own interpreter” (Assertion of all the Articles).
The double grounding of the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture in what the Bible says about God and what the Bible says about itself is something it has in common with the other attributes of Scripture such as authority, entire truthfulness, reliability, and sufficiency. God being who he is, gives us gifts which accord with his character and his purpose. We can and must move from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of his Word and eventually to the effectiveness of that Word in accomplishing what God himself intends. Nevertheless, Scripture is not silent about itself, its nature, and its purpose, and, particularly if its claim to final authority is true, it must have the final say on how we understand what it is and what it does.1
The God who Effectively Communicates
From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God is presented as one who speaks. His “communicative acts” accomplish his purpose. God speaks, and the world comes into being (Gen 1). God speaks and blesses his creation (Gen 2). God speaks and pronounces judgment in the face of human sin (Gen 3). God speaks and enters into covenant with Abraham (Gen 12, 17). God speaks and in speaking makes promises (e.g. Gen 12; Exod 19; 2Sam 7; Jer 31), which are all fulfilled in Christ (2Cor 1:20). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews sums up God’s dealings throughout cosmic history as “God having spoken … spoke” (Heb 1:1–3). So powerful and so perfect an expression of God’s intention are his words that they always accomplish what he sends them to do (Isa 55:11).
God’s communication with his people is not just through the oral word but in writing as well. The ten commandments were engraved on stone “by the finger of God” (Exod 31:18). Moses “wrote down all the words of the Lord” (Exod 24:3–4). The prophets not only spoke but wrote down the words that God gave them to speak (Jer 25:14). So Peter wrote, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pet 1:20–21). This is why Jesus could appeal, not just to what was said by the prophets in the past but also to what was written (Matt 4:4, 7, 10; 11:10; 21:13; 26:31).
It is important to recognize that neither human sin, nor his own judgment in the form of the fragmentation of human languages prevented God from effectively communicating with those he has chosen. God spoke and was understood by the man and the woman after the Fall (Gen 3) and by Abram after Babel (Gen 11). Of course, it is still possible to refuse the word that God has spoken following the pattern in the Garden of Eden. It is still possible to distort God’s word, to misuse it as the Satan did in the wilderness with Jesus (Matt 4). It is still possible to twist the Scriptures to our own destruction (2Pet 3:16). It is still possible to be confused by one part of Scripture because the whole of what God has said, or even just the trajectory of God’s promises leading to their fulfilment in Christ, has not yet been understood (Acts 8:26–35). Yet none of these things are problems with the Scripture that has been given to us. They are our problems.
Consider for a moment what is entailed in suggesting that the Scripture is unclear, that what we have in the Bible is an obscure text which is beyond us. The early eighteenth century Swiss theologian Benedict Pictet put it this way,
… either God could not reveal himself more plainly to men, or he would not. No one will assert the former, and the latter is most absurd; for who could believe that God our heavenly Father has been unwilling to reveal his will to his children, when it is necessary to do so, in order that men might more easily obey it? (Christian Theology, 48).
God is an effective communicator. He knows how to use human words in order to communicate his nature, character and purpose. He is neither constrained nor frustrated in his desire to make himself known. He is the one who gave us language in the first place and he has proven himself adept at using it from the very first days of human history. As one more modern theologian put it, the clarity of Scripture means that “this text is caught up in God’s self-manifestation as the light of the world” (J. Webster, Confessing God, 52).
The Word which has been Given to be Read, Understood, Believed, and Obeyed
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is not simply a deduction from the character of God and his purpose. It is the teaching of Scripture itself. In fact it is a basic presupposition of Jesus’ ministry. His appeal, “it is written,” would make little sense if what is written was inaccessible. Jesus’ appeal assumes that what is written can be understood. So too his regular question “Have you not read …?” (Matt 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:3). It was not because the words were obscure that the Pharisees failed to obey and the Sadducees were without hope. Jesus’ assumption is that they ought to have read, ought to have understood, and ought therefore to have acted differently.
The use the written word is to be put assumes its meaning is accessible. How else could it be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom 15:4)? How else could the sacred writings make one “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ,” or Scripture be “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness” (2Tim 3:15–16)? In an important parable told to teach, among other things, the necessity of responding to the word that has already been given, Jesus concluded “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Paul would later encourage the Corinthians to learn “not to go beyond what is written” (1Cor 4:6).
From Joshua (Josh 1:8) to Timothy (1Tim 4:13), encouragement is given to read and study the Scriptures both in private and in public. The apostle Paul reasoned from the Scriptures as a critical, central part of his ministry (Acts 17:2–3). The Berean Christians would “examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Jesus’ ministry, his death, resurrection and ascension were to be understood in the light of the words of the Law and Prophets and this great intervention by God provided the goal to which the testimony of the Old Testament had been pointing all along (John 5:39; Luke 24:44).
The pattern of Jesus’ ministry, the mission of the apostles and the life of the early church was a confident approach to the Scriptures expecting that they can and should be understood by those who read them. It has long been a feature of Christian discipleship that regular, deep engagement with the written word of God nourishes faith and shapes lives. As Thomas Cranmer, the Anglican Reformer, put it,
This Word, whosoever is diligent to read and in his heart to print that [which] he readeth, the great affection to the transitory things of this world shall be minished in him, and the great desire of heavenly things that be therein promised of God, shall increase in him. (A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture)
That great work of transformed desire could hardly be done without understanding what is written. The apostle Paul could ask on more than one occasion, “What does the Scripture say?” (Rom 4:3; Gal 4:30).
So Why is there So Much Disagreement?
A key objection to the clarity of Scripture arises from the observation that there is, in many cases, disagreement about what particular texts mean. Libraries are full of commentaries with differing views over details and sometimes more substantial disagreement. How is this possible if Scripture is so clear?
The answer to that question is more complex than at first appears, though it does not involve the suggestion that Scripture itself is anyway deficient. The lack of clarity does not lie on the side of Scripture but on the side of the reader. In some cases, a lack of familiarity, either with the language in which the text has been given to us, or the wider context of the entire Bible, can lead to uncertainty or confusion or a misreading of a particular text. In other cases, readers may be (consciously or unconsciously) imposing material from outside the text upon the text, ideas from their own context or background, the commitments of their own culture, historical reconstructions of varied probability, or the conventions of the contemporary academy. A classic example is the way biblical miracles are sometimes explained away, not because the Bible is unclear about what happened, but because a supernatural explanation of the particular event is ruled out from the start. Sometimes the diverse opinions arise from the very questions we are asking of the biblical text, as we come with different agendas and different concerns as well as different backgrounds and insist on answers to questions the text itself was never addressing in the first place. Most serious of all are those instances where differences occur because one group or another (or perhaps both) refuse to let the biblical text call us to repent of wrong thinking or wrong behavior and so we invent ways of explaining the text that are less demanding.
God has himself provided the means by which sinful, preoccupied people like us might understand the clear word he has given. He has given us a whole Bible, not isolated texts (context and biblical theology are important correctives). We know where the whole Bible is heading: to Christ, the beloved Son of God and the only Savior of humankind. He has given us each other, to assist each other and hold each other to account so that we read Scripture “along the grain” rather than “against the grain.” Reading alongside others from different ages and different cultures can reveal the blind spots we have not noticed but which distort our reading. He has given us pastors and teachers, not as masters who alone control the text, but as those who have been gifted and who most likely have been apprenticed to the written word more intensely and longer than the rest of us. Most important of all, though, he has given us his Spirit, the same Spirit who moved those who spoke from God and wrote the words God gave them to write. With the help of the Spirit we pray and with the help of the Spirit we read.
Our confession of the clarity of Scripture reflects our confidence that God is good and wise and powerful. He wants us to understand what he has to say to us, he knows how to say it in a way that we can understand, and he is able to overcome every barrier to our understanding. That confidence is also reflected in the Scriptures themselves.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10–11).
- Mark Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught and Why it Still Matters
- Kevin DeYoung, “The Clarity of Scripture” (sermon video)
- Wayne Grudem, “The Perspicuity of Scripture”
- Ligonier, “The Clarity of Scripture”
- John MacArthur, “The Clarity of Scripture” (sermon video)