To some, the Bible is a brook – a refreshing stream that flows gently through a meadow. Its waters are clear: Anyone can look into them and understand what they must do to get across safely to the other side.
But I wonder more and more whether the Bible is something else entirely – a swift river, dark and cloudy, its depths hiding potentially treacherous rocks that could unbalance the unwary traveler and send her tumbling downstream. Venturing into its waters is best done with someone who knows the path and can show the traveler where to step and how to avoid the deepest, darkest areas.
I wonder, in other words, whether the Bible should be treated much differently than we typically do in American Protestantism, where we assume anyone can crack it open and learn who God is and how to “get saved” in Jesus’ name. Maybe the Bible requires more care – and more community – when we read and interpret it.
What I’m talking about is the perspicuity of scripture. For something to be perspicuous is to be clear, like that gentle brook. (Why don’t we just say the clarity of scripture? Because obviously there’s no reason to use a 10-cent word when a five-dollar one will do.)
To explore this topic, we need to answer some questions:
- How do we define scriptural perspicuity?
- Does the Bible claim perspicuity for itself?
- Has the church historically affirmed its perspicuity?
- And what historically have been the results of belief in scripture’s perspicuity?
Today, I’ll look at the first two questions.
How do we define the perspicuity of scripture?
No one knows!
OK, that’s not entirely true, but a brief search of the internet finds a lot of people recognizing that the term itself is, ironically enough, unclear – and then spending a LOT of time and words trying to define it.
I don’t get the sense that anyone argues that all parts of the Bible are perspicuous; rather, perspicuity is a general sense that the Bible is clear in its primary teachings, particularly the gospel message of sin, salvation, and Jesus’ role in saving us from the one and facilitating the latter.
As usual, the best popular-level definition probably comes from Wikipedia (yes, I could use a theological dictionary, but the point is to have a definition as popularly understood today, not as scholars understand it). I’ll underline some key phrases:
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (often called the perspicuity of Scripture) is a Protestant Christian position teaching that [quoting the Westminster Confession] “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” …
Lutherans hold that the Bible presents all doctrines and commands of the Christian faith clearly. God’s Word is freely accessible to every reader or hearer of ordinary intelligence, without requiring any special education. Of course, one must understand the language God’s Word is presented in, and not be so preoccupied by contrary thoughts so as to prevent understanding. As a result of this, no one needs to wait for any clergy, and pope, scholar, or ecumenical council to explain the real meaning of any part of the Bible.
To boil that down, we might say the perspicuity of scripture is the doctrine that the Bible is clear enough about the basics of the gospel that any person of reasonable intelligence can understand them without mediation from an authority figure.
But let’s be honest: That the phrase is so hard to define, and that its implications have to be cordoned off with multiple caveats and conditions, is a big red flag that this stream is far muddier than we might assume.
What does the Bible claim for itself?
Of course, “the Bible” does not claim anything for itself as such because the authors typically did not realize their texts would become canonized, but several of them did recognize other texts as bearing that kind of weight. Typically, this involved early Christians, including Jesus himself, quoting from the Hebrew scriptures with a sense of their authority, but it also includes later New Testament authors adding special weight to Paul’s letters.
So, for example, 2 Tim 3:14-17:
But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing. You know who taught you. Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
In this most famous of passages about the nature and purpose of scripture, referring to what Christians now call the Old Testament, the author clearly sees the texts as being mediated through teachers – perhaps parents or synagogue rabbis (“since childhood”), perhaps even Paul (“you know who taught you”), to whom this letter is traditionally attributed.
Other New Testament verses commonly cited as referring to scripture paint a similar picture – or don’t actually refer to scripture at all despite how they’re frequently used. For example:
Therefore, let’s make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following the same example of disobedience, because God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.
Although many cite Heb 4:12 (“sharper than any two-edged sword”) in a scriptural-authority context, it’s clearly talking about the actual word of God, or God’s voice; it comes after an extended riff on the power of that word in sparking the creation of the universe and establishing the Sabbath.
There are many passages like this. Google around for a list of verses talking about scripture, and you get a host of references, especially in the OT, to “the word of God” or “God’s judgments” that actually refer to God’s verbal commands. Of course, some of them were eventually recorded and became part of the Hebrew scriptures, but I don’t see these passages as being intended to describe the authority of the text itself.
Deut 6:6-9 does discuss what Israel should do with God’s commands – namely, write them down, “recite them to your children,” and talk about them constantly. Assuming these commands eventually became part of the Hebrew scriptures, this passage envisions a mediated relationship with them, where their meaning is initially delivered by parents and other members of the community.
Back in the NT, the author of 2 Pet 3:15-16 discusses the writings of Paul, which have rapidly gained authoritative weight among the early assemblies:
Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation, just as our dear friend and brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some of his remarks are hard to understand, and people who are ignorant and whose faith is weak twist them to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.
Paul’s letters are explicitly given the same weight as “the other scriptures” yet they are certainly not described as perspicuous! Rather, they are “hard to understand,” opening them to pernicious misinterpretation. Yet many Christians today consider Paul’s letters, especially Romans, to be quite clear in establishing a large number of doctrines, ranging from salvation by grace alone to the alleged sinfulness of gay sex.
Not surprisingly, Paul himself had something to say on this topic, in Rom 15:4: “Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures.”
This doesn’t really say anything about the perspicuity of scripture, but it’s worth pointing out that Paul frequently engaged in creative reinterpretation of his scriptures, engaging in exegesis that often turned the plain-text reading of certain passages on their heads (the moving rock in the wilderness in 1 Cor 10, the respective connection of Israel and the gentiles with Ishmael and Isaac). He did not act like, nor did he ever argue that, scripture was so abundantly clear anyone could understand it without help.
But of course why would he? The Bible was written in an oral culture; few people had the ability to read what was written, and those who could did so aloud so others could hear it. The scriptures we have were written with the assumption that they would be mediated through an educated elite to the illiterate masses.
Which is why Jesus and Paul themselves served as mediators of scripture to their audiences. For example, Luke 24, where Jesus meets two disciples on the Emmaus road and “interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.” Although Jesus calls them “foolish” for their inability to understand that the OT scriptures referred to his death and resurrection, it’s probably not a coincidence that this happens all the time in the Gospels.
Over and over again, the only person who seems aware that he is the fulfillment of various prophecies about the Jewish messiah is Jesus himself. And it’s up to him to mediate those scriptures to his audiences, which included intelligent, highly educated people who struggled to find the perspicuity Jesus claimed to find in them. The Gospel of John illustrates this well: “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me, yet you don’t want to come to me so that you can have life. (John 5:39-40)” On the one hand, yes, Jesus does tell his audience to “examine the scriptures.” On the other hand, his audience here was the religious leadership responsible for teaching the scriptures to their congregations and they were struggling to find in them what Jesus said was there.
Not only is Jesus frustrated that “Jewish leaders” can’t see him in their scriptures, but he also rejects the idea that “eternal life” can be found in those scriptures, as opposed to himself. This is a statement that does not receive as much attention, I don’t think. In our bibliolatrous times, scripture is often seen as providing if not eternal life itself, at least the key to eternal life. And it may very well do that, but Jesus explicitly says here the point of scripture is to point to him, and he, not it, will give eternal life. Again, this cuts against our traditional notions that scripture is perspicuous on matters pertaining to the gospel and salvation – that in order to be saved, you must do the work of reading and understanding the text well enough to find Jesus, believe the right things and pray the right prayer.
Now, of course, people who argue for the perspicuity of scripture have their texts, too, including some of these same ones! They argue that if it can be understood by children, as Deut 6 implies, it must be perspicuous. But I’d argue the scriptures give the responsibility of teaching children its precepts not to itself but to their parents and religious leaders. Likewise, there’s a lot of reliance on references to God’s laws or judgments in the Psalms, but relying on poetry for establishing doctrine is a fundamental category error.
Before we leave the texts, I’ll point out practically how we can be led astray by the idea of the self-evident clarity of the Bible. One article laying out the case for perspicuity argues, “The Bible is clear in all that is necessary for man to know in regard to his sinful state, his need for salvation, and the means of attaining that salvation, faith in Christ (Romans 3:22).” Ah. Except it’s not actually clear that Rom 3:22 says anything about having faith in Christ. Scholars argue – persuasively, in my view – that the correct translation of the Greek grammar there is that righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Christ. Not so perspicuous!
In Part 2, I’ll combine the next two questions into a brief, overly selective history of the church’s interaction with the notion of scriptural perspicuity.