X Close Menu


The Clarity of Scripture

The clarity of Scripture—sometimes called by an older expression, the "perspicuity" of Scripture—serves as a foundational interpretative key. Yet this doctrine is as challenging as it is foundational. "No confession concerning Scripture is more disturbing to the church than the confession of its perspicuity."75

Once over dinner with a graduate student at Harvard University, we came to discuss 1 Timothy 2:8-10 where Paul prohibits wearing gold and expensive clothes. My friend agreed that taking such a passage at face value had demanding implications for the church. But he went on to insist that someone at Princeton was about to publish a dissertation on why the straightforward reading was incorrect. He himself did not know the argument, but he was sure that it would be right. He never did report on what that argument was, but I could not help but sigh in dismay at the acrobatics sinful humanity will undertake to avoid obedience to God's word. In this case, the strategy involved a tacit subversion of the clarity of Scripture.

The clarity of Scripture challenges us precisely because Scripture is demanding and our wills are bent against God's. In the face of a demand to repent, we would rather engage in contemplative reflection, discussion, or debate, than respond with simple obedience. The fallen human mind will spin every manner of controversy and blow fog over the matter, asking "Did God really say?"

While the clarity of Scripture may be demanding, the church withers in its absence. Without the clarity of Scripture, Christian boldness and confidence evaporate. In fact, "yielding to the word is premised upon its clarity."76 We live in an age where certainty is a rare commodity, largely because clarity has been undermined. Scholars of every stripe offer a parade of conflicting views, furnishing the doubt-filled Christian with the excuse to defy God's clear command on the grounds that nobody can agree on what the passage even says.

Many passages attest to Scripture's clarity (Deut. 30:11-14; Ps. 19:7-9, 119:105; Matt. 22:31; John 7:17). In fact, most passages in Scripture presuppose their own clarity as well as the clarity of referent passages.77

Yet perhaps the best grounding for the clarity of Scripture comes from God's nature. As was discussed in chapter 6, our study of Scripture should lead us to God, and then our doctrine of Scripture should be informed by the nature of God as the author of Scripture. Because God is light and desires to illuminate our minds and hearts, Scripture as His word reflects His character:

These words are themselves God's self-revelation in the world. In them he presents his Son to us. By them he gathers his people and brings about his ancient intention. God's self-communication is no more distorted by its expression in human words than his compassion is distorted by its expression in human flesh. To put this another way, the ultimate guarantee that God's word will be heard and understood, that it will achieve the purpose for which it was spoken and written, is the power and goodness of God himself. In this sense, a conviction that Scripture is clear is something believers bring to their reading of the Bible. Yet... this is not an alien imposition on the text. It just as powerfully arises from the pages of Scripture. In the Gospels, Jesus exhibits precisely this confidence as he quotes from and alludes to passages of the Old Testament.78

Childlike faith leads to clarity better than education or privilege (Luke 10:21). After all, Jesus prayed, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children" (Matt. 11:25). As was the case in Jesus' day, a true understanding of Scripture will not generally be found in the famous seminaries or universities—but among those with childlike faith and obedience.

Another facet of the clarity of Scripture, stressed in the sixteenth century by Protestant and Anabaptist alike, is summarized by the Latin phrase, scriptura sui ipsius interpres: Scripture is its own interpreter. The passages of the Bible interpret one another. To understand the whole of Scripture, one must understand the parts. To understand the parts, one must understand the whole. This naturally implies that reading and re-reading Scripture are required for proper understanding. Diligence is therefore required to understand Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15).

Clarity does not imply that the Scriptures are clear to all persons alike, or even that the clarity is easily obtained. Neither does the clarity of Scripture imply that all of Scripture is equally easy to understand, or that certain parts will not be difficult. "Clarity is not the same thing as simplicity or uniform transparency."79 The Bible itself says that certain domains of knowledge are reserved for God (Deut. 29:29). In fact, the Bible itself repeatedly teaches that the Spirit's illumination is required to understand the Scriptures. "Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law" (Ps. 119:18). The Ethiopian eunuch required instruction to understand the passage from Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40). Even the disciples could not understand the Scriptures without Jesus' illumination. The clarity of Scripture, similar to salvation, is a gift premised on faith: "The clarity of Scripture is that quality of the biblical text that, as God's communicative act, ensures its meaning is accessible to all who come to it in faith."80

Many have objected to the clarity of Scripture on the grounds that there are so many divisive interpretations of the Bible. Yet these objections do not appropriately weigh the effects of the Fall and human disobedience. Jesus Himself, the incarnate Word of God, was misunderstood and a source of division. These divisions say little about His luminous and simple speech. In the same way, objecting to the clarity of Scripture because sinful humanity misunderstands the Bible says more about humanity than the Bible:

Holy Scripture is clear; but because its matter is that to which we must be reconciled, readers can only discern its clarity if their darkness is illuminated... Interpretation of the clear Word of God is therefore not first of all an act of clarification but the event of being clarified. Reading, therefore, always includes a humbling of the reader, the breaking of the will in which there is acted out the struggle to detach our apprehension of the text from the idolatrous schemas which we inevitably take to it, and by which we seek to command or suppress it or render it convenient to us.81

Kuruvilla, Finny. King Jesus Claims His Church: A Kingdom Vision for the People of God (Kindle Locations 1192-1243). Anchor-Cross Publishing. Kindle Edition.