In part one of this series I laid out the biblical case for the clarity of Scripture, now in part two, I examine the history of the doctrine of clarity.
Despite the strength of the biblical case for clarity, numerous views have arisen throughout church history that have refused to take the biblical evidence at face value.
Almost from the beginning of church history there have been numerous challenges to the clarity of scripture. As early as the patristic age, there was a drift away from the clarity of Scripture. Many of the church fathers found the Old Testament less clear than the new. The effectively denied the clarity of Scripture by applying allegorical hermeneutics, which viewed the Old Testament as largely metaphorical and its meaning as utterly unrelated to the face value of its content and typological hermeneutics, which saw the text as mostly pointing to future events and only after these events (mostly found in the Gospels) could the text of the Old Testament be Properly understood. Rather than reading the plain meaning of the text many church fathers simply allegorized, or sought to find hidden spiritual meaning contrary to the plain reading of the text. Others tended the view the Old Testament as a pre-Christian document that primarily pointed toward the coming Christ, and allowed this view to cloud their interpretation.
Additionally the church fathers tended to subordinate the Old Testament to the new, viewing it through the lens of the New Testament. The net effect when coupled with the previously mentioned hermeneutical tendencies was that the Old Testament was no longer independently perspicuous for faith and practice, which flies in the face of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. These views found full flower in age of Augustine when a fourfold hermeneutic seeking the literal, allegorical, moral and spiritual meaning of any given Old Testament passage became the norm.
As the church at Rome became the dominant force in western Christianity the clarity of the entire bible came under attack. Thomas Aquinas argued that the meaning of any passage of Scripture can only be discerned by later interpretation. The Logical outworking of this argument is that the Old Testament must be reinterpreted by the New Testament and the New Testament by the church. This later developed into a doctrine, codified at the Council of Trent, which essentially said the church determines the meaning of Scripture.
The Roman church started not with an assumption of clarity, but one of complexity. It viewed the scriptures as dangerous in the hand of the common believer and jealously guarded its authority as the arbiter of meaning.
The reformation brought a renewed emphasis on the simple literal meaning of the biblical text. The reformers rejected the role of tradition in the interpretation of Scripture and preferred a more direct and literal meaning of scripture. In fact Luther rejected any hint that the meaning of Scripture might be obscure to the believer. This enthusiasm for the clarity of scripture was shared by all of the magisterial reformers, however there was one significant tendency that was retained from earlier models of interpretation, the subordination of the Old Testament to the New. This is a belief that persists among covenant theologians and unfortunately can result in the allegorizing of portions of the Old Testament to accommodate presuppositions formulated from their study of the New.
The enlightenment and the modern quest for certainty introduced a new abridgement of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. Clarity was replaced by the quest for certainty, and scripture became a linguistic riddle to be solved. This view tended to limit the role of spiritual and moral factors in the interpretation of Scripture, and relied solely on human reason and repudiated the role of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture and opened the door to radical skepticism.
The Modern quest for certainty also gave rise to Liberalism, with its elevation of experience over the text and Neo-orthodoxy with its dichotomy between the word of God and Scripture. The (Capital “L”) Liberal approach looks to experiences outside of scripture to discern the true meaning of the text, while the Neo-orthodox (best exemplified by Karl Barth) views the word of God as separate from the Biblical text, although the text, a human document may contain the word of God, which must be discovered within the text.
Throughout the first two millennia of church history numerous ideas about the clarity of scripture have sprung up and withered. While this brief discussion is not exhaustive, it is illustrative of the near constant challenges to the biblical rationale for the clarity of Scripture. No mere debate, the life, health and mission of the church is bound to the clarity of Scripture. Believers must be able to have confidence in the Scripture to inform their Christian walk and to have confidence in the Gospel. This is a vital doctrine that must be defended.
And in our time, it must be defended against the attacks of post-modernism, which will be the focus of part three of this series.