The doctrine of the clarity of scripture undergirds all of Christian theology. Although less studied than other areas of theology, questions about the clarity of scripture marble virtually all areas of Christian theology. The inerrancy and authority of Scripture are of little significance if its inerrant and authoritative teaching cannot be understood. Likewise there is little value in discussing the attributes of God if His special revelation is unintelligible to men. The clarity of Scripture buttresses all theological work.
Not only is the clarity of God’s word key to the practice of academic theology, it is essential to the spiritual life of believers, particularly in cultures, like ours, where the Bible is readily available for personal use.
Most definitions of the doctrine of clarity (or perspicuity, that is the $10 theological word for clarity) point to the personal nature of the doctrine of clarity. Typical is this definition offered by Wayne Grudem, “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.” Similarly, James Callahan in his definitive work The Clarity of Scripture: History, Theology and Contemporary Literary Studies emphasizes the relationship between the approach to scripture and the clarity of Scripture when he writes, “It is open and transparent to earnest readers; it is intelligible and comprehensible to attentive readers.” Scripture is clear if it is approached with a humble and earnest heart, seeking to be transformed by it. This is the meaning of the doctrine of perspicuity.
Biblical Evidence for the Clarity of Scripture
Although there is no clear declarative statement in Scripture that says explicitly that it is perspicuous, there is ample evidence that Scripture was to be heard, understood and applied by common people.
Scripture was often directly addressed to the people, whether the nation or citizens of Israel in the Old Testament or the church assembly in the New Testament. The phrase “Hear O Israel” appears five times in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 5:1, Deut 6:3-4, Deut 9:1 & Deut 20:3), clearly showing that God expected the people of Israel to be able to understand the teaching of Moses that is preserved in Scripture, and if it was to be clear to them, it remains clear for 21st century believers. Likewise, the recipients of most New Testament epistles were not scholars or even church leaders, but ordinary believers. Paul often addressed his letters the members of the church to which he was writing (Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phil 1:1, Col 1:2).
Not only are common believers expected to be able to understand scripture, but so are the least capable among us. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 commands the Israelites to teach their children the commandments of God, while Proverbs 1:4 states that that the proverbs “give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.” The Word of God is expected to be understood and applied by even the young and the simple, there is no true believer who is unable to understand Scripture.
Not only is Scripture understandable and profitable for all believers, but the believer coming to Scripture is not alone. Part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to help the believer understand the Scripture. 1 Corinthians 2:12 states, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, amplifies the clarity of Scripture when it is approached with a right heart.
The clarity of scripture is such that God holds his people accountable for their response to His word. Repeatedly in the Old Testament God’s charge against His people is that they have not obeyed his commandments. Departure from the covenant requirements are at the heart of the cycle of oppression in Judges and pending judgment in the Prophets.
The clarity of scripture, although never plainly enunciated, runs like a thread throughout the Bible. It is clear that Scripture is understandable for ordinary believers; that even the least talented and the young can make use of the scriptures. Moreover, God holds his people accountable for their obedience to His word, which would be contrary to His nature if His Word were not clear. With these factors in mind, believers should feel confident in following the example of the Bereans (Acts 17:10-11) and search the Scriptures for the truth of God.
Limits to the Biblical Evidence
There are several caveats to the clarity of Scripture in the biblical evidence. Although these in no way negate the clarity of scripture their consideration helps in the formulation of a more accurate and nuanced view of the biblical evidence.
First the biblical writers make clear that not all Scripture is equally clear. This point is made clear in 2 Peter 3:16, which states regarding the writings of Paul, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand.” Some portions of Scripture require more work to understand than others.
Another limitation on the clarity of Scripture found in the biblical evidence is the need for and role of teachers. The ability to teach is a qualification for elder (1 Tim 3:12), and “teacher” is a scripturally established office within the body of Christ (Eph 4:11). Not only is the need for teachers established, but it is modeled in the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch found in Acts 8:26-40.
A final limit on the clarity of Scripture is that it is only entirely clear to believers. In fact understanding Scripture is more a function of spiritual and moral fitness than intellectual ability. 1 Corinthians 2:14 states, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” A person who approaches the Scripture with no desire to submit to it will likely be unable to understand it. It must be noted here that this does not mean that an unbeliever can understand nothing of Scripture. Just as the Spirit illuminates Scripture for the believer, He is able to overcome the dark heart of the sinner and allow him to understand Scripture, according to His sovereign will.
Even given these limitations the biblical evidence is overwhelming. Scripture is clear and understandable to any believer. The plain things of Scripture are more than enough for salvation and living a life pleasing to God. There is simply no warrant for the oft heard claims that the Bible is difficult to understand. God’s written Word is His revelation to men, and it is understandable to men, who approach it with a humble and teachable heart.
[Coming soon Part 2: A historical overview of the doctrine of clarity.]