The Perspicuity of Scripture
I’ve always enjoyed secret codes. As a fourth-grader, I remember creating secret alphabets made of code to utilize in “top secret” communication between me and my friends. There was a great sense of satisfaction in decrypting one of our codes and reading the covert message. Like many other childhood adventures, secret codes faded from my interest over time.
This is not true, however, of all adults. In the recent movie Wordplay, the world gained a unique look into the culture of crossword puzzles and the people who solve them. From Will Shortz, creator of the famous New York Times puzzle, to celebrities like Bob Dole and Jon Stewart who decipher them, it seems that puzzle-solving and code-breaking are skills that are alive and well in humanity (Veith 1).
And that’s just one example. A myriad of modern movies (The DaVinci Code, National Treasure, the Indiana Jones series, Windtalkers) and television programs (CSI, Numb3rs, The Amazing Race, Lost, House) focus the attention of millions of Americans each week on cryptography.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I still like most puzzles and codes. The reason I hate crossword puzzles (those perfectly aligned, perpendicular boxes) is quite simple—I can’t do them. When you’re kept “out-of-the-loop” on anything because of incompetence or ignorance, it can be extraordinarily frustrating. But aside from crosswords, I still like most puzzles. Can you imagine if divine revelation came in the form of a code? What if John 3:16 could be known only by solving the clues in a crossword puzzle? What if the message were hidden? That is, however, exactly what some seem to be saying within Christianity regarding the message of the Bible.
Definition and Historical Development
Simply defined, the perspicuity of the Scriptures refers to the clarity of the message of the Bible. One of the finest modern writers on this subject is James Callahan who adds:
Scripture can be and is read with profit, with appreciation and with transformative results. It is open and transparent to earnest readers; it is intelligible and comprehensive to attentive readers. Scripture itself is coherent and obvious. It is direct and unambiguous as written; what is written is sufficient. Scripture’s concern or focal point is readily presented as the redemptive story of God. It displays a progressively more specific identification of that story, culminating in the gospel of Jesus Christ. All this to say: Scripture is clear about what it is about. (9)
The Bible itself addresses this concept in a number of locations. Here is a small sampling from my favorite book, Psalms: “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (19:7). “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (119:130). “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (119:105).
Now, if we take the time to think through this teaching on the clarity of Scripture, we will need to face some difficulties. If Scripture is clear, why do we need to study or interpret it? R.C. Sproul elaborates:
The Bible is basically clear and lucid. It is simple enough for any literate person to understand its basic message. This is not to say that all parts of the Bible are equally clear or that there are no difficult passages or sections to be found in it. Laymen unskilled in the ancient languages and the fine points of exegesis may have difficulty with parts of scripture, but the essential content is clear enough to be understood easily. (15)
This “essential content” is the important phrase. What is essential to faith and Christian living is clear. In his excellent journal article on this subject, Larry Pettegrew of The Master’s Seminary points out that perspicuity is complicated by three factors: the entwining of almost all Bible doctrines with the doctrine of perspicuity; the antagonism of postmodern critics of biblical authority, and the practical questions that result in treating the Bible as a plain book. (209-210)
The Italian reformer Francis Turretin records that the church fathers understood the idea of perspicuity:
Chrysostom says that Scripture is so put together that “even the simple-minded (idiotae) can understand it, if only they read it carefully,” and “everything there is plain and straightforward, and everything necessary is clear” (Homily 3: Concerning Lazarus). Augustine says, “In those matters which are taught (traditia) clearly in Scripture is found everything that leads to faith and right living” (Concerning Christian Doctrine 2.6, 9). Irenaeus says that the prophetic and evangelical writings are clear and without ambiguity (2.46). Gregory, in his preface to Job, declares, “Scripture contains in plain sight that which nourishes babes, just as in deeper teachings it contains that which holds great minds in admiration, as if it were some broad and deep river in which a lamb can walk but an elephant must swim.” (92)
So while much of the Scripture is easy to understand, there are passages that are quite difficult to grasp, some on which men will spend their entire lives in deep study and reflection. The Dutch theologian James Arminius wrote:
In the Scriptures, some things may be found so difficult to be understood, that men of the quickest and most perspicacious genius may, in attaining to an understanding of those things, have a subject on which to bestow their labours during the whole course of their lives. But God has so finely attempered the Scripture, that they can neither be read without profit, nor, after having been perused and reperused innumerable times, can they be put aside through aversion or disgust. (20)
Even the Apostle Peter acknowledged that some found difficulty in understanding some of the writings of the Apostle Paul:
As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16).
In summary, the perspicuity of the Scriptures means that in all essential matters of faith and Christian living God’s Word is clear. We are, however, commanded to “search the scriptures” (Acts 17:11), “study/rightly divide the Word of God” (2 Tim. 2:15), and aspire “to know God.” Interpretation and exegesis are important and necessary in searching “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” Brothers and sisters, we should praise God for the clarity of the Bible! How it shows us the love and mercy of God! How it implores us to spend much time throughout each day meditating on its precepts! We can be confident in the message God has preserved for us.
While this doctrine has been embraced by believers since the writing of the New Testament, it didn’t find historical significance until the Protestant Reformation. Hank Hanegraaff writes:
When the Protestant Reformers spoke about the perspicuity of Scripture, they meant that the Bible was clear when it came to its central message. Contrary to the dominant Roman Catholic idea which said that the Bible was difficult and obscure, Protestants said that anyone who is literate could comprehend the gospel and the Scriptures. The Reformers were not saying that all of Scripture was equally understandable or even that scholarly study wasn’t necessary, what they were saying was that the essential clarity of the Word of God was self-evident. Bottom line, they were saying that the Roman idea, that the Magisterium, (or the teaching office) of the church was the only one that could interpret Scripture, was simply in error. (1)
The debate took written form as Desiderius Erasmus’ The Freedom of the Will and Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will detailed the opposing points of view. The following chart, compiled by Larry Pettegrew, gives further clarification into the Protestant understanding of perspicuity (221-223):
Luther’s Statement in The Bondage of the Will
|1. Nothing in Scripture is obscure.||“…in opposition to you I say with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure. What we have cited from Peter holds good here, that the Word of God is for us ‘a lamp shining in a dark place’ (II Peter 1:19). But if part of this lamp does not shine, it will be a part of the dark place rather than of the lamp itself” (163).|
|2. Anything that seems to be obscure is so because of the ignorance of man, not the obscurity of Scripture.||“It is true that for many people much remains abstruse; but this is not due to the obscurity of Scripture, but to the blindness of indolence of those who will not take the trouble to look at the very clearest truth” (111).|
|3. Some texts are obscure because the reader does not understand key words and grammar.||“I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar; but these texts in no way hinder a knowledge of all the subject matter of Scripture” (110).|
|4. Satan also tries to blind human eyes to the meaning of Scripture.||“It is due to the malice of Satan, who sits enthroned in our weakness, resisting the Word of God. If Satan were not at work, the whole world of men would be converted by a single word of God once heard, and there would be no need of more” (167).|
|5. If a Scriptural topic seems to be obscure in one place, it will be clear in other places.||“If the words are obscure in one place, yet they are plain in another…” (111).|
|6. There are two kinds of clarity in Scripture.||“To put it briefly, there are two kinds of clarity in Scripture, just as there are also two kinds of obscurity: one external and pertaining to the ministry of the Word, the other located in the understanding of the heart” (112).|
|7. External clarity extends to the whole world, not just Christians.||“If, on the other hand, you speak of the external clarity, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous, but everything there is in Scripture has been brought out by the Word into the most definite light, and published in all the world (112).|
|8. Internal obscurity comes from depravity.||“All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it” (112).|
|9. The Holy Spirit brings about internal clarity.||“If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God” (112).|
|10. One of the worst results of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Scripture is that it has kept people from reading and studying the Bible.||“Yet with such a phantasmagoria [bizarre illusion] Satan has frightened men away from reading the Sacred Writ, and has made Holy Scripture contemptible…” (110).|
|11. Another result of Roman Catholic doctrine is that it has sometimes set wicked men above Scripture.||“Nothing more pernicious could be said than this, for it has led ungodly men to set themselves above the Scriptures and to fabricate whatever they pleased, until the Scriptures have been completely trampled down and we have been believing and teaching nothing but dreams of madmen” (159).|
I believe that the greatest theological battle to be fought in this generation is over the doctrine of perspicuity. While the Roman Catholics erred by shrouding the Bible in mystery and obscurity, today’s truth-saboteurs err on the opposite extreme. They hold to an ambiguous hermeneutic where meaning is not obscure but is also not plain. How else can men like Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd assert that God is not omniscient as the Bible plainly teaches? How else can pastors like Brian McLaren say “I don’t hope all Jews or Hindu will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus” while the Bible says there is one, exclusive way to God? (264). The ambiguous hermeneutic, in particular, of many in the emergent church movement must be countered by the plain, grammatico-historical hermeneutic, which allows the authority to rest in the text (exegesis) rather than the imposition of man’s ideas upon the text (eisegesis).
If the Bible is clear enough for a child to understand (2 Tim. 3:15; Deut. 6:6-7) and plain enough to bring understanding to the simple, then we must not allow teachers to confuse people and distort the clear, essential teachings of God’s Word. Where our fundamentalist fathers battled over the authority of the Scripture, we must now do battle over the clarity of the Scripture. Certainly, we can differ on the non-essentials, but we must stand as never before for the truth of salvation. We must write. We must preach. We must lead. As our dear brother Joel often says, “Straight ahead!”
Arminius, James. The Works of James Arminius, vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), p. 20.
Callahan, James Patrick. “Claritas Scripturae: The Role of Perspicuity in Protestant Hermeneutics.” JETS 39/3 (September 1996): 362.
Hanegraaff, Hank. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” Christian Research Institute.
McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Youth Specialties, 2004), p. 264.
Pettegrew, Larry D. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” The Master’s Seminary Journal Fall 2004.
Sproul, R.C. Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p.15.
Turretin, Francis. 21 Questions on the Doctrine of Scripture.
Veith, Gene Edward. “The puzzle of life.” World Magazine 10 June 2006.
Brian McCrorie is the Assistant Pastor for Music, Children, and Technology at Red Rocks Baptist Church (Denver, CO). He is a graduate of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) and Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Deborah, have been married for 14 years and have five children. His interests include fine arts, culinary arts, politics, the media, and of course, SharperIron! You can read Brian’s personal blog at http://bowingdown.wordpress.com/.