Read Part 1.
The doctrine of perspicuity or clarity of Scripture can be stated this way: All things being accounted for, the Scriptures are understandable. The question is, however, what should be accounted for?
Luther grappled with the idea and admitted in The Bondage of the Will that the Scriptures were both clear and unclear. He, like many other reformers, attempted to balance the statements in the Scriptures themselves that tended to support the understandability of the Scriptures on the one hand and their difficulty on the other. Most significant among the passages that state the difficulty of the Scriptures is Peter’s declaration that in Paul’s epistles there “are some things hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16). The experience of reading and studying the Scriptures also proves that not all things in the Scriptures are readily understandable.
Seizing upon that statement and upon similar rationales, the religious establishment at the time of Luther declared that the Scriptures were inherently unclear and, hence, withheld them from the laity for fear that the lay people would misunderstand them. Granted, there “are some things hard to be understood” in the Scriptures, and they should be accounted for. They are, in essence, the type of difficulties Bible translators encounter. By virtue of the nature of the translation process, they are, for the most part, passed on to the readers of the translations.
Among such categories of difficulties, the following may be cited: (1) linguistic complexities inherent in transferring meaning from the now-dead languages in which the Scriptures were originally penned into today’s living languages; (2) difficulty in detecting particular twists in the writing styles of certain biblical authors, as the puns and word plays in 2 Corinthians; (3) literary genres and structures that are now defunct and that can be mistakenly taken for a different genre of literature in use in a given culture today, as is the case for the book of Ecclesiastes; (4) grammatical constructions that can be so abbreviated that it becomes difficult to detect which of many possible options would be the right meaning, as in the books of Proverbs and Job; (5) complex, historical inferences in the text not available to the present-day reader of the passage; (6) geographical references and assertions unfamiliar to us today; (7) cultural practices that are different from the culture of the translator or reader; (8) names of people, things, places, events, and concepts that may carry meaning and for which the meaning or description may not be provided; (9) theological discussions that presume a prior, verbal conversation between the author and the primary recipients, as in 1 Corinthians, etc.
Difficulties, those are! Yet, they are not outside the realm of what would be expected from reading any ancient text cross-culturally. Peter acknowledged that there “are some things hard to be understood” in Paul’s epistles but not that they were so esoteric that they were impossible to be understood. When the basic text-specific information is provided, the modern day reader will effectively grasp the meaning of the biblical text.
That said, the Bible states that the natural man, the person who is only a human being, unsaved and not indwelt by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 3:16b), though he or she may understand grammatical and dictionary-level meaning of the Bible, may not grasp the spiritual concepts or spiritual significance of that very text because such a comprehension is “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 1:14). That is why the gospel “is hid to them that are lost” (2 Corinthians 4:3) and why Jesus could speak a parable that would both enlighten the believer and simultaneously confuse the unbeliever (Matthew 13:10-17).
The perspicuity of Scripture does NOT indicate that the Bible is all in all easy to understand, or that it is void of the difficulties that are associated with ancient texts or with literature that develops uncommon concepts, or that it is equally understandable by everybody regardless of their degree of intellect or education, or that every part is of the same level of understanding, or that any meaning that is acceptable in one’s eye is good enough for him or her. The natural, literary difficulties of the text and the spiritual prerequisite to the reader must be accounted for.
Because of difficulties in the Scriptures, they must be studied, meditated on, and searched (John 5:39; Proverbs 2:2-6). Along with the Holy Spirit, God has given as a gift to the Church pastors and teachers and, yes…Bible translators! Bible translators must preserve the intention of God and transfer all the legitimate components of meaning from the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic biblical text into the languages of today. Preservation, not innovation, is our task! And it is a difficult one because of so much that must be accounted for. Nevertheless, because the Bible is also clear, translating it is possible. We will pick up with that thought in our next column.
P. Hantz Bernard is the director of Bibles International. Led to Christ through at 15 by Baptist Mid-Missions missionaries, Dr. Bernard soon showed evidence of leadership gifts. At Bob Jones University, he earned not only his room, board, and personal expenses, but also a BA in Pastoral Studies and Publishing, and two graduate degrees in theology, Biblical languages, and linguistics. In 2005, Dr. Bernard was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity degree from BJU. Bernard and his co-workers have produced a trustworthy Creole NT, and the OT translation is underway. Prior to being named as director, Hantz served as a pastor, seminary instructor, and translation consultant.