A Clear and Present Word is the 21st volume in the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series which now extends to 45 volumes. This volume is dedicated to the doctrine of perspicuity (or the Bible’s clarity). From Eve’s wicked interlocutor in the garden to the present day, there has been a reechoing “Has God really said?”
In recent theological debates, it is clear that inerrancy is often the bibliological battleground. However, as this book endeavors to show, even if the accuracy of the words is granted, their power can just as easily be neutralized though obfuscation as through denial. Mr. Thompson (Principle of Moore Theological Seminary, Australia. Evangelical Anglican) labors to unfold the importance of Scripture’s clarity as well as to defend it.
Perspicuity has not seen the scholarly concentration of other doctrines of Bibliology and the book is a welcome resource for anyone who desires to better understand it. The series aims to relate important biblical/theological themes in a way that is both scholarly and accessible to the layperson. The author succeeds in presenting a book that can be beneficial both to the studious lay person as well as the pastor.
Chapter one takes up the question of whether Christians can even claim to have a clear word of God. After all, we live in the postmodern era when truth is considered at least obscure, and often unknowable. The chapter outlines the arguments against the clarity of the Bible, first from church history and then more recently the post-modern view of truth.
Thompson is careful not to over-generalize postmodern thought and does a good job of explaining the epistemological issues in play. From the empirical search for truth that characterized the Enlightenment, to the postmodern denial that such a process can even exist, there has been a major shift. Literary theory claims that meaning is determined not by authorial intent but by the reader himself or even the “interpretive community.” Unsurprisingly, the univocality (single meaning) of any given text is also on the chopping block, since each interpreter can assign a different meaning to the text.
Regarding theology itself, postmodern influences have made many hesitant to be dogmatic and to make authoritative claims. The author suggests this as the reason for the dearth of recent discussion of the Bible’s clarity. After introducing the most common rejections of perspicuity, Thompson sets out to respond to each in the following chapters.
Chapter two highlights the importance of the source of the Scriptures, namely God Himself. We speak correctly when we speak of “God’s Word” since it is a product of His communication to man. The theologian who seeks to explicate God’s word must recognize first that it comes from a loving God whose will it is to communicate to mankind. Thompson outlines five priors that guide the interpreter: 1) Christian Theology, at its most basic, is talk about God, 2) Christian theology is essentially and unavoidably Trinitarian, 3) Christian theology is talk about God made possible by God’s prior decision to be known, 4) Christian theology can only claim truth and authority in so far as it conforms to God’s self-revelation, 5) Christian theology is talk about God that takes place in the presence of God and in the eyes of the world. Christian readers will be encouraged at the author’s reverence for God here. Before entering the academic foray, Thompson points the reader to the goodness and perfection of God as the fundamental starting point of any biblical consideration.
Chapter three begins the response to the arguments against perspicuity that were outlined in chapter one. Thompson begins by showing that Christ Himself often quoted from the OT and held His listeners accountable for not obeying it. The point is obvious. If Christ could hold His hearers accountable for disobeying the OT, then they must have been able to understand it. This is especially instructive when Jesus appeals to the OT to help His disciples understand His ministry and coming passion. The Old Testament is not just a repository of proof texts but is God’s communication that man can and must turn to in order to understand His will.
The chapter then expands the argument to the apostles who also appealed to the OT in a way that indicated that the Scriptures are not obscure. Thompson raises an interesting point here: It was not just the Jews whom the apostles called to account through the OT. The Gentiles as well were expected to understand the Old Testament and respond accordingly.
The clarity of Scripture is such that its meaning can be understood not just by those to whom the law and the prophets were given, but even by those who were virtual strangers to its message. This argument was among the most powerful of the book. God communicated His word so that it could be understood by all men no matter their particular culture, history, or even belief system.
The remainder of chapter three is dedicated to the “classic texts” for perspicuity from the OT. Among these are times in Israel’s history in which she was reunited to the message of Scripture and immediately understood and responded.
Also, in this section the author interacts with various Roman Catholic apologists who built arguments against the doctrine. This is only done in a summary way, however, as chapter five takes up that subject in more depth.
There is a discussion of clarity and illumination here that readers may find useful. Against RC scholars (Bellarmino, among others), Thompson shows that clarity must be distinguished from illumination. Clarity does not mean absolute understanding and even Peter admitted that some of Paul’s writings were difficult. When we say the Scriptures are clear we mean that they can be understood while still acknowledging that minds darkened by sin may not always see that clarity. This is one reason that the Lord gave the church pastors/teachers. Hearing the Scriptures exposited is one of the great blessings of the local church.
One possible quibble that some readers may have with Thompson is his use of the Christological hermeneutic (CH). Hermeneutics is of course a major part of the book, and the author’s reference to the CH is less an argument for it than from it. In one section he references the Ethiopian eunuch’s failure to understand the Scriptures. This is an important passage since it is one that is used by Rome to question perspicuity. Thompson appeals to the gospel as the necessary interpretive grid by which to interpret the Bible. This reviewer found this unconvincing, since the eunuch was reading a passage in Isaiah that pertained directly to the gospel. This can hardly support the idea of the Christological hermeneutic in places where the gospel is not directly in view. For many who advocate for the CH, this may be the point of disagreement: there is no such thing as a passage where the gospel is not in view. Advocates of the Grammatical-Historical-Literal (or normal) hermeneutic, of course, recognize that all of history is moving towards the exaltation of Christ to the glory of God the Father. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily make the gospel an interpretive tool.
Chapter four continues the theme of hermeneutics by relating how it has been understood historically and in the present. Since it is a discipline of discovery by man, it is anthropologically focused. For many, this would negate Thompson’s earlier appeal to God’s communicative act as presuppositional. Simply put, for the modern literary critic, to speak of the clarity of the Scriptures from a theological perspective is a category error. Thompson summarizes the roots of this perspective in the thought of Bertrand Russel and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Epistemology (the study of how things are learned) comes into play as well, with figures like Descartes and Kant placing more interpretive authority in the reader and less in the text. Here Thompson is careful to acknowledge that, although the Bible is the Word of God, we nevertheless recognize that it comes to us in a certain form and as a historical record of true events. The gospels, for instance, are not just a teaching about Jesus but an accurate account of who He is and what He did. Genre is to be considered when approaching the Bible just as any other text.
Further, the importance of the canon cannot be neglected as the 66 volumes speak together. Thompson included in this chapter a handful of helpful considerations when discussing clarity. One that stood out was the fact that the believer reads the word in his own ecclesiastical context. He approaches the word with certain presuppositions drawn from his understanding of the word and influenced by his own church. This is to be distinguished from the postmodern idea of context in which meaning is determined by who is reading it. On the contrary, the Christian recognizes that he carries certain priors into his study of the Bible and that they must be sacrificed if the objective word of God contradicts them. Thompson concludes the chapter by demonstrating that the “death of the author” idea—which supplants authorial intent, replacing it with interpretive subjectivity— is nothing more than a rebellion against the loving, communicating God. God has spoken clearly and we must “take up and read” with the heart of disciples.
The final chapter will likely be interesting to those with a penchant for church history. The doctrine of perspicuity was a major element of the Reformation. When Erasmus finally decided to throw his hat into the ring in the battle against the monk from Germany, the reformation took a dramatic turn. While not often recognized, the two poles of Erasmus’ and Luther’s arguments were as much about perspicuity as the human will. Unsurprisingly, Luther asserted perspicuity while Erasmus denied it and thus sought to maintain the interpretive monopoly of the Roman church.
Erasmus marshalled a handful of arguments against Scripture’s clarity from the Scriptures themselves, the transcendence of God, and the weakness of the human mind. Luther’s excellent response served to distinguish the protestant understanding. The places where the Scriptures admit obscurity are matters of interpretation, not clarity of language; God’s transcendence is in not in question, since it was He who chose to reveal Himself and He cannot fail; and lastly the issue of the human mind.
Luther spoke of the external clarity of the Bible (it is written in clear human language) and internal clarity (the Scriptures are made clear and transformative through the ministry of the Holy Spirit). It was this latter idea that Erasmus did not reckon with in his view of the fallen human mind. God is able both to communicate clearly and to aid the fallen mind to understand what has been communicated. Thompson next takes the reader into an extension of this debate in the writings of the Catholic apologist Bellarmino and his eventual respondent William Whitaker. Space does not permit an account of that exchange, but it is well worth the reader’s attention.
The last few pages are a concise summary of Thompson’s main arguments and the history of the debate. In terms of general observation, there were a few places where Thompson seemed unnecessarily wordy. At times I wished he had spent more time on certain topics, such as the impact of higher criticism and pluralism on biblical hermeneutics. Perhaps that is the strength of this book, however. Thompson avoids departures and stays focused on his message. The author did an excellent job of highlighting a neglected and important doctrine in a way which exalts God. The volume is recommended for anyone wishing to better understand why we must never doubt that God has given us a clear word.