The Clarity of Scripture (Perspicuity)
This is the first monthly article on theological words. We hope to encourage Christians to grow in their walk with Christ and deepen an understanding of the theology found in the Bible. In a recent article entitled “5 Tips for Meaningful Bible Study,” we mentioned that the Bible is clear. With some effort and the support of other people and tools, those who desire to understand the Bible can do so. Let us now briefly consider the doctrine of perspicuity, the theological term for the clarity of Scripture.
A simple definition of perspicuity is: the doctrine advocating that the Bible is understandable.
In other words, people can properly judge and interpret the meaning of Scripture for themselves. The Bible is not so difficult that only the highest scholars can decipher it. This doesn’t negate the need for trained expositors and teachers of Scripture. Neither does it mean that we shouldn’t consult commentaries and other study tools to help us. It does mean that the Bible is accessible to those that read it and study it correctly, using ordinary means to do so.
The well-known reformer and Bible translator, William Tyndale, had a desire to see the Bible translated into the English language so the average person could gain a knowledge of Scripture. At the time, the Catholic Church taught that only the Church could interpret Scripture and teach what parishioners needed to know. However, Tyndale knew that the Bible affirmed its clarity and that it should be read by the common man. In defiance of the Catholic Church’s stance, Tyndale stated, “I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope.” Once translated from the original languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic into the common language of any people-group, the Bible, indeed, can be known and understood!
Yes, Scripture is clear, and it tells us what God wants us to know about Him, the means of salvation, and other important doctrines.
Let’s take note of a few passages of Scripture that point us toward the doctrine of perspicuity and show us that the Bible is not so difficult or confusing that one cannot work to understand it.
Psalm 119:105 (KJV)
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
Psalm 119 is chock-full of verses about God’s law, His Word to His people. This verse reminds us that it is a light for us. This implies we can know the way that God designed for us, His plan of redemption through history, how we can be saved through faith in Christ, and how we ought to live.
Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (KJV)"And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
Here we see that God’s words, his commands are simple enough for children to understand. This doesn’t mean that we will comprehend Scripture completely the first time we ever read or study a passage, but it is clear that even children can know and understand what the Lord requires of them.
Psalm 19:7 (KJV)
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
Here again, we see that even the simplest among us can understand what God says in His Word. His law is perfect, and it brings life to the soul. God did not give us a book full of commands and sayings that will baffle us for the ages. He gave us His clear message, which means we know what we must do.
Have you not read…?
Several times in the Gospels Jesus said, “Have you not read…?” He implied that Scripture is accessible. He was saying, “You should know this! It is plainly laid out for you in the Scriptures (the Old Testament).” Jesus implied that the Bible was clear, and pointed to it again and again.
But this brings up some interesting questions.
Is the Bible also clear to unbelievers or is the clarity of Scripture just a doctrine that is true for believers? Larry Pettegrew, Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary explains, “…even an unsaved person can understand the plain teachings of Scripture on an external level. Some might think of 1 Cor. 2:14 that says that the things of the Spirit are foolish to the man without the Spirit, and he cannot understand them. But the point is not that an unsaved person cannot understand what the Scripture is saying or teaching. The point is that he cannot have a spiritual understanding. At best, Scripture is insignificant to him; at worst, it is incredible.” (The Master’s Seminary Journal [Fall 2004], 215)
While it is true that even the unbeliever can understand Scripture and have a vast knowledge of its history and doctrine, only the believer can truly comprehend, receive, and spiritually apply what the Bible says. This is because we need the Holy Spirit in order to genuinely understand the clarity of Scripture.
If it is so clear, then why are there so many interpretations of certain passages?
Martin Luther deals with many questions like these in his well-known book, The Bondage of the Will. His responses include:
- We are often ignorant of Scripture in general
- We have darkened and sinful hearts that won’t understand
- We often don’t understand the grammar and keywords in many texts
- We don’t spend enough time studying
These are helpful reminders. It isn’t a lack of clarity on Scripture’s part that is the problem, but the hearts and heads of men and women. What a reminder that we need God’s help to understand His Word! What about those tough passages? There are some that don’t seem so clear! Even Peter knew that some Scripture is difficult to understand:
2 Peter 3:15-16 (KJV)And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; 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.
Notice, however, these matters are “hard to understand,” not impossible to understand. Sometimes, we will need help from those who are older and wiser, and there are times when we will grow in our understanding through years of study. We will not always understand all Scripture completely, but this gives testimony to the fact that the Bible is a divinely inspired book with depths that can never be fully mined. But thanks be to God, who has given us his Word which is entirely profitable and sufficient for godly living (2 Tim. 3:16).
May the Lord bless your reading and studying of Scripture and give you confidence that you can understand what it contains. Ask him to allow you to see it in such a way that it will be a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path.