The clarity of Scripture is one of those doctrines that you don’t really miss until it’s gone. It’s constantly being undermined by well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) Christians who think it’s the better part of piety to question the intelligibility of verbal revelation.
The challenges to the clarity of Scripture start out small. They sound humble and practical at first. But in the end, if we lose this attribute of Scripture—so plainly taught, if not simply assumed, in the pages of the Bible—we lose some of the most precious and hard-fought truths the church must have if it is to grow and flourish. There is a lot at stake with this doctrine.
First, the gift of human language is at stake.
It sounds humble to say, “We can’t put God in a box. We can’t define him with human language. If we could define him with our words, then he wouldn’t be God anymore. Scripture simply gives us one inspired record of human beings trying to describe mysteries that are beyond mere words and language.”
That sounds nice, even noble. But there are several hidden assumptions in a soliloquy like that:
Each of these assumptions is mistaken. Just because God cannot be known exhaustively, that does not mean he cannot be known at all. Theologians have long distinguished between archetypal knowledge (that which God has of himself) and ectypal knowledge (that which we have by virtue of his self-revelation). And nowhere do Jesus or the apostles ever treat the Old Testament as human reflections on the divine. It is instead the voice of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:25; Hebrews 3:7) and God’s own breath (2 Timothy 3:16).
More to the point, human language, however imperfect and imprecise at times, is best seen as a divine gift. God is the first one in the universe to speak. To be more precise, his speech calls the universe into being (Hebrews 11:3). Then he comes to Adam with words, expecting the image-bearer to understand what he communicates and obey his statutes. And who is it that first challenges the clarity of verbal revelation? It is the Serpent, challenging whether God has really spoken what Adam and Eve heard him say (Genesis 3:1).
But if we are created in the image of God, then it stands to reason that we are fit conversation partners for the God who began the universe by speaking.
God is the divine speaker antecedent to all human speaking. The facility for language is part of the gift God gives to us of himself. It is one thing to suggest that God cannot be known absolutely or contained in any verbal system. It’s appropriate to admit that language can be used deceitfully and is subject to ambiguity. But if we are created in the image of God, then it stands to reason that we are fit conversation partners for the God who began the universe by speaking. Human language is a divinely created means whereby God, from the very beginning, intended to make himself and his ways known.
Second, the gift of human freedom is at stake.
The Protestant doctrine of perspicuity is one of the foundations for religious liberty in the West. Implicit in the affirmation of Scripture’s clarity is the recognition that individuals have the responsibility and the ability to interpret Scripture for themselves: Not apart from community, or without attention to history and tradition and scholarship. But in the final analysis, the doctrine of perspicuity means that I should not be forced to go against my own conscience. Only Jesus Christ, speaking through the word, is Lord of the conscience.
Of course, this most Protestant of doctrines has opened a door to all sorts of problems—factions, eccentric interpretations, rampant individualism, and the like. But despite these dangers, the freedom that perspicuity protects is worth the cost. Herman Bavinck explains:
On balance, however, the disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages. For the denial of the clarity of Scripture carries with it the subjection of the layperson to the priest, or a person’s conscience to the church. The freedom of religion and the human conscience, of the church and theology, stands and falls with the perspicuity of Scripture. It alone is able to maintain the freedom of the Christian; it is the origin and guarantee of religious liberty as well as of our political freedoms. Even a freedom that cannot be obtained and enjoyed aside from the dangers of licentiousness and caprice is still always so to be preferred over a tyranny that suppresses liberty.
The biblical doctrine of perspicuity can be abused. But a raft of bad interpretations and the sometimes free-for-all of Protestantism is still worth the price of reading the Bible for ourselves according to our God-given (and imperfect) consciences. Freedom of religious inquiry and expression would not be possible without confidence in the clarity of Scripture.
Third, what God is like is at stake.
The fantastic work by D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God, is aptly named. At the heart of the postmodern skepticism about knowing God is an inferior conception of what God is like. The question is not whether we are haughty enough to think we have peered into the recesses of eternity and understand God omnisciently. The question is whether God is the sort of God who is willing to communicate with his creatures and able to do so effectively. Can God speak? Or is he gagged?
You may have come across the little story about the six blind men and the elephant. There are six blind men touching an elephant, trying to determine what it is they feel. One man touches the belly of the animal and thinks it’s a wall. Another grabs his ear and thinks it’s a fan. Another thinks his tail is a rope. On they go, each grabbing a part of the elephant without any one of them knowing what it is they really feel. The point of story? We are all blind men when it comes to God. We know a part of him, but we don’t really know who he is. No one is more right than anyone else. We are all just grasping in the dark, thinking we know more than we do.
But of course there are two enormous problems with the analogy.
For starters, the whole story is told from the vantage point of someone who clearly knows that the elephant is an elephant. For the story to make its point, the narrator has to have clear and accurate knowledge of the elephant. The second flaw is even more serious. The story is a perfectly good description of human inability in matters of the divine. We are blind and unable to know God by our own devices.
But the story never considers this paradigm-shattering question: What if the elephant talks? What if he tells the blind men, “That wall-like structure is my side. That fan is really my ear. And that’s not a rope; it’s a tail.” If the elephant were to say all this, would the six blind men be considered humble for ignoring his word?
We must not separate epistemology (that is, our theory of what we know and how we can know it) from the rest of theology. These high-sounding debates about perspicuity and hermeneutics really have to do with the character of God. Is God wise enough to make himself known? Is he good enough to make himself accessible? Is he gracious enough to communicate in ways that are understandable to the meek and lowly? Or does God give us commands we can’t understand and a self-revelation that reveals more questions than answers?
Finally, whom God is for is at stake.
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture insists that even the simplest disciple can understand God’s word and be saved. Without this doctrine, you have to wonder: Is the Bible only for pastors and priests? Can laypeople be trusted with the sacred Scriptures? Do you need to be a scholar to really understand God’s word? Do you need a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, of Second Temple Judaism, of Greco-Roman customs, of ancient Near Eastern religion, or redaction criticism, source criticism, and form criticism? Is God a God of the smarty-pants only?
As R.C. Sproul asks, “What kind of God would reveal his love and redemption in terms so technical and concepts so profound that only an elite corps of professional scholars could understand them?”
William Tyndale (1494–1536) was often maligned and in danger for his efforts to translate the Bible into the common language of the people. On one occasion when in dispute with a “learned man,” he replied, “If God spare my life [before] many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of scripture than thou dost.” That’s confidence in the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.
And it cost Tyndale his life. He died by strangulation, and his corpse was burned in the city square. Fittingly, at the stake he cried out these last words with a loud voice: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
Yes, Lord, open our eyes to see the power and privilege we have to read the Scriptures in a language we can understand. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in your law. Open our eyes to see the truth you have clearly laid before us. God has made it plain—to all of us—if only we have the eyes to see.