It is always somewhat of an oasis in the midst of the busyness of our synodical meetings when we can gather to mark the graduation of new candidates for the ministry of the Word in our Protestant Reformed Churches. Synodical meetings are busy and require concentrated attention. And while they may be pleasant in their own way, they are not intended to be pleasurable experiences. Hence, it is a relief and a change of pace when we may gather simply for the purpose of celebrating a joyful event.
And this year was no exception.
We gathered in the auditorium of our Hope Church, the site of Synod’s meetings. Fortunately — for Hope’s auditorium can easily become somewhat like a sauna bath when the weather is hot and sultry — the weather was pleasantly comfortable. The Theological School Committee had prepared a brief, well-balanced program, with devotions by the president of the School Committee, Rev. G. Van Baren, audience singing, and a couple of fitting solos by Mr. Arnold Dykstra, — all centered around the commencement address (which follows this editorial) and the presentation of diplomas to Candidates den Hartog and Slopsema. And then, after closing prayer by the Rev. D. Engelsma, president of Synod, the two candidates received congratulations from our people who were present for the occasion.
And so the Lord has given us two more potential ministers of the Word, who, we expect, will soon have places in our churches. All thanks and praise be to Him!
We are sorry that we are not able to present their pictures along with this article, especially for our people in areas where they have never met these brethren. Perhaps they will be kind enough to send in portraits at the time of their ordination, D.V.
On a temporary basis two of our vacant congregations will enjoy the labors of these brethren during the summer months, the Lord willing. Mr. den Hartog expects to fill the pulpit of Prospect Park, New Jersey; and Mr. Slopsema plans to spend the summer in Edgerton, Minnesota. [Note: Due to the abundance of copy connected with seminary graduation and a report on Synod, the second installment of the Post-Lecture Question Box will not appear until our August issue.]
Preaching and Perspicuity
(The following is an approximate transcript of an address delivered at the commencement program of our Theological School. A more exact transcript was originally intended; but the recording tape was defective. Hence, this transcript is from my outline and from memory. HCH)
First of all, I want to speak a hearty word of congratulations to Candidates Den Hartog and Slopsema. We are happy and thankful with you for the achievement which occasions this commencement program. In a rather distinctive group of graduates you have the distinction, too, that you are the first to receive diplomas with the “Grandville, Michigan” address rather than the “Grand Rapids” address. That is not the main thing, however. We are thankful to our God because he has given us two candidates for the ministry in our Protestant Reformed Churches. And we pray that the Lord may soon give you a place in one of our congregations and may then keep you faithful to His Word.
It is fitting to say something on this occasion about the preaching of the Word. To preach the Word will be the life’s calling of these candidates. And it is that preaching of the Word, as well as the very possession and understanding of the Word — and with them the very existence of the church — which are in jeopardy today. Indeed, they are in jeopardy because the authority and the very divine character of the infallible Word are being challenged and denied. But they are in jeopardy, as I hope to bring out presently, in a peculiar respect, namely: in connection with the perspicuity of Holy Scripture. Theologians today are attacking and seeking to destroy the idea of the authority and infallibility of the Word; but they are doing so especially by attacking and denying that attribute of Scripture called perspicuity. And it is that perspicuity more than any single aspect of the doctrine of Holy Scripture which constitutes our Reformed heritage with respect to Scripture.
The Meaning of Perspicuity
To understand what is meant by the perspicuity of Scripture we must go back in history to the differences between Rome and the Reformation. Rome historically has taken the position that the Bible is really a closed book for the laity. The latter cannot understand Scripture without an interpreter who has authority to speak. And this, in Rome’s view, means that the authoritative interpretation of Scripture can be given only by the clergy, that is, ultimately, by the pope. The Reformation, on the other hand, maintained that Holy Scripture is perspicuous.
The difference between the two has been illustrated by a house with a locked door or a house with an open door. Several people approach a house. The door of that house is locked. And only one of that group of people has a key. The rest of the people ask that one person, “Open the door, please, so that we may enter and inspect the inside of the house.” This illustrates the Romish conception of the relation of the church to Scripture. The pope is the man with the key; those without keys are the laity. On the other hand, the Reformed position, it is said, is illustrated by a house with an open door. Several persons wish to enter a house; and the door is not locked, but open. All are equally able to enter the house and can freely inspect it.
Now it is true that the second illustration represents the Protestant view of Scripture in a way. But the illustration is partly misleading. For it makes the Protestant view individualistic. But Protestants did not lose sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is the real interpreter of Holy Scripture, and that the Spirit is not given merely to a number of individuals, but to the church. However, the Protestant conception of the church is different. According to the Reformation, the church is not the clergy; but it is the body of Christ, the gathering of believers and their children in the midst of the world. And for that church’s well-being our Lord Jesus Christ has instituted the offices. One’s conception of the church, therefore, is inextricably connected with the doctrine of the perspicuity of Holy Scripture.
What is meant by perspicuity?
Literally, the term means that Scripture can be “seen through.” If I may coin a term, the perspicuity of Scripture is the “see-through-ableness” of Scripture. Perspicuity means that Scripture is lucid, transparent, understandable, clear.
Perspicuity implies, in the first place, that Scripture ispenetrable, but unfathomable. It does not mean that there are no depths in Scripture which are not easily penetrated; the very opposite is true. Scripture is not closed, but it is profound. It is not impenetrable, but it is unfathomable. This is one of the unique features, in fact, of the divine Scriptures. Any book of man which you may read is soon exhausted. You read it a few times, and you soon feel that you are finished with it. You have fully entered into the sphere of thought of the author. You have penetrated his mind. You have no more need of reading what he has written. But one of the peculiar facets of Holy Writ is this, that the more you turn to Scripture in faith, approach it as the Word of God written, the more you realize that you are exactly not dealing with a word of man, but with God’s Word, and that there are depths in Scripture which you have never yet plumbed and which seem to grow deeper and more unfathomable according as you try to understand them.
That brings us to a second aspect of perspicuity: thatyou need not fathom Scripture in order to understand it. In the process of probing into the depths of Scripture, of entering more-deeply into the riches of God’s Word, you somehow understood the Word of God all the time! Again, this is a unique characteristic of the Bible. As far as man’s word is concerned, it can be easily fathomed. But the mere fact that you can fathom it does not necessarily mean that you can understand its meaning; and though it may be easily fathomed, you do not always easily understand it. Nor, in fact, do you really understand a man’s word until you have fathomed it. The Word of God, on the other hand, can never be fathomed; yet it can readily be understood by the believer (and I wish to emphasize:by the believer!). Nor does the believer have to fathom that Word of God in order to understand it.
These two unique features constitute the perspicuity of Holy Scripture from an objective point of view.
This perspicuity is the key to several realities of the Christian life. It explains several facts. It explains why, in the first place, you may read Scripture every day, study if often and much, listen to the exposition of it in the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s day, and not only never grow weary of reading and hearing, but experience that your interest deepens and increases according as you read and listen and study more diligently. It explains why, in the second place, the Scriptures are not limited in their address to a certain class of people. They simply do not address one class of people, and they do not find receptivity with only one class of people. On the contrary, every believer — be he child or adult, be he layman or clergyman, be uneducated or learned — every believer is addressed in the Scriptures and also experiences that the Scriptures are addressed to him and that they are for him. And is it not a marvel that even our little children can read and in their childish way understand the Scriptures? In the third place, it explains why all believers together have not exhausted the treasures of Holy Scripture. Even after centuries of reading and studying and interpreting Holy Writ, we may still find unexplored depths in the Word of God. No, it is not that in the past they have misunderstood and misinterpreted Scripture, and that they have failed to grasp its meaning. But they have not fathomed and have not exhausted its riches. There is always something more, something new! The minister of the Word may well remember this, too. There is no sermon as rich and as deep as the text upon which it is based; and when the minister has prepared his best sermon on a given text, he must not imagine that he has exhausted the riches of his text. There are always new depths to be plumbed, new riches to uncover, greater treasures to bring to light. The Scriptures are inexhaustibly rich! And, in the fourth place, this truth of perspicuity explains why it is possible to have office bearers, ministers of the Word, whose special task it is to interpret the Word, to be busy in its doctrine, to expound it to the church, to the believers, though, mind you, they understand and interpret the Scriptures themselves!
Hence, the Bible is an open book, from which every child of God may receive all the spiritual instruction and knowledge necessary unto salvation. And this is the teaching of the Bible itself. In II Peter 1:19 this is taught: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.” Notice: the Word of God is a light, not darkness. And again, we read in Hebrews 8:11: “And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.”
But there is another side to this same truth of perspicuity, as we have already suggested. The subjective side of this same truth of perspicuity is the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in every believer. We must remember that the Word of God is perspicuous to the believer, to the child of God. Even though Scripture, objectively considered, is clear, we must remember that the things of the Spirit of God arespiritually discerned. They cannot be discerned by natural man, but only by the believer, that is, by him who has the Spirit of Christ, and that, too, in the fellowship of the body of Christ.
Every individual believer has the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was bestowed upon the church. And the church is not the clergy, but the organism of the body of Christ. Hence, the Spirit was bestowed not on a certain class, or part, of the church, but upon all the members of the body. Only, this is not to be conceived of individualistically, but organically. The Spirit is given not to all the members of the church as mere individuals and in separation from one another. But He is given to every believer in the fellowship of the church — never in separation from the body of believers. And it is by this Spirit that all are guided into all the truth, and all have that truth spiritually applied to their hearts. This implies that no man — minister, elder, deacon, priest, pope, council, synod — is absolutely necessary for any believer or group of believers in order to understand the Word of God unto salvation. This is by no means the same as saying that believers willdespise the pure preaching of the Word and the preachers of that Word. But for the understanding of the Word of God unto salvation no man, even though he be a preacher, is absolutely necessary. This must be maintained. It is an essential element of our Reformation heritage. “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know, all things. . . . But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” I John 2:20,27.
The Relation of Preaching and Perspicuity
That brings us to an important question: what is the relation between preaching and the perspicuity of Scripture? Preaching we may define as the authoritative proclamation of the gospel by the church in the service of the Word of God through Christ. In this connection, our attention is drawn to two facts. In the first place, preaching, in the Reformed view, isessential in the life of the church. In fact, we may safely say that this emphasis is as much a characteristic of the Reformation as is the emphasis on perspicuity. In the Reformed view, the church is a preaching church, not a sacramentarian church. And preaching, in the second place, is precisely the proclamation of the whole Word of God, that is, of the perspicuous Scriptures. Hence, what is the relation between the two? If preaching is essential, and if, on the other hand, perspicuity implies that no man, not even a preacher, is absolutely necessary for the understanding of the Word of God unto salvation, how are the two related? And what are the implications of the attribute of Scripture called perspicuity for preaching and the preacher?
It should be obvious; first of all, negatively, that the preacher must not approach the Word and must not approach the congregation in the preaching as though the Scriptures were not clear and understandable unto salvation.
Yet this is the very position that is taken today even in Reformed churches. The Scriptures, they say, are time-bound and are culturally and historically conditioned. The result is that we cannot really understand the Scriptures unless we engage in the science of historical criticism. We cannot understand the Scriptures unless we can understand fully the cultural and historical background of the human writers and of that of which they write. We cannot understand the Scriptures unless we can understand how the human writers themselves understood their own writings. And the result is, too, that one must try to distill out of the Scriptures the Word of God. Thus, for example, as Dr. Harry Kuitert taught already several years ago when he spoke in Grand Rapids, in Genesis 1there is not an account of how things happened, nor a report of what actually took place; but Genesis gives us the accounts of the origin of things which were current in Israel’s cultural community, accounts which were assimilated by Israel and put into the framework found in Genesis, a frame work suited to their worship of Jehovah. Heathen myths were demythologized and filtered and refashioned and made suitable for a profession of faith of Israel’s God, Jehovah. This same approach and method are applied to all of Holy Scripture. I have cited but a single example.
But I call your attention to the fact that this is a denial of the perspicuity of Holy Scripture. It makes Scripture a book which only the experts — theologians, scientists, historians, anthropologists, archeologists, etc. — can understand. Without those experts the common people of God cannot understand the Scriptures. The attitude of those who take this position is like the attitude of the chief priests in Jesus’ day, “This people that knoweth not the law is accursed.” Principally the position of these theologians — and there are many of them today — is nothing but a reaffirmation of Rome’s error. It interposes the preacher between Scripture and the believers.
But what then is the relation between preaching and perspicuity? If the Scriptures are perspicuous, why is preaching necessary? And why does the right-thinking Reformed believer esteem the preaching of the Word very highly, so that he accounts it the chief of the means of grace and so that he does not want to be deprived of the pure preaching of the Word?
In answer to these questions we call attention to the following important truths. In the first place, it is indeed a blessing for the church that Christ has instituted the office of the ministry of the Word: through the preaching of the Word it pleases Christ to gather and build up and instruct His church in the midst of the world. In the second place, we must remember that it will not do to say that the preaching of the Word is not necessary. This is simply not true. For according to Scripture and the confessions the preaching of the Word is the God-ordained means for the working and strengthening of faith. “How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” Romans 10:14,ff. We must not, therefore, create a false disjunction between the preaching of the Word and the reading and studying and understanding of the Word by the believers. In the third place, and in close connection with the preceding, we must remember that the preaching of the Word is given as a means of grace to the church. It is not the clergy, therefore, as a separate class, that preach the Word. But it is the church, the body of Christ that preaches the Word. And the church accomplishes this calling to preach the Word through the office of the ministry which Christ has ordained in and bestowed upon His church. This, in turn, stands in close connection with a fourth truth: the preaching of the Word exactly has as its premise the perspicuity of the Scriptures. It is not an obscure, dark, unintelligible Word which the church proclaims. Then the preaching itself could not be understood. Then we would never be able to hear Christ Himself through the preaching. On the contrary, it is exactly because the Word of God is clear and perspicuous that it can be preached, and that through the preaching we may indeed hear and behold and embrace Christ unto salvation. If that were not true, preaching would be of no avail. And finally, therefore, the authority of the preaching also rests exactly in the perspicuous Scriptures. You see, theauthority of the preaching and the content of the preaching are inseparably connected. The former rests in the latter. That is, that preaching only is authoritative which has for its content the Word of God. And the church may and does accept the preaching as authoritative only in as far as and because of the fact that she recognizes in the preaching the Word of God. And the church is able to judge the preaching exactly because the Scriptures are perspicuous.
But there is also a very important practical side to the relation between preaching and perspicuity. I may observe here that what I am about to say is true for every believer, and not only for preachers and preachers-to-be. But on this occasion I want to emphasize these points especially for our candidates, who look forward to a place in the ministry.
In the first place, because Scripture is perspicuous, the Bible itself, not any word of man about the Bible, must occupy first place in the study and preparation of the preacher. It is very easy to turn to other sources, and meanwhile to do lip-service to the truth of perspicuity. To confess the truth of perspicuity and immediately to turn to a commentary when we seek to understand a passage of Scripture is inconsistent. To prepare sermons which are nothing more than an eclectic conglomeration of the opinions of men about the meaning of a passage of Scripture is wrong, dead wrong! We may indeed value commentaries highly; and we may respect the labors of other children of God, both past and present. But the writings of men, even though they be men of God and though their expositions of Scripture may be valuable, — the writings of men may not be allowed to take the place of Scripture, nor to intrude between Scripture and ourselves. If we fall into the habit of turning to commentaries instead of to Scripture, we form a very bad habit. Finally we assume the fixed and false attitude that without the help of man the Word of God is to us a closed book. And that is, of course, a blatant denial of the perspicuity of the Word of God. The preacher must, therefore, always turn to that perspicuous Bible before all else.
In the second place, the minister of the Word should read and study the Scriptures confidently. I do not mean that he should do so in self-confidence, that is, in conceited trust in his own wisdom and intellectual ability. But I mean that he should read and study the Scriptures in the confidence of faith. We must read and study in the confidence that the Bible is the Word of God, so that we certainly believe that God will speak to us through the Scriptures. We must read and study and prepare to preach in the confidence that according to His promise, the Lord our God will through the Spirit of truth guide us through the means of the Bible into all the truth. We must read and study the Scriptures in that confidence that is the result of a prayerful attitude.
Then we will not proceed from the false assumption that we will not understand the true meaning of Scripture from mere reading. Nor will we easily give up and abandon our efforts when a given portion of Scripture does not yield its significance to us immediately. When we do that, we really are blaming Scripture instead of putting the blame where it properly belongs — on ourselves. But laboring in this confidence, we will read Scripture again and again, twenty-five or even a hundred times if necessary.
In the third place, we will not simply thoughtlessly read a passage of Scripture over and over again. That would be a futile exercise. But we will read carefully and attentively. Believing that Scripture is its own interpreter, we will read it in its own light, comparing Scripture with Scripture. We will strive to understand its figures, its symbols, its visions, etc. We will read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. And thus we will understand and grow in the understanding and the ability to expound the Scriptures and to preach the Word.
The Significance of Preaching the Perspicuous Word
Finally, and briefly, what is the significance of all this? In the first place, this is significant for the position and the attitude of the minister of the Word himself. He must not imagine and assume the attitude that the congregation is bound to accept his word because it is HE, the minister, who speaks. He has no authority whatsoever in and by himself. The mere fact that he occupies the place of minister, or the fact that he may be intellectually superior, or the fact that he has been thoroughly educated — all this clothes him with no authority and gives him no right to impose his word upon the congregation or upon any believer with the expectation that it will be and must be unconditionally accepted. Nor, we must remember, is the danger of assuming such an attitude by any means imaginary! Nevertheless, the faithful minister of the Word must expect desire only that his word is accepted by the congregation only because it is the WORD OF GOD ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES.
In the second place, this is of great significance for the congregation.
Woe to the church that accepts an attitude of false authoritarianism on the part of its minister! Woe to the church that allows the minister to become a little pope, whose word is with authority. No word of man not even if it is an interpretation of the Word of God — has any authority whatsoever! The Word of God is the only authoritative Word!
And this means that the congregation — all of it, ordinary member as well as elder, from the least to the greatest — must always judge the word of the preaching in the light of the Word of God. The truth of perspicuity gives no place to the devil of hierarchy! But all believers are called to watch, lest false doctrines should be introduced in the church of Christ, to watch even over the office bearers and the official work of the ministry. And ultimately they have the power and the calling to depose their own office bearers, the power of reformation, if in no other way the purity of the preaching can be maintained and if in no other way false doctrines can be kept out.
To this end we must all, with one accord, be diligent in the study of the Scriptures.
But especially does this hold true for the ministers of the Word!
May God give our candidates grace to be mighty in the perspicuous Scriptures, and never to depart therefrom!