Previous article in this series: October 1, 2017, p. 14.
In our recent articles we have been considering together the truth of the perspicuity of Holy Scripture. By the perspicuity of Scripture we mean that the Bible is clear. The ordinary believer is able to understand Scripture, know with confidence what the meaning of Scripture is, and is able to judge all teaching in its light. We have seen what this truth means and what it does not mean. We have also demonstrated that Scripture teaches its own perspicuity.
The truth of the perspicuity of Scripture is a vital aspect of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture. In a very real sense, the whole truth that Scripture is the infallibly inspired and authoritative Word of God depends on the Bible’s clarity. To deny that Scripture is clear and understandable is effectively to undermine Scripture’s authority. For how can Scripture function as the authority in the church if it is unclear, a deep mystery, and a book filled with dark sayings, the meaning of which can only be deciphered by a select group of professional theologians? It cannot! Scripture’s authority is based on and demands Scripture’s clarity. That is true to our experience, too. A father expects obedience from his children because he makes very clear to them what is and what is not pleasing to him. So it is with God.
The Reformation, as is well known, aimed to put the Bible back into the hands of the ordinary members of the church. The Reformers strove to do that out of the conviction that the ordinary, Spirit-filled members of the church were able to understand the Bible. And they were able to understand the Bible because the Bible is clear. They were ultimately motivated in their endeavor by their conviction of Scripture’s perspicuity. We must not forget this in our celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation this year. As part of their insistence on sola Scriptura, the Reformers insisted on Scripture’s perspicuity.
Rome’s ban of Scripture
The Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation vigorously opposed the Reformers’ efforts to put the Bible into the hands of the common people. Not only did Rome oppose this endeavor, but did everything in her power to take the Bible out of the hands of the common people. Deliberately and intentionally, the Roman Catholic authorities banned the reading of the Bible by members of the church. Those who were caught reading the Bible or convicted of owning a copy of the Bible, particularly a translation of the Bible other than the sacrosanct Latin Vulgate, faced fines, imprisonment, and even death. Bibles were banned and burned, and so were they who sought to read or own one.
It is hard for us to imagine such a situation. Most of us own many Bibles. We have them throughout our homes, by the sides of our beds, in our schools, cars, and church pews. They travel with us in our briefcases and backpacks, or on our iPads or smart phones. But there was a time in history when the Bible was banned as a dangerous book! That time lasted for nearly a thousand years, from about A.D. 500–1500. That is why this period is sometimes referred to as the “Dark Ages”—a fitting name for a time when the light of God’s Word was deliberately obscured by the one organization that was called to cause the light of God’s Word to shine throughout the world.
Several Roman Catholic councils officially prohibited owning and reading the Bible. Two of these councils were the Council of Toulouse and the Council of Tarragona.
Council of Toulouse (A.D. 1229): “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.”
Council of Tarragona (A.D. 1234): “No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments in the Romance language, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over to the local bishop within eight days after promulgation of this decree, so that they may be burned….”
The Bible was even placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by Pope Pius IV in 1559. He decreed: “Whoever reads or has such a translation [of the Bible]… cannot be absolved from his sins until he has turned in these Bibles…. Books in the vernacular dealing with the controversies between Catholics and the heretics of our time are not to be generally permitted, but are to be handled in the same way as Bible translations.” Book burnings that included Bibles were common at the time of the Reformation. Possession of a Bible was a criminal offense, carrying stiff penalties and even the possibility of death. Those who were caught translating, publishing, or distributing the Bible were arrested and often executed. John Foxe reports in his well-known Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that “it was a common practice to fasten about the neck of the condemned heretic such of these scraps of Scripture as were found in his possession, which generally shared his fate.”1
Oxford professor and theologian, John Wycliffe, was the first to translate the New Testament into English in order to “…help Christian men to study the gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence.” For this grievous “heresy” Wycliffe was posthumously condemned by the decree of the Council of Constance in 1415—the same council that condemned John Hus to the stake. Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and burned, after which his ashes were scattered over the Swift River. 2 When Hus was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, it is reported that pages from Wycliffe’s English Bible were used as kindling for the fire that consumed him. In 1536, William Tyndale was burned at the stake after he was betrayed by a friend. His capital offense was translating the Bible into English. As the fire consumed him, he was heard to cry out in a loud voice, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”
Rome’s denial of Scripture’s perspicuity
Rome took the Bible out of the hands of the common people and banned the translating, distributing, and reading of the Bible out of a strong prejudice against the Bible’s perspicuity. Rome denied—adamantly—the right and the ability of the ordinary members of the church to understand Scripture. Rome’s view was that the ordinary believer was not equipped to interpret Scripture, in distinction from the clergy who were supposed to possess this ability. Rome’s view was that encouraging the members of the church to read and interpret Scripture was an open invitation to misinterpretation and the spread of heresy.
Several things contributed to and exacerbated Rome’s denial of Scripture’s perspicuity. For one thing, the official translation of the Bible that was elevated to supreme authority in the church of the Middle Ages was the Latin Vulgate, the translation of the church father Jerome. The Latin language was the language of scholarship at this time. But the lay members of the church did not usually know Latin and, therefore, could not read the Bible in a language that was understandable to them. Written as it was in a foreign language throughout most of the Middle Ages, the official translation of the Bible used by the church in worship could not be understood by the ordinary members.
Secondly, contributing to the loss of the doctrine of perspicuity was Rome’s denial of the right of private interpretation. Rome taught that only the church was capable of interpreting the Bible and that all interpretation of Scripture was subject to the approval of the church. In the end, “the church” meant the clergy, the priests, bishops, and cardinals of the church. Ultimately, the infallible interpreter of the Bible was the pope—the supreme head and ruler of the church. Despite the fact that the Bereans searched the Scriptures daily and compared the teaching of the apostle Paul to the supreme standard of Scripture (), Rome denied the right of the individual believer to judge the teachings of the church by the Word of God.
Contributing to the loss of the doctrine of perspicuity, in the third place, was the bizarre and random method of interpretation of Scripture that was in vogue in the church at the time of the Reformation. That method was the allegorical method of biblical interpretation. Different levels of meaning were held to be embedded in the text of Scripture. Hidden meanings were to be uncovered, which no novice or ordinary church member could possibly discover. The text of Scripture was spiritualized and given a meaning altogether different from that which was the plain, grammatical sense of the text. This was something that only trained clergy could do, only those who were adept at peeling away the literal meaning to uncover what was considered the more important meaning of the text. By using this method of interpretation—a method promoted by various theologians and Bible teachers throughout history—Scripture could be made to teach almost anything.
And then, what also tended to promote Rome’s denial of the perspicuity of the Bible was the exaltation of other authorities alongside of Holy Scripture. Scripture could not stand on its own, but needed other authorities to clarify and support its teaching. Rome elevated the authority of the apocrypha alongside Scripture. Besides the apocrypha, Rome also elevated the writings of the church fathers and the decisions of church councils alongside Scripture. They were needed, in Rome’s view, in order to assist in determining the meaning of Scripture. Scripture is not in itself clear, at least not so clear that it can stand as its own interpreter.
Contemporary challenges to perspicuity
As was the case in the days of the Reformation, so also today the church faces significant challenges to Scripture’s perspicuity.
For some time, one of the most serious threats to the Bible’s perspicuity has been the teaching of theistic evolution. According to the teaching of theistic evolution, the opening chapters of Genesis are not to be interpreted at face value. Rather than what appears to be the meaning of Genesis 1, that God created the universe in seven literal, successive, twenty-four-hour days, God actually created all things over millions and billions of years by a process of evolution. God created the first life-forms, but then withdrew and allowed all things to evolve on their own according to fixed natural laws.
When it is pointed out that this is simply not Genesis 1, the response is that we can only understand God’s Word in Scripture (special revelation) in light of God’s word in creation and history (general revelation). Genesis 1 must be interpreted in the light of the latest scientific evidence, it is alleged, and the latest scientific evidence supports the teaching of evolution. Despite what Genesis 1 appears to teach, despite what any young child or new convert to the Christian faith might suppose, the chapter does not teach that God created all things in six, literal, twenty-four-hour days.
The result is that the perspicuity of the Bible is lost and the church is made subject to a new pope. That new pope is science and science falsely so-called. Scripture is not clear, but what appears to be the teaching of Scripture must be subjected to an authority other than that of Scripture itself. For my part, I would rather be subject to the pope. Christians must see this new challenge to the perspicuity of Scripture and reject it.
The same sort of thing is true of those who are promoting the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). This is not the time or place fully to describe and evaluate this heretical movement, which is currently making inroads into evangelical and Reformed churches. There are resources available for those who are interested in studying this movement and its unorthodox theology, especially its denial of the classic Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works. But our interest in the NPP has to do with its view of Scripture and, particularly, the perspicuity of Scripture.
Spokesmen for the NPP, such as N. T. Wright, retired bishop of Durham and world-renowned Anglican theologian, champion a new reading of the apostle Paul. They challenge the traditional understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification, going so far as to claim that the Protestant Reformers misread Paul. The Reformation’s identification of “the article of a standing or falling church,” arose out of a misunderstanding of what Paul actually teaches in Romans and Galatians. This new evaluation of Paul’s teaching on justification is based, in large measure, on what is alleged to be a clearer understanding of Second Temple Judaism. On the basis of the contributions of Second Temple Judaism, Paul could not possibly be defending a doctrine of justification by faith alone. Such is the contention of the NPP.
Altogether apart from the question whether the proponents of the NPP are correctly evaluating Second Temple Judaism—and there are those who argue convincingly that they are not—the appeal to Second Temple Judaism in order to interpret Scripture’s teaching on justification is a fundamental assault on the perspicuity of the Bible. The presupposition is that Scripture is not clear, or at least, not sufficiently clear, on the truth of justification. Something is needed outside of Scripture and in addition to Scripture in order to clarify Scripture’s meaning. But what ordinary believer has access to and is able to decipher the tenets of Second Temple Judaism? This is certainly beyond the capabilities of the believer in the pew, or the young child in the Christian school classroom, or the aged saint in the nursing home. Thus, the church in its understanding of Scripture is held captive by scholars and theologians. Through their understanding of a phenomenon like Second Temple Judaism, they are qualified to inform the rest of the church what the real teaching of Scripture is.
But these are not the only or even the most serious threats to the perspicuity of Scripture. The most serious threat is our own lack of zeal for serious Bible study. Rather than to search the Scriptures diligently, rather than to compare Scripture with Scripture, rather than to use those aids that are readily available to every believer, we too easily give up in our striving to understand God’s Word. We suppose that the Scriptures are too difficult for us and we neglect what we know is our calling faithfully to read, study, and meditate on the Scriptures. Shame on us! Since the Scriptures are clear and are capable of being understood by the humblest member of the church, we ought to be motivated to read and study them, like the Bereans “searching the Scriptures daily” in order to judge “whether those things are so” (Acts 17:11).
1 John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, ed. William B. Forbush (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 138.
2 Foxe, Book of Martyrs, 139.