Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
When we as children of God take up God’s Word to read and study it, we do so by faith. God has given us His Word for this one purpose, that we might understand it, that is, that it might be to us, both as believers and as churches, the only rule of faith and life. That Word of God is clear and readily understood by the child of God.
As Reformed people we confess the truth of the clarity or perspicuity of Holy Scripture. This confession has two parts to it. By it we confess first of all that as God spake to us by His servants, the apostles and prophets, by holy men of God who were moved by His Spirit, so also that Word comes to us in the form ‘of human speech and language. Though it be therefore the very revelation of God Himself, it is nevertheless clear to us. It addresses us in terms which we can understand, was given us and ministered to us by men whose very characters, circumstances, and experiences in life were shaped in the sovereign providence of God for the very purpose of giving us His infallible Word. The Scriptures are therefore, in the objective sense of the Word, clear and understandable. They are not a dark book of obscure utterances.
That which is true objectively is also true of that Word of God as it is read and studied by the believer, subjectively appropriated by him and made his own. This second element is vital. The Scriptures are clear in themselves so that even the unbeliever is left without excuse when confronted by them. Yet he does not truly understand God’s Word, for the truths it contains are spiritual and can only be understood and appropriated spiritually, by faith. God confers this ability to understand spiritual things upon us by His Spirit, when He works in us saving faith. He continues to work this blessing in us by His Spirit in the way of prayer and meditation upon His Word. It is thus that the apostle John speaks in his first epistle, I John 2:20, “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.” The Scriptures are clear, and they are clear to the believer because he is anointed to the office of believer.
This truth of the clarity of God’s Word means for us as children of God that we may take up God’s Word to read, study, and understand it because we know that it is God Who teaches us. In His Word, God also teaches us sound principles of interpretation and is in fact His own interpreter. This does not mean that the Scriptures do not require study. We must not confuse the clarity of God’s Word with that which can be understood without effort, or with what might be called easy reading. The Scriptures are clear and understandable, and can be read and understood by us as children of God. But they are not on the level of a beginning reader, though even a very young reader can begin to read and understand them according to the measure of his understanding. God requires of us that we not simply read His word, but that we study it and prayerfully meditate upon it. It is also through such study that that which is more difficult to understand in God’s Word becomes clearer, and we grow in our understanding. But in all such study we have the assurance of God that His Word is clear and given to be understood. Moreover we have His own promise that He will aid and guide us.
This principle of the clarity of God’s Word is one which it is essential that we maintain in the times in which we live. It was one of the principal issues between the Reformers and Rome in the days of the Reformation. Rome maintained that the Bible stood beyond the understanding of the ordinary members of the church and maintained that the anointing of the Spirit, by which God’s Word might be understood, was limited to the clergy. Against this false view of Rome the reformers stood upon the testimony of the Word of God itself and maintained its clarity. That clarity is still under attack and the philosophy of Rome under different guise is flourishing in our day, and making inroads into the post-Protestant Christian church.
It is from such a philosophy that much of modern so-called Biblical scholarship proceeds. It is a scholarship which would take the Bible out of the hands of God’s people to place it into the hands of an elite core of so-called scholars. It is the denial of the clarity of God’s Word which leads to the multiplication of simplified and condensed versions or translations of the Bible, so-called, which are intended to present God’s Word to what are regarded as the illiterate and ignorant masses. The denial of the clarity of God’s Word also lies hidden behind such attacks upon God’s Word as the argument that the Scriptures are culturally conditioned and the other heresies of our age which would reduce the Scriptures to the ancient records of a distant people and their religious experience. These leave us with the impression that if we are not learned in such fields of study as archaeology and cultural history and anthropology, we cannot understand God’s Word but are really perpetually misunderstanding what we read, unable without such learned assistance truly to grasp the meaning of what we read in the Scriptures, as if the clarity of Scripture were confined to a select few who can read it. This is nothing but a warmed-over version of the philosophy of Rome.
This same implicit denial of the clarity of God’s Word is found too in the use or misuse of Scripture by the cults, and some of the bizarre interpretations of prophecy found among so-called fundamentalist circles, which disregard the plain meaning and contexts of passages and the self-evident symbolic character of visions and revelations. These, while professing Scripture’s clarity loudly and making the claim that they take it literally, in actual practice and interpretation deny it, in fact make a mockery of it. For they take a cut-and-paste approach to Scripture, wrenching passages out of their proper context and ignoring their plain meaning in their context. They do so that they might piece together a jigsaw puzzle of unrelated and misunderstood texts to propound their strange theories and doctrines. The very nature of these theories and this approach to Scripture makes Scripture obscure and its interpretation dependent upon the leaders of the cult or the latest celebrity’s book. So often this approach comes with the appearance of simplicity, or of being Bible-based rather than modernistic, but it is in fact nothing more than trading upon the mere sound of the words or an expression of Scripture without paying any attention to what it means in the place in which it is found. It also is a denial of Scripture’s basic clarity.
As children of God confronted by these many voices round about us, we may well become discouraged and begin to wonder if anyone can really understand God’s Word. We may well begin to feel as if we must take the attitude, you have your “opinion” and I have mine, and we may even begin to walk in doubt as to whether we have understood God’s Word or whether it is even possible that we can or should understand it. Such an attitude of doubt, if it fixes itself in our minds, will effectively destroy the very foundations of our own study of God’s Word. For how shall I know that what I find there is truly what God says to me? What then would be the point of studying God’s Word?
The answer to these doubts Scripture also sets before us. God indeed tells us that there shall be those who are ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth, and that exactly because they have not faith. The Word of God also warns’ us of false prophets, false teachers, and of wolves who seek to enter the sheepfold of Christ, both in the guise of sheep and shepherds, who seek to destroy the church. Over against these warnings, God has set His promise to guide us as His people and as the church of Christ into all truth. He has given us His Word for one reason only—that we might understand it; and in order that we might do so, He anoints us with His Spirit. Possessing His promise, we understand that our doubts about our ability to understand God’s Word arise not out of faith, but out of the assault which our old adversary, the devil, makes upon our faith, that by means of doubt and uncertainty he might keep us from God’s Word. The cure for such doubt is to take up God’s promise and the clear Word of God, and read, study, and prayerfully meditate upon it, making it our own. For we know that God will by His grace and Spirit make His Word plain to us. We must ever in humility and meekness also recognize that in our study of His Word our own sin and imperfection intrudes. We have not yet perfect knowledge or understanding and are therefore utterly dependent upon the Lord to teach us. This He has promised to do, and that which He gives unto us to know and understand is true. By the study of His Word He purposes that we shall grow in all knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. He that calls us therefore to take up His Word will also be faithful to make it plain.