Perspicuity

Rev. Kamps is pastor of the Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

The biblical truth of the clarity of Scripture was vigorously set forth by the Reformers of the sixteenth century over against the teaching of Rome. The term “perspicuity” as applied to Scripture, means that the Bible is of such a nature that its meaning is clear, transparent, and penetrable to the believer. Not the impenitent, spiritually dead in sin sinner so finds God’s Word; for to him it speaks only of wrath and of judgment. But the man of God, regenerated, indwelled by the illuminating Spirit of Christ, and placed thereby in the office of all believers, can see through to the saving meaning of Scripture.

Rome had taught that the Bible is far too difficult for the so-called lay people to understand. Roman Catholicism has always viewed the Bible as a dark, obscure book. The laity, therefore, were never encouraged or even allowed to read the Bible. The people could not, according to Rome, properly understand the Bible. Giving them permission to read and interpret it would only lead to all manner of error and endless controversy and division. The unity of the church would be destroyed!

Rome had no conception of the “office of all believers” or any real understanding of the “illumination of the Spirit of Christ” in the life of the individual believer. In fact, Rome insisted upon the exclusive prerogative of the church to interpret the Bible. This meant that ultimately only Peter’s successor, the Pope in Rome, could accurately interpret God’s Word. As far as the people were concerned the Bible was a “closed book.” Only the clergy, as beneficiaries of the alleged “sacrament of ordination,” could be entrusted with the duty and privilege to read, study, and proclaim the Word of God in the light of the authoritative interpretation of the Romish Church. Roman Catholicism is the intruding of a mere human mediator between God and His people in Christ Jesus. This mere human mediator is the infallible Pope in Rome. He is the one man who alone can rightly interpret Scripture. All must acknowledge his office and the Romish Church’s “magisterium.”

The Reformation is to be remembered in part under the figure of an open Bible. In many Protestant churches there is displayed the symbol of the “open Bible.” The Bible is open in the sense that it is readable, and subject to interpretation by the ordinary believer under the guidance and leading of the Spirit of Christ. Skevington Wood informs us of the position of Martin Luther:

Luther’s conception of the place occupied by Scripture in revelation was allied to his unremitting emphasis on what he called its perspicuity. He held that the Bible is luminously clear in its meaning as befits the chosen medium of God’s own self-disclosure. He rebuked Erasmus for inclining to “that impudent and blasphemous saying, ‘the Scriptures are obscure.”‘ “They who deny the all-clearness and all-plainness of the Scriptures leave us nothing else but darkness,” he complained. “Moreover I declare against you concerning the whole of the Scripture that I will have no one part of if called obscure,” he continued; “and to support me stands that which I have brought forth out of Peter, that the Word of God is to us a ‘lamp shining in a dark place.’

II Pet. 1:19

But if any part of this lamp does not shine, it is rather a part of the dark place than the lamp itself. For Christ has not so illuminated us, as to wish that any part of His Word should remain obscure, even while He commands us to attend to it: for if it be not shining plain, His commanding us to attend to it is in vain” (Captive To the Word, p. 135).

Our confidence that the Scriptures are perspicuous must not be viewed as a mere Protestant assertion without biblical warrant. In other words, does the Bible itself teach that it is clear and subject to interpretation by the believing student of Scripture? Surely, the Scriptures everywhere call themselves “light.” Not only do we have the passage above from II Peter, but also Psalm 119:105: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” But even more importantly the idea of perspicuity is implied in the concept of “revelation.” The apostle John was instructed to record “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1-11). The prophet Daniel confessed to Nebuchadnezzar, “But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets. . .” (Daniel 2:28). And the apostle Paul confessed, “How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:3-5). To reveal is to uncover, and, by uncovering, to display and present for all to see. The very concept of revelation precludes depicting the Scriptures as dark, obscure, and impenetrable to the believing mind.

I believe it most necessary to warn against amisuse within Reformed churches of the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture. Right principles are subject to abuse and misuse. This is, of course, true with respect to other doctrines of Scripture. We need only be reminded how men have twisted beyond recognition the doctrines of election and justification in order to foist an antinomian conception of life upon an unsuspecting church. The Heidelberger asks the question: “But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?” (Lord’s Day 24, Q. 64). The fathers are instructing us in the truth that we are justified by faith alone without works. It ought to be observed very carefully that biblical doctrinenever makes men careless and profane; but it should also be pointed out that careless and profane men ever abuse sound doctrine.

So too with the doctrine of perspicuity. Many men in the past have insisted upon their erroneous views, interpretations, and applications of God’s Word, to the point of rejecting the fellowship of the saints and forsaking the church. They have exalted individualism, independency, and personal determination, to the point where they will not hear the church, or the offices of Christ, or the testimony of the saints in common. Their fierce individualism is the manifestation of their failure to understand that the Spirit dwells in and leads the church organically into all the truth. The unity of the church institute has no meaning for them and they acknowledge no necessity to preserve that unity. Their opinions are so highly esteemed by themselves that all other doctrines which they may hold in common with the church must be set aside as not nearly as important as their own peculiar opinions.

Such a perversion of the perspicuity principle of Scripture and the “office of all believers” is not the way to the reformation of the church! Often it is so presented. The individual is then personally convinced, not only of the correctness of his position, the great significance of his insights, and the absolute necessity of, if need be, separation from the church, but he is convinced also that the failure of others to agree with him and to stand with him is to be explained by the alleged unfaithfulness of the believers, and the apostasy of the church institute.

In that light, it might be tempting to deny the doctrine of perspicuity and give more credence to Rome’s errors; for such misuse of the office of all believers and the doctrine of perspicuity is the cause of endless division and turmoil in the church institute. But in regard to this temptation we must demand, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” The doctrine of perspicuity is biblical. It is an aspect of the doctrine of revelation. God has spoken, and His Word to us is clear and understandable. God has not mumbled! His Word has not been distorted, wittingly or unwittingly, for it is given to us by holy men moved and inspired by the Spirit of Christ. The truth of revelation and inspiration guaranteesperspicuity. To reject perspicuity is to deny that God has spoken to His people in Christ Jesus. The believer, therefore, can and must be permitted to interpret Scripture for himself.

Besides, the truth of the perspicuity of Scripture is precious to us. The Bible calls the believer to read, study, and meditate upon the Word of God. How could we do this if the Bible were closed to us? What great comfort, encouragement, peace, and joy the study of Scripture has brought to the heart of the repentant sinner who in faith clings to Christ Jesus. Growth in sanctification and godliness is, in a measure, dependent upon the truth of the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. In addition, the right of church reformation is given to every believer by the Reformed church. Even though some use this right to “rend the sheepfold of Christ,” it is an important responsibility, filled with blessing for the individual and for the church of Christ, when rightly used. Misuse of right doctrine must never be the grounds or occasion for repudiating this doctrine. But let careless and profane men be rebuked sharply for their profanity and carelessness in their abuse of biblical doctrine.

In addition, it cannot escape the reader that the Reformed church in our day is more and more under pressure to deny the perspicuity of Scripture. There is the attitude even among Reformed believers that the Bible is far too difficult to understand. After all, the preachers and seminary professors are not even sure about their understanding of God’s Word. Synod “A” takes one position. Synod “B,” a year later, takes another which is contradictory of the former decision. This is done repeatedly. The elder looks to his pastor. But the pastor does not know and he imploringly looks to the seminary professor. And the poor seminary professor looks to the experts in the field of study under question. All hope and pray for the leading of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, even if the explicit injunctions of Scripture must be set aside. No one is confident that he can rightly know the mind of Christ or the will of God. It is no longer perceived that faith is a going forward upon the step ping stones of Christian doctrine, divine commandments, and Scriptural counsel; but that disobedience is going forward without basis or grounds for action in God’s Word.

If to confess God’s revelation and inspiration is to hold to the doctrine of perspicuity; then to deny the doctrine of revelation and inspiration of the sacred writers is to reject perspicuity. To deny that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation is to preclude the possibility of any saving knowledge of God in Christ as our Savior. And to despise the doctrine of infallible inspiration is to deny that the record of God’s revelation in Christ Jesus is perspicuous. That this is true should be plain to all, for if the human, imperfect, forgetful, and even sinful writers of Scripture were left to labor in their own strength alone, without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then surely their books and epistles would be dark, obscure documents filled with confusion and imperfections of every kind.

The Reformed believer today is led to believe that this is indeed the case. The Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Pentateuch, are explained according to an evolutionistic view of the development of religion. Consequently, Genesis 1-11does not record actual world history, but some unspecified pre-history. The writers of the Bible were time-bound and culturally conditioned men. Therefore, some precepts which they wrote have no application to us of the twentieth century. Several of the apostolic precepts of the New Testament were only for the first century church and have no significance or application for us today. For example we are urged:

One should first distinguish between the central core of the message of the Bible and what is dependent upon or peripheral to it . . . . It is to safeguard the gospel from being turned into law through culture or religious custom, on the one hand, and to keep the gospel itself from changing to reflect every conceivable cultural expression, on the other hand. . . .Paul’s sin-lists, for example, never contain cultural items. . ..On the other hand, foot-washing, exchanging the holy kiss, eating marketplace idol food, women having a head covering when praying or prophesying, Paul’s personal preference for celibacy, or a woman’s teaching in the church are not inherently moral matters (How to Read the Bible For all Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, 1982, p. 66).

Besides, certain embellishments unavoidably found their way into the church’s witness and response to revelation. These embellishments are to be identified and rejected by our study of secular material. A proper understanding of God’s Word is possible only if one first has mastered the pertinent historical, geographical, archaeological, geological, and contemporary religious documents. With such a mandate, the ordinary believer ought not even to imagine that he can properly interpret scripture.

Scripture has become again a dark and obscure book, which only those who are the experts can rightly interpret. This is the consequence if one denies the doctrine of inspiration. The Reformed community of churches is rapidly returning to a Romish view of Scripture. For many this is a happy occurrence, for it frees them, they think, from the responsibility to study and know the Bible and to work humbly for the continual reformation of the church.

But this is all wrong, for it is dishonoring to our God and spiritually self-destructive of the individual and the institute of the church.

We must believe what the Bible says about itself. Firstly, that God, Jehovah, has revealed Himself in Christ Jesus. Secondly, that God has inspired and moved holy men by His Spirit to write the infallible record of His revelation. Thirdly, that God has regenerated His own, having given to them eyes to see and ears to hear, and has thereby enabled them td receive the things of the Kingdom of Heaven. Fourth+, that believers have the Spirit of Christ in them as members of His Body, the church. Therefore, in the fifth place, that they are able, in spiritual fellowship with the saints of past centuries and with the saints today, to understand the Bible and personally receive God’s revelation. The individual believer stands in organic connection with the saints of all ages. His faith must be in harmony with that of the saints of all ages. Remember: ‘There is one body and one Spirit . . . One Lord, one faith . ..” (Eph. 4:4, 5). The doctrine of perspicuity and “the office of all believers” have as their very purpose, in part, to preserve and manifest, as much as is possible, the invisible, inward, and spiritual oneness of the body of Christ. We do this, above all, by our membership in and unity with the Reformed church institute. The doctrines of the perspicuity of Scripture and the office of all believers must not lead to a rejection of the Reformed church, but to the position “that all men are duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church” (Belgic Confession, article 28).