Previous article in this series: January 15, 2017, p. 180.
“If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” These are the words that William Tyndale (1494-1536), English Reformer and Bible translator, spoke to an ignorant Roman Catholic clergyman whom he was debating. By the grace of God he was able to accomplish the very thing to which he committed himself. And it cost him his life. After he was betrayed by a friend, he was arrested and jailed. Eventually he died a martyr’s death—after being strangled, his body was burned to ashes. Significantly, what Tyndale vowed arose out of a strong conviction of Scripture’s perspicuity. Once translated into his own language, every Englishman would not only be able to read the Bible, but also understand the Bible—down to the lowliest young field hand with the scantest education. He would be able to understand it because the Bible is perspicuous, that is, clear or understandable.
This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Sparked by Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-five Theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, this coming October will mark the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation. One of the main doctrines restored to the church through the Reformation was the doctrine of Scripture—Scripture as the sole authority in the church and over the church. But one of the most important corollaries of the doctrine of Scripture was the perspicuity of Scripture. Quite obviously, Scripture could only function as an authority if it could be understood. It could only be the rule by which all teaching, preaching, and writing were to be judged, as well as the lives of people and clergy alike, if what was contained in Scripture was clear and understandable.
We are at present studying the perfections of Scripture. The perfections of Scripture are those characteristics of Scripture that derive from the fact that Scripture is the Word of God. As the Word of God, Scripture shares in the perfections of God whose Word it is. Thus far, we have considered two perfections of Scripture: Scripture’s authority and Scripture’s necessity. The third perfection of Scripture is its perspicuity. The Latin expression (theologians love their Latin) is claritas scripturae or perspicuitas scripturae.
The Meaning of Perspicuity
We are helped in understanding the meaning of “perspicuity” by its synonyms. Words like “clarity” or “understandability” are synonyms of perspicuity. What perspicuity means is indicated by the Latin original. Although a big word, its meaning is not so difficult to grasp when the bigger word is broken down into its smaller parts. “Perspicuous” is made up of the Latin preposition per, which means “through,” and the verb spicio, which means “to see.” “Perspicuous” means “to see through.” That which is perspicuous can be “seen into and through.” In regard to a book, the idea is that its meaning can be known. What the author intended to communicate can be grasped by the reader. A text’s meaning is clear and understandable. Such is the character of sacred Scripture, insisted the sixteenth-century Reformers.
The opposite would be a text that is complicated and convoluted, mysterious and mind-boggling; a text whose meaning is deep, dark, and hidden. It would be something that is deliberately written, if not to confuse and mislead, at least to be unclear and difficult. Such a book would deliberately be written, not to inform, but to puzzle, bewilder, and baffle the reader. Or, a book might not be perspicuous because it is written at an intellectual level far above the average reader. The average reader would not be able to make heads or tails out of a textbook for multi-variable calculus or abstract algebra, for physics or statistical thermodynamics. I know that I would likely not be able to comprehend the first paragraph in such books. Thankfully, the Scriptures have not been written for the intellectually gifted. Rather, they have been written for us, the ordinary believers and members of Christ’s church—and our children.
By the perspicuity of the Bible we mean that the ordinary believer is able to understand Scripture, know with confidence what the teaching of Scripture is, and be able to judge all teaching in its light. In the Bible God is not playing hide-and-seek, deliberately concealing Himself from the view of the ordinary believer, hiding behind this tree or in that dark corner. On the contrary, in the Bible God is making Himself known to us.
There are two figures that are often employed to make plain what is meant by perspicuity. Both figures are related to the mountains. Since my family and I lived for nearly ten years in the foothills of northern Colorado, I can relate to both of these figures. The first figure is that of a mountain lake—a deep, clear mountain lake. We often took visitors to see Bear Lake above Estes Park, in Rocky Mountain National Park. You could see into its clear, cold waters to great depths, including fish swimming many feet below the surface. But, although the lake was crystal clear, you could never see to the bottom. Scripture is like that.
Or, Scripture is like a large mountain range toward which you are driving. Nearly every summer we headed east to Michigan for vacation, because that is where the PRC synod usually met and that is where our relatives lived. And after three weeks, we packed all twelve of us (at that time) into our van and headed back home, usually breaking the trip up into two days. On that second day, traveling west on I-76 just outside of Ft. Morgan, CO, nearly one hundred miles in the distance, at least if the weather was clear, we could begin to make out the shape of the Rocky Mountains. It was always a contest to see who of us could see the mountains first. They were always a welcome sight. And the closer we drove, the bigger the mountains became and the more detail we were able to make out. Scripture is like that, too.
What Perspicuity is Not
It helps to understand what perspicuity is by distinguishing it from what it is not. What are not implications of the truth of the clarity of the Bible?
The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that all of Scripture is equally clear. It does not rule out the existence of more difficult—very difficult—passages in the Bible. The fact is that there are some very difficult passages in the Scriptures. The apostle Peter makes reference to the writings of “our beloved brother Paul,” in whose epistles there are “some things hard to be understood….” (). There are such difficult passages in Paul’s epistles, and in other portions of Scripture as well—no question about it. But the more difficult passages are to be interpreted in light of the clearer and simpler. Scripture is to interpret Scripture: scriptura interpres scriptura. The Reformers insisted on this important corollary of biblical perspicuity. And thus the meaning of the more difficult passages is to be arrived at.
Neither is it the meaning of the Bible’s perspicuity that the Bible is clear to the child of God without any effort and apart from the use of ordinary means. The Bible is not necessarily clear on a first and casual reading of the Bible. The Bible is clear as a result of reading and meditation—thoughtful meditation on the text of Scripture. The Bible is clear as we study the Bible in its own light, as well as in the light of what has been written on the text of Scripture by others, by others especially of a previous generation. The Bible is clear as we study the Bible, diligently study the Bible. The Bible is clear as we study the Bible not just privately, but also in our homes and families, as well as in the company of fellow believers. The Bible is clear to us as we sit regularly under the public means of grace, the preaching of the Word in particular—the chief means of grace. Also, the Bible is clear as we pray over the Bible and what we may have read in the Bible. Whenever we read and study the Bible, that reading and study should be accompanied by prayer. Pray to God that He will lead us into a clear understanding of that which He has inspired in the Scriptures.
Neither does Scripture’s perspicuity rule out dependence on the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. Certainly not! The child of God must pray for enlightenment, for understanding, for the grace to hear what the Spirit has to say to the church (). Just as there was a great work of God through the Holy Spirit to inspire the human writers of Holy Scripture, so is there an ongoing work of the Spirit on those for whom Scripture has been written. Even then, the Spirit’s work in connection with Scripture must not be misunderstood. The Spirit’s task is not to make clear what is in and of itself obscure, but to work conviction of what is plainly revealed in Scripture.
Neither does the Bible’s perspicuity mean that human beings as human beings are capable of understanding what is written on the pages of the Bible. Certainly it is true, on one level, that because the Bible is written in human language, by human beings and for human beings, human beings are able to understand the Bible. And certainly, even unbelieving men are capable of understanding the meaning of any given Scripture passage. There are unbelieving men with PhDs who understand intellectually what is written in the Bible. Even the Devil was able to quote Scripture and to quote it understanding the meaning of that which he quoted, as is evident from his quotation of Scripture at the time of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness immediately after His baptism. Even then, it is worth noting that he perverted Scripture. But he perverted what he understood. Nevertheless, strictly speaking the perspicuity of Scripture has to do with the believer. It concerns the believer’s ability, under the influence and leading of the Holy Spirit—Scripture’s author—to understand the message of Scripture.
The perspicuity of Scripture also does not mean that the believer is able to understand all of Scripture at once. Not even a lifetime of devoted reading and study of Scripture will exhaust its teaching. As God is incomprehensible, so is His word also incomprehensible. Still, that we cannot exhaust the meaning of the Bible does not mean that we can know nothing of the Bible, nothing with certainty, at least. On the contrary, the Bible is clear in its central message: the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, according to the will of God, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is clear in its teaching concerning who God is, who we are, and what our calling is in the midst of this world. The Bible is clear in teaching the truth about God, about man, about the creation, about Jesus Christ, about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and about the church. It is clear in its teaching concerning our sin and misery, our redemption in Jesus Christ, and our calling to live thankful and holy lives. As concerns its main message, the Bible is clear.
Every day the child of God takes for granted the Bible’s perspicuity. He reads it, studies it, and meditates on it. He takes it up for personal devotions and for family devotions. Christian school teachers read portions of the Scriptures to their students—in the lowest grades. Troubled men and women turn to it for answers to their perplexing questions. Pastors and elders read and apply it to the needs of the members of their congregations. Church members comfort, encourage, and admonish one another on the basis of its clear teaching. Consistories, classes, and synods make judgments in the light of its undisputed testimony. What a wonderful thing Scripture’s perspicuity is!
What a wonderful thing it is that “the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” ().