Revelation, inspiration, and infallibility (20): “What saith the Scripture?”: The Bible’s perspicuity

Previous article: May 15, 2017, p. 370

At bottom, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was a return to the supreme authority of Holy Scripture. The Latin phrases coined by the Reformers to express their conviction were sola Scriptura and prima Scriptura. Scripture alone is the rule of faith and life. What Christians believe and how they live is determined only by Scripture. Scripture rules over the individual believer and over the church as a whole. It rules over the local church and over all church assemblies and councils. Nothing apart from Scripture need be believed or obeyed, and nothing contrary to Scripture may be believed or obeyed. Scripture is the supreme authority because Scripture is the Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men. Everything depends on that. Scripture is the supreme authority because Scripture comes to us with the authority of God Himself whose Word the Bible is.

Standing behind the authority of Scripture is the truth of Scripture’s perspicuity or clarity. That only stands to reason. How can Scripture function as the authority in our lives, if it is a book whose contents are unclear, mystifying, perplexing, or contradictory? It cannot. If Scripture is authoritative, it must also be perspicuous. The message of Scripture is not hidden in befuddling allegories, as some have taught. God is not playing “hide-and-seek” in the Bible, concealing Himself behind allegorical trees in a deep, dark forest. Rather, God is making Himself and His will known in the Bible. The Bible is revelation, God speaking to men in such a way that they are able to understand—truly to know Him and His truth.

In our last article we began to treat the truth of the perspicuity of Scripture, one of the attributes of Scripture. We explained what is and what is not meant by this important doctrine. In this article, we will demonstrate and prove the perspicuity of Scripture, a cherished truth to Reformed Christians.

The Reformers and Reformed Creeds on perspicuity

The great Reformer Martin Luther led the way in championing Scripture’s perspicuity. Significantly, in the beginning of his monumental work, The Bondage of the Will, Luther defended the clarity of Holy Scripture. He did so in opposition to Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had written in defense of the freedom of the will of fallen man. Whereas Erasmus had taught that Scripture was unclear and obscure and, therefore, unable to be a final court of appeal on the issue of the freedom or bondage of the will, Luther defended Scripture’s clarity.

Luther began his defense by inveighing against “that pestilential saying of the Sophists that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous.” He said that “it ought above all to be settled and established among Christians that the Holy Scriptures are a spiritual light far brighter than the sun itself, especially in things that are necessary to salvation.”1 He went on to say that “those who deny that the Scriptures are quite clear and plain, leave us nothing but darkness…. In opposition to you [Erasmus] I say with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure.”2 In support of Scripture’s perspicuity, Luther appealed to Scripture’s own teaching concerning itself. “Psalm 119:130 says: ‘The opening of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.’ Here the words of God are represented as a kind of door, or an opening, which is plain for all to see and even illuminates the simple.”3

John Calvin was in complete agreement with his fellow Reformer. Writing in his Institutes, Calvin said “God, the Artificer of the universe, is made manifest to us in Scripture, and that what we ought to think of him is set forth there, lest we seek some uncertain deity by devious paths.”4 Later, he appealed in support of the clarity of Scripture to Psalm 19:7, 8: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” On the basis of this text, Calvin said that Scripture “is the very school of God’s children.” The Bible is God’s school, in which He teaches the smallest children about Himself and about the whole of the universe.

Many times and in many places in his commentaries, Calvin appealed to and defended the perspicuity of Scripture. One example of this is his commentary on Deuteronomy 30:11, “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.” He writes that “Moses commends… the Law, on account of its easiness; because God does not propound to us obscure enigmas to keep our minds in suspense, and to torment us with difficulties, but teaches familiarly whatever is necessary according to the capacity, and consequently the ignorance of the people.”5

Following the lead of the Reformers, the Reformed confessions also attest to the perspicuity of Scripture. The Belgic Confession of Faith treats extensively the doctrine of Scripture in Articles 2-7. At the outset, in Article 2, the Confession teaches that in Scripture God “makes himself more clearly and fully known to us…as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.” The Westminster Confession of Faith treats the doctrine of Scripture in its first chapter. Paragraph seven is devoted to perspicuity:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

There can be no doubt that part and parcel of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture is the Reformed conviction concerning Scripture’s perspicuity. It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire Reformed doctrine of Scripture stands or falls with the perspicuity of Scripture. Take away the truth of Scripture’s perspicuity and the whole edifice of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture comes crashing to the ground.

Biblical support for the doctrine of perspicuity

The Reformers were persuaded of the truth of Scripture’s perspicuity and the Reformed confessions articulate this doctrine because this is the teaching of the Scripture itself—if I may say, clearly the teaching of Scripture. What is the biblical support for the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture? In different ways and by various lines of argument the Scriptures testify to their own clarity.

One can defend Scripture’s perspicuity by appeal to the doctrine of God’s covenant. How foundational to all truth is the covenant of God! As a covenant God, God intends through His Word to commune and fellowship with His people. Real communion and intimate fellowship demand clarity on the part of those who intend to commune and fellowship with each other. God is a covenant Father, and as a Father He intends to communicate His love, His will, and His truth to His dear children. God is a Husband, and as a loving Husband He intends to communicate with His wife, that is, the church that He loves. Scripture’s perspicuity follows necessarily from the truth that the God of Scripture is a covenant God.

The doctrine of the perspicuity of the Bible can also be established by asking the question, “To whom is the Bible addressed?” For whom was Scripture written? Is the Bible only for the scholars who have their Ph.D.s and exceptional intellectual gifts? Is the Bible addressed to those only who have a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek? Has it been written only for those who have an acquaintance with ancient Near-Eastern culture and religions? Or has it been written for those only who have expertise in Second Temple Judaism or Greco- Roman customs?

The obvious answer to these questions is, “Of course not!” Scripture is addressed to the ordinary believer. The Bible is addressed “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). It is addressed to “the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (I Cor. 1:2). Or, “to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops [elders] and deacons.” Note that. Paul did not write to the elders and deacons in the congregation at Philippi exclusively, as if they alone were capable of understanding what he would write. But the Spirit directed him to write to “all the saints” in Philippi, including the elders and deacons. And so it is with all the New Testament epistles. God’s Word is addressed to the church, the church as a whole, to all the members of the church: young and old, male and female, single and married, laymen and officebearers alike. God addresses His Word to all the different members of the church because they are all, by God’s grace and through the Spirit, capable of understanding His Word.

The two classic passages of the New Testament that teach Scripture’s infallible inspiration also teach the truth of Scripture’s perspicuity. That is very striking.

The first of those passages is II Timothy 3:16, 17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” But Scripture is profitable and serves for the instruction of the believer and thoroughly furnishing the child of God unto all good works only if Scripture can be understood. How in the world can Scripture serve the purpose for which God gives it, according to II Timothy 3:16 and 17, if Scripture remains a deep, dark mystery, a book full of conundrums and riddles? It cannot. If Scripture is to be profitable and serve the purpose for which God gives Scripture, it must be understandable— understandable to the ordinary believer.

Significantly, the immediate context of II Timothy 3:16 and 17 contains a powerful testimony to Scripture’s perspicuity. In the two verses that precede, the apostle exhorts Timothy, “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and has been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Notice that. As is the case with our own covenant children, already “from a child” Timothy had “known the Holy Scriptures.” Already as a child! What a testimony to Scripture’s perspicuity!

The other classic passage on the infallible inspiration of Scripture is II Peter 1:19-21: “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: knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Scripture is a light that shines in a dark place—the only light that shines midst the deep, deep darkness of the evil world in which God’s people are called to live.

That is consistently the biblical description of and metaphor to which Scripture is compared. Scripture is a lamp and a light: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Ps. 119:130). Scripture is not a deep, dark book out of which believers can neither make heads nor tails. Not at all, but rather, Scripture is a lamp and light, that is, clear and understandable to the people of God.

I thank God that He has given us His Word in such a way that we are able to understand it, to comprehend it, to grow and develop in it. A conviction concerning the perspicuity of Scripture has motivated me to preach the Scriptures for nearly forty years. It has led me to presume to be able to teach aspiring seminary students, as well as young people and children in the catechism classes of the church. It led my wife and me to read and study the Scriptures with our children as they were growing up, especially in family devotions. Now it motivates us when we are able to do the same with our grandchildren when they, as they often do, visit in our home. It is the incentive for our own personal devotions and the devotions we have with just the two of us before we turn the lights off in our bedroom at night. We are able to read and to understand the Word of God.

How precious practically is the perspicuity of Scripture in the everyday life of the believer! Let us never take this grand truth for granted.

1 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. Philip S. Watson, in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 33:91.

2 Luther, The Bondage of the Will, 33:94.

3 Luther, The Bondage of the Will, 33:92.

4 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1.6.1; 1:71.

5 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses, trans. Charles William Bingham (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, repr. 1984), 2:412.