From a scriptural context, the following conclusions can be drawn about the perspicuity of Scripture:
Although some portions of Scripture are more difficult to grasp than others, all of Scripture is understandable in and of itself. Luther’s assertion of this is supported by several texts in Scripture, most notably Deuteronomy 29:29 (“the revealed things belong to you and your children”), which make clear that whatever God has revealed to His people is intelligible, understandable, and accessible. In revelation, God makes Himself knowable. That is true of divine revelation in general and of special revelation in particular. God reveals Himself in all parts of Scripture; therefore, all parts of Scripture are inherently perspicuous. That is true even of those portions of Paul’s epistles that Peter says are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:14–16), for Peter does not say that they are impossible to understand. Perspicuity does not mean that every part of Scripture is easily understandable, but it does mean that every part—even the difficult—is inherently intelligible to the believer. By claiming clarity for all of Scripture we do not mean that the believer is always certain of his interpretation of every text, for our hermeneutics and exegesis and knowledge will always contain blind spots and errors due to our human fallibility, but that the language and matters of Scripture are, in themselves, intelligible.
Scripture can be understood by all believers, regardless of their educational and cultural background. Just as the covenant in Deuteronomy had to be understood and absorbed by believing parents, then communicated to their children in understandable terms (Deut. 6:4–9), so the New Testament leads believers to understanding by letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us and spreading it abroad (Col. 3:16). Paul’s command in 1 Timothy 4:13 to read Scripture publicly in the congregation presupposes the intelligibility of the Word for the church of God. The New Testament epistles are addressed to the entire church—not just to pastors and elders and mature saints—and are thus meant to be read to the entire church. Even “newborn babes” can grasp the Word, Peter says (1 Pet. 1:22–2:3). Scripture is a lamp to all believers (2 Pet. 1:19), from the smallest child in grace to the most mature saint, though the mature will understand it more fully. The babes, young men, and fathers in grace will comprehend Scripture according to how they are led by the Spirit (1 John 2:12–14; cf. Rom. 8).
As a general rule, male and female, young and old, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, enslaved and free, may understand Scripture. Traits that normally divide people dissipate among believers when it comes to comprehending Scripture. The only exception would be, of course, people who lack the ability to understand what is read or heard, such as babies or the mentally impaired. Such conditions are particularly highlighted in Nehemiah; “all who were able to understand” (Neh. 8:2) could participate in the reading of God’s law in the congregational assembly.
Perspicuity is affirmed in the context of the believing church and calls for a response. First Corinthians 2:6–3:3 traces the role of the Spirit from His knowledge of the deep things of God through His revelation of the appropriate matters to His work in fostering the communication of that divine wisdom to the believers. Second Corinthians 3:12–4:6 says that the meaning of Scripture is grasped by individual believers only in dependency upon the Holy Spirit. Isaiah 8:19–22 says we must be obedient to the law and testimony of God’s Word. We must not only know and understand Scripture; we must also obey what it says. John 5:31–47 reveals the tragic results of failing to obey the Word.1Allison, “The Protestant Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture,” 514–34. We must read Scripture to know God’s will and be willing to follow it.
I leave you with four practical conclusions. First, we need to reemphasize the classic Protestant doctrine of perspicuity. Our current lack of concern about this doctrine compared to the concern shown by the Reformers and post-Reformers, begs the question: Do we still believe in the clarity of Scripture for all believers?
Second, the perspicuity of Scripture ought to move us to encourage ourselves and all believers to study the Word—individually, in small groups, and in the church—invoking the Holy Spirit with confident and hopeful expectation, knowing that He will help us understand what we are studying. We should also make good use of other members of the community of faith, including biblical scholars and commentators, pastors, teachers, and seasoned saints. And we should teach others to trust, embrace, and obey what we learn from the Scriptures.
Third, the doctrine of perspicuity should remind preachers and teachers how awesome our task is. We are called to teach Scripture clearly, to explore new areas of understanding, to defend the Scriptures against errors and heresies, and to relate the teachings of Scripture to every branch of theology.2Grudem, Systematic Theology, 110–11. We need to encourage the laity to understand the value of reading, studying, and growing in the Scriptures. How critical it is that we help people study the Scriptures while avoiding any suggestion that we alone can understand and interpret God’s Word. We need to steer people between Roman Catholicism’s dependence on hierarchical interpretation and modern Evangelicalism’s radical strong sense of individualism, which often rejects confessionalism and often does not appreciate submitting one’s “understanding of Scripture to the judgment of the established church.”3Silva, “Clear or Obscure?,” 63–64.
Finally, the doctrine of perspicuity encourages us to grow together as a body of believers in understanding the Scriptures. We should not be discouraged by Scripture’s more difficult portions, but rather be encouraged to dig more deeply in the Word, as Richard Greenham says, like digging for hid treasure, being confident that our labor is not in vain and that studying God’s Word together may strengthen the bonds of unity and communion among believers.4Richard Greenham, “A Profitable Treatise Containing a Direction for the Reading and Understanding of the Holy Scriptures,” in Works (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), 390–91; Allison, “The Protestant Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture,” 571–73. In cases of disagreement, we need to openly and prayerfully examine whether “we are seeking to make affirmations where Scripture itself is silent,” or, whether “we have made mistakes in our interpretation of Scripture” through “some personal inadequacy on our part, whether it be, for example, personal pride, or greed, or lack of faith, or selfishness, or even failure to devote enough time to prayerfully reading and studying Scripture.”5Grudem, Systematic Theology, 109.
In every case, we should pray that we will cultivate the kind of respect, love, and obedience to the Scriptures that the psalmist shows in Psalm 119, so that we might hide God’s Word in our heart (v. 11), find it sweet in its gift of understanding and light (vv. 103–105), and make haste to obey all its commandments (v. 32).
Puritan Reformed Journal – JUNE 2015
Volume 7 • Number 2
The Perspicuity of Scripture
By Joel Beeke