Leaders of the Protestant Reformation, particularly Luther but also Calvin, affirmed the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Basically, the doctrine (as it has developed) teaches that all Christians can and should read the Bible with spiritual profit, no magisterium necessary.
And yet one of the biggest arguments against this view is the sheer size of the Logos Bible Software products list: if the Bible is so clear, why do we have so many commentaries and journals and books and dictionaries, all of which by no means agree and some of which exist for the major purpose of disagreeing with all who have gone before?
In a series of three articles, I want to clarify the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, show the value of Bible difficulties, and suggest a way forward in a world full of conflict over the Bible.
Scripture is God speaking
Is the Bible clear? In our own day the very possibility that the Bible speaks coherent, consistent truth at all, let alone about the most pressing moral issues of our time, is widely denied—even by some professing Christians. So what do we mean, then, when we say the Bible is “clear”?
As Mark D. Thompson wrote in his excellent book A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture,
The clarity of Scripture is that quality of the biblical text that, as God’s communicative act, ensures its meaning is accessible to all who come to it in faith. (169–170)
The key phrase here is that Scripture is “God’s communicative act.” Scripture is God speaking. Over and over again it claims and assumes and implies this. Listen to just one example. This is the early Christians praying after Pentecost:
Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit…. (Acts 4:24-25 ESV)
They go on to quote Psalm 2. And just observe the theology here: these Christians believed that Psalm 2 were the words of the sovereign Lord, speaking through David, who somehow also wrote Psalm 2 “by the Holy Spirit.” The Bible is God speaking through man in such a way that the man and his personality and knowledge and background are not eliminated but so that the resultant words are God speaking. The Bible is “God’s communicative act.”
If someone is inclined to complain that human language simply can’t get across the deep truths of God, let us remember that language is not a human invention but a divine one, and something that existed before the creation of man. God used speech to bring the world into existence (“Let there be light”), and the Father said in Genesis 1 to the other members of the Trinity, “Let us make man in our image.” Part of that image, apparently, is the ability to communicate through speech. No, language cannot fit God in its box. It cannot describe God exhaustively. But it can describe him truly. Language is still a suitable tool for God’s purposes.
And what are God’s purposes in giving us the Bible? I’d appeal in general to the Creation, Fall, Redemption story that the Bible tells: God’s purposes for the Bible fit within his plan to take “a people for his name” from among the fallen race of Adam while condemning others who refuse to repent (Gal 3:22). To claim that the Bible is so obscure that, for example, we need an authoritative human to tell us what it really means, is to question whether God is capable of using his own invention to accomplish his purposes.
No, God says in one of the classic passages regarding Scripture’s clarity,
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11 ESV)
God is a king whose words carry authority and power. And God is love; why would he redeem us at the cost of his Son only to speak to us in unintelligible words?
Nonetheless, defenders of Scripture’s clarity over the centuries do not claim that all of the Bible is equally clear. Because the Bible doesn’t.
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15–16 ESV)
There are “some things” in Paul’s writings—which Peter even at this early date was calling “Scripture”—that are hard to understand. But not all things. And the real problem is the unlearned and the unstable and the way they twist Paul’s words.
So Protestants ever since the Reformation, at least, have clarified the doctrine of the Bible’s clarity by saying at least three things:
The Scriptures are clear enough that any Christian can read them with spiritual profit.
Any literate twelve-year-old can read the Sermon on the Mount and get truth out of it, truth that he or she is responsible to believe and obey. I did it—I read the Sermon on the Mount as a kid because I thought it was cool that Matthew 5–7 was the longest unbroken stretch of red letters in my red-letter Bible. And God spoke to me through it with that same authority that so impressed its original hearers. I remember this very distinctly. Any Christian groups which somehow omit to insist that people go to the Bible directly are implicitly denying what the Bible claims for itself:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17 ESV)
The evangelical heirs of Luther and Calvin are right to value Bible reading so highly and to make it a part of the culture of their church communities. They are right to lay at least a little guilt trip on people who resist this element of their church culture—and to work hard to help those who are baffled by their Bible reading. The Bible promises to teach you, reprove you, correct you, and train you in righteousness, to give you the tools you need for every good work to which God calls you. Which Christian doesn’t need all that?
Everything necessary for salvation is made abundantly clear in the Bible.
One of my own relatives, raised to be moral but not Christian, per se, immediately took up conservative causes when he arrived at a major secular university in “The Year of the Evangelical,” 1976. In particular, he objected to his required student activity fees being used to publish pamphlets which ridiculed objections to premarital sex. For this he was vilified in the campus newspaper, cussed out and screamed at, and threatened with physical harm. This really shook my then-eighteen-year-old relative; he didn’t know what to do. He was a cultural Christian, not a personal one.
But his cultural Christianity did, thankfully, turn him toward his Bible in his time of crisis. He had no pastor to preach the gospel to him, no Christian friend witnessing to him, no tract summarizing the gospel for him. He simply read his Bible, repented of his sins and believed the message of the New Testament about Jesus’ death and resurrection. And his life changed.
This relative of mine confesses that he was very fuzzy on doctrinal particulars at this time. But everything necessary for salvation was made abundantly clear to him through the communicative act of the God who was seeking his soul. This is the Protestant claim and always has been (see WCF 1.7):
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105 ESV)
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130 ESV)
God provides interpretive help through gifted teachers.
Doctrinal fuzziness is excusable in a brand new Christian. But not in one that’s been around a while. And I say that with the authority of Scripture, which calls us to “go on to maturity” (Heb 6:1).
But the God who speaks to us in the Bible doesn’t leave us alone. He sends his Spirit with his words, and as if that weren’t enough, he gives us human teachers we can see and follow.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11–14 ESV)
When I began training to be a Bible teacher I felt keenly the question: what right do I have to teach other people? This is it. This is my authority. God gave me to my church and your pastors to yours. This doesn’t mean everything shepherds and teachers say is authoritatively true. Their authority derives from the Word of God; they don’t stand next to the Word or, God forbid, over it. Only insofar as I and other teachers are actually building people up toward doctrinal and personal maturity do we have “authority.”
The clarity of the Bible often needs to be uncovered, and good pastors are great uncoverers. I remember multiple times when just the way my pastor read a Bible passage out loud—the inflections he chose, the emphases and pauses—helped me understand the Bible better. He was a gift to me so that I wouldn’t be carried about by every wind of doctrine.
The text of Scripture is not shrouded in mystery or difficulty, but neither is the apprehension of meaning always immediate or intuitive, as it appears to have been in the case of Josiah[’s rediscovery of the law]. The clarity of Scripture does not render all exposition unnecessary.
So the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is not a license for Bible readers to skip out on reading commentaries and journals and books and dictionaries. It is not a permission slip for people to spout off in Facebook debates. It is not a claim that all of the Bible is equally clear, or equally clear to all (remember Thompson’s definition: only those who “come to it in faith” can expect clarity).
The doctrine is instead a call to diligently use the means God has provided (not all of which are detailed in this post) to uncover the clarity that he placed there. On an issue like slavery, for example, it takes serious work to put the Bible’s teaching together. As Thompson likes to say, clarity is often “hard won.”
The upshot of the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is really that normal people have the privilege and the responsibility—which we’ll get to in the third post in this series—to read their Bibles, and the right to expect to get truth out of their Bible study.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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