Now that I have most of you rushing to your dictionaries, let me explain what this is all about. The Christian doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture simply refers to the belief that the Bible is clear in terms of its central message. One need not be a Scripture scholar or a Bible College professor to understand the basic message of the Bible.
But that is not quite the end of the story. Indeed, if it were, there would be no need for this article. Ironically, a discussion about the clarity of Scripture can result in a lack of clarity if one is not careful. Biblical balance is needed here.
Two extremes must be avoided in all this. Those who would insist that the Word of God is closed to the common man, and must be explained by certain elites, are mistaken. But so too are those who think the Bible is the world’s most transparent book, and one does not need any aid or assistance in how to understand and interpret it.
The doctrine of perspicuity simply offers a corrective balance here. The biblical position lies in between the two extremes: all believers can come directly to the Word, yet there is nonetheless a need for teachers to help educate us about its wonderful truths.
The background to this doctrine arises out of the Reformation. The Reformers were concerned that the ordinary believer was not getting access to Scripture. Lay people were not getting easy access to the Bible, and were often not allowed to read it or interpret it for themselves. Scripture was often in Latin, making it inaccessible to the common person. The Bible tended to be the exclusive property of the clergy.
Indeed, this doctrine arose in part because of differing understandings of how we come to Scripture. Catholics have tended to say that we need the church, tradition, and papal authority to help us understand Scripture. Protestants, on the other hand, have emphasised the priesthood of believers, and the fact that each individual has full access to God and his word. Thus Protestants have especially emphasised the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.
Now this needs to be teased out more fully. There are plenty of lone wolf Christians when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible. They think that they alone, with only the aid of the Holy Spirit, can know all biblical truth. But wiser Protestants have always recognised that we do need each other – indeed, the whole Body of Christ – to help us properly understand God’s word. And they know that there is great understanding and wisdom from those who have gone before, so they do not discount the past. In this sense, Protestants also see the importance of both tradition and the church as we seek to rightly interpret Scripture.
So let’s look at these two components of this doctrine more closely. On the one hand, Jesus said the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16: 13; 14:26). That is good news indeed. Any believer, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can go direct to this book and imbibe of its truths. Martin Luther of course made much of this great truth.
But Scripture also has much to say about how we need help, we need, assistance, we need teachers, to fuller uncover what the word is seeking to tell us. Consider first a few of the many passages which declare that there are indeed difficult portions of God’s word:
“Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” -Acts 8:30-31
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” -2 Peter 3:15-16
These and other passages suggest that not everything in Scripture is readily apparent or always crystal clear. That is why one of the gifts to the Body of Christ is the teacher. He is given the job of helping other believers more accurately understand the Bible. Many texts speak to this:
“Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.” -Acts 5:42
“So Paul stayed [in Corinth] for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.” -Acts 18:11
“If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach.” -Rom 12:7
“And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” -1 Cor 12:28
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” -Eph 4:11
“And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” -2 Tim 2:24
So we have a Bible which is more or less clear, but we also need the help of others to properly interpret it. Or to put it in a more popular fashion: In the Bible the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. But plenty of matters found there do need clarification and elucidation.
In the light of this doctrine, we might ask, can non-Christians understand the Bible? The short answer is yes and no. Because the Bible is like any other book, non-Christians can read and understand it to a certain extent. But because the Bible is unlike any other book, we all need the Holy Spirit to help us properly understand the word.
Scripture makes this clear as well: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). So spiritual truths need to be spiritually discerned.
The perspicuity of Scripture then means that we have joint activity taking place. God promises to guide us in his word, but we need to put some effort into it as well. In the same way, God promises to feed the birds, but the birds put a lot of work into it too. God promises to give us what we need, but Abraham and Jacob had to work hard at digging wells to get their water. The supernatural and the natural often go together.
John Stott said God chose human language to reveal himself in. “As a result, although Scripture is unlike all other books in being the word of God, it is also like all other books in being the words of men. Since it is unique because divine, we must study it like no other book, praying to the Holy Spirit for illumination. Since it is ordinary because human, we must study it like every other book, paying attention to the common rules of vocabulary, grammar and syntax.”
This is how the Westminster Confession (1646) puts it: “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.” (Ch 1, VII)
What I have offered here is of course a very brief and almost superficial overview of what is in fact a much more complex and layered debate. Further articles will be needed to explore this more fully, as well as examine some related concerns. So stay tuned.