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On the Perspicuity of Scripture

Dec 1, 2010

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.

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16 Responses to On the Perspicuity of Scripture

  • Thank you, Bill, for this very illuminating article. It cleared up a number of problems for me and I’m most grateful for that.

    I have two other questions. Firstly, what are the best criteria to use in evaluating different teachers, especially where they are in conflict about some question.

    And secondly, what if I become convinced that the Holy Spirit is leading me in a particular direction, but I am wrong? In other words, how do I determine whether a particular ‘leading’ is genuine or not? Thanks.

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  • Thanks Peter

    Hey, you just want me to write another article or two! Those are both very good questions, and really do deserve a full article to do them justice. A very short answer is, all that we do and believe should line up with our ultimate source of authority: the Bible. But that too needs to be explained more fully. So maybe I will write all this up soon.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks, Bill, I look forward to it.

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  • Bill I love the the way you teach me God’s word and I thank My God for teachers such as you. Bill, I do ask humbly and as best I can with my limited understanding. Bill it appears that you may not have read far enough Acts 8 Verses, as it looks like this eunuch was not a believer until Peter explained the scriptures to him.
    PS I don’t mind if you do not print this but I would like your thoughts on this, thanks Doug.
    Doug Matthews

  • Thanks Doug

    No problems at all. I simply cited the verse as an example of the need to get help in interpreting Scripture because there are some difficult portions of it. I did not say whether he was a believer or not.

    But on that issue, scholars are divided. It seems he was more than just a Gentile. It seems he was devout, a God-fearer, and at least on the fringes of Judaism (why else would he be reading from Isaiah?). But he was perhaps not a full Jewish proselyte. And yes, he does go on to become a follower of Christ.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill, I was going to get my dictionary!

    I would like to comment on where you said, “lay people were not getting easy access to the Bible and were often not allowed to read the Bible, etc”.

    Can I just point out that the printing press was not invented until the year 1450. The Bible existed only in hand-writing, pain stakenly written by Catholics.
    The Bible was too expensive for lay people to buy.

    Secondly, in many Catholic Churches the Bible, because they were expensive, were kept at the back of the Church, but tied to a chain, so they could not be taken out of the Church.

    Thirdly, the Catholic Mass is Bible based. Each day part of the Old Testament is read to the congregation, part of the New Testament, and the Psalms, (the pastor always explains what he has read) and even the Catholic Mass itself is Bible based.

    So even though people could not afford to buy a Bible, by going to Mass each day they were taught the Word of God.

    But it was not only Catholics who could not afford a Bible, every person, whatever their belief did not own one.

    Anne Van Tilburg

  • Thanks Anne

    This of course is one main area of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants. And I really don’t mean to get into a big debate over this, but the main point about access has to do more than just with direct access to a particular form of the Bible. Back then (and even for much later) the Mass of course was overwhelmingly presented only in Latin, so most people were still not getting access to the gospel message in that form, since they did not know Latin.

    And the Bible was available already in many vernacular versions long before both the Gutenberg Bible and the sixteenth century Reformation. But unfortunately the church had since the ninth century began to claim that the clergy alone had the right to interpret it, and even more sadly, by the eleventh century numerous Popes, bishops and councils were forbidding vernacular translations, and even laymen from being allowed to read the Bible.

    Indeed, some who did dare to read the Bible for themselves were accused of heresy, and many were burned to death for their crimes. Sadly this is part of the historical situation which so spurred Luther and the others on to rectify all this.

    And the printing press was invented by Gutenberg in 1440, and by the mid-1450s his Bibles were appearing. However Luther of course posted his 95 thesis 70 years later, in 1517, a date we often use to place the beginning of the Reformation. So by then there were quite a few printed Bibles in circulation. But the issue still remains, as I said, as to how much the common man was encouraged to read it and study it by himself, or whether he should rely only on his religious superiors.

    And it might be pointed out that only in the West was this restriction imposed upon the common believer. In Eastern Orthodoxy there was never an issue with laypeople getting the Word of God in the vernacular.

    However, as I say, we may need to agree to disagree here. I have long tried to keep this site from degenerating into heated Catholic-Protestant fighting, and I certainly hope that remains the case here. But thanks once again for your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thank you, Bill,

    I have indeed just learnt a new word! I shall be using that one.

    Blessings, Culture Watch is such a mine of information. You can tell you’re very well read, and it makes me wish I’d read more. I do enjoy your articles when you put theology into historical context. You make a wonderful teacher!

    Barbara Murray-Leach

  • Many thanks Barbara.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Let’s not forget that until modern times most people couldn’t read (or write) any language, never mind Latin. of course there were pockets of literacy pre-“early modern” period, but not uniformly so. Let’s hear it for Medieval church art, Bible of the poor!
    John Thomas, UK

  • Bill, I have 2 examples first hand:
    1. Very close family member said she does not need a church as the Holy Spirit teaches her. She lives now, sadly in errors, away from family and friends.
    2. A retired Roman Catholic College principal came to our little Bible study. After about a year he said: “I am so amazed about learning the Bible now personally. My whole life I only listened to what the priest was telling me.” His answers in the studies were of deep insight. On the day he died, he was asked to finish the study time with prayer. He simply talked to Jesus and thanked the Lord for the ladies who had taught him so much. Very moving! A few hours later he fell and died that day.
    Depending on one another is a must in the Body and a continued learning should be our desire.
    I learn from you Bill. Thanks!!
    Evangeline Rykes

  • I am a Catholic and although I have no wish to see Catholic-Protestant infighting on this site or anywhere else for that matter, I think a couple of points are worth making.

    One is that we are all dealing with the modern situation and not with the world of 400 and 500 years ago. Today there is no Inquisition, no heretic-burnings and Catholics have free access to Bibles translated into their own languages. The past should not be swept under the carpet but neither should it dominate our Christian thinking today.

    My other point is that today the Christian Church seems to be split into hundreds, probably even thousands of different parts – denominations, sects and what have you. Can anyone seriously argue that this was Christ’s intention? We are facing attack by two extremely powerful enemies, namely modern secularism and militant Islam. If it wasn’t for divine providence, we would probably be doomed already. Surely these are reasons enough to bury a very old hatchet and face our opponents together.

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  • Thanks Bill.

    I did not want to start any sort of argumentive debate.

    I love your articles and agree with nearly all of it.

    Just one last point if I may that the readings of the Bible were always in the language of the country, even though the Mass was in Latin.

    Sorry, I had to put that bit in.

    Keep your articles coming!

    Anne Van Tilburg

  • Thanks Evangeline

    You provide good examples of the two extremes I was referring to. On the one hand there are those (often charismatic and Pentecostal) Protestants who think they have a direct pipeline to God via the Holy Spirit, and have no need of the rest of the Body of Christ for teaching or anything else. And on the other hand we have those who have not exactly been encouraged to read and study the Bible for themselves. (Of course we now have former Protestants such as Scott Hahn and others seeking to rectify that situation.)

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Peter

    And I would like to think that this site is an example of that very thing, where I seek to form a united front with Christians of different stripes to stand against some of the real common opponents we face.

    Having said that, I do not shy away from the importance of sound doctrine, and I recognise there will be theological disagreements. In one sense the great plethora of denominations is not an altogether bad thing. God is so great and enormous and wondrous and majestic that no one denomination or church or teacher or website could ever hope to represent him in his fullness. So there may well be a place for diversity here, although we should seek unity in diversity.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • To those interested, I try to consistently follow these interpretive guidelines when reading the Scriptures.

    1.) The original Scriptures are infallible in the original languages.

    2.) Hebrew and Greek grammar cannot be violated or ignored, but must guide interpretation.

    3.) Interpret within the historical situation, culture, and literary context.

    4.) Interpret the text literally unless compelling evidence demands non-literal interpretation.

    5.) Interpret progressively, with newer revelation always complimenting older revelation.

    6.) Reject as “illogical” all doctrines that require holding mutually exclusive ideas.

    7.) All accepted doctrines must be consistent with God’s character and with all other true doctrines.

    8.) Trace modern doctrines back to the source to see when, where, and why they originated.

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