The Perspicuity (clairity) of Scripture

I recently had a chance to teach on Sunday night at a small Church my parents attend and, in trying to decide what to teach on, I remembered an ongoing conversation I’ve been having recently with my neighbor who happens to be Catholic on the nature of Scripture and it’s role in the life of the Church and individual believers.

We’ve discussed at length the authority and inerrancy of the scriptures, and if time permits I’ll post my notes on the subject, but our most recent exchange involved the clarity of Scripture for, as I found out, the roman Catholic position is that Scripture is inherently unintelligible to anyone outside the clergy (as ordained and authorized by Rome) and requires a “final” interpreter to settle disputes over questionable doctrines such as paedobaptism (baptizing infants) and the Real Presence.

In my research on Scripture, which included listening to several hours of lectures by Dr. Wayne Grudem (one of the translators for the ESV), I ran across the old reformation doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture which, in a nutshell, simply states that the Scriptures are written so that anyone can understand them. Not that they are necessarialy easy to understand, but that they are able to be understood by anyone so that special interpreters (such as a priest) and hidden meaning (such as numerology and “I feel this means”ism) are equally wrong.

Much ink has been spilled on this subject and I won’t attempt to present the argument here (the links above are more than adequate for the faithful searcher) but I wanted to point out some of the interesting implications I’ve noticed this doctrine has and, particularly, why we should pay attention to it today.

First of all, it is an old doctrine. I like the way John Calvin speaks about it in his Institutes:

The sublime mysteries of the kingdom of heaven have for the greater part been delivered with a contemptible meanness of words. Had they been adorned with a more splendid eloquence, the wicked might have cavilled, and alleged that this constituted all their force. But now, when an unpolished simplicity, almost bordering on rudeness, makes a deeper impression than the loftiest flights of oratory, what does it indicate if not that the Holy Scriptures are too mighty in the power of truth to need the rhetorician’s art?

Unpolished simplicity, I like that description of the only means we have to know who God is or what he requires of us.

Second of all, it undercuts any argument that Scripture is too hard, or that we are somehow not up to the task of, as Paul commands Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

If we fail to understand what Scripture is communicating it is only because we have neglected to study enough, not that the text is indecipherable to us as mere mortals and not because we are somehow less spiritual as some suppose. No, this doctrine clearly places the onus on our spiritual development upon our shoulders. Not that we do not require the holy Spirit to guide us into all truths according to John 16:13, but that we are able and therefore responsible for diligently studying the Word of God which fits many things we are told throughout Scripture such as the blessing we receive by meditating on the Law in Psalms 1.

Finally, this doctrine combats the subjectivism, sensationalism, gnosticism, feelingism, postmodernism, etc. However you want to define the Zeittgeist that has crept into the Church that detracts from the clear, singular, and objective meaning of Scripture. This includes not only the old-school Gnosticism that Irenaeus wrote (at length) against, but the popular notion of “God spoke to me and showed me _(insert whatever strange interpretation that fits your fancy here)_”. It also has the added benefit of combatting the silly notion that the most important thing is for us to find a way to make everything in the Bible apply to our lives. It also corrects the misguided notion that we need to make the Bible relevant to our lives, which presupposes it was ever irrelevant.

This is a dynamite doctrine, one I think could help the Church in America get back on track. It also goes to show that the reformers are still worth studying because they still have much to teach us.

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