The Perspicuity of Scripture

By J.P. Thackway

An alternative title might be: The clarity or lucidity of Scripture. As someone has observed, it seems odd to use the word “perspicuity” – which itself needs explanation – in relation to the clarity of Scripture! But this is the more theological term, and it has important meaning. “Perspicuous” is from the Latin perspicere, meaning “to look at closely, or see through:” so that which is perspicuous is something clearly expressed and easily understood.

As applied to Scripture, the doctrine came to the fore at the Protestant Reformation. That mighty revival recovered the place of the Bible for us. And not only the authority of the Bible against the pope of Rome and his imposters, but also the perspicuity of the Bible against their claim that only they can interpret it for the laity. The Reformers insisted that this written revelation from God is clear and plain. Therefore, by divine teaching we can all read and understand it for ourselves.

It is a vitally important doctrine – one that has vast implications for Christians, and for ministers of the gospel. If we do not have a strong conviction about this it will undermine our confidence in, and use of, God’s clear and present word. Let us consider this subject together and see how it applies to us in our spiritual experience and Christian living today.

FULLER DEFINITION

As is usually the case, the Westminster Confession of Faith supplies us with a beautifully-crafted and fuller definition of this truth:

…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 (WFC, 1:7).

What a blessing from God: all He wants to say to us, in a book that we can read and understood. Given its importance, how thankful we should be! As John Wesley put it: “I want to know one thing, the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. Give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God!”

This being so, it is consistent with His love to give us “the Book of God” in accessible form. It is inconceivable that He would give it us wrapped up in dense, obscure, hard-to-penetrate words. That would be cruelly to tantalise, and not to graciously reveal the way of life and heaven.

Other great writers of the past have also expressed this truth in helpful ways. For instance, Irenaeus (died 202 AD): “The prophetic and evangelic Scriptures are plain and unambiguous.”

Chrysostom (c. 349–407): “The Scriptures are so proportioned that even the most ignorant can understand them if they only read them studiously” … “All necessary things are plain and straight and clear.”

Gregory of Nazianzus’ (c. 329–390 AD) words are often-quoted: “The Scriptures have, in public, nourishment for children, as they serve in secret to strike the loftiest minds with wonder; indeed they are like a full and deep river in which the lamb may walk and the elephant swim.”

Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD), although in other places exaggerating the Church’s role in interpreting Scripture, wrote: “In the clear declarations of Scripture are to be found all things pertaining to faith and practice.”

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711): “A regenerated person with the smallest measure of grace is able to understand that which is necessary unto salvation when he reads Scripture attentively. Not only is Scripture perspicuous as far as orderliness and manner of expression is concerned, but it is also intelligible for a converted person, the eyes of their understanding being enlightened.”

SCRIPTURE’S OWN TESTIMONY

The perspicuity of Scripture is not something we are trying to claim for the Bible. We are simply affirming what the Bible says about itself. Its clarity and intelligibility are seen in the following considerations.

1] Scripture says that it is light.

Psalm 119:104 “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” How can it illumine our way in life if it is itself obscure? That would be to add darkness to our darkness! On the contrary, experience confirms that God’s word is indeed “a light that shineth in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19) and shines there for us.

2] It claims to be profitable.

In 2 Timothy 3:16,17, following the statement about its divine inspiration, Paul declares, “ … and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished, etc.” How could this be so if “the man of God” could not understand all inspired scripture?

3] Scripture explains the way of salvation.

Paul in 2 Timothy 3:15 reminds his young delegate that the Scriptures he has known from childhood can “make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” How could they if they cannot be understood? Saving wisdom will not come from opaque and unintelligible words (cf Acts 11:14; Romans 10:17).

4] God’s word is for ordinary people, not religious experts.

In Deuteronomy 6:6 God says His words should be treasured in the heart. They must be remembered, as in Psalm 119:11. To love the word is to hate sin and keep in the way of obedience to God. To be so, His word must be able to be remembered and meditated upon. Clarity and conciseness is necessary for this.

Moreover, if the “testimony of the LORD” can be “making the simple,” the simple must be able to understand it (Psalm 19:7). Then, remember the words of our Lord’s mouth: “the common people heard him gladly.” (Mark 12:37). The saints at Corinth were no religious experts either, but could receive Paul’s letter “with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

5] Parents can teach the word to their children.

“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deuteronomy 6:6). In other words, in situations of everyday family conversation, formal and informal. This speaks of a word that can easily be communicated to little minds. Generations of Christian parents can testify to the wonder with little ones and older have listened to the wonderful words of life God has revealed! And have been converted, grown up to marry, have children, and do the same with their children!

6] Children can understand the Bible.

It is not a closed book to the young. As parents have found, so have children’s’ workers throughout the centuries. The experience of Sunday School teachers, leaders of holiday Bible clubs, beach mission teams and all who have reached children with the glorious gospel confirm this. There is everything in the Bible to hold the attention of youngsters and lead them into “the simplicity which is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).

This noble works particularly goes back to the 18th century, spearheaded by Robert Raikes and the Sunday School movement. The Bible was the textbook for education on Sundays, and eventually “Sunday School” became exclusively for teaching God’s word. “The work grew ad became a vital international movement, bringing children by their masses into God’s house for instruction. King George III (1738-1820) … said, ‘It is my wish that every poor child in my dominion shall be taught to read the Bible.’ … before fifty years had passed, one quarter of the English population were already registered in a Sunday School. By 1903, six million children across the country regularly attended Sunday School.”[1]

7] It is the test of truth.

When the Berean Jews heard Paul preach as the Messiah, they nobly tested his claims by consulting their scriptures (Acts 17:11; cf John 5:39). Ready to hand, the Old Testament was clear enough to be consulted and be the last word on the matter. This God-given teachable enquiry made them wise unto salvation as before, 2 Timothy 3:15. Only a clear and plain body of truth can be the benchmark of truth.

SOME QUALIFYING CONSDIERATIONS

In contending for the Perspicuity of Scripture, we need to include some important caveats.

1] We are not saying that we can understand it of ourselves.

1 Corinthian 2:14 is ever true: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Because of our remaining corruptions, much remains in the way of clear scripture being clear to us: ignorance, prejudice, wrong notions, worldly thinking, dullness. These need to be removed for understanding to come. We always need to be “taught of God.” Spiritual truth can only be received by a spiritual mind. When it seems obscure, is always our fault. As Luther explained to Erasmus:

But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e. lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of truth. . . . Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God. . . . If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures but he that hath the Spirit of God. . . . If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.[2]

2] We need the teaching of the Holy Spirit.

Only He can give us spiritual understanding of spiritual truth. This is one of His offices. In John 14:26 our Lord says, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.” We need to be “taught of God.” Therefore, our constant prayer as we open our Bibles is, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalm 119:18).

3] We are not saying that everything in scripture is easy.

Peter acknowledged this of Paul’s inspired epistles, “speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16). This is not surprising when we remember it is God’s word: some things will be high above our limited understanding (Isaiah 55:9).

Yet, Peter does not say, “impossible to be understood.” And only “some things.” Where there is difficulty, it is usually made clear to us by comparing other scriptures (1 Corinthians 2:13). The cross references in the margin of our Bibles are immensely valuable for this. The Trinitarian Bible Society’s Westminster Reference Bible has more than two hundred thousand – many more than in standard AVs. This is because they are taken from The Self-Interpreting Bible by John Brown of Haddington (1722–1787), who compiled these references to enable the reader to make a larger and deeper study than would normally be possible. Following up these is a very spiritual and profitable exercise.

4] Scripture becomes clear to us gradually.

We do not see everything all at once. Sometimes we feel like we see “men as trees, walking.” However, the Lord is a gracious Teacher. The more we read under His enlightening the more we receive light (Psalm 36:9). We shall never spiritually see it all in this life, for “know in part” – however, in heaven, “then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

5] There is a profound difference between ignorance and rebellion.

Not understanding something in God’s word is our infirmity. The Lord was very patient with the disciples in their slowness to understand His teaching. He even explained the meaning of (what should have been) His self-evident parables! As Richard Sibbes said, “Our blessed Saviour, as He took our nature upon him, so He took upon Him our familiar manner of speech, which was part of His voluntary abasement.”

However, what a difference in those professed disciples in John 6:66, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” and it led to their desertion of the Master, verse 66. This was not a matter of hard to understand but hard to accept. This is sinful rebellion. Many hearers of the word are like this – and they often blame it on the preaching, accuse the preacher and leave the church (1 John 2:19; Jude 19). How wonderful when believers acknowledge their limited understanding but still love the truth and humbly seek fuller light! (Job 34:32).

6] Obedience is necessary to understanding.

When the Lord knows we want to know in order to do, He is pleased to reveal His truth to us: John 7:17 “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” When we live up to the light we have, the Lord will entrust more to us. Doers of the word are the best learners of the word. Let us ever seek a soft heart, a teachable spirit, and a submissive will.

7] Understanding the word come through the use of means.

Although 1 John 2:20,27 might suggest the Spirit is all we need to know God’s word, it cannot mean without any human agency at all. Paul writes in Ephesians 4 of the place of “pastors and teachers,” and Hebrews 13 of those who “have spoken unto the word of God.” These are the means the Holy Spirit is pleased to use as our ultimate Teacher. We thank God for faithful preachers, together with experienced Christians, books, and all the helps the Lord has provided. We avoid over-reliance upon them; they are instruments – the efficient Cause of our understanding the Bible is the Holy Spirit. As the Westminster Confession of Faith aptly puts it,

… “the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding.”

Therefore, in closing, let us heed Thomas Brooks’ words,

Oh, therefore, before all and above all, search the Scripture, study the Scripture, dwell on the Scripture, delight in the Scripture, treasure up the Scripture; no wisdom [compares] to Scripture wisdom, no knowledge to Scripture knowledge, no experience to Scripture experience, no comforts to Scripture comforts, no delights to Scripture delights, no convictions to Scripture convictions, nor no conversion to Scripture conversion.

[1] How Christianity Made The Modern World. Paul Backholer, ByFaith Media, 2009.

[2] Bondage of the Will, pages 25-29

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