Ask Steve: The Clarity of Scripture

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Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

by Timothy Keller

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Question: Steve, can you explain to me the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Is all of Scripture equally clear to everyone without distinction? If not, what qualifications must be made to the doctrine?

Answer: The clarity of Scripture is captured in an ancient doctrine called perspicuity. It is a central belief in the Christian faith, and is one of the aspects that describe the inspiration of Scripture. It is the belief that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who genuinely seek to understand and practice it. In other words, the words of Scripture are straightforward, clear, and understandable to every person on earth.  It is not mystical, relative, or open to every interpretation. A person does not need to be an intellectual or genius to understand the Bible’s teachings. A person does not need a committee or a hierarchy of leaders to interpret the Bible’s main messages for him. A person does not need to go to seminary in order to decipher the Bible’s meaning and/or true intent. The words of Scripture are written in a way that it speaks timelessly to every person who has ever lived.

The Bible is written as such by the authors because God intended it to be like that. The central message from Genesis to Revelation is man’s spiritual alienation from God, the ultimate consequences of his rebellion, and God’s work of reconciliation through Jesus Christ. It speaks concerning the problem facing mankind, and how they must respond in order to get right with the Lord. The Bible is one evangelistic book that is designed to help readers understand its message so they can respond in repentance, faith, and obedience to God.

Bible 1It is difficult for a person to come to salvation and live a faithful Christian life if the meaning of Scripture is hard to understand, historically conditioned, or subjective. Since the Bible claims to be everything that a person needs in order to be saved and prosper spiritually (2 Tim 3:16-17), the meaning needs to be clear in order for a person to follow it, no matter his intellectual, ethnic, or socioeconomic background. God is the expert communicator, and He has communicated His message in a way that even children and simple-minded people can understand. Psalm 119:130 says, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

I must say that the clarity of Scripture does not negate the need for teachers and pastors within the church. God has appointed elders and teachers (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11) for the purpose of instructing the saints. Their duty is to clarify and bring out the depth of central doctrines, explain passages that are not as easy to understand, and to exhort congregants to follow its principles. This is something that can be difficult at times for individual Christians to do, since God has designed the Christian faith to be communal and mutually edifying. Christians can read and understand Scripture in his private reading time, but he also needs to be part of the local body and learn from overseers whose task is to not only help the Christian with certain passages, but to hold him accountable to follow God’s word.

Even though the Bible is comprehensible in its central messages, not every portion is as equally clear. There are certain verses, words, and passages in both the Old and New Testament that are somewhat underdeveloped or culturally conditioned. Because of this, devout readers have a difficult time with these passages and usually need the help of pastors, commentaries, or other study aids in order to understand both the passages’ context and principle. Examples of such passages or verses include the mixing of garments in Deuteronomy 22:11, the head coverings of women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and the baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Most times, the work is in discovering the historical or cultural context of the words, but the underlying principle is always unchanging. This means that whatever principle applied to ancient Israel or the early church applies to us now in the 21st century – although the application of those principles varies according to changing times.

What exactly constitutes “clear Scripture?” Clear Scripture are passages that speak about non-negotiable doctrines, such as the meaning of the gospel and matters pertaining to faith and godly living. The Bible is crystal clear on these issues, therefore a Christian or non-Christian cannot argue that Scripture is vague on the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, justification by faith, the triune nature of God, the eternality of heaven and hell, the sinfulness of certain practices, and other relevant issues. It’s safe to say that perspicuity of Scripture also extends to doctrines such as male leadership within the church, plurality elder rule, literal six-day creation, believer’s baptism, and even eschatology (end times doctrine).

Bible 2Sometimes Christians do not find some of these issues to be perspicuous and hold different beliefs, even to the point of dividing themselves from other believers because of their stance. There are different reasons why readers do not find the meaning of Scripture to be comprehensible. The first reason is that the readers might not possibly be saved. When the Holy Spirit regenerates and indwells a person, He helps the believer grasp the truths of Scripture and convicts him to act on these principles (Jn 16:13; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 Jn 2:27). Unbelievers who do not have the Spirit possess a spiritually dead heart, which is why they do not understand Scripture, and even rebel against its black-and-white meaning (1 Cor 2:14). There is a sense in which unbelievers can grasp the concepts of the Bible, but they do not act on these principles because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:20). That is why unbelievers who are exposed to the light of the Word are held more accountable for their unbelief at the final judgment (Matt 11:24; Lk 12:47-48).

Another reason why Scripture is difficult to understand is the sin nature of the Christian. Sometimes a Christian will find an issue to be difficult to understand because he is practicing a sin that obscures his alertness in the faith (1 Pet 5:18). Even if the Christian is not harboring any sin and lives above reproach, the sin nature still blocks some Christians from deciphering and accepting the plain meaning of certain texts. Such sin propensity includes personal emotional feelings on certain subjects, stubbornly fixed notions concerning God’s character and acts, adherence to Protestant traditions, and intellectual pride arising from scholarly work. This is why a great deal of humility is required when seeking to understand all of Scripture’s meaning, because the Bible’s meaning will challenge our feelings and beliefs about certain issues, even though we might not find the truth to be personally preferable or intellectually stimulating. However, this is how a Christian must approach Scripture, especially if he believes that the Bible – as reflected in sola scriptura – is the foundation and source for interpreting all matters of life.

Bible 3The final reason why Scripture is sometimes hard to understand is that God has not gifted certain people to understand it. I am not referring to the major issues relating to salvation and sanctification, but to some secondary and peripheral issues that Christians disagree on. These people simply do not have the gift of discernment or acknowledge, which is something that the Lord distributes according to His sovereign will (1 Cor 12:8). However, this does not mean that these Christians do not have the responsibility of learning the truth for the sake of Christian growth. All Scripture is inspired so as to present every person mature in Christ (Col 2:10), which is why we need to understand it as much as possible.

The clarity of Scripture is crucial because it is the hope of every Christian’s instruction in the faith. The belief that the Bible is unclear until examined under the practice of historical-criticism, that its principles are outdated and subjective in a modern society that advocates religious pluralism, abortion, and gay rights, or that Christians need the authority of the Pope, the Mormon president, or a Christian prophet to dictate it, is clearly unbiblical and even dangerous. The clarity of Scripture is meant to reveal the truth about God to everyone, which is why the Bible is the final authority on all spiritual matters. It is the definition of absolute truth in a world that seeks to deny it or do away with it.

Recommended Resource: Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung