Is the Bible Clear?

by Derek Brown

The general consensus in the church throughout history has always been that God’s word is clear. It wasn’t until the middle ages, when the Roman Catholic Church started to distinguish strongly between clergy (priests) and laity (everyone else) that the clarity of the Bible was formally challenged. “The Bible is difficult to understand and contains many mysteries,” Catholic theologians argued. “Christians need an infallible interpreter, and God has given the Church to provide such a ministry.”

Calvin, Luther, and the other Reformers (and several decades earlier, John Wycliff) pushed strongly against the Roman Catholic notion that Scripture was too difficult for the common Christian to understand. The clarity of Scripture is implicit in the very reason God gave his Word: if his people are going to be saved and sanctified, they need an understandable, clear revelation (see John 5:34).

But God’s Word also attests to its own clarity. Consider how God expects his people to hear and keep his commandments. 

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them.

Deuteronomy 5:1

Indeed, in addressing Israel, God emphasized the clarity of his Word: 

 For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

God’s Word is clear and understandable: you can know who God is and what he requires of you. Indeed, you don’t have to have unique intellectual gifts to understand God’s Word, for Scripture “makes wise the simple” (Ps 19:7b). 

The clarity of Scripture doesn’t imply that every portion of Scripture is equally easy to understand (2 Pet 3:16-17), or that hard work isn’t sometimes required to grasp the meaning of a particular text (2 Tim 2:7, 15). Nor does it imply that illumination by the Holy Spirit or earthly teachers aren’t necessary to help us fully understand what Scripture is saying (see 1 Cor 2:11-16; 2 Tim 2:7; Eph 4:12). Rather, when we speak of the clarity of Scripture, we are referring to God’s ability to deliver an understandable Word to his people, in a language and manner conducive to their mental and spiritual comprehension.  

Why is it, then, that not all people understand Scripture? Well, among believers, it is usually the case that older, more-spiritually mature believers have a stronger grasp on Scripture than do younger or spiritually-immature believers (see 1 Cor 3:1-4; Heb 5:11-14; 1 John 2:11-14). We know that sin—like greed (Matt 6:26), pride (John 5:44), lust (Prov 11:6; Rom 1:24; 1 Thess 4:5), laziness (Prov 13:4; 15:19; 21:25), self-reliance (John 15:6) and the fear of man (Gal 1:10; 2:11-14)—can skew our spiritual judgment and hinder our understanding of Scripture. 

When it comes to non-Christians, Scripture tells us that unbelief inhibits understanding (see Ps 92:5-6; Prov 14:6; Is 1:3; Hosea 4:10-12). In truth, the unbeliever is spiritually blind to the blazing clarity of God’s Word (see 2 Cor 4:1-6).    

The problem with the clarity of Scripture, then, is not with Scripture, but with us. Nevertheless, when you come to Scripture with the aid of the Holy Spirt and a heart that is willing to believe and do what Scripture says, you will be able to understand its contents (Ps 25:9; John 7:16-17; 2 Tim 2:7). You won’t be able to understand everything all at once, but you will be able grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18). Be encouraged brothers and sisters: God’s Word is clear and understandable! Give yourself to reading it, studying it, meditating on it, and praying over it. It is God’s gift to you.