The Bible is Clear

by Derek Brown

In what has to be one of the most ironic developments in the history of theology, a word that is unclear to most people has come to be the standard nomenclature for the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. When theologians discuss this doctrine, they often refer to the Bible’s perspicuity. Ask people what this word means and you probably won’t get very far, and you almost certainly won’t get the Merriam-Webster definition.

That definition, by the way, is simply this: “clearness of expression.” The perspicuity of Scripture refers to the clarity of the Bible.

Is the clarity of Scripture a biblical doctrine? Not everyone in the history of the church has thought so. For example, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has argued that such a doctrine can’t account for the transcendent nature of Scripture’s subject matter, nor is it possible for the common layperson to penetrate the Bible’s mysteries or make ready sense of what Rome sees as the Bible’s basic obscurity. The Bible is dense, profound, and otherwise inscrutable. What believers need is what the RCC provides: an infallible interpretation that unlocks Scripture’s mysteries.

It has also been suggested that the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture cannot withstand the weight of empirical evidence; namely, the existence of 2000 years of multiple interpretations of Scripture—many of which are fundamentally at odds with one another. Add to this the claims of postmodernism that question our ability to grasp authorial intent, and you have nothing left to say about the clarity of Scripture except that it is a theological artifact.

Not so fast. As we will see, the clarity of Scripture is a biblical doctrine that can be demonstrated from a storehouse of texts. We will also see that the objections mentioned above don’t carry any weight.

First, we must note that there is a consistent expectation throughout Scripture that God’s Word can be understood, obeyed, and profited from. We see this expectation all throughout the Old and New Testaments (Ex 15:26; Eph 3:4). Moses even expects children to be able to grasp the meaning of God’s Word as they are taught by their parents (Deut 6:6-7). In one of the most important Old Testament passages for this doctrine, Moses insists that Israel would be able to obey God’s instruction precisely because it was accessible and understandable (Deut 30:11-14).

We also note in Scripture several texts that explain the purpose for which the Bible was given. Jesus taught so that his listeners (and readers) could be saved (John 5:34). Paul told Timothy that the Scriptures he learned from his mother and grandmother could lead him to salvation in Christ (2 Tim 3:14). Indeed, the Bible is so clear, that it is able to make wise the simple (Ps 19:7).

What it Doesn’t Mean
The doctrine of Scripture’s clarity does not imply that all Scripture is equally easy to understand. Even the apostle Peter admitted that some of Paul’s writings were difficult to grasp (2 Peter 3:16). Nor does it imply that the meaning of every passage of Scripture can be grasped without hard exegetical work (2 Tim 2:15). And we certainly don’t mean that biblical clarity implies that divine illumination is unnecessary to understand the meaning of Scripture (Psalm 119:18, 26-27; Luke 24:45; 2 Tim 2:7) or that teachers are unnecessary (Acts 8:30-31; Eph 4:12; 2 Peter 3:16).

What it Does Mean
When we say that the Bible is clear, we simply mean that because God’s Word is given in plain, ordinary language, all people endowed with basic ability to understand oral or written communication, possess the ability to understand, embrace, and believe the Bible’s message. The goal for which God gave the Scripture (the salvation and sanctification of his people) guarantees Scripture’s inherent clarity.

But if Scripture is so clear, why is there so much disagreement among Christians about what the Bible teaches?

This objection to biblical clarity is usually overstated. Those who register this complaint usually don’t consider that there has also been wide agreement within the church for two thousand years over the Bible’s teachings. But this objection also fails to recognize that the doctrine of biblical clarity locates clarity in the Scripture and not in the individual.

The Problem is with Us, Not the Bible
The reason why some people don’t recognize the inherent clarity of Scripture isn’t the fault of Scripture; it is due to their own deficiencies. Disobedience stems from a refusal to obey, not from the lack of clarity of God’s Word (see Ex 16:28). We also know that unbelief impedes understanding (Ps 92:5-6; Prov 14:6; Is 1:3; Hosea 4:10-12; Rom 3:10-11; 1 Cor 2:14; 2 Cor 4:3-4; Eph 4:17-18) and that faith enables understanding: “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding” (Prov 14:6; cf. Prov 15:14; Hosea 14:9). If you’re willing to do God’s will, you will be able to understand Jesus’ words (John 7:16-17).

We also know that inadequate or flawed principles of interpretation or failing to account for all the biblical data may lead to wrong interpretations. But personal sin can also cause problems. Greed clogs our soul and our ability to perceive reality (Matt 6:22); pride skews our interpretational judgment (John 5:44); lust weakens our spiritual senses (1 Pet 2:11); laziness keeps us from working hard to understand the text (Prov 13:4; 15:19; 21:25); the fear of man keeps us from drawing the right conclusions about what the Bible is teaching (Gal 2:11-14).

In his goodness, God has provided his people with a Bible that is clear. It hasn’t been written in technical jargon that only a few elites can understand; no, Scripture was given in plain language, suitable for all people. It is easy enough for children to understand and deep enough to both satisfy and stimulate the pious theologian. We can say with the psalmist: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105).