“The clarity of scripture tells me that its doctrines can be taught in a way that ordinary people are able to understand. ... Neither Jesus nor Paul nor even the writer to the Hebrews felt compelled to make their teaching of doctrine so inaccessible to ordinary Christians, and I wondered if it might be possible to imitate the clarity of Scripture rather than the opacity of [Louis] Berkhof in writing about theology.”By all accounts Grudem’s Systematic Theology is admirably clear, but there are problems with the analogy:
- Conflating Understandability and Clarity: I am convinced that Paul’s letter to the Romans is understandable both in its overall message and in detailed points of argumentation, but that the letter is far from clear to the general reader is apparent from the history of interpretation—and the testimony of my students. 2 Peter 3:15-16 says of the letters of “our beloved brother Paul,” “that there are some things in them hard to understand.” Indeed. Erasmus wrote that “The difficulty of this letter equals and almost surpasses its utility!” This is an overstatement, but my students sympathize. Although Paul no doubt wrote to be understood, Romans does not approach the clarity that Grudem attributes to his own Systematic Theology. Understandability is not the same as clarity.
- Confusing Clarity and Accessibility: The little I have read of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology I find very clear indeed, but that does not mean Berkhof’s tome is accessible to those with no academic training. This is because clarity is not the same as accessibility. What is clear to one reader may be opaque to another.
In my last post, I discussed one way Grudem minimizes difficulties in understanding the Bible. Here I want to respond to Grudem’s suggestion that “historical background information” is unnecessary “for getting a proper sense of a text” by relating this claim to Grudem’s common-sense approach to theology.
Grudem allows that “[s]ome awareness of the wisdom contained in the church’s history of interpretation” is “useful.” His essay interacts with the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith and cites Mark Thompson’s book on the Clarity of Scripture, which comments on the history of the debate. Nevertheless, Grudem’s discussion of the clarity of Scripture pays insufficient attention to the historical framework within which the doctrine was first articulated. The result, I think, is a case of perspicuity “mission creep” that leads to a new and unhelpful expanded meaning of the term.
In 1516 Desiderius Erasmus expressed his wish for the “Gospels and the Pauline Epistles” to be “translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood,” adding a line that would be taken up by William Tyndale:
“Would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind!” (Erasmus, "The Paraclesis")For Erasmus, this does not mean that the meaning of the Bible is completely clear. In a 1524 response to Martin Luther, Erasmus wrote:
“[T]here are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply and, if we try to do so, then the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes, by which means we are led to acknowledge the unsearchable majesty of the divine wisdom, and the weakness of the human mind. ... [T]here are many passages in the sacred volumes about which many commentators have made guesses, but no one has finally cleared up their obscurity ... yet there are other things which God has willed to be most plainly evident, and such are the precepts for the good life” (Erasmus, “On the Freedom of the Will,” quoted in Thompson 144).A year later, Luther replied:
“[I]n opposition to you I say with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure. ... Christ has not so enlightened us as deliberately to leave some part of his word obscure while commanding us to give heed to it, for he commands us in vain to give heed if it does not give light” (Luther, “The Bondage of the Will,” quoted in Thompson 147).By the time the dust had settled at the end of the 16th century, William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, explained:
“[O]ur fundamental principles are these: First, that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear to admit of their being read by the people and the unlearned with some fruit and utility. Secondly, that all things necessary to salvation are propounded in plain words in the Scriptures. Meanwhile, we concede that there are many obscure places, and that the Scriptures need explication; and that, on this account, God’s ministers are to be listened to when they expound the word of God, and the men best skilled in Scripture are to be consulted.” (Whittaker 1588, quoted in Thompson 153)
According to Thompson, “Whitaker explicitly argued that this was in all respects the same argument as that published by Luther sixty years earlier” (153). Whitaker also anticipated the Westminster Confession, which limits the clarity of Scripture to things that are necessary for salvation. For what it’s worth, Louis Berkhof, writing in 1938, said much the same thing.
Thanks to the historical context, we learn that the classic Protestant formulation of the perspicuity of Scripture was, in effect, a statement about the value of reading Scripture, and a claim that everyone should be allowed to read the Bible for themselves. If Whitaker and Berkhof are correct, affirmations of the clarity of Scripture were always limited and never absolute.
To be sure, the traditional limited view of the Bible’s perspicuity may be mistaken, but it should at least give us pause when we encounter a contemporary theologian who advances what appears to be a new understanding of the term. In this case, I think there are good reasons for retaining the traditional view. Instead of affirming Scripture’s “understandability,” why not simply quote Whitaker or the Westminster Confession?
Believers who regard the Bible as authoritative must not let hermeneutical challenges keep them from saying anything at all. But it won’t do to paper over the complexity within which understanding takes place, and it won’t do to neglect historical context.
Other Posts in This Series:
Perspicuity 1: Is the Bible Understandable?
Perspicuity 2: The NET Bible on Old Testament Obscurities
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938.
Erasmus, Desiderius. “The Paraclesis.” Pages 97–108 in Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus with the Life of Erasmus by Beatus Rhenanus. Translated by John C. Olin. 3rd ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987.
Grudem, Wayne. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288–308.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester: IVP, 1994.
Thompson, Mark D. A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.