Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Is the Bible Understandable?

If you are like me, the answer to this question seems so obvious your initial reaction is to wonder why anyone would think to ask it. Nevertheless, the question was posed recently, and I want to take some time to reflect on it here.

The obvious answer is “yes.” What motivates my work as a college professor is the conviction that ordinary readers can learn to read and apply the Bible for themselves. I would not have welcomed the opportunity to teach an introductory course on hermeneutics regularly over the last fourteen years if I did not think the Bible was understandable.

But what do we mean when we affirm that the Bible is understandable? I take for granted that the Bible is not always easy to understand, and that reading well requires effort and skill. In my classes I explain that I want my students to develop confidence in their ability to interpret the Bible and at the same time grow in humility as they come to appreciate the complexity of the task and their own human limitations. We see through a glass darkly. Scripture is understandable the way God is understandable, and the self-revealing God is beyond our comprehension.

Does “understandable” allow for this complexity? Can those who affirm the Bible’s “understandability” admit that no one knows what this or that or that Hebrew word means, or confess to being unable to resolve a particular interpretive issue? Must we always arrive at answers, or are we allowed to live with questions from time to time?

I gather that the Protestant doctrine of the Bible’s perspicuity or clarity lies behind the question and the answer it invites. Indeed, in a 2009 article Wayne Grudem proposed using “understandability” as an alternative way of describing the Bible’s clarity.

I am going to argue that this substitution is problematic. “Clarity” and “understandability” mean different things, and conflating them leads to confusion. But if we assume for the moment that when we discuss the Bible’s “understandability” we really mean its “perspicuity,” the natural place to turn is the classic statement in the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith:
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet 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.” (WCF 1.7; online here)
Grudem, however, explicitly rejects the Westminster Confession’s limitation of the Bible’s clarity to “those things which are necessary … for salvation,” and attempts to apply the doctrine in as expansive a way as possible. Grudem grants that understanding the Bible requires effort and time, that other people contribute to understanding, and that our understanding is never complete; he also allows that “there are still today a few words that we are not sure how to translate.” But he insists that if the Bible is authoritative, “clarity” must be affirmed “as a characteristic of Scripture as a whole” and not limited to things that are necessary for salvation: “[T]he meaning of the whole of scripture on many topics is able to be understood by God’s people.” In other words, Grudem defends something like a verbal plenary understandability that extends to (almost) every part of the text.

As a corollary to Scripture’s clarity, Grudem suggests, on the one hand, that “translations should be encouraged,” but he denies, on the other hand, that knowledge of the Bible’s historical context is necessary for understanding—that would put the meaning of the Bible out of the reach of ordinary people.

I share Grudem’s desire to help ordinary people read and understand the Bible. Nevertheless, there are major problems with Grudem’s broad interpretation of the clarity of Scripture. In the next few posts I want to consider weaknesses of Grudem’s approach, explaining why “clarity” and “understandability” should be distinguished, and why the original limited sense of “clarity” as it is presented in the Westminster Confession should be preferred.

Bibliography: Grudem, Wayne. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288–308.

This is the first post in a series on the perspicuity of Scripture:
Perspicuity 2: The NET Bible on Old Testament Obscurities
Perspicuity 3: Limited Clarity, Perspicuous Theology and the Importance of Historical Context
Perspicuity 4: Suspended Reading and Wilful Misunderstanding 

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