The doctrine of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture (that the central message of the Bible is clear and understandable, and that the Bible itself can be properly interpreted in a normal, literal sense) has been a cornerstone of evangelical belief ever since the Reformation.
The dominant Roman Catholic idea had been that the Bible was obscure and difficult to understand. But the Reformers disagreed, arguing instead that anyone who could read could understand biblical teaching. Rather than limiting biblical interpretation to the clergy or the Magisterium, the Reformers encouraged lay Christians to study and interpret God’s Word on their own. All of this was premised on the Reformed belief that the Bible itself was inherently clear, and that God had been able to communicate His message to men in an understandable fashion. As Luther explained to Erasmus:
But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e. lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of truth. . . . Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God. . . . If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures but he that hath the Spirit of God. . . . If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world. (Bondage of the Will, 25-29)
While such an understanding, as Luther openly admits, did not demand complete agreement among Protestants on every secondary doctrine, it did establish an important principle: that the Word of God was revealed in an understandable way, that its central message is clear, and that (because it is clear) all men are fully accountable to its message.
In contrast to this, the teachings of some directly assault the doctrine of biblical clarity. Instead of promoting a settled confidence in the fact that the Bible can be understood, they do just the opposite.
There are many important pitfalls to watch for when considering biblical clarity.
The first pitfall of undermining the clarity of Scripture is denying that biblical doctrine can be held with any degree of certainty. Certainty, of course, comes from clarity. Where there is no clarity, there is no certainty. And vice versa.
For the Reformers, it was because the Bible was clear that they were certain about its central message.
What do we mean by ‘certainty’? Can’t certainty be dangerous? What we need is proper interpretation to come to the truth that yields certainty about doctrine.
Some will argue that benefit comes not from being right, but from dialoguing with those of all different viewpoints. Thus, they feel there is great reward in always pursuing but never finally arriving at truth. Correctness in doctrine is something that cannot be attained — at least not with any degree of certainty.
By reducing biblical doctrines to opinions it denies both Scripture’s clarity and its authority. Because some argue the Bible is unclear, the chorus of divergent interpretations are all granted equal validity. This means, then, that the authority of any one viewpoint (as that which is correct) vanishes, since all sides are equally reduced to nothing more than personal opinion.
This article is adapted from a John MacArthur article from The Master’s Seminary Journal.
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