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Thinking Clearly About the Clarity of Scripture

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The interpretation of the Bible was a responsibility not of individuals by themselves, but rather of the community of believers gathered.

Are the Scriptures clear? Most of us would tend to answer: "sometimes yes, sometimes no." There are passages that seem straightforward and other passages that appear really confusing. What else could we expect of a collection of books written over the course of 1,500 years, by so many diverse authors, in so many diverse styles? Some passages are bound to make sense to us, and some are bound to be perplexing.

Consider the book of Proverbs. Almost all of us would admit that these little sayings of wisdom can be simple and powerful as well as complicated and mystifying at times. So for example Proverbs 26:4-5 reads, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." Are we supposed to answer the fool on his or her own terms or not? The two verses suggest the answer is not so clear. What kind of clarity is it to say, "Sometimes yes, sometimes no"? This kind of conundrum may help us get clear about our notions of clarity. It may also help us distinguish some of our ordinary intuitions about clarity from the historically Protestant affirmation of the clarity of Scripture.

I may say to our teenage daughter, "Please get the groceries when you stop at the store." Simple and clear, correct? Simple, yes, but not very clear unless she also knows which groceries to buy. In this case "simple" is not the same as "clear." "Clear" seems to be appropriate only when she readily understands my words, and this is possible only if other words are part of our communication. It may also be that no information is being processed in this communication. It might in fact be a command or a reminder. On this reading, our teenager daughter may respond, "Why can't someone else get the groceries?" If one understands the general practice of communication between a parent and teenage child, one also knows this statement is not clear unless one also has a lot of background information, unless one can interpret the tone of the words and see the body language when the question was asked, and unless one can determine if in fact it was actually a question. Given all the background information required and about which communication theorists may offer rich and elaborate explanations, the question "Why can't someone else go to the grocery story?" may well have been a paradigm of clarity, in other words, "Dad, I don't want to go the grocery store!" It accomplished its intended goal. The words did their job.

I want to suggest by analogy, the clarity of the Bible has less to do with any straightforward understanding of those who read the Book, as it has to do with how the words of Scripture actually accomplish the task for which they were written. It is the power of the words to provoke the intended response, which enables us to call them "clear." This may seem counterintuitive to us. It also may seem out of accord with our ordinary use of the term "clear." In what follows, let me suggest that understanding the Bible is indeed counterintuitive, and in many instances requires an out-of-the-ordinary kind of wisdom. And with Protestants more generally, I want to affirm that the Bible clearly accomplishes its goal, even when there are some who do not seem to understand it.

Clarity is a characteristic of the Scriptures themselves. The words themselves as inspired by the Spirit of God, and as applied to our understanding by the same Spirit, illuminate the true nature of the gospel. The words are clear not because we have found a way to understand them, but because the Spirit inspires clarity and illuminates minds clearly. Our trust in the clarity of Scripture, in other words, is the trustworthiness of the Spirit.

Consider the words at the very beginning of the Bible, "In the beginning, God... " These words echo at the beginning of Genesis with great theological force. It is simply not an accident that these words are the very first words of Scripture! These words powerfully remind us that God stands as the fountainhead of everything. He is that in which everything finds its ultimate reference point. He is before all things, and he is that which orders and gives meaning to everything. He is the Sovereign of the created order and frames all of our creaturely tasks. He is the original against which all images are but reflections.

God is the key to everything that follows. God is the only one who speaks in Genesis 1. God is the only who acts in Genesis 1. God is the only one named in Genesis 1. He is the primary actor as well as the playwright of the drama that follows. He puts everything in its proper order, and everything appears as perfectly appropriate to its place in the drama that unfolds.

Of particular interest is the claim that God's speaking appears as identical with God's creating. In other words, when God says something in Genesis 1, God is creating that about which he is speaking. God says, "Let there be light," and there is light. God says, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. Divine speaking accomplishes what it says. But why is that so? In the first instance we naturally want to say, "Well, because God is powerful, and he can do this sort of thing." That would be true enough. But it is also true that God's power is interwoven with his purpose. He not only makes things, he designs them as signs and symbols of himself. He makes creatures that are moral because he is moral. He makes creatures that govern because he governs. He makes creatures in relationship, because he is in relationship. God's nature is "communicated" to the created order, in the language of speaking creation into being.

Not all of God's words through the Scriptures are "creative words," but the early chapters of Genesis provide us with a model to think about the way we are to understand the clarity of God's words. Generally speaking, as his creatures we are not in need of an abstract theory of interpretation before we can interpret God's words. Sophisticated word studies and a nuanced theory of semantics may aid us in bridging the gap between the worlds and words of Moses (the human author of Genesis) and our own, but there is no such gap between the Creator's speaking and our ability to understand the divine words, precisely because God has made us to understand his speech. He is a God who creates by speaking, and he creates persons who are "word-using" beings. We speak because we reflect the God who made us. We understand because he has wired us for understanding.

These intuitions suppose that the capacity for human understanding is a divinely ordained and created project. God makes us in such a fashion that we ordinarily understand his words, as we ordinarily understand each other's words. In this sense words are like tools we use to accomplish the tasks God has set for them. And because God uses them, words actually work. God's words in particular always accomplish the task for which they are spoken.

There is one slight problem to this line of thinking - sin. Though we are created and wired to understand God's words, we do not always like the words we hear. The human heart is not always receptive to the words that echo in the human ears. How radically impacted human understanding is by human corruption is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say here, that we don't always get it, and this is mostly because we don't want to "get it." Human desire deeply affects human understanding. Tainted human desires correspondingly taint human understanding.

Misunderstanding is now so "normal" to us that we often take it for granted. We suppose that disagreement with another person mostly is due to the fact that they've misunderstood us, for we reason if they understood us, they would agree with us. If my argument is as good as I suppose it is (why otherwise would I believe it?), then others who disagree must be infected with a bias not enabling them from seeing my argument clearly.

On the other hand, most of us assume at some deep level that "misunderstanding" is not the way things are supposed to be. Genuine communication takes place often enough that we operate with this as the goal of most conversations. We speak and write as the way toward genuine understanding and communication. We may yearn for greater understanding in our conversations and we may get frustrated when there isn't more understanding, but we rarely suppose understanding is absolutely impossible. Why is this? The simple answer is that God has made us like himself-to use words, and to receive words as a primary form of communication and understanding. Simple enough, right? Yes and no.

The ability to communicate and understand is God- given. The ability to miscommunicate and misunderstand is a function of our fallen condition. God's ability to communicate clearly in the midst of our misunderstanding neither diminishes the essential clarity of his words, nor the reality of our tainted reception of those words. Clarity is a matter of God's words accomplishing their intended task by the power of the Spirit of God. We may not understand all his words clearly, but we do understand them enough to "get it." This experience of "getting it" is rooted in our confidence in the Word of God inspired by the Spirit of God. There is no special magisterial authority of the church required to understand the gospel as it has been narrated in the Scripture. What is needed is the Spirit of God working to glorify the Son in and through the Scriptures and as those Scriptures are applied in our hearts and minds. It is our confidence in the Spirit that leads us to affirm the clarity of Scripture.

How might we then describe the interaction between the Scriptures and the hearers/readers of the Scriptures (us)? It is a kind of interaction in which the respective "ways-to-put-the-world-together" engages or intersects each other. It is a meeting between the gospel and our hearts. It is an interaction between the history of redemption and our own history. In this meeting the reader ought to realize that as she asks questions of the Scriptures, they are also asking questions of her and showing her an alternative "way-to-put-the-world-together." This might force her to rethink many of her fundamental assumptions and ways of thinking. Or it might result in an attempt to reinterpret the Scriptures on her terms, and keep any impact of the Scriptures to a minimum. Sometimes reading the Scriptures proves too costly to the life of the reader, and she simply dismisses the Book. But by the power of the Spirit, on occasion, the reader "gets it" and realizes how life changing the Book's message actually ought to be. In this instance the message of the Book is crystal clear.

We might put it this way. The "success" of the Book is not a function of the reader bringing the Book into their world and understanding it on their terms, but of finding themselves transported into the world of the Book, and finding their terms now transformed by the Book. It is the movement from ordinary natural wisdom to the clarity of God's gospel. What had at an earlier time seemed confounded and confusing has become clear and powerful. It has become clear and powerful not because the Scriptures have changed, but because the reader has changed.

Thinking about this task from the perspective of the reader, the task is to find ways to let the Scriptures ask the questions as well as provide the answers. The clarity of Scripture resides in the Scriptures themselves, which means as readers, we should let the Scriptures interpret the Scriptures, by means of which we are also allowing the Scriptures to interpret us.

One helpful safeguard toward this end is the warning not to read the Book as if you're the only who has ever read the Book before. Learn to read the book together with the width and breadth of the church, past and present. Sometimes we wrongly suppose that the Reformation slogan, sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) grants permission to read the Bible alone, meaning, all by ourselves. Sola Scriptura may have been a rallying cry for our Protestant forbearers, but it was never intended as a means to bypass the community of readers (the church), either past or present. The interpretation of the Bible was a responsibility not of individuals by themselves, but rather of the community of believers gathered. It was to be a corporate task, which meant that the Scriptures gained their force when they were read and acted upon by the confessing community of believers.

There are indications aplenty to suggest that individualism, so characteristic of our times, has wreaked havoc on biblical interpretation. In earlier times, the greater danger may have been an interpretive tyranny exercised by certain ecclesiastical authorities, but today the greatest danger is an interpretive anarchy among evangelicals. There are Bible translations for every diverse constituency. There are Bible study guides for every perceived need. There is a Bible conference to attend for every conceivable audience. There seems no need to get outside one's own comfort zone to read the Bible any longer. The Bible appears as infinitely malleable, bendable to any reader's perspective. By contrast the original intuition behind sola Scriptura was that Scripture was the final authority for the life of the believing community. As a people of the Book, Protestants need safeguards against reading the Bible captivated by our own experiences. If Scripture is the final authority, then in some important sense, Scripture must interpret the reader, rather than the reader determining what Scripture may or may not be saying. The Scriptures are to be the final court of appeal about what the Scriptures actually communicate.

This entails another fundamental principle of the reformers, the clarity of Scripture. If the Scriptures are the final court of appeals, they must be sufficiently clear in their judgments to serve that purpose. The clarity of the Scriptures belonged to their general trustworthiness to define and narrate the gospel of grace. This would suggest also that not all things in Scripture are clear in themselves but that the gospel as narrated and enacted from the beginning to the end is clear-for the learned and the unlearned-as the Westminster Confession affirmed. The faith defined in any part of the Scriptures is interpreted by the faith defined in the whole of the Scriptures.

To these principles evangelicals have given less than unswerving fidelity and the result is that the movement has never achieved a unified expression nor learned how to deal with its differences. In evangelical hands, Scripture is too often treated without the safeguards provided by the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura and its intended consequence: The Clarity of Scripture. Too often there has been a license to interpret the Scriptures without reference to breadth of the church's witness and to interpret the Scriptures as if its clarity resided not in the objective work of the Spirit but in the subjective experience of the interpreter.

The purposes in raising these particular considerations should be obvious. The clarity of Scripture is never a principle in the abstract. The clarity of the Scripture has to do with the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the task of redemption through the words of Scripture. The clarity of the words has to do with the intended consequence of God's use of the words in the first place, that is, to reconcile an alienated people back into covenant relationship with him. How we read the Scripture is bound up with the ends toward which we are to read the Scriptures. Clarity is not so much a category of our rationality as it is a category of redemption. How we read the Book is bound up with how we are to live in relationship with the divine author of the Book.

An example may help clarify our point about clarity. The Scriptures seem clear in their portrayal of Christ's actual death. However, unless the meaning and significance of that event is central to how we read the passion narratives, a crucial clarity of those narratives is missed. Further, unless the connection between the foreshadowing symbols and events (e.g. Passover) which preceded the death of Christ, is understood, our faith will be greatly impoverished. It is not enough simply to understand that Christ died on a cross, for many people have died on crosses. And it is not enough simply to understand that Jesus died as both God and man on the cross, for then one might declare with Frederick Nietzsche that God has died. In order to understand the death of Christ one must understand the significance of that event in the Bible as a whole for the whole life of the church. This entails that Jesus' death be understood in the context of the covenants of the Old Testament and the consummation of history at the end of time. The clarity of the narrative of Christ's death is connected with the way the whole of the story of God's redeeming work in the Bible is told. The Scriptures become clear when they fulfill the task for which they are spoken-viz., to give purpose to the past, present, and future in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Of great consequence is the increasing clarity with which the witness of God is manifest on earth. The testimony to the sovereign Lordship of God over all creation increases over time. There is a historical unfolding in the awareness of this lordship. This is one of the central themes in the Bible.

There is an initial clarity in Adam and Eve's comprehension of the purposes and presence of God. The creatures and the Creator understood each other. The creatures are created in such a way as to understand their creator. The fall destroyed this clarity, and Adam and Eve sought shelter from God in the midst of their shame. God was not any less visible to them. Rather they sought to shift the blame for their changed situation upon each other and finally also upon God. There was some hint that they also tried to hide from God. God spoke with force and clarity and they proverbially stuck fingers in their ears and complained they could not hear. With obvious theological import, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden. The Garden was protected by the flaming sword, an indication that the presence of God had become a place of dread for the fallen couple.

God did not leave himself without a clear witness on the earth, however. He lifted up Noah as a remnant to be a faithful and clear witness to him. Mocked and scorned by his neighbors, Noah nonetheless testified of his God in the building of the ark. The clarity of the witness of the remnant increased with the promise given to Abraham that his descendents shall be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. It is a witness that increases in clarity contrary to reasonable expectations. Abraham and Sarah bear a child in their old age, and this son served as a living reminder of the presence and promise of God. The witness of God became clearer as the Jews were brought out of the land of Egypt and populated the land of Canaan. Though taken into exile twice, the Jews nonetheless extended the clear witness of God into all nations. While in the land of Canaan, the Jews increased in number greatly, but they were also reminded that this numerical increase was not itself a sign of the presence of God. The countless stories in the Old Testament continually remind the reader that even in the nation of Israel there remained but a remnant that truly believed and testified clearly to the power and presence of God. And correspondingly, the numerical decrease (in the two exiles) was not a sign of the ambiguous presence of God. When the situation seemed hopeless, God's presence seemed to be the clearest. The unfolding presence of God occurred in unexpected and ironic fashion to human eyes, but nonetheless in a steadily increasing and clear if also ironic fashion.

This unfolding of the redemptive actions of God reaches a clear climax in the coming of Jesus as a baby. With his arrival, there is a manifold increase in the witness of God. God has become man for human eyes to see and human ears to hear. And yet in a paradoxical way Jesus reminded his audiences that only those with eyes to see will see and only those with ears to hear will hear. God's work is clear, but only for those with eyes to see.

The disciples waited expectantly for the final flowering of the Kingdom of God as Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem at the time of the Passover feast. They expected Jesus to gain ascendancy and finally be crowned a king in the land of Israel. With the advantage of hindsight (and apostolically inspired epistles) it is clear that they misunderstood the nature of Christ's kingship. And contrary to further expectations, the witness of God was made clear in defeat, the death on the cross. In his humiliation, Christ was exalted. He became a king, not simply a king of the Jewish people but the king of every nation and every people. From the defeat of the cross the witness increased in clarity. At Pentecost, the Spirit descended and the church extended beyond all known ethnic barriers. Both Jew and Gentile served as vessels clearly testifying to the Lordship of God over all the earth.

There are many more who now appear to "get it," though as we have learned throughout the Scriptures, appearances can be deceiving. With the appropriate cautions in place, nonetheless, it ought to be said that God's Word has not returned to him void. It has accomplished the tasks for which it was spoken, since those tasks were the purpose for which it was spoken. God's Word is more powerful than any two-edged sword. It is clearer than any human misapprehension. The clarity of Scripture lays precisely in the reality that his Word creates, his promises redeem, and his judgments are final.



1 [ Back ] Prof. Lints recommends the following works for further study on the clarity of Scripture: James Patrick Callahan, The Clarity of Scripture: History, Theology and Contemporary Literary Studies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001); Paul Helm and Carl Trueman, eds., The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001); Richard A. Muller, Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993); Kevin Vanhoozer, "God's Mighty Speech Acts" in Philip Satterthwaite and David F. Wright, eds., A Pathway into Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); and Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).


Richard Lints is professor of theology and apologetics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts) and author of The Fabric of Theology (Eerdmans, 1993). He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

Issue: "Gods Unto Ourselves" March/April 2007 Vol. 16 No. 2 Page number(s): 32-36

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