Is scripture clear?

I’m hardly a doctrine expert, or particularly well-read on this topic (and so please treat the following as thoughts in progress), but I was struck by the comments today of a visiting Christian author concerning the clarity of scripture. On more than one occasion, he mentioned how there are things in scripture that we don’t understand, BUT—on that great day in which we see God face-to-face, when all is made apparent—we will realise that it was not scripture that was unclear, but we small-minded people that were at fault.

I don’t really understand his line of argument. Is there really any difference between something that is unclear, and something that is unclear for humans? I am struggling to picture God’s explanation on that day as being, ‘I wrote it perfectly clearly; just not in a way that you could understand.’

I personally think that the Bible is often unclear. Some of the reason is that it is merely unclear for us. We don’t belong to the same era or the same culture or the same frame of reference as the original writers and readers. We also aren’t privy to all the reasons for writing or the conversation into which many of the books (certainly the letters) were written. Some of it gets lost in translation.

But the lack of clarity is more than that. Even Peter (without all the temporal and cultural difference) says that some of Paul’s letters are ‘hard to understand’. Similarly, the Early Church was hardly impeccable in its understanding of Christian theology. For all their privileges of proximity, they were still just at novice level.

The stories in the Old Testament are illustrative of the issue. The writers often get criticised for their failure to pass clear verdicts on the behaviour that they describe, and in fact some bad behaviour seems almost to receive their approval. For example, in Judges 14, when Samson wants to marry into a family of the enemy and oppressor, to the complaints of his parents, the author reports, ‘His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord,’ which prompts most of us (incorrectly) to conclude that this means his behaviour was acceptable or even good.

The more I study Hebrew narratives, the more struck I am by how much communication of even essential ideas is taking place below the surface, encoded in subtle allusions, pointed repetitions, puzzling juxtapositions and incongruities, and so on. The author’s theological emphases and ethical judgments often lie partially submerged on this artfully ambiguous level, where there are rarely ‘model answers’ for the conclusions that we must draw.

If there is one thing that is clear from these stories, it is that clarity is not the primary goal. We are invited to puzzle over the grey areas, and it seems to me that there is most to be gained from that struggle.

I’m not convinced by the claim that the Bible is clear and it is us that is muddled. We undoubtedly are guilty of muddle, but the thing that draws us out of the blur is the sharpening of our moral and theological reasoning, and mature thinking is never birthed without struggle.

So I’d suggest that the Bible isn’t always clear, but I take it that is the point.


5 thoughts on “Is scripture clear?

  1. Kyle Groger says:

    For our Doctrine 4 course with Ben he recommended reading the following on the clarity of Scripture:

    — G. C. Berkouwer, ‘Clarity’, pp.267-298 in Holy Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975.
    — M. D. Thompson, ‘The effective communicator: God as the guarantor of scriptural clarity’, pp.49-80 in A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Holy Scripture. Leicester: Apollos, 2006.
    — J. Webster, ‘On the Clarity of Holy Scripture’, pp.33-69 in Confessing God. Essays in Christian Dogmatics 2. London: T & T Clark, 2005.
    — J. Callahan, The Clarity of Scripture. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2001.
    — D. A. Carson, ‘Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today?’ pp.179-193 in Collected Writings on Scripture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.
    — J. Frame, ‘The Clarity of Scripture’, pp.201-209 in The Doctrine of the Word of God. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010.
    — K. Vanhoozer, pp.314-317 in Is There a Meaning in This Text?. Leicester: Apollos, 1998.
    — R. Muller, ‘Perspicuity and Efficacy’, pp.322-340 in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 2: Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
    — A. C. Thiselton, ‘The Hermeneutics of Enquiry: From the Reformation to Modern Theory’, pp.179-203 in New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading. London: Harper, 1992.
    — T. Ward, ‘Clarity’, pp.117-128 in Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God. Leicester: IVP, 2009.

    I’ll send you my reading notes (on the first three) over email. I really enjoyed Webster. I know James and Graham looked elsewhere. I think James read Luther. He reckoned the burns were enjoyable, but the content didn’t take you too far.

    Carson also had a chapter in his collected writings on scripture where he reviewed four recent books. if memory serves, there was something about clarity in there. it is also online.

  2. Graham says:

    I read Berkouwer, which was carefully laid out and clear, though would probably serve best when read in conjunction with the rest of his work on Scripture. James and I also ran some posts dealing with clarity at Rekindle last year; I hear those are well worth the read

    • James says:

      I remember the opposite being true of Berkouwer (there was that section on “Proof of Scripture” which was pretty opaque as far as I’m concerned. He was helpful as far as demonstrating the need for objective clarity though, I think…

  3. James says:

    “Is there really any difference between something that is unclear, and something that is unclear for humans?”
    My view of perspicuity is that the Bible is clear and that means that I can rest assured that with illuminating grace and hard work (and generally not one without the other) I can come to understand the bits I find unclear.
    I have a student who thinks the Bible is unclear because it says both “an eye for an eye” and “turn the other cheek”. That’s a simple misunderstanding of something I take to be clear. I would think that what I find unclear others will see more clearly hence the need for theology in community (along with historical theology, for that matter) and in actual fact it will turn out that I, like my student, am simply misunderstanding something.
    Perspicuity is not simplicity so the fact that some of what Paul says is difficult does not affect its clarity.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      We agree that that none of us understands the text perfectly, and that community of interpretation has been working on the text for 2000 years with increasing but not astounding success. This would be a hallmark of a difficult text, in my opinion, not a clear one. And it’s not just difficulty that is the problem–certain narrative devices are especially resistant to certainty because they are merely suggestive of points of view, not dogmatic. We can suggest possible interpretations that may reflect the author’s intention, but the text is intentionally open, and model answers to confirm our readings of the text are scarce.

      So I don’t think I’m really disagreeing with any of you per se, and I’m not saying that the Bible is a mess. After all, Peter says Paul is hard to understand, but immediately condemns those who twist Paul’s words as they do the rest of the scriptures. He couldn’t complain in this way if he didn’t think that there were appropriate ways of treating difficult texts and faulty or dishonest ways.

      What I am saying is (1) that it is weird for a Christian to imply that the text is clear except to human minds; and (2) there seems to me to be writing in the Bible that is intentionally opaque (or perhaps translucent), but that obscurity is didactically important.

      I take it, for example, that God could have inspired Paul to write Gal 3 without the half-expressed allusions to the OT and clipped, short-hand arguments. There are many areas in which Paul could have been way clearer in that chapter alone. So I am assuming that God’s decision to preserve difficult or ambiguous material for posterity has a better purpose than if He’d given Paul ways of phrasing his arguments so that they were apparent to everyone.

      I’m sure all the doctrines of perspicuity are helpfully pointing out that the text can illuminate hearts in spite of our troubles with complexity, ambiguity, paradox, one-sided correspondence, murky apocalyptic and the like, but that’s some distance from being able to say in non-technical language that the text is clear.

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