How Clear is Clear? The Church and the Clarity of Scripture

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Ordinary Christians should read the Bible. This conviction is stamped on the DNA of Protestant Christians. It’s rooted in our belief that Scripture is clear. If the doctrine of the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture was untrue, then it would make no sense to place a Bible in the hands of every ploughboy. But how clear is clear? What do we mean and not mean when we confess the clarity of Scripture?

First, we do not mean that everything in Scripture is clear. In fact, the Westminster Confession begins its statement on the clarity of Scripture by acknowledging, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7). If we’re honest, most of us feel a bit like Peter when reading Paul’s epistles: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). 

Our groans may unwittingly suggest that this is a fluke, as though it would have been better “if only God had made such-and-such clearer.” But the Bible is more than a roadmap for life in which the Spirit succeeds by giving us clear step-by-step instructions on the highway to heaven. Scripture is the progressive revelation of an incomprehensible God and his eternal plan in Christ. It’s designed for lifelong study and reflection. Its stories and sermons, poems and proverbs, force us to slow down, think, wrestle, and struggle with the complexities of life in a fallen world and the transcendent Creator who has inhabited his world to save and redeem in Jesus of Nazareth. As we engage our minds and hearts, we are changed.

Because of its very nature, there are varying degrees of clarity in Scripture. Some things are unambiguous, like the matters of “first importance” which define the Chrisitan faith in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Other things are bizarre and puzzling, like what Paul means a few verses later when he says that people are baptized on behalf of the dead (1 Cor. 15:29). Clarity is on a scale from more clear to less clear, and we need to be honest about the degree of certainty with which various truths can be known.

Second, we do not mean that individuals should read the Bible in isolation from the Church. In Acts 8, Philip meets an Ethiopian court official who is reading Isaiah 53. Philip asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the man replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30–31). Too often, Philip is thrown out of the chariot. The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is hijacked to justify a “me and Jesus and the Bible” mentality. The irony is that no one can honestly read the Bible and conclude that this is what Jesus intended. Christianity is not about “me and Jesus,” it’s about me and Jesus and the body of Jesus. Reading the Bible in isolation from the Church does not mean that you have a high view of the Bible; it means that you have a high view of yourself.

Reading the Bible in isolation from the Church does not mean that you have a high view of the Bible; it means that you have a high view of yourself.

After all, the Bible was given to and through the Church. The Spirit worked through the Church to establish the canon, and the Church continues to translate and copy the Scriptures. As “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the Church is the guardian of Scripture, even as Scripture holds final authority over its life and practice. God has given teachers to the Church (Eph. 4:11) to guide the Church in its interpretation and application of the Scriptures (2 Tim 4:2; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible is the Church’s book, and it ought to be interpreted by the Church, not by a disjointed hand or foot in isolation from the other members of the body.

What, then, do we mean by the clarity of Scripture? Kevin Vanhoozer is helpful: “Scripture’s clarity does not mean that reading works ex opere operato, as if simply pronouncing the words magically yields understanding. Nor does clarity mean that Scripture wears doctrines like the Trinity on its sleeve. Rather, it means that those whose eyes of the heart (Eph. 1:18) have been opened by the Spirit cannot miss the main story: the good news about Jesus Christ” (emphasis added). To come back to the Westminster Confession, it means that “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).

As a public school teenager who could not identify Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob in a game of Bible trivia, I read the Scriptures and came to saving faith. The light of the gospel shone clearly through its pages, even when I did not have a pastor or a teacher to instruct me. Truly, “the unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps. 119:30). But even then, I was reading a Bible that had been translated into modern English and printed by the Church. One of the copies of Scripture that I read included study notes and doctrinal summaries at the bottom. And when I began attending a local church, the preaching provided a much-needed confirmation that I had correctly understood the major truths of Scripture.

The light of the gospel shines clearly through the pages of Scripture.

While Scripture was sufficiently clear for me to come to faith, it would have been dangerous for me to read alone in the high school library forever. The church equipped me to be a better Bible reader and helped me to avoid devastating pitfalls. The same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also leads its readers into fellowship with the church. If we reject the church and its role in biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation, we are on dangerous ground. Like the heretic Arius who misread Jesus’s words “the Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28), we may end up denying the catholic faith in the name of being “more biblical.” Belonging to the church places us into vital conversation with the great tradition of interpretation. The Christian creeds provide boundaries within which to think and aid us in rightly dividing the word. The one person, two natures theology of Chalcedon, for example, leads us to interpret Jesus’s words “the Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28) as a reference to Christ according to his human nature.

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture should give us confidence to place a Bible in the hands of our next-door neighbor or to fund the distribution of Bibles across the globe. But it should not cause us to withdraw from the Church or assume that good, Bible-believing Christians will agree on everything. Instead, we should unite around the matters of first importance which are unambiguous in Scripture, hold our secondary and tertiary commitments with humility, and assume a listening posture towards other Christian traditions in which the Spirit of truth is surely at work (Jn. 16:13).

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.