It is no secret that we are living within a modern culture of obscurity where everything seems to be based on personal opinion and nothing seems to be absolute. Unless, of course, you are talking to my thirteen year old son, who tends to throw in the word “absolutely” into his sentences every chance he gets. But other than my son’s clever usage of the word to make his assertions, it seems as though we as a society have given up on the notion that anything can be known for certain. Whether it is the issue of good and evil, where morality has become based on personal feelings or the extreme example of gender fluidity, where a person’s gender has become something relative to the feelings of the individual instead of being based on their biology, everywhere you look the ability to know absolute truth has fallen into the shadows of doubt.
I wish that I could say it has fallen into the shadows of doubt everywhere except for the church. But I’m not so sure that can be said with much confidence. The one institution in God’s creation where mankind should be able to have the bold ability to proclaim certain, absolute, knowable truth is the church. But how many times have you heard statements like these among professing Christians:
“Everybody has their own opinion about how to read the Bible, so it is best to not judge another person’s interpretation because we can’t really know what it means.” Really? Why can’t we know what our personal God is saying to His people?
Or, “My experiences are different than yours so obviously the way I see scripture is going to be different than everyone else’s.” Hmmm. Do an individual’s experiences have the ability to alter the Lord’s eternal truth?
Or another, “No one can have the right meaning of the Bible, there are just too many possibilities. And if you think you have the correct way to read it then you are seriously delusional and full of yourself.” Interesting. But why is it that if you have a healthy, orthodox understanding of scripture that has stood the test of time then it means you are arrogant and ultimately misguided?
Or how about, “When I read scripture I feel God is telling me this, even though everyone else says I am taking it out of context and making it say something it isn’t actually saying.” I wonder, is God’s truth ultimately dependent on the personal feelings of the one who reads it?
The problem with all of these statements is that they come from the reasoning of individuals who have bought into the lie of the culture that says we cannot be certain about anything, including God’s revealed Word. While this is certainly not a new argument leveled against the Word of God, what is new is how the church is bending to its empty logic in recent years. The argument about whether or not we can know for certain what the Bible means has been around for as long as, well, as long as the Bible has been around, I suppose. But I love what Martin Luther said,
“No clearer book has been written than the Holy Scripture. It is a horrible shame and crime against Holy Scripture and Christendom to say that the Holy Scripture is dark and not so clear that everybody may understand it in order to teach and prove his faith.”
And again, concerning the Author of the Bible, Luther says,
“The Holy Spirit is the plainest Writer and Speaker in heaven and on earth.”
We desperately need to return to this premise that, not only can scripture be understood, but it is as clear as crystal and shines brighter than the sun in its glorious truth! The idea that God’s Word is clearly expressed and can be easily understood in its originally intended meaning is called the Doctrine of Clarity or Perspicuity. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, defines this concept further like this:
“The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.”
I appreciate how he assumes three things in his definition. First, that it is actually being read. Second, that God’s help is being sought while it is being read. And thirdly, it is being read with an open, humble heart that is willing to obey its truths. More on this later.
The Danger of a Dark, Ambiguous Understanding of the Clarity of Scripture
Why is the Doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture so important for us to understand? Is it really that big of a deal if we relativize the Bible to fit our fit our own private, individual opinion? I can think of seven reasons off of the top of my head why trading the perspicuity of scripture for a vague, opinionated approach to Bible interpretation would be catastrophic for the corporate church as well as for the soul of the individual Christian.
First of all, and maybe most importantly, is that an ambiguous, relativistic, vague approach to the scriptures paints a really poor, even heretical, view of God because His Word is a direct reflection and revelation of who He is. If we are able to manipulate God’s Word into what we want, then we can do the same with God; creating Him in our image. If His Word is ambiguous and fluid, then so is He.
Secondly, if my opinion coupled with my personal experiences can trump God’s holy, perfect, eternal Word, then that would make me out to be a god more powerful than the Lord Almighty, wouldn’t it?
Thirdly, if we paint the picture that God’s word can’t be known for sure, then it surely flies in the face of the character of a personal God who allowed His Son to be sacrificed so that a sinful creation might know Him.
Fourth, if truth can’t be known for certain in God’s Word, then it is only a matter of time before God’s people give up reading the holy book out of frustration, for it is surely a waste of time and energy. (Maybe this has already happened, it would explain a lot.)
Fifth, if parts of the Bible are impossible to understand as some say, and it stands to reason that we must insert our opinion into them to make them comprehensible, then what makes us think that we can be confident about what the other parts teach? It seems logical that if we insert our opinion into the areas that are unclear or more difficult, then we can do the same with the simpler areas leading once again to a religion created in man’s image.
Sixth, if we interpret the teachings of the Bible any way we feel is right, then instead of God teaching us, haven’t we become the ones teaching God?
Seventh, if I declare a passage of God’s Word to be teaching one thing and another person declares that same passage to teach a different truth, then we have broken the fundamental law of non-contradiction (two conflicting concepts cannot be equally true at the same time and in the same way). Someone has to be wrong, both cannot be right.
With the premise that we can’t really know the Bible, along with the toxic results of such thinking, the problem is not with scripture. We must recognize that the problem is not with the Bible, it is with us. We are the broken ones, not God or His Word. Arguments like these are man-centered and unfortunately, in our society (which in many ways has influenced the church more than we have influenced society), we have become very self-centered in the purest definition of the term. Instead of pointing the finger at everything else as the problem, we need to start considering that we are the ones with the shattered existence. God is the One who has graciously offered to fix us by revealing Himself to us in His Word. Therefore, we need to humbly submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit as He teaches us through His holy Word, not the other way around. If we can get past this, then we can move ahead to some practical resolutions that will lead us in our study of God’s Word.
Why So Many Different Views?
Having stated that scripture is knowable and clear in its truths, why is it then that we have so many different opinions represented in the church? I believe there are many possible reasons for this. Here are four.
First, and maybe the foremost error, is a disobedient heart. Wayne Grudem pointed this out in his definition above concerning the clarity of scripture. A person who has no intention of rejoicing in the revealed truth of God by humbly submitting and lining up his or her life with the teachings of scripture cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord. James speaks to this in reference to the double-minded man.
“But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” James 1:5–8 (NASB95)
On the other hand, we are promised that those who diligently seek Him will find Him, which is exactly what happens when the Word of God is opened up to us, we find God.
“But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Hebrews 11:6 (NKJV)
Furthermore, we have been given the nation of Israel in the Old Testament as an example of a people who had the special privilege of hearing directly from the Lord, yet in their rebellion, they lost the ability to hear from Him even though God sent many prophets and many signs. The situation was the same in Jesus’ day. In Luke chapter 16, when the rich man died and found himself in torment, he begged God to send Lazarus back from the dead so he could warn his family about the consequences of sin in the afterlife. But Jesus pointed out that if the hardness of their heart wouldn’t allow them to listen to the scriptures, then the hardness of their hearts wouldn’t allow them to be moved by a miracle either. Ultimately, if we want to hear clearly from the Lord, it comes down to the condition of our hearts.
A second reason for so many points of view concerning the teachings of the Bible, has to do in part with the diligence of the reader. Again, referring back to Grudem’s definition, for scripture to be clear it is implied that the student of scripture is actually reading scripture – all of it. This should go without saying, but unless one is committed to continually reading the whole counsel of God’s Word, then one cannot expect to see clearly what He is teaching.
Along with this, we cannot deny that reading and studying scripture requires hard work and persistent effort. It can be very time consuming to read something, cross reference it, research it, meditate on it, and prayerfully come to a sound conclusion on what is being taught. Scripture itself points this out in principle when Peter critiqued the writings of Paul.
“….just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness” 2 Peter 3:15–17 (NASB95)
Notice how Peter said that some of Paul’s writings contained things that were difficult to understand, not impossible to understand. Obviously there are parts of the Bible that need to be given more attention and require more time and effort to be able to decipher. But that in no way implies that there are passages that can’t be understood at all or that aren’t clear from the perspective of the Lord. Although students of the Bible have been given the mind of Christ along with the Spirit to guide us into all of the truth, we cannot afford to be lazy with God’s book. If we are then we are in danger of falling into the camp of people that Peter refers to as “untaught,””unstable,” “unprincipled,” and headed toward “their own destruction.”
Thirdly, we find that throughout history false teachers and false prophets have been a very real threat to the clarity of God’s truth. False teachers and false prophets bear the fruit of false disciples and the means that are used to do this is through false words.
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” 2 Peter 2:1–3 (NASB95)
Whether a false teaching is obvious, such as the teachings of Hinduism that declares there are hundreds of thousands of impersonal gods or more subtle, such as the words of a prosperity preacher who in his greed seeks to elevate his own kingdom over the Lord’s, false words are employed to draw disciples after themselves. The more we fail to be grounded in the clarity of truth, the more susceptible we become to falling prey to those things that are false. We can quickly find ourselves walking in distorted truth, even in the church. This is why mandates such as the one found in 1 Thessalonians is so critical.
“Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22 (NASB95)
A fourth reason for such scattered views of scripture comes from improper and unhealthy Bible study skills. It is interesting to me how people can be very discerning and studious when it comes to secular literature, but when it comes to the Bible all of their critical reasoning disappears; as if we aren’t allowed to use our brains when we read scripture. Remember how Jesus said the greatest command is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, and strength? Let’s not forget to engage our minds as we worship God by reading and honoring His Word.
One way we can do this is through the disciplines of hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics is the study of good Bible study skills. This teaches us such principles as allowing scripture to interpret scripture. Exegesis then takes those Bible study skills and uses them to properly draw out the truth of God’s Word, whether it be in daily devotions or a weekly sermon that is preached.
Helps for Obtaining Clarity in the Scriptures
My heart for every believer is that they be committed to the Word of God in a healthy, God-honoring way. Therefore, it is my prayer that what has been written here be something that first of all, challenges those who say the Bible is unclear and its truths cannot be known. Secondly, it is my heart to encourage every reader of scripture, whether you are brand new to God’s Word and are needing some help on the journey or you have been at it a long time but still need a little wind in your sails to keep sailing the seas of Christianity.
So to help with this, I want to leave off with some practical Bible study tips, hermeneutics, that will go a long ways to moving you down the road towards the perspicuity of scripture.
- While prayer is the most underrated and overlooked tool available to us, it is also the most powerful. Especially when it comes to reading scripture. I don’t know how many times I have gotten stuck in a passage of scripture or needed clarity or wanted to find a specific passage and after praying had the Lord lead me. Pray before, during, and after reading your Bible, it will truly transform your devotional life as the Lord realigns your thinking to line up with His.
2. Study the original languages if possible and employ multiple translations
- Remember that our English bibles are translations of the originals, not the original manuscripts themselves. Therefore, just as with anything that is translated from one language to another there are limitations that pop up in the process. If you aren’t able to read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic directly, these issues can be best overcome by researching and studying multiple English translations.
3. Allow Scripture to interpret Scripture
- The best commentary on any passage of scripture is scripture itself. One thing that I look for when I buy a bible is whether or not it has a strong cross-reference system. This allows me to do my own cross-examination of verses quickly and efficiently. An exhaustive concordance is also indispensable in allowing scriptures to interpret other scriptures.
4. Interpret difficult texts in light of the clear texts
- Since the Bible ultimately has one Author, the Holy Spirit, then it stands to reason that the whole of scripture will harmonize with itself. Furthermore, since the Author is perfect, He will not contradict Himself in what He says. But often you hear the argument that one verse does indeed contradict another. Usually this can be resolved by doing the hard work of digging into the bible as a whole to see what else is being said about that given subject. In doing this, look for those passages that relate to the one in question but are more easily understood. This principle will go a long ways to clarifying some of the more difficult teachings of scripture. For instance, if you are planning on reading the Book of Revelation someday it would be wise to employ this principle since over half of the contents of Revelation is either a direct quote or an allusion from the Old Testament. A lot of false readings of this great book would be resolved if we would simply take the time to interpret it in a way that harmonizes with the rest of scripture.
5. Context, Context, Context
- Letters form words, words form sentences, sentences form paragraphs, paragraphs form chapters, chapters form books, books come together to form the Bible. All of these building blocks need to be taken into consideration as you study the Word. Often we get really good at memorizing and quoting single verses. But the danger of this is that we take these one liners out of their surrounding context and make them mean something that they weren’t originally intended to mean. We must always read scripture in light of the bigger picture that context provides.
6. Exegesis not Eisegesis
- Exegesis, as mentioned above, is the practice of using good Bible study skills to draw out truth from God’s Word. The opposite of this is eisegesis which means instead of drawing out truth, we are transposing into God’s Word our own thoughts, opinions, and agenda. Eisegesis is especially important to avoid and demands that we have outside accountability to help us since it is often difficult for us to see if we are in error of adding our own opinions to God’s truth.
7. One original meaning, many modern applications
- One thing to always understand about the Bible is that the original author had a specific meaning that he had attached to what was being said, similar to the way we communicate today. Often to be able to discern what the originally intended meaning was, it must be read in its historical context. Once that meaning has been deciphered, its application for today can be numerous because the Word of God is alive and active.
8. Genre guides understanding
- The type of writing or genre provides the rules by which that style of writing is interpreted. For instance, we read the poetic writings such as Song of Solomon differently than we do the historical narrative of 1 and 2 Kings. Or the apocalyptic genre of Revelation is interpreted with a different set of rules than the wisdom genre of Proverbs. The one thing to remember with this concept is that often genres can overlap and be tricky to separate out.
Souls are at Stake
As our culture continues to fall off of the cliff of relativism, it will become more and more difficult for Christians to assert the truth of God’s Word to a world that doesn’t believe in absolute truth. Therefore, it will be imperative that we humbly understand and firmly hang on to the Doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture – eternal souls are at stake.
“But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 3:13–15 (NASB95)