The Clarity of Scripture
The clarity of Holy Scripture was one of the pillars of the great Reformation in the 16th century. Over against Rome – who viewed the Bible as a difficult and dark book, accessible only to the clergy and the scholarly – the church of the Reformation confessed a clear Bible.
Rome counted it dangerous to allow the “laity” access to the Bible. Because the Bible is so “dark” and “difficult” the common church member would only misinterpret and misuse the Bible. While Rome tried to prevent as much as possible the Bible from being translated into the common tongue of the people—persecuting the translators and burning their translations of the Bible—and recommended that only the clergy should read the Bible, the Reformers on the other hand did their best to place a Bible in the hand of each believer.
But there is also more at stake in upholding or denying the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Without a clear Bible God’s will becomes a mystic concept. Then the confession of “religious man” seeking to do God’s will becomes hollow and empty. For how can we obey God’s will if it is hidden and unknown? Then the “search” for God’s will becomes nothing but a self-willed religion where each one follows his own heart. In practice the authority, necessity and sufficiency of Scripture can only be upheld where the clarity of Scripture is confessed.
The iron chain of a new hermeneutics
In our day the confession of the clarity of Scripture has once more come under great pressure. The Bible has once again become a dark and difficult book through the rise of a hermeneutics that places a growing distance between God’s Word in the Bible and our understanding of it. The Bible may be true, but who is able to say with certainty what it really means?! Hermeneutics has become the main battlefield. Even if someone could be found who might be able to say what the Bible meant 2000 years ago, who will be able to say with certainty what it means in our very different time and circumstance? The presupposition of this hermeneutics is that the truth of God’s Word is relative, and thus subject and bound to time and circumstance.
The hermeneutical process by which academics and “scientific theologians” incorporate much extra-Biblical information and theories to try and suggest what a passage of Scripture might possibly have meant 2000 or 3000 years ago, and how that possible meaning could possibly be translated into our own time and culture, is so complicated and uncertain that theology can no longer offer anything more than plausible suggestions of what Scripture might be saying for us today. In the end all these plausible suggestions are only regarded plausible when they allow man to do whatever he sees most fit for his own time and context.
While Gnostics had exclusive access to the hidden and deeper meaning of Scripture, and while Rome kept the Bible in Latin for clergy only, the knowledge of Scripture has now become even more exclusive and almost inaccessible for the normal church member. Only academia has the scientific tools to investigate this ancient and dark book.
Today the Bible is not so much chained in Latin to the walls of monasteries as it is chained by modern and postmodern science and theory making at theological universities. Even ministers and elders are now counted among the laity. The Bible, it seems, has become more unclear than ever before.
What does Scripture say about its own clarity?
The Bible is revelation. It is light and gives light.
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…” (Ps. 19: 7, 8).
The prophets spoke God’s Word to the people of Israel. Their words were not directed only to the priests and the learned among God’s people. God’s words had to be heard and understood by all the people, including the women and children. For example:
“There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them” (Joshua 8: 35).
Also small children had to listen to the reading of God’s Word, and were instructed in it so that they understood what was read. (See also Neh. 8: 1 – 9 and 2 Tim. 3: 15.)
Scripture recommends to us the example of the believers in Berea. When the apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel to them, they “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17: 11). The believers in Berea were able to judge even the words of the apostles by searching the Scriptures.
The natural man, however, cannot understand the Scriptures (1 Cor. 2: 14). It is only through the enlightment of the Holy Spirit. God gives us eyes to see and ears to hear. He removes our sinful blindness, and gives us circumcised ears to hear. For no one is as deaf as he who does not want to hear; and no one is as blind as he who does not want to see. Our understanding of Holy Scripture, which in itself is a clear revelation, depends therefore in the first place on God who opens our hearts to hear, and reveals Himself to whom He wants to. Thus we read that our Lord Jesus prayed to His Father, saying:
“…I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and the prudent and have revealed them to babes” (Mt. 11: 25).
The understanding of Scripture does not depend on the cleverness or natural abilities of man, for God has withheld the understanding of Scripture from very learned men and made it clear to the simple and to small children.
It does not mean that every part of Scripture is easy reading. The apostle Peter says for example that there are some things in the letters of the apostle Paul which are hard to understand (2 Peter 3: 16). Scripture contains both milk and solid food; milk for babes and solid food for those who are mature (Hebr. 5: 11 – 14). The more we study Scripture the clearer it becomes to us.
Christ has given to His church men who are called and equipped by His Spirit to be teachers who are able to teach and edify the congregation with His Word (Eph. 4: 7 – 16). While all the members are called to teach and admonish one another with Christ’s Word (Col. 3: 16) only some are called to the office of teacher and pastor (Eph. 4: 11). The clarity of Scripture does not make the office of ministers and elders unnecessary, but enables them to come with a clear and certain word – a clear word which may also be verified by the members themselves as they search the Bible to see whether the message is according to Holy Scripture (Acts 17: 11).
The fact that Scripture contains not only milk, but also solid food, does not make Scripture unclear. When the mature believer eats the solid meat of God’s Word it is fully digestible and wholesome. The teeth we need to chew this meat is not extra-Biblical information and theories but teeth that come by first drinking the pure milk of the Word and as we are being fed with this Word we also grow the teeth to eat its solid food.
We do not need extra-Biblical information and theories and new discoveries to find the hidden meaning of a dark and mysterious book. The apostle John writes to church members, saying:
“…you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things” (1 John 2: 20).
And he continues, saying:
“… the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (1 John 2: 27).
In these passages the believers are not taught that, because of the anointing with the Holy Spirit, they don’t need the Scriptures, or that they don’t need teachers explaining the Scriptures to them. Instead, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, they are assured of the truth as they received it from the apostles and are able to discern this truth from the lie proclaimed by false teachers. The truth which they know is the truth of God’s revealed Word. And by the enlightment of the Holy Spirit they are able to know this truth and to discern it from all lies. They are exhorted with these words to hold on to the truth as they received it, and not to turn to new or different teachings.
The words “you do not need anyone to teach you” means in that context: you do not need to be taught new truths which you have not heard yet, which have not yet been proclaimed to you, or that differ from the truth that you have received. The whole counsel of God has been proclaimed to them. By the anointing of the Spirit they were able to know this truth, and they received it.
Any claim by false teachers that the congregation still needs to hear a new and different gospel is hereby refuted. The apostle’s exhortation comes down to this: By the anointing of the Holy Spirit you received the correct understanding of the gospel; don’t be deceived into following a different gospel, or a different interpretation of the gospel (by false teachers who may claim to have exclusive insight into hidden knowledge which the congregation does not possess).
A clear Bible and preaching
With a dark and inaccessible Bible the preaching of God’s Word will of necessity be watered down and fade away. Who can then say with certainty: “Thus says the Lord”?
Who can then still expound in clear language what the dark words might possibly mean?
And what happens to the preaching when also the elders are viewed as ignorant laity who do not possess the scientific tools of the theologian to judge the hidden meaning of this ancient and mysterious book? What happens then to the oversight of the preaching and to church discipline whereby false teachings need to be warded off?
And how can parents work with the preaching and teach their children if the meaning of Scripture remains dark and hidden? Without the clear revelation of God’s Word, covenant education can simply not exist. Yes, with an unclear Bible nothing remains but a return to the ignorance and darkness of the Dark Middle Ages, where the pure preaching and proclamation of God’s Word becomes buried under the opinions and fantasies of man.
An example from recent history
Suddenly it has become very unclear to some church leaders what Scripture teaches about the role of men and women in the church, and whether women are allowed to serve as deacons, elders and ministers.
But what caused the teaching of Scripture to become so unclear on this point? The fact that the clear teaching of Scripture on this point does not seem to fit our time and context! Our time and context simply demands a different interpretation.
The yielding to this demand makes the understanding of Scripture very difficult indeed. Scripture now needs to say the opposite of what it is obviously saying. Certainty of the correct understanding of Scripture on this point is portrayed as something beyond our reach. While we live on this earth we will not know for sure; maybe we will know in heaven what God wanted to teach us about women in office! So let each have his own opinion, and respect each others’ views!
We see the same trend when we look at the Deputies Report “Male/Female in the Church” that served at the General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated) at Ede 2014. The report states:
“When we – on the basis of preceding parts of this report – state that the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, elders or ministers does not go against a Biblical view of the office, we do so partly under the influence of our present cultural context. At the same time, we emphasise that this in itself need not be a cause to doubt the validity of such a position. As we have said previously: against the background of different cultural contexts, the light of Scripture may shine in different ways.” (The official English translation of the Deputies Report, p 26.)
Towards the end the report states:
“The key question remains of course: where does that leave the question as to the truth? If one has the view that by having women as office-bearers we sin against the Lord, because we fail to honour the authority of his Word (which, after all, is as clear as daylight in this matter), and in doing so we have transgressed the limits of what can be permitted, then what? The question whether we, as a community of churches, are willing to allow such a fundamental difference of view to express itself, plays a role. Where does that leave the boundaries? Have we not placed ourselves on a slippery slope?
To answer this question, we must as believers acknowledge that, in this context, there is no such thing as truth that exists separately from time. The revelation of God always speaks concretely within human situations, but we can never know it in all its fullness. As creatures, we are by definition bound to time and space; we need each other to find the right path. That is not only a limitation, but also a challenge. For us, the reality of God is partly hidden. The light shines behind the clouds. Because of sin, we live in brokenness. We must learn to live with the fact that we will not always understand everything, and we must learn to hope for the new heaven and the new earth, where our knowledge will be complete.” (ibid, p 31)
In this context the report also makes a reference to Rom. 14: 5b where we read:
“…Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.”
Convinced of what? When we read the whole report it seems to say: allow a man to be convinced of his own understanding, but respect the views of others! Let us be church together, in Christian love and unity, while we give each other the room to hold everyone to his own convictions. We might not know the correct answer until the new heaven and earth comes!
Yes, today Scripture has indeed become very unclear – but only to those who refuse to receive its clear teaching. The problem does not lie with a difficult Bible, but with uncircumcised hearts to whom God’s clear revelation remain dark.
In the next article we will, DV, look at the sufficiency of Holy Scripture.