The Perspicuity of Scripture

One of the great attributes of Scripture is its perspicuousness, or perspicuity. Those two words mean “clarity in expression of statement,” and the adjective form is perspicuous. To say that something is perspicuous is to say that it is clear, plain, manifest, evident, and transparent (thus the irony of the word for most 21st century readers – the word perspicuous is not perspicuous to us!). The Westminster Confession defines the theological import of this term for us in relation to the Bible in chapter 1, section 7: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all [II Peter 3:16]:  yet 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 [Psa. 119:105, 130; Deut. 29:29; 30:10-14; Acts 17:11].”

That is, the message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone is “so clearly propounded” (or declared, put forward) that even those who have not finished high school or been to college or seminary can understand it. This truth is hugely important as we approach the Bible. It is not a book that only some select few have the key to, nor are its main teachings so obscure and mysterious that there’s no point trying to read and understand it on your own. Rather, every Christian, every disciple of Jesus Christ, should and can study and understand the word of God in truth.

The Confession gives several caveats or qualifications as it speaks of the perspicuity of Scripture:

1. Not everything is equally plain, or equally clear to everyone. Some things in the Bible are hard to understand, and some things will be clear to you which may not be as clear to another brother or sister; the book of Ecclesiastes is difficult for me to understand well, but surely there are other Christians who understand it far better than I do. There will also be disagreement over what things are clear and plain in the Scriptures (i.e., the recipients of baptism). The apostle Peter himself reminds us that there are things that our beloved brother Paul wrote, according to the wisdom given him, that are “hard to understand, which the untaught and the unstable distort, as they do the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (II Pet. 3:16). This verse teaches us a) that Paul’s writings were viewed even in his own lifetime as Scripture, on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures; and b) that some of the things Paul wrote were hard to understand – so don’t feel bad if you don’t understand everything you read in the Bible (but beware lest you distort those hard-to-understand things to your own destruction!).

2. The learned and unlearned come to a sufficient understanding of those things necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation “in a due use of the ordinary means.” The Westminster Standards like to talk about “ordinary means” by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption (the word, sacraments, and prayer; I would add fellowship); we must use them “duly,” that is, “appropriately, rightly.” That is, we aren’t going to understand the Bible and its message of hope and forgiveness just because we have it in our house, on our bookshelf. Rather, we must read it, study it, memorize it, meditate upon it; we must hear it read and preached and explained (especially if we are unlearned to the point of being unable to read!); we must discuss it with other believers; we must pray as we read. Too many people who say that Bible is difficult to understand have never taken the effort to study it. It is a difficult book, in large part because it was written so long ago. But precisely for this reason, we must work all the harder to understand it. And as the Confession reminds us, the message of salvation will be made clear as we study. The word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path. Therefore let us be like the Bereans, and examine the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:11).

SDG,
Ezra

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