Saturday, 1 October 2005

The perspicuity of Scripture

Reformation theologians spoke of the “clarity” or “perspicuity” of Scripture. Here their emphasis was not on the words of Scripture themselves, but on the central message of Scripture. According to Reformation theology, the message of salvation shines out clearly from Scripture through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the confession of the perspicuity of Scripture was not intended as a formal statement about the language of the biblical texts. Nor was it an assertion that the individual books of the Bible are easy for anyone to understand without technical assistance. Rather the confession of perspicuity meant that through the witness of the Spirit the message of the gospel becomes clear and compelling right here and now as the Bible is read and (especially) preached.

In his fine book Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), G. C. Berkouwer highlights this point (p. 275): “The Reformation was not dealing with the words by themselves, but with the message in Scripture of which the words spoke. This clarity of the message presupposes the accessibility of the words, but that accessibility was not the subject of the real purpose of the confession. According to the Reformers, the force behind this connection of message and words was the power of the Spirit. For that reason the confession of perspicuity is not a statement in general concerning the human language of Scripture, but a confession concerning the perspicuity of the gospel in Scripture.”

Thus the perspicuity of Scripture has nothing whatever to do with the pious fiction that the individual Christian can understand the Bible perfectly well all by himself, without the bothersome assistance of scholars and commentaries. Such an attitude—which is still prevalent in many churches—masquerades as reverence for the Bible, but actually rests on a fundamental disrespect for the true nature and character of the biblical writings.

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