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.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Luther (in his controversy with the more sceptical Erasmus) certainly taught not that scripture as such is clear - particular passages or even whole books - but that the res scripturae, the "matter" of scripture, scripture as a whole, is clear ("perspicuous"), certainly enough to provide us with the knowledge of faith.

byron smith said...

This is such an important balance to get. The word is clear; the words might not be.

Anonymous said...

Hi ben - following your citation from chris tillings blog, i have followed you "home" (so to speak). I am intrigued by your statement, "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." I certainly understand what you are trying to say - in my own ecclesial context (pentecostalism) i hear the strangest readings of Scripture. Yet i wonder whether we might be able to make the point that scholarship is important - particularly insofar as the framing of church doctrine and theology goes - but then go on to say that, nevertheless, the Spirit that inspired the biblical authors is also able to inspire the reader (or, if you want to use more conservative language - illuminate the meaning of the text). In this way the text can have wide-ranging meaning for the individual Christian (probably unrelated to the original context) - who then can understand and apply the bible perfectly well when reading it herself and applying it to her situation. What i am trying to say (in a convoluted manner), is that in resisting anti-scholarship, lets not then equate the scholar with the Spirit and limit the reading of the text to the professional. I would contend that for day to day spirituality the lay Christian should be free to read the text, pray, listen to the Spirit - without too much bothersome assistance from scholars and commentaries.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, that's a good point, Shane. (My own upbringing was also Pentecostal, which perhaps explains part of the polemic!)

Of course you're right that individual Christians should be able to make use of the Bible as a devotional text without the aid of scholarship -- I suppose my main (rather overstated!) point here was just that the idea of "perspicuity" is not an alternative to biblical scholarship.

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