The question of whether or not Scripture is clear is not a new one.1 In fact, it was brought up even before the Word of God existed in written form. The serpent asked Eve, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?”2 bringing into question the clarity of God’s command.3 It was as if the serpent was saying, “We both know what God said, but do you really know what he meant by what he said?” Within the last decade, this writer has noticed a marked decline in the belief that Scripture is clear, in part because of the post-modern perspective that now exists in America.4 The question is not one that is answered easily, and yet the answer is of utmost importance. For what a person believes concerning the clarity of Scripture will affect every area of his relationship with God. This paper will focus on three historical views concerning the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Examining the view of the Roman Catholic Church, then the view of the Emergent Church, the view of Evangelicalism, and ending with a critique of the views and concluding thoughts about this fundamental doctrine.
Clarity and the Roman Catholic Church
First of all, it must be understood that the commonly held belief that the Roman Catholic view is that the Bible cannot be understood is inaccurate. It is true that the Reformers differed greatly from the Catholics, but both held to the belief that the Bible could be understood correctly and is, to some degree or another, clear.5 In fact, one Catholic theologian is explicit in his desire to make sure no one believes that the Roman Catholic Church holds the position that Scripture is completely unclear: “Catholics do not deny that certain basic teachings can be found in Scripture with little difficulty, especially by those who, with a thorough grounding in the principles of Christian religion, follow the analogy of faith.”6
Clarity Based on the Infallibility of the Church
The controversy of how the Catholic Church views the clarity of Scripture centers around how an individual can arrive at the correct understanding. The main premise that the Catholic Church begins with is that heresy exists; therefore God must put something in place in order to preserve the true meaning of Scripture, and to protect it from being twisted and misused.
Biblically, the Catholic Church’s view has some merit, for even Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church based his authority on the practice of the church at that time: “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16). Also, the Catholics refer to Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in John 5:39, citing them as an example of the futility of reading Scripture apart from the infallible interpretation of the Church. For they believe that no one can truly understand the Bible, apart from the church because of its complex literal and spiritual senses.7 There is no possible way in their minds for a private reader to satisfactorily “distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation”8 That the Bible is inspired only guarantees that what is contained in the Word is true, but an infallible interpretation is the required complement in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, for an individual to come to a correct interpretation.9
Additionally, the Catholic Church leans heavily on their belief that Jesus established infallibly in the line of the popes, beginning with Peter. In their minds it is inherently clear that “the authoritative determination of the meaning of Scripture in matters of faith and morals belongs, according to the arrangement of Christ Himself, to the teaching office of His Church and that, consequently, no one is ever free to depart from the meaning which the Church has always held.”10 The implications of this teaching are far reaching. And in many ways a sense of pride is felt from those of the Catholic religion, for they feel that their institution has saved the “sacred text,” from, “free examination and private judgment.”11
So the Catholic Church holds to a clarity of the inspired Word, but only one that they alone can interpret. Practically, this means that the Bible is not clear to the layperson, and is only clear to the Church whom they believe Christ ordained to be “the infallible interpreter of that inspiration”12
Clarity and the Emergent Church
Because of the fact that the emergent church is a movement that has no central point of authority like the Catholic Church, and because of its relatively new beginnings, it is difficult to discuss exactly what those in the emergent camp believe regarding the clarity of Scripture (even the terms “emergent” and “emerging” have begun to differ in meaning because of disagreements within the movement).13 But there is one voice, within the movement who rises above most others – Brian D. Mclaren, “the de facto spiritual leader for the emerging church.”14
Clarity is Not Important
The main point in the emergent view is that clarity is an over-rated, modernist invention that is no longer needed for this post-modern age, and therefore should be tossed aside to embrace a faith that is “deep enough for mystery,” as well as, “big enough for their own doubts.”15 Arguments weigh in heavy on the fact, just as the Catholics do, that Scripture cannot be clear because there are so many different opinions on its meaning in the world and throughout history. And not only that, but they add that the only reason anyone ever thought Scripture was clear was because of the influence of the enlightenment and modern science, which places a high value on facts and absolute truth.16
Biblically, the emerging camp views sees the four gospel accounts as proof: “the fact that we have four gospels tells us that we’re better off having four different perspectives because there is no one authorized version of the story…in the biblical world, multiple perspectives are a huge advantage.”17 Asking probing questions of orthodoxy such as, “What does it mean to be ‘saved’?”18 is viewed as a good thing, and embracing the unknown is considered the highest spiritual ground. One emergent confesses: “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible…that we know what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again.”19
Emergents see the youth of America leaving church, and believe that the problem is that the message of the Word of God has been consumed by modernists within the church. They condemn conservative theologians, and join with Stanley J. Grenz, saying that their opponents have fallen “…into step with the assumption that theology is ‘the science of God’ based on the Bible.”20 The movement believes that the Gospel needs to be taken out of the hands of modernists and placed into the hands of the postmodernists so that the Gospel can continue to reach the world. “This is not just the same old message with new methods…We’re rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life.”21 Clarity is for the modernists–the postmodernist needs no crutch.
The Evangelical View of Clarity
Evangelicals are somewhat diverse in their beliefs regarding the specifics of the clarity of Scripture, but most believe that all of Scripture is clear. One evangelical defines clarity as meaning, “that the Bible can be understood by people through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and that people need to search the Scripture and judge for themselves what it means.”22
Clarity Based on the Witness of Scripture
The main distinguishing point within the Evangelical view of the clarity of Scripture is that they look to Scripture itself to come to their perspective, and they would argue that this doctrine is not one contrived by men, but is one that Scripture itself attests to, although, “not to the point that it cannot be misunderstood or is in every point equally simple and clear.”23
They begin at the beginning with Genesis 1:3, showing that God is a God who speaks, even before the world was created – for creation was spoken into existence. Combating the view that was put forth by Karl Barth, that in Scripture “…fallible men speak the Word of God in fallible human words…”24 Rather, they believe Scripture shows that language is not a fallible human institution but rather a gift from God. Therefore, “If God speaks our words, not just as the incarnate Son but in the address of men and women throughout redemptive history, then these words are suitable medium for revelation.”25
When looking at the transfer of power from Moses to Joshua, Evangelicals see another indication that Scripture is clear, for God assumes that what is contained in the book of the law that he gave to Moses is sufficiently clear and understandable because he commands Joshua to “be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Josh. 1:8).26
Even Jesus, Evangelicals relate, had an expectation that because the Jews had read the Scriptures that they should have recognized him as the Messiah, and some did (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31).27 But in observation of what Christ said, just because Scripture is clear, it does not mean that everyone will understand what is written. For though the Pharisees read, they did not rightly understand. Evangelicals refer to Martin Luther when dealing with this problem, who said, “It is true that for many people much remains abstruse; but this is not due to the obscurity of Scripture, but to the blindness or indolence of those who will not take the trouble to look at the very clearest truth.”28 Luther gains this insight from Paul who attributes the veiling of the gospel, not to the unclarity of the message, but to the blinding of the world by Satan (2 Cor. 3:15; 4:3 f.).
Even in the midst of the postmodern thinking of this age, the Evangelical position holds fast to its convictions based on its understanding of Scripture, affirming that “clarity means that the Bible is sufficiently unambiguous in the main for any well-intentioned person with Christian faith to interpret each part with relative adequacy.”29
All the views related in this paper to some degree or another are based upon presuppositions. From a purely critical view, none of the views seem clearly able to articulate its solution to the problem of the existence of multiple interpretations–but perhaps this is because “The Bible is not just another text…The relationship between author and reader (any reader) is different in the case of the Bible to any other text.”30 The topic has immense importance and truly affects every aspect of Christian thought which then flows out into practice. All sides have correctly addressed the issue–problems are easily identified. But when it comes to their solutions there are some difficulties in the mind of this writer.
Critique of the Roman Catholic View
The Roman Catholic Church rests heavily on their belief that Christ set up an infallible tradition through the popes, beginning with Peter. But they fails to articulate exactly why they believe that, at least in their discussions on the clarity of Scripture. Obviously in their minds, papal infallibility takes care of the issue of multiple interpretations, in that multiple interpretations only arise outside the Catholic Church. But what of the inconsistencies within the Catholic church? What of the disagreements throughout the ages popes have had? In the end, the Catholic Church’s view does nothing but place the pope as the sole interpreter of Scripture and because it calls him infallible, shoots itself in the foot. They have done what they accused the Reformers of doing, placing the interpretation of Scripture in the hands of individuals – or worse, they have placed it in the hands of one individual: the pope.
Critique of the Emergent Church View
As previously stated, identifying the problem is not difficult, and the Emergent Church sees the problem clearly. But what they fail to see is their conformity to the postmodern system – they fail to critique their own system of thought. They point the finger at Evangelicals saying that they are thoroughly modern, assuming that modernity is evil, yet they think nothing of the fact that they themselves are postmodern. They blindly assume that postmodernism is intrinsically good. Their argument is based heavily on their own cultures critique of Christianity rather than God’s critique. Just because people in a postmodern culture do not value clarity, in matters regarding God and his Word, it does not matter what people think, but rather what God thinks. And if we cannot know what God thinks, it is hard to see any value when it comes to trying to have a relationship with him. The Emergent Movement has based their argument on man’s ideas and therefore are, in the end, left with nothing – for who is to say that their argument is better than someone else’s? Belief in obscurity leaves nothing to believe at all – or at least, leaves no reason to listen to what anyone else says besides oneself. The Emergent Church fails to address the issues in their own system of thought, and because of their assumption that they are right, fail to make a convincing argument.
Critique of the Evangelical View
One of the most significant thoughts of the Evangelical belief on the clarity of Scripture is that of their concept of language as a gift of God. This God-centered view of the world has huge potential in leading one to believe in the intention of God to communicate with his creation and that he would do so in such a way that he would be understood. Their line of thought is seen in Scripture as God assumes that when he speaks, those he speaks to will understand what he has said. There are numerous biblical examples that Evangelicals cite, and firmly hold the majority of the Biblical arguments of the two other positions looked at in this paper. That fact is significant, especially since the subject of the discussion is Scripture, God’s Word. Looking at what is actually in Scripture is very useful in coming to an understanding of what God thinks about the clarity of his Word.
While much has been written on the doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture, it seems to this writer that of the works currently available dealing with the issue, there is yet to be one that stands far above all the others. Especially in this day and age, with postmodernism at our door, more effort must be put into defining and clarifying this essential doctrine, in order to scrape away at the current confusion. While the Catholic’s have really separated themselves from this argument, because of their basis on the supposed establishment of the infallible pope by Christ, the Emergent Church has not gone so far away from Scripture so as not to have a listening ear. Therefore, more effort should be made to come to a deeper understanding of their views in order to be able to use the light of Scripture to guide them back under the authority of the Word of God by its clarity.
1 G. C Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1975), 267.
2 All Scripture references taken from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995).
3 John MacArthur, “Perspicuity of Scripture: The Emergent Approach,” TMSJ 17/2 (Fall 2006): 141.
4 Ibid., 142.
5 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, 271.
6 Monsignor G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology (Westminster, Md: Newman Press, 1955), III:105.
7 Ibid., 100-101.
8 John Henry Newman, “On the Inspiration of Scripture,” The Catholic Tradition, (Wilmington, N.C.: McGrath Pub. Co, 1979), I:257-258.
9 Ibid., 257-258.
10 Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology , III:105-106.
11 Henri Daniel-Rops, What Is the Bible? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1958), 13.
12 Newman, The Catholic Tradition, I:258.
13 Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006), 22.
14 Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/november/12.36.html (accessed October 10, 2007).
16 “An interview on Christian publis – Brian McLaren,” http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/imported/an-interview-on-christian-publis.html (accessed October 10, 2007).
17 Eric Hurtgen, “RELEVANT MAGAZINE,” http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god_article.php?id=1012 (accessed October 10, 2007).
18 Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique.”
20 Stanley J Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 65.
21 Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique.”
22 Larry D. Pettegrew, “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” TMSJ 15/2 (Fall 2004): 209.
24 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), II:529.
25 Mark Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (England: Apollos, 2006), 76.
26 Ibid., 96.
27 Ibid., 85.
28 Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, trans. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 111.
29 Kevin J Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1998), 315.
30 Thompson, A Clear and Present Word, 135.