The Perspicuity of Scriptures
These last few months have been months of realizing the importance of little words I skimmed over in college, which are highly important in navigating the oceans of life, and of seminary. In particular, this little word “perspicuity” – on it, the whole doctrine of revelation, of God being able to really speak to us in Scriptures, seems to hang.
According to Theopedia,
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (often called the “perspicuity of Scripture”) teaches that “the meanings of the text can be clear to the ordinary reader, that God uses the text of the Bible to communicate His person and will.”  “The witness of the Church throughout the ages is that ordinary people, who approach it in faith and humility, will be able to understand what the Bible is getting at, even if they meet with particular points of difficulty here and there.” 
Here is what this doctrine means: when I read the Bible, God can speak to me. More than that, when I have a question about life, I can go to the Bible and find the answer. When I am living in sin, others can use Scriptures to correct me, and when I am confused about a moral topic, a clear presentation of Scriptures will be able to straighten me out. That is what it means.
“But Josiah – everybody believes that! This is so obvious that it is not worth saying!” That is what I thought in college – but out here in the real world, this is simply not true.
The bottom line is that in our day and age, everybody wants to be allowed to make the Bible subject to them. The human mind, we are told, is to be the final authority on politics, on math, on science, on philosophy – so why not on religion? We hate, we balk at the idea of a book which has the audacity to tell us what to do, what to think. And so we have all sorts of clever ways of sounding spiritual, while really setting ourselves up as the arbiter of truth.
Usually, somebody who wants to destroy the authority of the Bible will say something like, “I want to get at the real message of the Bible.” In the words of one church father (Iraeneus?) they seek to “sound more orthodox than orthodoxy itself.” They use metaphors like the “kernel” and the “husk” of wheat, and say things like “Scriptures aren’t really God’s word – they just contain God’s word.” Apparently, the distortions of history, of tradition, of Constantine, of church history, have so distorted and confused Scriptures that without the expert help of this professional, Scriptures will be able to say nothing at all or – worse – will only say misleading, confusing, misguided things. What needs to happen is for the “expert” to cut, tear, and strip away the distortions, to get at “the real gospel.”
Usually this is done by inventing a new Jesus – usually in the scholar’s own image. The scholar will find some proof-texts which prove that Jesus was a certain way, and then they will spend the rest of their time explaining away all of the verses which don’t agree with this version of Jesus. In the end, they will have conveniently created a new religion: at the core is a messiah which they like, and around him there is a religion which is made in his image (thus, in the “expert’s” image).
The really radical Liberals are easy to spot because they tear the Bible apart. They do not even begin to believe that the authors were “men moved by the spirit, who spoke from God,” – rather, they believe that prophecy was an act of human will, and that it is subject to their interpretation 2 Peter. 1:21). They will be very outspoken in their refusal to listen to certain authors (e.g. “Paul is a misogynist – why should we listen to him?!), and to edit others (e.g. the Jesus Seminar systematically edited the words of Jesus, choosing only those ones that fit their Marxist/naturalistic worldview).
The more moderate Liberals are also out there, though, and I am becoming more able to spot them. They too balk inwardly at the idea of a God who actually speaks, who actually has the right to tell them – of all things – how to think. But they are more closely associated with Evangelical churches, and in many cases they really want to believe in God. In a few cases they want to appear to believe in God. In any case, there are a few doctrines that really rub them the wrong way. What are they to do? How are they to shelter themselves from the sharp edges of the Word of God?
The answer is to find an expert who agrees with them.
The argumentation is tricky – so tricky, I think many of the people who use it actually believe they are in the right.
Because they hold Scriptures in high regard, they never come out and say “this passage is wrong.” Rather, they say “The way that the Church has interpreted this Scripture is wrong.” Then they spend a lot of time deconstructing church tradition, quoting authoritative-sounding-sources, and all-around trying to sound smart. Then, at the end, they say, “What Jesus (or Paul, or whoever) really meant was this….” The interpretation which they end with clearly and blatantly contradicts the plain-sense reading of the text. However, after they have so thoroughly muddied the waters, the reader is disoriented and feels ashamed of simply reading the text for what it’s worth. Perhaps “experts” really are needed to interpret this text…naturally, this pseud0-liberal takes this opportunity to present their own interpretation of the text as the authoritative version of “what it really says.” Even though it is far-fetched or even opposite of the plain meaning of the text, they often sound very convincing, if you have sat through their entire argument.
If you want to see this process in all of its ridiculous glory, check out Scott Nameth, who uses exactly this sort of methodology to “prove” that premarital sex is okay. I could not help but think of Nameth when debating about gender issues and the afterlife. Although most “pseudo-liberals” (yes, I just made up that term!) actually land in fairly orthodox places just because they were raised in church, one cannot help but notice that if one has a methodology which allows them to change or ignore disturbing verses to meet their needs, they can just as easily change more serious verses – and even prove the ridiculous notion that fornication is blessed by God.
As I am nearing the end of my M.A. in Theology, I am being continually amazed at the insights and clarity of some of my back-home pastors. One pastor in particular stands out. He never had a post-secondary education, but he has been a missionary for 40+ years, reads the Bible every day, and is a voracious reader of commentaries, concordances and solid exegetical texts. Amazingly, some of the hard-won conclusions which took me several years in seminary to has out, have been simply and uneloquently repeated by this pastor friend. I cannot help but admit that with or without a formal education, I would trust his hermeneutical opinion more than most of the books I read. “By your fruits you will know them,” (Mat. 7:16). Where does he get his education? I can only conclude that he has been with Jesus, and this is education enough (Acts 4:13).
This perspecuity business is not completely clear in my mind. I am still not sure what to do with obviously cultural commands (e.g. head coverings, “holy kiss,” etc.), and how to differentiate those things from the non-cultural items. However, the bottom line is this: I know I’m not all that smart. I don’t want to pull myself up by my own bootstraps: I don’t want to detract from and confuse the Word of God to my own detriment.
If there is no other way to maintain the perspecuity of Scriptures than to dogmatically hold to an ultra literal interpretation, I am willing to go there. However, I think I will be able to to do better than this. As I (hopefully) finish this course on Modern Christianity, I hope to be able to move on to a class in Hermeneutics, where I can sort these issues out more concretely.
I hope to be able to keep the readers of this blog posted as I continue to grow in my understanding of Truth, and how to know Him better.