Perspecuity: Is it Really Clear?
Perspecuity. The word would appear to be inherently self-contradictory. It’s not all that common; it’s used in formal theological discussions. The word? Perspicuity. It refers to “the quality of being lucid, easy to understand.” But the word itself isn’t self-evidently clear.
So how is the word used in theological circles? It refers to the nature of the inspiration of the Bible, resulting in a book that is readable and understandable to average people.
What is implied in talking about the perspicuity of Scripture? Through the Spirit’s superintendence, the authors of the Scriptures wrote in such a way that regular people could read and understand what was written without significant supplemental help or training. The Bible was written—under inspiration—to be read by every-day people. (This is the way the Bible presents it’s own message. This is pictured in passages such as Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Psalm 19:7; Romans 15:4; among others.)
This doesn’t mean that all things in Scripture are equally immediately understandable. Nor does it mean that attentiveness to reading and reflection is unnecessary to unpack the meaning of what we find in the Biblical text. But it does mean that when Moses wrote, or the prophets spoke, or Jesus taught, or Paul crafted an epistle, what is ultimately captured for us in the pages of Scripture is not beyond the grasp of shop-keepers, moms and dads, non-seminary-trained laymen, children, and regular church-goers.
Unfortunately, many of those who regularly attend a good church never get past the misperception that the Bible is “hard to understand.” They may end up thinking it really takes someone with advanced training or special gifts to read and understand and explain it. Whether because of the unintentional modeling they’ve followed, the gaps in their journey as disciples, or a clergy/laity class distinction they grew up in, Christians can default into thinking they will never be able to read and understand the Scriptures for themselves. And that is an unfortunate and God-dishonoring default.
So, what contributes to this misunderstanding and how might we rightly respond?
There are times when well-meaning Bible teachers contribute to a hearer’s misunderstanding about the clarity with which the Bible speaks. In a desire to ensure the hearer “fully understands” what the text under consideration says, the Bible teacher might spend a great deal of time focusing on matters of history, setting, culture, and background. It’s not that such information is of no value, but it is often overly privileged. This can create the impression that apart from knowing all such material the Bible is incomprehensible.
Wayne Grudem—seminary professor and author—has this to say about such secondary sources:
While this material is often helpful, I think it is seldom necessary in order to understand the passage correctly, at least in its central meaning. And too much of what I have read about supposed “background information” I have found to be largely speculative or inaccurate. (Wayne Grudem, “Right and Wrong Interpretation of the Bible,” in Preach the Word, edited by Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007], 60.)
If you’ve ever read a classic historical novel like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or an Elizabethan play like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, you will have experienced perspicuity in a natural, human-authored way. All such authors seek to make clear within the context of what they are writing what it is their readers will need to know to make sense of the story. I know almost nothing about France in the early 1800s but I can read and understand Les Miserables; I know even less about Paris in the 1700s or the city of Verona in the days of Romeo, and yet those stories are not inaccessible to me.
Scripture is not the same kind of literature as such novels. But the idea that good authors write in such a way that attentive readers can make sense of what is written applies both to the perspicuity with which classic authors write and to the perspicuity with which Spirit-inspired authors wrote.
Should we then simply dismiss the commentaries and study Bibles, the on-line resources and Bible teachers’ explanations? Not necessarily. We must, however, recognize them as secondary and we must avoid privileging them over our own reading of the text.
Paul, the apostle, was a rigorously trained rabbi before coming to faith in Jesus. Once the Lord got hold of him, Paul grew in his understanding of the Gospel and became an outstanding preacher and teacher. But even his training and intellect and understanding didn’t overshadow the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Luke, in the book of Acts, explained that when Paul arrived in the city of Berea, in the Roman province of Macedonia he began to preach. And when the people of the city heard his preaching, “they examined the Scriptures daily to see whether these things [that Paul had taught] were so” (Acts 17:11).
Evidently, these “average people” realized that the Scriptures were understandable and recognized that they could not only read texts for themselves, but they could also determine whether what Paul was teaching corresponded to the truth of Scripture.
How could we approach reading the Bible if we embraced this idea of the perspicuity of Scripture?
1: Read the Bible rather than reading books and articles about what the Bible teaches.
Grudem addressed this in the previously cited article:
Spend your earliest and best time reading the text of the Bible itself. I’m afraid that too often [readers of the Bible] can fall into the trap of spending 90 percent of their time reading commentaries about the text and then spend only 10 percent of their time reading the text of the Bible itself. I therefore tell students (only partly in jest) that the three most important rules for interpreting the Bible are: (1) Read it. (2) Read it again. (3) Read it again. (Wayne Grudem, “Right and Wrong Interpretation of the Bible,” 55.
2: Use reference tools and commentaries with discretion.
God has given the church competent and Spirit-led teachers. Their contribution to our ability to understand Scripture is not to be overlooked—but to be utilized appropriately. If you come across a term or concept that seems unfamiliar, a Bible dictionary or concordance can point you elsewhere in the Biblical text for insight. Commentators are not inspired—we should neither take their words as the “final say” on a passage nor assume that their ability to speak clearly supersedes the clarity with which Scripture speaks. Don’t put the study notes in your Bible on par with the words the Spirit inspired.
3: Invite the Spirit to aid you in your reading.
As we open the pages of Scripture, we have access to the author behind the author—the Spirit. God’s Spirit indwells every Christian (Romans 8:9). He can aid us in understanding truth (1 Corinthians 2:10–13).
In writing to young Timothy, Paul encouraged him by saying Timothy knew “the sacred writings” that led him to a sincere faith in Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14–15). Paul did not hesitate to point Timothy to the Scriptures. Paul knew Timothy could read and comprehend Scripture— and that his faith in Jesus was rooted and anchored in reading and understanding Scripture.