It Is Written: The Bible’s Clarity

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck. - Prov. 1:8-9

The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.

– Chapter 6 of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology

In previous posts, we emphasized the sufficiency and necessity of Scripture. These doctrines serve as a precursor for today’s post, and they are a reminder of how all people who own a Bible can have accessibility to all they need for salvation and living a God-honoring life. It’s important we remember that all of the Bible may not be equally understandable, but it is equally readable. Oftentimes, I find that women become overwhelmed at the thought of approaching a biblical text. Clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture means that the only requirement for the Christian to come to the Bible is the ability to read texts. To put it directly, if you can read a novel you can read the Bible. The Bible is clear about those things for which it is necessary and sufficient. In other words, the basic message of salvation and how to live a life pleasing to God is clear. You don’t need a seminary degree, or to be exceptionally bright in order to understand the basic message of the Bible. This is why a child is able to understand its message sufficiently to be saved.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. - Deut. 6:6-9

Many before us made great sacrifice so common man might possess the Word of God in print. John Wycliffe, known today as The Morning Star of the Reformation, completed the first Bible translated into Middle English in 1382. Assisted by Nicholas of Hereford and John Purvey, he utilized the Latin Vulgate as the basis for his work. The Wycliffe Bible was condemned, and copies were confiscated and sometimes burned. However, the Wycliffe Bible had much influence despite its persecution. In 1428, Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and his bones burned.

At the time of the Reformation, some Roman Catholics were saying that lay people should not read the Bible, since only people in the church hierarchy could properly understand it. The Reformers did not say that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear. But they did say that the basic message of salvation is sufficiently clear that anyone can understand it, either by reading it himself, or by using ordinary means of grace, such as talking to a pastor. By the way, the power of the word, its authority, and its clarity, form a triad that corresponds to the Lordship attributes. For in Deut. 30:11-14 and Rom. 10:6-8 the clarity of the word is based on the nearness of God to his people, the presence of God among his people.

– John Frame

In 1517, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, William Tyndale came to Cambridge during the same period that Luther was preparing to nail his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door. One of the fundamental principles of the Reformation was that the Bible must be in the common language of the people. Tyndale was a hero of Bible translation, and is referred to as the Father of the English Bible. He published the first printed English New Testament in 1525-1526. He was a brilliant Greek and Hebrew scholar whose version of the Bible became the model for all English versions that followed. In fact, much of the specific, well-known working of the KJV originally came from Tyndale’s work. He was a man who was passionate about getting God’s Word into the hands of people. He was betrayed, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed; he was strangled to death and his body was burned. Tyndale believed in the Bible in such a way that he was willing to die so people could hear God speak to them in their own language. His work had an amazing impact in laying the foundation for english Bible translations that follow. Tyndale is a true hero of the faith who knew well the importance of the doctrine of clarity.

I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope.

– William Tyndale

The Clarity of Scripture as a Protestant doctrine has been carefully defined by the 1689 London Baptist Confession. Here is article (1.7) on clarity in a modern English version of the text: “Some things in Scripture are clearer than others, and some people understand the teachings more clearly than others. However, the things that must be known, believed, and obeyed for salvation are so clearly set forth and explained in one part of Scripture or another that both the educated and uneducated may achieve a sufficient understanding of them by properly using ordinary measures (2 Peter 3:16. Psalm 19:7; Psalm 119:130).” 

Can everyone understand the Bible? As God matures us in Christ, and our study of the scriptures gleans a fuller understanding, the clearness with which we view Scripture will change. If the Bible is God’s revelation to His people so we might obey Him, the implication is that God has made it understandable. However, it’s important to note that we need the Holy Spirit to apply the words. The Bible can be daunting for those who do not believe (1 Cor. 2:9-16). Our own growth, training, and knowledge rests in the work of the Spirit. And still, we are certain to misunderstand God’s revelation without the aid of the Holy Spirit. We should pray for understanding every time we open our Bibles because the Bible’s clarity is closely connected to illumination of the Spirit.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. - 1 Corinthians 2:12-14

Every believer can read and study the Bible and benefit greatly by what she reads! However, we should keep in mind that although the Bible is clear, the Bible is not equally clear in all its parts and is not equally clear to all people. As J.I. Packer once said, “Our own intellectual competence is not the test and measure of divine truth. It is not for us to stop believing because we lack understanding, but to believe in order that we may understand.”

Kevin DeYoung in his book, Taking God at His Word, notes five helpful nuances in this definition:

  • Some portions of scripture are clearer than others. Not every passage has a simple or obvious meaning.
  • The main things we need to know, believe, and do can be clearly seen in the Bible.
  • Though the most essential doctrines are not equally clear in every passage, they are all made clear somewhere in Scripture.
  • That which is necessary for our Salvation can be understood even by the uneducated, provided that they make use of the ordinary means of study and learning.
  • The most important points in the scriptures may not be understood perfectly but they can be understood sufficiently.

Considering the above points, we must ask, do we fully comprehend everything found in the Bible? No! But we focus on the main and plain things of Scripture by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. In cases of confusion (which should and will inevitably come with time), we should work to reconcile any passage by using the adage of scripture interprets scripture. Even if those things are not abundantly clear in one part of Scripture, they can be made clear in other parts of Scripture, so that the essential message can be properly understood. 

9. The infallible rule for interpreting Scripture is the Scripture itself. Therefore, when there is a question about the true and full meaning of any part of Scripture (and each passage has only one meaning, not many), it must be understood in light of other passages that speak more clearly. (2 Pet. 1:20, 21; Acts 15:15, 16)

– 1689 London Baptist Confession

Likewise, scripture cannot contradict scripture. We need to remember that the Bible is written in a form more similar to a newspaper than a textbook. At the vantage point of the viewer, we read about real people in the real language of the day. The Scriptures are written how real, historical events were observed in understandable language, not technical analytical language.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. - 2 Tim. 3:14-15

The implications are that God clearly communicates what He wants to say to people at any time and in any culture when they read an accurate translation of the Bible. The foundation of human communication is in God, and He has chosen to use everyday human speech as the way to spread the knowledge of Him and His plan. God has spoken, and He has spoken clearly so that we can know Him and know how to be His people. It matters because God has called each of us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. To love God we must know Him and to know Him we must know what He has revealed to us in His Word. We will grow in our love for God as we grow in our knowledge of and obedience to His Word.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. – John 16:12-15

It is not just reserved for scholars to learn, study, and share God’s Word. It is a responsibility and a right given to all believers. It only takes a fifth to sixth grade education to read the entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. Can’t the common lay-person actually get something out of reading the Scriptures? These words aren’t just letters on a page. Because the Bible is clear and understandable, every single one of us can read, study, and think deeply about it before sharing it with others. The Bible is the living, breathing Word of God that applies to my past, helps me in the present, and will help walk me into the future. In short, the Bible was written for ordinary people and the depths of God’s riches are open to us when we go to the pages of scripture.

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to us who are being saved. - 1 Cor. 1:18

Where is this Truth Found in the Bible?

Deuteronomy 29:29; 30:11–14; 31:9–13; Nehemiah 8; Acts 17:10–12; Romans 4:22–24; 10:6–10; 15:4; 1 Corinthians 2:14–16; 10:6–11; 1 Timothy 4:13; 1 Peter 2:1–3

The instruction of the Lord is perfect, renewing one’s life; the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise. - Psalm 19:7

For further study, I recommend reading from my sources for this series that are found in the intro post, It is Written: An Eight Part Theological Series.