“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” 2 Peter 3:15-16
I firmly believe in the clarity of Scripture (sometimes called the “perspicuity” of Scripture—something we joked about in seminary because the word “perspicuity” is not very perspicuous!). In teaching through the book of Revelation at Grace PCA, I have realized that I need to clarify the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Contrary to the common assumptions that people have, the clarity of Scripture doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is equally clear, as the quotation from Peter’s second epistle shows: “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand…” We may ask, “What would Peter say about John’s Revelation?” The fact that some Scriptures are hard to understand doesn’t mean that we are free to twist them to mean what we like. Peter says that the ignorant and unstable twist them to their own destruction. In point of fact, the danger of Scripture-twisting is greater when it comes to unclear passages. Heretics twist unclear passages of Scripture with their own dogmatic interpretations that they have read into the text rather than out of it with the principles of sound interpretation.
Thankfully, the Westminster Confession provides an excellent statement of the clarity of Scripture.
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (WCF 1.7).
Observe that the Confession flatly denies that all Scripture is equally clear. It denies both that all Scripture is equally clear and that all Scripture is equally clear to all people. Yet the Confession affirms that what we need to know in order to be saved is clearly revealed. God made the essentials of salvation clear enough for all of his people to understand with the help of his Holy Spirit. The biblical teaching of salvation, then, may be understood by both the learned and the unlearned. In order to understand what the Bible teaches, we must make “a due use of the ordinary means.” The ordinary means for understanding the Bible are reading, understanding language, grammar, syntax, etc. So we don’t understand the Bible automatically. We have to do our homework, if you will. The clarity of Scripture should not be abused as an excuse for mental laziness and unwillingness to study using the resources available. There are many, many invaluable resources of Bible study in the English language, and we all may make use of them in order to understand what the Bible teaches.
Here are some pointers when it comes to applying the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture to your life.
1. Focus on what the Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches in many places. The entire Bible is God’s Word, but some parts of the Bible are more important than others. Jesus spoke about “the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23). Justice, mercy, and faithfulness, are more important than tithing, though tithing is certainly important.
2. Do not become discouraged with the sections of the Bible that you do not understand. Do not become discouraged when your pastor admits that he does not fully understand them (Remember what Peter admitted about Paul!). God inspired some texts that are hard to understand. Perhaps he did this to keep us humble and dependent on him.
3. Beware teachers who claim to have “expert knowledge” of obscure passages of Scripture. False teachers may claim to have special knowledge or the key to interpretation. Generally speaking, if a teacher comes up with an interpretation that has never been given throughout the history of the Church, it is a wrong interpretation. If you become more dependent on the teacher than you are the Bible, then there is a problem. The mark of a cult leader is that he makes you feel like you are dependent on him in order to understand “what the Bible really means.” The true shepherd of souls will show you how to understand the Bible with the tools of valid interpretation.
4. Do not create division in the Church with your interpretation of unclear passages. We need to be humble about our view of an obscure passage, and we need to be gracious with our brothers and sisters who do not see it our way.
5. Always pursue a deeper understanding of God’s Word. We shouldn’t develop a defeatist mentality when it comes to interpreting the Bible simply because there are some difficult sections. If we understood everything in God’s Word after our first reading, then God's Word would be simplistic and shallow. With our feet firmly planted on the clear, foundational truths of God’s Word, let us pursue a better understanding of the more challenging passages!