We cannot use this doctrine to suppress debate or to demonize anyone who disagrees with us.
In my article “Misreading Scripture Cross-culturally” (October 2023), I mentioned the doctrine of the clarity, or perspicuity, of Scripture. I think there may be confusion over what this doctrine means. Some people cite this doctrine as a way to challenge those who have different biblical interpretations. Often the challenge carries an implied accusation that the other person is disrespecting the Bible’s authority.
The Reformed doctrine of the clarity of Scripture teaches that what is necessary for salvation is clear in Scripture. It does not teach that everything in Scripture is clear and easy to understand. An old Reformed confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), made this explicitly clear: “The meanings of all the passages in the Bible are not equally obvious, nor is any individual passage equally clear to everyone. However, everything which we have to know, believe, and observe in order to be saved is so clearly presented and revealed somewhere in the Bible that the uneducated as well as the educated can sufficiently understand it by the proper use of the ordinary means of grace.” (Chapter 1.VII, Modern English version)
Scripture itself implies that it has parts that are not easy to understand: “(Paul’s) letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). And the Ethiopian eunuch needed Philip’s help to understand the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40).
Confessing the clarity of Scripture, therefore, does not prevent us from using careful interpretive methods to study and interpret the Bible. The CRC’s 1972 synodical report “The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority (Report 44)” noted, “The Reformers, while confessing the perspicuity of Scripture, never intended to suggest that there were no problems encountered in interpreting the Bible, problems requiring the application of grammatical and historical exegesis” (Acts of Synod 1972, p. 514). Neither does the doctrine suggest that Christians who use such careful interpretive methods cannot come to different conclusions or interpretations of Scripture.
Of course, we must prayerfully ask for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in interpreting Scripture. Indeed, without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, we may not even be able to understand its central message of salvation. As the synodical report says, “Under the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit the Bible is an open Book, which in its central and comprehensive message is readily accessible and unmistakably clear to the believing heart and mind. … Indispensable for understanding the central and comprehensive message of Scripture is a Spirit-led faith.” (Acts of Synod 1972, p. 541) However, note that the emphasis here is on understanding the central message of salvation through the Holy Spirit’s help. It does not mean that the Holy Spirit will open all biblical mysteries to us. Interpretive tools such as historical and linguistic resources are still necessary.
I am not trying to say that there are no clear passages at all in the Bible. But I do believe that we cannot use the doctrine of clarity to suppress debate or to demonize anyone who disagrees with a particular biblical interpretation as disrespecting biblical authority itself.
Let us disagree graciously and respectfully, assuming the best of each other rather than the worst.
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