On the perspicuity of Scripture

Once upon a time, when describing the ‘power of the Word of God’, Uncle Karl referred to the ‘magic of biblical thought and language … to which we must not on any account remain insensible, but which we can and must allow to have its due effect. As the essential pre-requisite for a biblical exegesis which does not remain confined to grammatical-historical matters, there is needed an intuition, an ability to detect the dæmonic magic of the Bible’ [CD I/2, 674]. Barth was concerned here, as elsewhere, with the freedom of the Word ‘in its illimitability or its equality over against other powers’, one feature of which concerns the reality that the early generations of Protestant reformers championed; namely, the perspicuity of Scripture. While writing some Bible studies on Amos recently, I have been encouraged to employ that great principle of hermeneutics. (Apparently, it’s a principle that works for other parts of the Bible too!). Anyway, that all brought to mind some quotes that I once gathered on the doctrine, quotes that I thought worth sharing here:

‘Scripture is self-interpreting and perspicuous by virtue of its relation to God … The clarity of Scripture is a function of its place in the divine self-demonstration, and of the Spirit’s work of ordering the mind, will and affections of the reader towards what Calvin called “heavenly doctrine”. Perspicuity only makes sense when seen in a soteriological context, that is, in relation to God’s act as Word and Spirit and the creature’s act of faith. Like other properties of Scripture, such as sufficiency, efficacy or perfection, clarity is not a formal or natural property of the text considered in isolation … Rather, Scripture is clear because through the Spirit the text serves God’s self-presentation. Properly speaking, it is not Scripture which is self-interpreting but God who as Word interprets himself through the Spirit’s work … Scripture is clear because of the Spirit’s work in which creaturely acts of reading are so ordered towards faithful attention to the divine Word that through Scripture the light of the gospel shines in its own inherent splendour. Perspicuity is thus not a way of suggesting that reading is superfluous; it is about the way in which faithful reading within the economy of revelatory grace is not sheerly spontaneous but a receptive act of the intelligence of faith … In sum: Scripture’s clarity is neither an intrinsic element of the text as text nor simply a fruit of exegetical labour; it is that which the text becomes as it functions in the Spirit-governed encounter between the self-presenting saviour and the faithful reader. To read is to be caught up by the truth-bestowing Spirit of God’. – John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 93–5.

‘The canon of the Reformation scholars was to take the clear passages and use them to test the obscure. That was to be the principle to guide the Church. Cranks and doctrinaires might fix on unique and obscure passages which fascinated their angular or mystic minds. They might puncture these texts and then colour the whole of the Bible with a dilution of the theosophy which oozed from them. To this day ill-taught and self-taught people frame amateur fantastic theologies in that way. And the poor churches are bewildered by the gropings of unfortunate men who were told at college only that they must make their own theology. Do you wonder that the result of such teachng is collapse for church or college? But the sound principle of old was otherwise. And it remains sound to-day. We should use the clear to interpret the obscure. But that is not exactly what they mean who say that the Bible must be read by way of a selection of certain parts. They would proceed by the way of dissection. They would act critically rather than hermeneutically. They would cut out certain pieces as being Bible, and discard certain others as intrusions on the Bible; and the discarded portions would not be interpreted by the rest, but rather neglected, and practically ejected from the canon’. – P.T. Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 75–6.

‘To put it briefly, there are two kinds of clarity in Scripture, just as there are also two kinds of obscurity: one external and pertaining to the ministry of the Word, the other located in the understanding of the heart. If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it. They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God, nor anything else, as Psalm 13[14:1] says: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god.’” For the Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture, both as a whole and in any part of it. If, on the other hand, you speak of the external clarity, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous, but everything there is in the Scriptures has been brought out by the Word into the most definite light, and published to all the world’. – Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 28.

‘It is a wondrous and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organised the Holy Scriptures so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages, and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones.’ … ‘If you cannot yet understand [a passage of Scripture], you should leave the matter for the consideration of those who can; and since Scripture does not abandon you in your infirmity, but with a mother’s love accompanies your slower steps, you will make progress. Holy Scripture, indeed, speaks in such a way as to mock the proud readers with its heights, terrify the attentive with its depths, feed great souls with its truth and nourish little ones with sweetness.’ – Augustine, in Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the “Plain Sense” of Genesis 1-3 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998), 164,167.

So back to Amos, and that with Jeremiah’s help, and Luke’s. Ah … the dæmonic magic of the Bible!

One comment

  1. After a hundred year hiatus in biblical studies and theology brought on by the folly of having imported French Infidelity (the understanding of the Philosophes and their English cousins such as Tom Paine, David Hume, et. al.)into our perusal of Scripture under the absurdity of looking on such as “Higher Criticism” which was sort of like reframing a plate of garbage and calling it steak. A good, stiff dose of intellectual analysis based upon a historical investigation would have revealed the foolishness of the methodology of such perspective. Surely, the reality I found in 6 years of research in 2000 years of church history as t involves the marginal groups like the Montantists, Novatianists, Donatists, Paulicians, Celtics, Waldensians, etc., and 2 years of research in the Greek of I Cors. 13, namely, that the biblical truths are apparently two-sided and contradictory (that is, cannot be reconciled one way or the other, and are not meant to be) ideas which set up a tension in the human mind, empowering, and enabling one to be balanced, flexible, creative, and magnetic, in short, all that a mature believer is meant to be. All of this from the perspicuity of Scripture which is our biggest problem. I mean, we can understand it as it is so clear, but our problem is perceiving the depth of that clarity.


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