One of the most unfortunate theological terms out there is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. “Perspicuity” basically means “clarity,” which is ironic, because that isn’t clear at all; the only advantage to the big word is that it makes you sound theological. The bad thing is, if you use big words like that without being careful, it’s easy to get snagged on the big word and lose track of the details; and here, that’s a real problem.
You see, the first people who unloaded this one on me were arguing that this doctrine means that everything in Scripture is clear, that all you have to do is just read it and it’s obvious what it says. And you know, that just put my back up, because it’s so clearly not true. I’ve been studying the Bible a while now, I’ve learned from some brilliant men and women, and there are things that I just don’t know what they mean and I don’t think anyone else really does either. Even granting human sinfulness, if everything in the Bible were perfectly clear all on its own, we’d have a lot fewer arguments in the church.
What I discovered later is that the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture—let’s just call it that, shall we?—is much more intelligent than that, and it has two parts. First, for example, take the Westminster Confession, one of the founding doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian tradition, which basically says this: not all Scriptures are equally obvious, nor does everyone understand them equally well, but those things which are essential for our salvation are so clearly stated and explained in Scripture that anyone who’s willing to read carefully and thoughtfully can understand them. God created everything and everyone, he is Lord over everything, and he doesn’t share his authority. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and there is no way to be saved apart from him. On such matters, Scripture speaks far too clearly to be accidentally misunderstood; only willful misreading can confuse the issues.
But again, granting human sinfulness, that’s not enough; and granting the power and character of God, it doesn’t need to be. The Scriptures are not simply a book written by a bunch of really wise folk—wise for their time anyway, who need to be corrected at points where we just know better; the Scriptures are the word of God, inspired (which is to say, breathed into people) by the Spirit of God to accomplish the purposes of God. It is the Holy Spirit who instigated and shaped and perfected the books of the Bible—not dictating them to their human authors, but working through their personalities and characters to express the universal truth of God—and this is why we affirm them as the word of God, not just for us but for everyone. And it is the Holy Spirit who continues to speak through these words today, which is why we affirm their enduring power for salvation.
This is important to understand, and it’s a little tricky. When we declare the authority of Scripture, we aren’t just talking about words on a page—or on a screen, or carved in stone, or whatever. I’ve had a lot of folks ask me lately, “How can anyone who calls themselves a Christian believe something so obviously contradictory to Scripture?” The answer, I think, is that they mostly regard it as words on a page, as arbitrary squiggles of black ink—and words on a page, be they yesterday’s newspaper or the U. S. Constitution, are to some extent under your control. You can ignore them, you can argue with them, you can make up your mind for yourself what they mean, because they have no independent existence. They can’t argue back unless you let them. You are the authority; they are for your use as you see fit.
Scripture, however, is different. Scripture is inspired by God—not just was, is: he spoke it, and he continues to speak it. The authority of Scripture is not rooted in tradition or in who believes it or in the power of any human being to compel anyone to do anything, it is the authority of God whose voice speaks endlessly through it. To affirm the authority of Scripture truly is not to say, this is a book that we value, that has good rules for living, even that contains great truth; rather, to affirm the authority of Scripture is to acknowledge and bow before the authority of God in Scripture. It is to affirm that these are the words he has spoken to his people for all ages, through which he continues to speak in perfect truth, and thus that they are the necessary measure of everything else.
Now, as we say that, we need to say a few other things. First, this is not to say that the Holy Spirit only speaks through Scripture; Psalm 19 reminds us that he speaks through his creation as well, and as the Spirit fills each of us, he speaks truth through us to each other. If it were not so, I wouldn’t dare to be up here. But it is to say that the Spirit will never say anything which contradicts what he has already said, and the Scriptures are the only absolute word of God; anything else we may think is from God needs to be tested and corrected against their perfect witness, and anything which they contradict cannot be from God.
That said, second, the authority here is God, not us. The word of God is authoritative, but our own interpretations aren’t—they’re just our best efforts; sometimes, when we see a conflict, it may be that our understanding of Scripture is in error and needs to be corrected. In seeking to know and teach the truth of God, we must always proceed humbly, remembering that we are sinners like everyone else.
Third, this is why we can know God: because he has gone to considerable lengths to tell us and show us who he is and what he’s on about. It’s not about our smartness or anything else about us, it’s all his doing. If he hadn’t taken the initiative, it would be impossible for us to know anything at all about him with certainty; what we can know about him, we can know because he told us, and we can know him because he introduced himself to us. Our whole faith rests, as a practical matter, on this: that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors to speak his truth and continues to use them to guide us into all truth today. Apart from him, we can do nothing.
Which means, it should be noted, that we must always remember that the purpose of the Scriptures is to point us to God; we may say we believe in them in that we believe that they are his word, his true and faithful witness to himself, but we don’t believe in the Bible in the same way that we believe in God—our faith is in him alone. It’s like my glasses. I’ve been trying to get back in the habit of wearing my contacts more, but these do fine: with them on, I can see you. If I take them off, I have some idea what I’m seeing, but none of it’s clear. Now, if I stand here and look at my glasses, I can study them—I can look at their design, how they’re put together, where the screws are, how they bend; I can see if the nosepads are loose, and that the lenses need cleaning again—but while that may give me interesting information about my glasses, it doesn’t help me see you. If I study my glasses, but I never put them on and look through them, they won’t do me any good at all.
In the same way, study of the Bible that’s all about the Bible and not about Jesus, faith that’s focused on the Bible and not on Christ, won’t do us any good at all—or anyone else, either. It is God who is their power, God who is their point, God who is their purpose: God the Father who spoke the word and created all things, Jesus Christ his Son, the Word made flesh, God with us—God for us—God one of us, and his Holy Spirit who inspired the written word by which we know all these things are true. The point of the Bible is that by the Holy Spirit, God is in every word in every line on every page. If we lose sight of that, we lose sight—period.