The Clarity of Scripture

James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986) 59.

We ought to note well the idea of God-the-revealer, and as revelation as specifically the unfolding of secrets, that apparently stands behind such words. A priori, there need be nothing mysterious about God’s messages; on the contrary, if the divine purpose is communication, one might expect messages to be of an unparalleled clarity, able to be understood and retransmitted by anyone. And indeed, in other (especially earlier) biblical texts, this is very much the case. As Amos puts it (Amos 3:8), “If a lion roars, who is not afraid? If God speaks, who will not be a prophet?” Similarly, Isa. 6:9-10 implies that only some externally imposed obtuseness can prevent ordinary Israelites from understanding divine oracles. And when the Book of Exodus presents its explanation for the need for prophets in Israel, it does not advance the prophet (as might seem only logical to us) as that rare sage capable of penetrating the cryptic meaning of divine utterances, nor yet as a sensitive soul uniquely able to perceive divine messages overlooked by ordinary people. On the contrary. The divine roar is so powerful that ordinary people are afraid to listen to it–they fear for their lives (Ex. 20:18-20). That is why, in this view, prophets are needed, or at least why prophecy was first instituted (Deut. 18:15-18): to perform a task that ordinary mortals found too terrifying. Yet by the time these chapters of Daniel were written, such a notion of the divine word was no longer evident. God’s speech was mysterious, and even when its message seemed obvious (e.g., “seventy years”), its true meaning might be quite otherwise (490 years). To understand properly the word of God, great care and insightfulness were required–and perhaps, as we have seen in Daniel the Interpreter, divine inspiration as well.

Kugel’s remarks about the clarity of Scripture in pre-exilic Israel reminds me of a sermon by John MacArthur that Polycarp references on his blog.

And when you think about the Word of God, you have to understand that the Bible claims for itself clarity…clarity. Let me just give you some thoughts about that as we wrap up. Romans 1, if the sinner is held responsible for the revelation of God in creation and the revelation of God and the law written in his heart and conscience, Romans 2, so that he is without excuse, that is if he is held responsible before God, culpable before God, guilty before God for rejecting that revelation which is manifest in creation and conscience, if he’s without excuse at that point, then believe me, he is without excuse for rejecting that revelation which God has written down in His Word. The sinner is responsible. Scripture is clear. Scripture is necessarily plain because God, its author, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge speaks plainly or He cannot accomplish His redemption. If He does not speak plainly then people cannot know what they are to believe and how they are to respond. If He does not speak plainly, they cannot know of salvation, they cannot know of judgment to come. They cannot know of heaven and hell. They cannot know of sin and righteousness. But they must know and they are held responsible to know. Scripture yields its meaning to ordinary reason and literal sense. There are no secret hidden implicit mystery meanings. It is everywhere called light. It is even light to those who reject it. John 3, “They hate the light and they run from the light because it is light.” Scripture is clear not only because it is manifestly clear in and of itself and clear to the reasonable mind, but because the Spirit of God illuminates it. And by grace the Spirit makes what is incomprehensible comprehensible to the one upon whom the Spirit moves.

To give you an illustration of the clarity of Scripture, I would only say this. The Old Testament Scripture which may seem to some people a bit unclear is in fact so clear that God holds people and has always held them responsible for what was revealed in the Old Testament. Jesus Himself, for example, in His teaching, in His conversations, in His dialogues and disputes and debates never ever one time said to the Jews, “I understand your confusion. The Old Testament is really hard, very difficult and often unclear.” He never says that…never. He is speaking to first century people. They are…they are a thousand years from David. They are 1500 years from Moses. And they are two thousand years after Abraham. And Jesus still assumes that they are able to read and rightly interpret the Old Testament Scripture. If it were impossible to understand the Scriptures for some people who were removed a thousand years away, or two thousand years away as they’re telling us it is for those of us now removed two thousand years from the writing of the New Testament, then we would expect that Jesus would say something like, “I see how your problem arose.” But He never said that. And whether He is speaking to scholars, Pharisees and scribes, or to common people, He always assumes that they are to blame for their misunderstanding of any teaching in the Scripture. Again and again He says, “Have you not read? Have you never read? Have you never read the Scriptures?” He says to them, “You’re wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Your problem is, you don’t search the Scriptures. They are they which speak of Me.”

…I think about the New Testament epistles. You say, “Well, the New Testament’s really hard.” Is that right? New Testament epistles were not written to theologians, they were not written to church leaders, they were not written to scholars, they were written to congregations, to the church of God at Corinth, to the churches of Galatia, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, and so forth. Always to the churches, to the lowest common denominator, the person who was a new believer in Jesus Christ. And Paul assumes in every letter and so does Peter, and so does James, and so does John, so does Jude, that his hearers will understand exactly what he writes. For example, in Colossians 4:16 Paul says, “When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans and see that you read the letter from Laodicea .” Spread the letters around and read them all in every church.

I agree with MacArthur that Scripture as the Word of God should be comprehensible. Wouldn’t God want to communicate with us, after all? But MacArthur seems to backtrack some on his belief in the perspicuity of Scripture, for he says that the Holy Spirit makes the incomprehensible comprehensible. But why would we need the Holy Spirit, pastors, and teachers to help us understand Scripture, if its meaning is so self-evident? And why is it that Spirit-filled Christians, pastors, and teachers disagree among themselves about the meaning of biblical passages, if everything in the Bible is so clear? Is everyone who disagrees with John MacArthur doing so because he or she hates the light, or are there cases in which the text can go in different directions?

At the same time, are we in total darkness? I agree with MacArthur that God judges us, which means that he expects us to understand and act upon his word on some level. But, just because there are parts of Scripture that are unclear, that doesn’t mean all of it is unclear. We encounter in Scripture a God who expects us to love our neighbor, for example, and most of us have some idea of what is helpful and harmful to our fellow human beings.

Moreover, perhaps even the unclarity of the Bible can instruct us. In my post, Genesis 4:13: Did Cain Repent?, I discuss different ways to translate Genesis 4:13, along with the diverse applications of those translations. I remarked that I find something instructive and edifying to all of the views, to which Polycarp responds, “It doesn’t always have to be one way or the other in order to receive something from it.” Also, maybe the unclarity of the Bible and everyday life encourages us to draw closer to God and one another as we seek guidance for our dilemmas.

MacArthur is correct that Jesus in the Gospels is quite certain about his interpretations of Scripture. Can one acknowledge that Scriptural interpretation can get pretty messy, without compromising the sort of prophetic stance that Jesus took for good and against evil?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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