How to Interpret the Bible, Part 7: Perspicuity, and You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Sometimes a little clarity is needed
Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom /

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (often called the “perspicuity of Scripture”) teaches that “the meanings of the text can be clear to the ordinary reader, that God uses the text of the Bible to communicate His person and will.”  “The witness of the Church throughout the ages is that ordinary people, who approach it in faith and humility, will be able to understand what the Bible is getting at, even if they meet with particular points of difficulty here and there.”

This doctrine is in contrast to other positions like that of the Roman Catholic Church, which asserts that Scripture is imperspicuous (unclear) apart from the interpretative framework of the Catholic church and tradition, and of positions like that of Postmodernism and Mormonism, which assert that subjective experience should be preferred over knowing the originally intended meaning of scripture, since it is basically unclear.

~ Theopedia, “Clarity of Scripture Perspicuity

This is part 7 of the series “How to Interpret the Bible“, so if you have not yet read the introduction, you should do so.  Likewise, we have already covered “Ask God for Help” and “Standard Definitions Don’t Depend on What the Meaning of the Word ‘Is’ Is“.  Part 4, “Pay Attention to Whom Is Being Addressed“, was a special case of “Context, context and context“.  In “How to Interpret the Bible, Part 5: Literal Interpretation Does Not Mean Lack of Symbols or Poetry” it was stressed that taking the Bible literally does not mean that there aren’t different styles of writing within it, but certain sections and the context can guide us easily through this.  In Part 6, I challenged readers to use the smell test to see if what was being presented made sense, was logical and did not contradict the clear passages of Scripture.

Speaking of clear, it has to be stressed that the majority of Scripture actually is clear if read without preconceived ideas.  The biases, preconceived ideas and desires for the Bible to say something other than what it means are all eisegesis, or reading into Scripture rather than extracting the meaning out of it.

In the end, everything boils down to whether we trust God or not.  Do we really believe God?  Do we take Him at His word, or are we so mistrusting that we believe that He cannot leave behind a clear record for people to understand?

He even tells us how to understand using various principles, including:

13 But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

Isa 28:13

Moses also laid down a principle about the Law to ancient Israel:

11 For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.

12 It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

14 But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

Dt 30:11-14

Notice how Paul uses this same type of argument about salvation:

For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.

But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)

Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)

But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

Ro 10:5-9

It should be noted that this clarity of Scripture applies to all things necessary for salvation.  That does not mean, however:

  • That the vast majority are not spiritually blind.  Jesus promised that few would make it into the Kingdom (the strait and narrow).  One who is blind cannot read the words on the page, and so it is with the spiritually blind.
  • That the spiritually blind will not make it difficult for others to see Scripture clearly.
  • That all Scripture is going to be clear.  Perspicuity simply means the important items are clear.  For example, it should be clear that in order to be saved, one must repent and be baptized.  It should be clear from the Book of Acts that the apostles laid hands on people after baptism as well.

Are You Sure You’re Sure?

I’m constantly amazed at how people will often be so sure of something that isn’t really well defined in Scripture, however.  They will argue, divide and insist upon a specific interpretation that sometimes even defies common sense.

The notion of perspicuity does not mean that you can replace your church organization or pastor.  In a quote from the Theopedia article:

“When this position is taken to an extreme (as it has been by some Protestants) the individual becomes the supreme authority on the meaning of Scripture, claiming revelation from the Holy Spirit to authenticate an interpretation not necessarily validated by the Church as a whole.”

~ op cit., Westerb Seminary

In a nutshell, here is the calendar controversy, not to mention several others.  To some degree, the Church has a share of the blame, for it has often done a poor job of even understanding proper authority and where the lines between church responsibility stop and personal responsibility begins.  I think anyone who has lived through the “Whole Wheat Church of God” should have an idea to what I’m referring.  However, the breakup of WCG has led to many ricocheting into the other ditch, where proper church authority is discarded in favor of personal interpretation of Scripture.

19 In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Most important, you must know that no prophecy of scripture represents the prophet’s own understanding of things, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will. Instead, men and women led by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

2Pe 1:19-21 (CEB)

There are two points I would like to make here:

  • Does anyone in their right mind think this principle applies to prophecy only?
  • Christ promised to be with us when two or more are gathered together (Mt 18:20).  The Church is the collective of Christ’s Spirit, and it is through the Church He does His work.  Scripture leaves very little room for “lone Christians” unless it is not of one’s will.

The question becomes whether or not we, individually or collectively, are humble enough to submit to proper authority and frankly admit it when some things are not clear. Even Jesus gave us the example that even He did not know the date of His return but the Father only. If Jesus as God in the flesh can be so humble, then why can’t we?

The Plain Things Are the Main Things

So, where does that leave us?  How about HWA’s often quoted words?  “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things!”

HWA also talked frequently about staying close to the trunk of the tree.  I fear that far too many have wandered off on their own onto the weaker branches which have a tendency to crack and come crashing down.


From here, you may:

Go back to the Introduction

Go back to Part 6

Go on to Conclusion

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