The Clarity of Scripture

Posted on March 23, 2013

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Sometimes I am able to negotiate a combined Christmas/birthday expense to gain a significant collection or set of books. Last year it was a 50% off sale of the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series (edited by D.A. Carson) offered by Westminster Seminary bookstore. My advice is to read as many of these as you can get your hands on! So far I’ve read Trevor Burke on adoption, Alan Thompson on Acts, Tim Laniak on pastoral ministry, Kostenberger and O’Brien on mission, Craig Blomberg on money and possessions, Mark Seifrid on the righteousness of God, David Peterson on holiness, and Mark Thompson on the clarity of Scripture. Each one of these studies were excellent and several are filled with arrow stickers and pencil marks highlighting important insights that enriched my knowledge of biblical theology and many times ended up in sermons over the past year.

82622x_1_ftc_dpI have just put down the last one on the list, Mark Thompson’s A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture. I selected this volume so that I might gain an understanding of my denomination’s abandonment of the clarity of scripture, even though it is clearly affirmed in our historic formularies, particularly the Ordinal and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

What was worth the price of the book was Chapter Three: It is not beyond you: The accessible word of the living God. Thompson shows that a doctrine of the clarity of scripture concords with the actual teaching of scripture. He disputes claims that the doctrine is imposed on rather than drawn from scripture. Thompson’s examination of Jesus’ acceptance of the OT and Jesus’ assumption that “when the words of Scripture are read or heard, they will be understood, at least well enough understood to warrant an acknowledgement that he is who he says he is and that his words are true (p. 87) really do require an answer in a denomination like mine that affirms that we should seek to be “followers of Jesus,” yet departs from his teaching concerning the Scriptures which testify of him.

What was so helpful was the way in which Thompson moves from Jesus to find a similar pattern in the apostles’ treatment of the Old Testament (pp. 88-93). He treats the classic texts which affirm the accessibility of the OT (Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Joshua 1.8-9; Psalm 119.105, 130; 2 Kings 22.11ff.; Nehemiah 8.1b-3, 7-8; Isaiah 55.10-11). When he discusses Nehemiah 8 for many a “proof text” against clarity, Thompson points out that the clarity of the text does not remove the role of exposition, but that “exposition can proceed on the assumption that the text is clear” (p. 100).

His important conclusion from the survey of biblical material is that they do “not suggest uniform simplicity” for the Bible; “understanding is not always automatic or simple … God has placed both heights and depths in Scripture, given us passages so simple a child can understand them and others so intriguing they engage the ablest minds for years”. Further “God has given us resources to help us as we read: his Spirit who has never abandoned his word, the fuller context of the Bible, and a fellowship of believers” (p. 110).

The final chapter of the book summarizes the conclusions and restates the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture for today. It opens with a fascinating account of the development of the doctrine through the interaction of Erasmus, Luther, Bellarmino, Whitaker and Turretin. This discussion is a model of historical theology. It attends carefully to the context of each writer and outlines neatly the main points. Thompson reviews the arguments, many of which have already featured in the book, concluding that “the great classical treatments of this doctrine during the time of the Reformation are more robust and less naïve than is generally acknowledged” (p. 157).

The book concludes with the assertion that the perspicuity of scripture is “a doctrine for the times” and so aims to give a contemporary statement of the doctrine (pp. 159-60). He asserts that the demise of biblical literacy in Western culture and even in the church demands a restatement of the doctrine. He also asserts that an account of the clarity of the Bible for our age must be articulated simply but must also recognize that difficulties and challenges in reading it come from a variety of sources — the complexity of God’s purposes, our lack of familiarity with the text , its world and its message and the effects of sin. It is what the Reformation called difficulties and challenges of “illumination.”

Thompson explains that the doctrine of the clarity of scripture rests on the claims scripture itself makes:

  1. On the claim that “God’s involvement with this text, not just at the point of composition but all the way through the activity of reading the Bible” (p. 165).
  2. On the claim that human language is suitable for divine speech.
  3. On the claim that Jesus Christ as the centre of God’s revelation and so read all Scripture in its relation to him.

He summarizes the doctrinal assertion as follows: “the clarity of Scripture is that quality of the biblical text that, as God’s communicative act, ensures its meaning is accessible to all who come to it in faith” (p. 170).

Perhaps too late to be of any value in a denomination that makes decisions concerning same-sex blessings before creating a Task Force on the Study of Marriage to research and discern the biblical and theological understanding of marriage, but for those of us who must defend the authority of scripture before competing authority claims that rest in an individuals’ or institution’s own assertions, Thompson’s work is one I shall consult again.