It’s three verses that critics of the King James Version frequently use to show why we needed — and continue to need — new Bible translations.
For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. But we will not boast of things without our measure, but according to the measure of the rule which God hath distributed to us, a measure to reach even unto you. For we stretch not ourselves beyond our measure, as though we reached not unto you: for we are come as far as to you also in preaching the gospel of Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:12-14 KJV
Did you get all that? Not the stuff of a great Bible study for today, but hopefully it leaves you with some empathy for those who struggle with Bible understanding, even if this is a rather extreme example. Can any of us say that our scriptures are “easily understood?”
All of this leads us to your word for today: “Perspicuity.” Say that ten times!
Instead, you might actually find the Latin easier, Claritas Scripturae means what you think it does, the clarity of scripture.
A bit of context is needed. The doctrine of Claritas Scripturae is a Protestant idea which stands in contrast to the Catholic view that the scriptures are not clear. Rather, the holy writings belong to the realm of mystery and the average person cannot fathom it; the lay-reader can never fully understand it. Instead, someone needs to be the broker of it, the arbiter of it for the rest of us. This could be the clergy class in general, or in a Catholic sense, it refers The Magisterium or what some simply call The Vatican.
The Protestant perspective stands in opposition to this. The gospel is so simple that a little child can understand it, and in fact, that is the only way you can experience salvation:
Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
There is a sense in which this is true. But we also realize that on a personal level, we are extremely grateful for the sermons, the podcasts, the commentaries, the Study Bible notes. Paul appeals to the idea that we need set apart ones or sent ones.
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)
In 2008, blogger Ben Johnson, then a Masters student at Western Seminary, put this far more succinctly than I can in this short blog post:
One of the things that becomes evident when you begin formal Bible study is that you begin to question the protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. Here is what I mean by this. As you begin your ‘formal training’ you begin to acquire what can only be called ‘special knowledge’ (sounds very gnostic). You now know Greek and Hebrew (and for those select few, Aramaic). You know more of the historical backgrounds of the texts (or at least what current scholarship thinks it knows about those backgrounds). You begin to exercise, what your professor tells you is a ‘sound hermeneutic.’ All this is ‘special knowledge’ that the average person in the pew does not have.
Now, imagine yourself in church and people begin asking you questions (they know you’re in seminary after all). You begin to rattle off what you heard in last week’s lecture on the book of Romans, talking about historical background and the Greek root of verbs, and the average person begins to doubt in their own ability to read the Bible themselves.
Here is my problem. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture came about (at least the Protestant formulation of it) in rebellion against the medieval catholic view that only the church (i.e., non lay-people) could interpret Scripture. When I look at the church today, it seems to me that we have replaced the ‘church’ with the ‘academy.’ If you haven’t written a critical commentary on the Gospel of Mark who are you to interpret it? As I begin to be a true (whatever that means) student of Scripture I find myself utilizing my recently acquired ‘special knowledge’ and finding great insight from it. However, as a Christian and a churchman I have to maintain that the basics of the message are accessible to the average person in the pew given the illumination of the Spirit and the proper amount of study. All that is to stay, I think I still need to confirm the basic idea of the perspicuity of Scripture (to say nothing of post-modern, or reader-oriented hermeneutics) but I’m still working out how.
I really need to repeat Ben’s second-to-last sentence:
I have to maintain that the basics of the message are accessible to the average person in the pew given the illumination of the Spirit and the proper amount of study.
But in his final sentence, he affirms that it’s complicated.
Do you think the average person can process the basics of the gospel, or do they need the help of those better-trained in theology?
Here are some verses from the cutting room floor today!
The LORD our God has secrets known to no one. We are not accountable for them, but we and our children are accountable forever for all that he has revealed to us, so that we may obey all the terms of these instructions. (Deuteronomy 29:29 NLT)
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith– (Romans 16:26-27)
For who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16 HCSB)
All scriptures NIV unless otherwise stated, I think!
Go Deeper: Here’s a scholarly article by D.A. Carson where I first began today’s thoughts.
Note: The title of today’s article was deliberately provocative.