In discussions I often hear people say, ‘The Bible clearly says…’ Usually they follow up with a biblical quote or reference assuming that it answers the question sufficiently without need for further analysis. The discussion is over and they have won.
Whenever I hear or read the phrase ‘The Bible clearly says…’ , I stop immediately to examine the passage and most often it doesn’t answer the question clearly at all. ‘The Bible clearly says…’ is is at the top of the list of silliest things Christians say because the Bible is rarely ‘clear’ about anything.
The doctrine behind this phrase is ‘perspicuity’. Christian conservative John MacArthur says:
The doctrine of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture (that the central message of the Bible is clear and understandable, and that the Bible itself can be properly interpreted in a normal, literal sense) has been a cornerstone of evangelical belief ever since the Reformation.
Protestants used perspicuity as an argument against the Roman Catholic position that the Bible requires interpretation by Church authorities. But advocating perspicuity doesn’t prevent advocates from assuming roles of authorities themselves to tell us what the Bible ‘clearly’ means and declaring us wrong if we disagree.
Received interpretation is part of the problem in approaching the Bible today. Readers don’t come to the Bible with fresh eyes, instead we read it with accumulated baggage we have already learned from other people. In order to read the Bible clearly, we must come to it without presupposition and tradition, which is difficult to do.
There are other problems with a simple, ‘clear’ reading of the Bible.
Understanding the Language
I started reading the KJV Bible voraciously when I was in fifth grade. In high school we studied Shakespeare and a lot of kids had great difficulty with it. I did not, and I realized later that it was because I understood the Elizabethan language. When I checked footnotes for a word or phrase in the text book, I wondered why they bothered with obvious explanations; it was because I understood the language.
At least Shakespeare is written in English; the Bible is translated from languages most readers cannot understand. When we read the Bible in English translations, we bring our understanding of the English words, which can be quite at odds with the intent of the original words; our clear reading is not so clear. The confusion is compounded by doctrinal baggage that has become attached to many words. We read the Bible with the background of everything we have already heard about it.
There are numerous tools to help us understand the language of the Bible better, but without them it is impossible to grasp the shades of meaning accurately.
Recognizing the Genre
In reading books written in English, we usually understand different genres. We know when something is historical or biographical. We know the difference between prose, poetry, letters, and fiction. We understand axioms, jokes, puns, and double entendres.
The Bible uses all these genres and more. We also find genres that are not so familiar, such as apocalyptic, homily, lament, legend, midrash, and parable. The Bible also uses literary devices such as chiasmus, hyperbole, metaphor, and allusion.
If we try to read the Bible in a flat, literal manner we miss the impact of genre and literary device or even misunderstand passages completely. This should not discourage us from reading the Bible, but we should take advantage of the many helpful tools available to us.
Guidance of the Holy Spirit
My favorite dialogue of Plato has always been Ion. Socrates encounters Ion who claims to be the greatest expert in the works of Homer.
I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus…nor any one else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.
Admittedly Ion recites Homer so exquisitely that he elicits great emotion from his listeners, though he says poets other than Homer bore him to sleep.
Socrates asks Ion a question:
But how did you come to have this skill about Homer only, and not about Hesiod or the other poets? Does not Homer speak of the same themes which all other poets handle?
Is not war his great argument? and does he not speak of human society and of intercourse of men, good and bad, skilled and unskilled, and of the gods conversing with one another and with mankind, and about what happens in heaven and in the world below, and the generations of gods and heroes?
Are not these the themes of which Homer sings?
An interesting discussion follows in which Ion admits he is no expert in the various fields of knowledge Homer writes about…and that he doesn’t recite Homer well because he understands Homer’s meaning but because he is inspired.
Many advocates of Biblical clarity make a similar claim: though the reader might not know the details of the biblical context, they are guided by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Knowing the details is not as important as plain, literal reading guided by inspiration.
How I wish this were true. However, plain reading of the Bible–plus illumination–leads to an incredible number of conflicting conclusions. We also need to understand the context of the Bible; we will talk more about this next time.
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Have a great day! ~Tim