Perspicuity: The Bible Clearly Says…

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.

Perspicuity of the Bible

Perspicuity

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.

Photo Credit: ♔ Georgie R via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim
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23 Responses to Perspicuity: The Bible Clearly Says…

  1. Chas says:

    Yes, the Holy Spirit is our interpreter, and the interpretation can advance the meaning of a phrase from one time that we read it to the next, as we ourselves advance toward God.

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    • Chas, what do you mean by ‘the Holy Spirit is our interpreter?’ Does this mean we can understand doctrines accurately from reading the Bible even though we don’t understand the context? What is your basis for thinking that the Holy Spirit is our interpreter in some way?

      I don’t deny that we can advance in our understanding of a phrase over time, but is it enlightenment about what the author intended to say, or is it a personal understanding that helps us as an individual?

      These are honest questions and not meant to be argumentative.

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      • Chas says:

        The Holy Spirit shows us the meaning that God wishes us to take from any phrase in the Bible, whatever the writer intended it to mean. He also shows us the context in which the phrase should be used when speaking to someone else. Doctrines I don’t know about.

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        • I don’t deny the possibility Chas, but I don’t know any reason to claim or teach that this is so.

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          • Chas says:

            Tim. It might be helpful for you to look at the e:mails that I sent to you on 10 and 12 Jan.
            Chas

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          • Chas, I read your emails. Until now, I didn’t realize you were the person who sent them because the names were different.

            From your explanation I better understand where you are coming from. I don’t deny your experience and process, but I would not define my approach the same way. Thanks for your contribution!

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

    Like

  3. michaeleeast says:

    Thanks Tim for a thoughtful post.
    I have had much success with bibliomancy.
    Often finding relevant texts seemingly by chance.
    Whether this is being guided by the Holy Spirit I’m not sure.
    But you are right about the context of each passage.
    Historical and cultural context color every passage in the Bible.

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  4. lotharson says:

    Thanks for this brilliant post, Tim.

    While there really is some hateful stuff in the Bible, many things fundies take for granted are actually not Biblical and oftentimes fly in the face of other texts.

    I just wrote a review of a debate between progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser with an atheist:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/the-tentative-apologist-and-the-friendly-atheist-discuss-about-heaven/

    I think you would probably like it, and you could give us there links towards your own posts dealing with similar topics (of course only if you find the time).

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

    Like

  5. jessedooley says:

    Great post. You are putting a lot of thought into them. I love how you said we bring “baggage” to our readings. Was that a play on your name? lol. Context is so very important to understanding the texts. It’s a life-long journey, a journey that I am absolutely in love with. I can see you are too. Keep them coming.

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  6. Thanks Jesse,

    In answer to your question, the baggage in the name of my blog is a reference to what I see in much of the doctrines and practices we have as believers, and the baggage in this post is a part of that. So I suppose it is a play on words in a sense.

    Like

  7. Marc says:

    Sola Scriptura is the baggage that has led to thousands of denominations and sects. This baggage is a direct contradiction of the Scriptures themselves. It is the Church, not the Scriptures alone, that is the pillar and ground of the truth (see 1 Timothy 3:15).

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  8. sheila0405 says:

    I’ve spoken here before about the concept of people being guided by the Holy Spirit. Better theologians than I have had varying ideas about some passages in the sacred texts. I do not believe I can be infallibly sure of any particular part of the Bible, because I only read it in English. So, right out of the starting gate I am handicapped by my inability to understand Hebrew or Greek. I have to trust scholars much more learned than I to explain some of the nuances of the Bible. Of course, there are always certain passages or verses which I see in a different light sometime after having first wrestled with them, because I am changing as a person. My life experiences shape the “who” of my humanity. As we all develop and/or dispose of certain ideologies over time, wouldn’t it make sense that our own views on the Bible also change? Some things I thought were plainly true I now question.

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    • As we all develop and/or dispose of certain ideologies over time, wouldn’t it make sense that our own views on the Bible also change? Some things I thought were plainly true I now question.

      Well said Sheila. Many believers are on this same journey, and sometimes it is frightening to embrace it, but it is so very rewarding.

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  9. Pingback: Reading the Bible in Context | Jesus Without Baggage

  10. Pingback: Midrash in the New Testament | Jesus Without Baggage

  11. sand casting says:

    I will immediately snatch your rss feed as I can not to find your e-mail subscription link or newsletter service.
    Do you have any? Kindly let me realize in order that I may subscribe.
    Thanks.

    Like

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