The Beginning and End of Perspicuity
Often when I have heard theologians introduce the doctrine of perspicuity, they jest something along these lines. “The meaning of perspicuity is not clear though the meaning of the word is clear.” That just goes to prove that theologians usually are not very funny.
What they mean is that this word, not used often in ordinary conversation, has as its definition “clarity.” When they are speaking of the Bible’s perspicuity, they are saying that the Bible’s meaning is clear. Charles Hodge put it this way:
“The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not on that of the Church. Such is the doctrine of Protestants on this subject.” (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, Ch. 6, Sec. 5).
So though there are certainly portions of the Bible that have “some things hard to understand” (II Peter 3:16), overall the Bible’s message can be understood by people as they read it. William Tyndale was motivated to translate the Bible into plain English centuries ago and believed that “he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than (the pope) did.” He would not have given his life for this cause if he had believed that the plow boy, once he had the Bible in hand, would not be able to understand what he was reading.
Which brings me to my point. It appears that the two places where the Bible should be most clear – its introduction and conclusion – have a lot of people confused these days.
Let’s take the beginning of the Bible, especially the first couple of chapters. People cannot seem to read the first pages of Genesis without getting all disoriented. Is this because the book itself is unclear? Or may it have more to do with men trying to fit its words to the latest scientific theory about the earth’s fossil record and origin?
Think of reading just the first chapter of Genesis to children. How can we read the first pages of the Bible to our children and begin to say to them such things as “Well, when it says here a day, that does not mean one day like your birthday, but millions of years” or “When it sounds like God made the fish, then birds, then animals, and man, it really means some of the fish turned into animals, and then some of the animals turned into birds and man”? This is not reading the Bible with its plain meaning. One church father said the Scriptures are like a river that, yes, are deep enough for elephants to swim, but that the Scriptures are also “shallow enough for a lamb to swim” or “for a child not to drown.” One has to wonder if, numerically speaking, the flood of evolutionary teaching that has swept into the church has not drowned more children in its unbelief and materialism than even Noah’s flood – which they also love to mock – did.
In Colossians we are told that in Christ and through Christ and for Christ all things were created (Colossians 1:16). So do we really want to deny what the Lord Jesus Christ said when He stated, “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female” (Mark 10:6)? Remember, Jesus was there! Why can we not become like children again and believe and marvel over what Jesus has made in the time He said He made it? The Father Himself delighted in giving His Son the honor of speaking the telescopic things such as the galaxies of millions of stars into existence, as well as the microscopic things such as amoebas and cells and DNA, and everything in between and beyond? Why gum all this honor up with a fretting worry about someone’s gap or another’s hypothesis?
Yes, the church made a mistake in the days of Copernicus and Galileo in insisting the earth and not the sun was the center of our galaxy. But it is no corrective today for the church to practice, like medieval monks, the self-flagellation of insisting that science, not Scripture, is central to understanding how the heavens and earth and all that they contain came into being. It’s one thing to move to a heliocentric astronomy. It’s quite another to move to an evolution-centric cosmology.
Now let’s go to the end of the Bible to the Book of Revelation. If there is one thing that is clear it is that many are not clear what this book means. That last statement is not only an imitation of the theologian’s bad humor, but could also be used as proof that the Bible simply is not perspicuous. Well, hold on a minute. When men take teachings and spread them widely and wildly so that they confuse people (i.e. someone using a chart with a lot of lines and newspaper headlines to explain Revelation to you), does that mean this book is unclear? Or could it just be revealing them for, at best, the confused teachers and, at worst, the false prophets they are? Jesus Himself said about His Book of Revelation (remember, it starts off “the revelation of Jesus Christ” – see Revelation 1:1) that “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” Jesus expected people to read and understand it so they could obey it.
So how does one see the perspicuity of Revelation? Remember some of the basic rules of Bible reading you apply to other books.
- Keep passages in context.
- Pay attention to the helps and explanations the author is giving.
- Remember the original audience.
- Know some of the history of their time.
- Use clearer passages of Scripture to interpret less clear ones, especially symbols.
With these tools in your belt, you can go far in understanding the Bible’s last book, which reminds us of one other rule when reading the book of Revelation. Remember it is the last book of the Bible. Revelation is concluding the story the Bible was telling all along. What is it? The Lord Jesus Christ has triumphed over the sin and death that entered the garden of Eden. He has turned His affection from being primarily centered on Israel to resting on all the nations of the earth. The Lord has established His church as His holy temple and beloved bride. Jesus will eventually conquer all his enemies. The Lord will return visibly one last time to bring in the consummation of the ages in a new garden paradise. So if you hear a teaching on Revelation that veers far from these things, then you probably should get yourself another teacher.
Notice in the exercises above that it takes seeing Jesus as both the author and subject of the Bible, from beginning to end, to perceive with clarity what the Bible is saying. If we cannot read Genesis and Revelation with understanding, the places that should be the beginning and end of perspicuity, then that could spell, well, the beginning and end of perspicuity. Sorry to end with another bad joke about something that, because it means seeing Jesus clearly, really is no joking matter at all.