Can you pick up your Bible, begin reading at Genesis 1, complete the entire book, and then, despite all the people and places, be able to summarize the basic message of what salvation is? There was a time when the Roman Catholic Church stridently debated whether to allow the translation of the Scriptures into the language of the people.1 One theologian even said vernacular translations were “the mother and origin of all heresies.” At the Council of Trent this was not decided (Fourth Session; April 8, 1546). This led to different customs in different regions in which some, such as Germany, the Low Countries, and Italy, tolerated vernacular Bible reading. Later, in 1559, Pope Paul IV declared that no translations of the Bible should be printed, purchased, read, or possessed without the written permission of the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition.
Thankfully, Rome now openly says, “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” and so “the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages” even “in cooperation with the separated brethren,” meaning us Protestants (Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965).
The question I want you to be assured of the answer is this: Is the Bible clear? In theological terms, is the Bible perspicuous? The Bible is clear (perspicuous) in matters relating to salvation and godliness.
What the Clarity of Scripture Is Not
It is important in our polemics with Rome, but also to guard us from error, to state what the clarity of Scripture is not. Rome says we say that every layperson can pick up a copy of the Bible and understand everything. And even many evangelicals misunderstand this as well, leading to the explosion of American dispensationalism where every believer is confident they know what Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation mean.
What the clarity of Scripture does not mean, first of all, is that anyone and everyone can pick up the Word and understand it all, even its doctrine of salvation. For example, the psalmist prayed for the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit to open the heart to understand the Word: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). Paul said it like this:
That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. (Eph. 1:17–19)
We see this in the example of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. He read the scroll of Isaiah 53 but needed understanding. Paul says elsewhere, for example, in 2 Corinthians 4:3, that “our gospel is veiled . . . to those who are perishing.” This means that apart from the regenerating and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, no one can understand the Word rightly. “So I shouldn’t give a Bible to my unsaved neighbor?” No, that’s not what I’m saying. We need to get the Scriptures into as many hands as possible, and pray that in reading them the Holy Spirit will do his work. But the point is that apart from him, no one can understand.
The clarity of Scripture also does not mean that there are no difficulties and obscure sayings. Turn to 1 Peter 1. Notice in verses 10–12 Peter describes the prophets reading their own writings to seek to understand whom they were speaking of. They saw the general shady outline of the coming Messiah, but they did not see his face in the living color of his coming. Look also at 2 Peter 3:15–17. Again Peter speaks this way, but this time of the apostle Paul: “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand” (v. 16). Do you want an example? If you’ve figured out who exactly the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3) and “he who now restrains” (2 Thess. 2:7) his coming, then let me know!
The clarity of Scripture finally does not mean that all Scripture is equally clear. Not every verse is equally clear. Not every chapter is equally clear. Let me illustrate. Turn to Revelation 9, then to John 3:16. Which is clearer? This shows that not all passages are as clear as all other passages.
What the Clarity of Scripture Is
Let me now explain what the clarity of Scripture is. Francis Turretin, the successor of John Calvin and Theodore Beza at the theological academy in Geneva, said that what the clarity of Scripture means is that what God requires of sinners to be saved and how saved sinners are to live before God is so clearly taught in the Scriptures that these parts of the Word may be read and understood without the pope.2
Even the early church fathers said this. John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople and known as the greatest preacher of the ancient church, said this:
Therefore hath the grace of the Holy Spirit disposed and tempered them so, that publicans, and fishers, and tent-makers, shepherds, and the apostles, and simple men, and unlearned, might be saved by these books; that none of the simpler sort might make excuse by the hardness of them; and that such things as are spoken might be easy for all men to look on; that the laboring man, and the servant, the widow woman, and whosoever is most unlearned, may take some good, when they are read.3
Another aspect of this is since what is necessary for salvation and godliness is clear, we as believers need to focus in on these basic truths. There are some things necessary for us all to read and know, and there are other things that are not. We make a distinction between catholic articles and theological articles, between those things necessary for everyone to know for salvation and those things not necessary for everyone, but reserved for ministers, professors, and elders to discuss.4 I know you’ve probably never heard this, so let me spell it out. You do not need to worry yourselves over which eschatology you hold to. You do not need to understand the order of God’s eternal decrees. You do not need to be an articulate spokesman for issues relating to church and state. You do not need to know all the ins and outs of Christology and how it relates to debates surrounding the Lord’s Supper. Gregory the Great (540–604) once said Scripture’s mysteries could exercise the mind of the wise but also nurse babies, feed the simple, and cause the loftiest intellect to admire. He then said, “It is, as it were, a kind of river, if I may so liken it, which is both shallow and deep, wherein both the lamb may find a footing, and the elephant float at large.”5
What you need to keep your focus on is reading the Word and delving into understanding the Creed, the Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer as our Catechism exposits them. Listen to Martin Luther:
I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and every morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain.
Conclusion: Using the Means to Understand Scripture’s Basics
What does this mean for us? If the Scripture is clear in its teaching on what is necessary to be saved and for how we are to live, we are to use the means that God has given us to understand these basic teachings of Scripture all our life. These become clearer and dearer to us “in a due use of the ordinary means” so that we “may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Westminster Confession, 1.7).
What are the means? Reading the Word daily. Praying “open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). Meditating on the law of God “day and night” (Ps. 1:2). When we do this, we will grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and be of use to him as witnesses for his name in the world.
1. R. E. McNally, “The Council of Trent and Vernacular Bibles,” Theological Studies 27 (1966): 204–27.
2. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:143.
3. Jewel, “A Treatise of the Holy Scriptures,” Works, 4:1183.
4. Scholastic Discourse, 71.
5. Morals on the Book of Job, vol. 1, parts I–II (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844), 9.
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA.