The Whole Counsel of God: Lecture Notes Chapter 6: The Clarity of Scripture

The Whole Counsel of God[1]

Lecture Notes[2] Chapter 6: The Clarity of Scripture

26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all,
27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God

(Acts 20:26-27)

Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly?

Explanation and Scriptural Basis

Anyone who has begun to read the Bible seriously will realize that some parts can be understood very easily while other parts seem puzzling. In fact, we are reminded by the Apostle Peter that some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Though true, it would be a fundamental mistake to assume that most of Scripture or Scripture in general is difficult to understand. In fact, the Old and New Testaments frequently affirm that Scripture is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by ordinary believers; Peter’s letter being among those books that is addressed to conventional readers.

A. The Bible Frequently Affirms Its Own Clarity

The Bible’s clarity and the responsibility of believers generally to read it and understand it are often emphasized. For example, consider Deuteronomy 6:6-7:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Scripture teaches that God expected, and currently expects, that all of His people would know and be able to talk about His Word with proper application to ordinary situations in life (cf., Psalm 1:2). The character of Scripture is even described in such a way that the “simple” can understand it rightly.

The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple (Psalm 19:7).

The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple (Psalm 119:130).

In this case, the simple person is not one who merely lacks intellectual ability, but one who lacks sound judgment, who is prone to making mistakes, and who is easily led astray. Even in the ministry of Jesus, there is a similar emphasis placed on the clarity of Scripture as Jesus frequently assumes that Scripture is clear enough to be understood and should not have been misinterpreted (cf., Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31); Scripture is never to be accused of being unclear. Furthermore, most of the New Testament epistles are written not to church leaders but to entire congregations (cf., 1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:2; etc.). In doing so, Paul assumes that his readers and hearers will understand what he writes.

Lastly, some may argue against the clarity of Scripture by referring to what the Apostle Peter says in his second letter when he states that, “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”

This verse, however, must be understood in light of its connection with verse 21 of the same chapter: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Peter does not seem to be making an assessment on the clarity of Scripture in the sense we have been speaking of it, but rather indicating the manner in which Scripture was produced. In applying this, we must understand that the Bible is the Holy Spirit’s Words and therefore implying that we need Him working in our hearts as we seek to interpret. Also, in another sense, the Holy Spirit makes Scripture clear for His people.

B. The Moral and Spiritual Qualities Needed for Right Understanding

 

The New Testament writers frequently state that the ability to understand Scripture rightly is more a moral and spiritual than intellectual ability. Though the Biblical authors affirm that the Scripture in itself is written clearly, they also affirm that it will not be understood rightly by those who are unwilling to receive its teachings.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spirutally discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14; cf., 1:18-3:4; Hebrews 5:14; James 1:5-6; 2 Peter 3:5).

Scripture, therefore, is able to be understood by all unbelievers who will sincerely seek to find salvation, and by all believers who will read it while seeking God’s help in understanding it. This is because in both cases the Holy Spirit is at work overcoming the effects of sin, which otherwise will make the truth appear to be foolish (cf., 1 Corinthians 2:14; 1:18-25; James 1:5-6, 22-25).

C. Definition of the Clarity of Scripture

 

Gathering our thoughts together, the clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.

D. Why do People Misunderstand Scripture?

 

Essentially, an important reason why people misunderstand Scripture is due to the lack of spiritual insight that we’ve already discussed above (see section B). There have also been disagreements over correct interpretation that has resulted in a church council on the level of what we find in Acts 15. However, in order to help people to avoid making mistakes in interpreting Scripture, the so-called “principles of interpretations”, have been developed.

Hermeneutics – This word comes from the Greek meaning “to interpret” and can be described as the study of correct methods of biblical interpretation of Scripture.

Exegesis– This term refers more to the actual practice of interpreting Scripture, not to theories and principle about how it should be done, but is rather the process of interpreting a text of Scripture.

Ultimately, the existence of many disagreements about the meaning of Scripture throughout history reminds us that the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not imply or suggest that all believers will agree on all the teachings of Scripture. Nevertheless, it does tells us that the problem is always with ourselves and never Scripture.

E. Practical Encouragement From this Doctrine

 

The doctrine of clarity helps us to understand that where there may be areas of doctrinal or ethical disagreement (for example, over baptism, predestination, or church government), there are only two possible causes for the disagreement: (1) It could be the case that we are seeking to make affirmations where Scripture itself is silent. On the other hand, (2) it is possible that we have made mistakes in our interpretation of Scripture.

Also, we should never assume that only those who know Greek and Hebrew, or only pastors or Bible scholars, are able to understand the Bible rightly. Christians must never give up to the scholarly “experts” the task of interpreting Scripture. We must do it every single day for ourselves.

F. The Role of Scholars

 

Here are four considerations to think about:

  1. They can teach Scripture clearly, communicating its content to others and thus fulfilling the office of teacher mentioned in the New Testament (cf., 1 Corinthians 12:28)
  2. They can explore new areas of understanding the teachings of Scripture. This will seldom—if ever—involve the denial of the main teachings of the church through the centuries, but it will often involve the application of Scripture to new areas of life, the answering of difficult questions raised by people, and the continual activity of refining and making more precise the church’s understanding of detailed points of interpretation of individual verses or matters of doctrine or ethics.
  3. They can defend the teachings of the Bible against attacks by other scholars or those with specialized technical training.
  4. They can supplement the study of Scripture for the benefit of the church.

Application Questions

 

  1. If the doctrine of clarity is true, why does there seem to be so much disagreement among Christians about the teaching of the Bible? Some, therefore conclude, that people can make the Bible say whatever they want. How do you think Jesus would respond to this?
  1. What would happen to the church if most believers gave up reading the Bible for themselves and only listened to Bible teachers or read books about the Bible?
  1. Do you think that there are right and wrong interpretations of most or all passages of Scripture? If you thought the Bible was generally unclear, how would your answer change? What would be the result?
  1. Does the doctrine of Scripture’s clarity mean that the New Testament can be fully understood by people who do not have access to an Old Testament?

 

 

 


[1] Based on and various Quotes from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Zondervan

[2] All Scripture from ESV Bible, Crossway

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