Is It Clear? Frame on the Perspicuity of Scripture

Boat on Clear WaterIn honor of receiving John Frame’s Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Christian Belief in the mail today, and in light of recent discussions, I’m going to quote Professor Frame on the clarity of Scripture.  Again, the quote is lengthy, but too good to shorten much.

“Since Scripture is God’s word, it is his communication to us.  In Scripture, God speaks, not primarily to himself or to the angels, or to the winds and waves, but to us human beings.  God cannot fail to accomplish his purpose, so his communication cannot be anything less than successful.  If words are unclear, they fail to communicate; they are not communication.  So Scripture must be clear.

Scripture represents that clarity by describing how near God is to us in his Word.  So the clarity of Scripture represents the existential perspective, the lordship attribute of divine presence.  God says to Israel:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea , that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  But the word is very near you.  It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)

Paul paraphrases this passage to speak of the presence of Christ in the gospel:

But the righteousness based on faith says, Do no say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does it say?  ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim). (Rom. 10:6-8)

In these passages, the clarity of God’s word engages our responsibility.  If we disobey or disbelieve, we cannot complain that God hasn’t spoken clearly.  Like God’s word in nature (Rom. 1:20), the clarity of his word in the gospel implies that we are without excuse.  So the clarity of God’s word has an ethical thrust.

To speak this way, however, raises problems.  For it seems that in some respects Scripture is unclear.  Many people say that Scripture is too hard for them to understand, and that therefore it is unclear to them.  And Scripture itself notes certain kinds of unclarity:

1.  Scripture is unclear to the unregenerate.  As I indicated earlier, the Word hardens them, until the Spirit changes their heart.

2.  Some doctrines of the faith are mysterious (Job 38-42; Rom. 11:33-36).  Although we can speak of them, even regenerate people cannot understand them in depth.  This is the limitation of our finitude.

3.  All parts of Scripture are not equally clear.  Peter says of Paul’s letters, ‘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 Pet. 3:16)

How can we reconcile our confession of the clarity of Scripture with these senses in which Scripture is unclear?  The Confession answers this way:  [Frame cites WCF 1:7, as quoted in my previous post]

So the Confession makes a distinction between things that are ‘necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation’ and those that are not.  The former must be clear; the latter may not be.  And the Confession adds another limitation on the clarity of Scripture:  many things in Scripture, even among those necessary for salvation, cannot be understood by everybody without help.  Understanding in those cases comes through ‘a due use of the ordinary means.’  Those means presumably include the normal educational resources of the church, such as preaching, teaching, and prayer.  So if you are a regenerate person, and there is something in Scripture you don’t understand, that is either because (1) the matter is not necessary for salvation, or (2) you haven’t made a due use of the ordinary means.

As to the first possible reason, I hesitate to try to distinguish in Scripture between what is necessary for salvation and what is not.  Certainly the atonement is necessary for salvation in a way that the number of David’s troops is not…

The second reason reflects the polemics of the Reformation period…..The Confession does not deny the importance of teaching.  It presupposes teaching in its reference to ordinary means.  But it says that our need of teaching does not justify withholding the Scriptures from ordinary people.  Any adult of normal intelligence can understand the basics of the atonement, for example, if he is willing to undergo some simple instruction.

But I would add a third reason why believers sometimes find Scripture to be unclear.  That is that believers differ greatly from one another in their callings and responsibilities.  When a child is four years old, there is not much of the Bible that he understands, even if he makes maximum use of the ordinary means of grace available to him.  Even doctrines that are easily described as necessary for salvation, such as the doctrine of the atonement, may be obscure to our four-year-old believer.  How can it be that such a believer is baffled by the clear word of God?  The answer should be obvious:  a four-year-old child is not able to master the doctrine of the atonement, and he is not responsible to do that.  He is not called to that kind of reflection.  He is called to obey his parents, a biblical command that he can understand well enough, and with their guidance to grow in his knowledge of the Bible.

I noted earlier that the clarity of Scripture has an ethical application.  It takes away excuses and establishes our responsibility to grasp what God’s Word says.  But a four-year-old child has much less responsibility of this sort, than, say, a twenty-year-old with normal mental gifts.

That reflection suggests a principle:  the clarity of Scripture is relative to one’s responsibilities….

Scripture, then, is clear enough to make us responsible for carrying out our present duties to God.  That principle seems to me to summarize what the Bible implies about its own clarity.”

The Doctrine of the Christian Life, pp. 147-150

And to that I say “Amen”!

C.M. Granger