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



10 thoughts on “Is It Clear? Frame on the Perspicuity of Scripture

  1. I like Frame, even though I disagree with him quite a bit. He actually taught me a lot, and if I had not come in contact with his teaching, I would not see things the way that I do today. I am grateful for this brother. He is much more irenic than most people in his tradition.

    The quote still leaves me asking the questions that I have been asking since my post…

    1) What is the difference between the RCC position and that of the Reformers?

    I am quite sure that RC would dispute that the issue was solely a matter of distribution. And they would be right to do so.

    2) How do we tell who is regenerate and who is not, or which “plain reading” is the correct “plain meaning” apart from an appeal to extra-biblical authorities, when all Christians are claiming fidelity to the text and quoting proof texts back and forth?

    The answer that Frame gives is way to subjective and self-referential.

    3) What is the standard by which Frame is enabled to “pick and choose” which doctrines are essential and which are not?

    It’s not as if there is a list somewhere in the bible. Moreover, Frame is guilty of doing exactly what neo-puritan theologians accuse liberals of doing; picking and choosing those bits of scripture through which they choose to read the rest of scripture.

    • Hi Brian, I made the correction to your comment you mentioned.

      While you may disagree with Frame, I think he at least acknowledges possible problems associated with his position and attempts to address them. What, in Frame, did you see that led you to the conclusions you hold today?

      With regard to your questions:

      1. Could you elaborate on how you see the Protestant and RCC positions being very similar?

      2. The answer to #2 would be determined by your definition of “Christian”, as well as your view of what is the “ultimate” authority.

      3. I imagine Frame would make a biblical case for the content of the gospel. If he is “picking and choosing”, could you cite an example of what he is leaving out?

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. I wasn’t referring directly to perspicuity (just to be clear). Really, it was his multi-perspectivalism that effected me and my approach to the bible the most.

    1) The only difference I see between the RCC and the reformers is one of interpretive authority. For the former, it is the Pope and the magesterium. For the latter, the Reformers and the confessions. Both see Christ as the ultimate authority and Christ , who is mediatied through the scriptures to the church. Both also view the esteem the fathers, and both view the creeds as “spirit inspired” boundary markers of orthodoxy.

    2) Very true. I see Christ as the ultimate authority. So do all Christians, correct? But regardless, even if one believes in sola scriptura, we must recognize how experience, tradition and reason affect our interpretation (multi-perspectivalism). Thus even if one claims that scripture is their ultimate authority, it does not mean that it is in actual practice, even if they think that it is. Anyways, to just assume that one’s definition is correct without seriously getting inside the heads of those who do not agree is not sufficient. It is, in effect, a denial of human sin and fallibilty. This kind of assuming is not merely a characteristic of the presupositionalist approach, it is its very foundation. I think that Frame is contradictory at this point, and it is probably a major reason why he is considered to be a renegade by most other followers of Van Til.

    3) I would like to hear your answer first. You have asked similar questions of me in the past, and do not appreciate it if I do not answer. Moreover, you always seem to assume that the burden of proof is on the other. I believe that the burden of proof is on you to explain.

    • Brian,

      1. I think to assert the only difference is one of interpretive authority is an oversimplification. The Protestant confessions do not pronounce anathemas, do not require the submission of the conscience to their declarations regardless of personal conviction, nor do the Reformers esteem the church fathers in the same way the RCC does. The creeds and confessions are reliable guides, which can be debated and are open for discussion. Since they are commonly written in the throes of theological controversy, they tend to be reactionary and imbalanced in their response to perceived error. Nonetheless, they do keep the church from riding off the tracks, so they are boundary markers in a sense, but they allow diversity well enough in their less stringent expressions.

      2. Scripture is the ultimate authority. There would be no knowledge of Christ without Scripture. Christ is God’s living word, Scripture is God’s written word. To my knowledge, multi-perspectivalsim includes that which is normative, situational, and existential. Or, object, subject, and experience. But I guess Professor Frame can put together any triad he likes 🙂 …nonetheless, his formulation does not exclude discerning objective truth, neither does the sinfulness and fallibility of man. He concludes his definition is correct based upon his argumentation from Scripture, not because it just seems right to him and grants “cognitive rest.”

      I grant that some Christians claim sola scriptura in theory but not in practice. However, that is not a defeater for sola scriptura.

      3. The substance of the gospel is at least repentance from sin and faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. To expand on this would be beyond a com box, but I may address it in a post. A sinner must be born again.

  3. I forgot about your second reply…

    I think that Deut. 30 and Rom. 10 refer to the Torah and Christ respectively and specifically; not th the bible in toto.

    I do not think that they have anything to do with epistemology. They are not saying anything with reference to humanity’s ability to grasp abstract theological concepts. They do not in fact, have anything to do with man’s abiblity (or lack thereof) to comprehend biblical doctrine.

    They are, rather, covenantally and ethically driven. They communicate that it is possible for people to keep God’s law (contra Luther, by the way).

    • I agree with you in the context of each text they are referring to the Torah and Christ, not to the Bible en toto. I don’t think Frame is asserting otherwise. However, he is pointing to the nearness of God in His word, which, for God to be near, needs to engage the understanding. How could God be near in His word if it is not comprehended?

      I don’t believe they communicate that it is possible for people to keep God’s law. I’m surprised that you would assert this, but again, that is too large a topic for the com box.

      You’re certainly giving me blog post ideas though!

  4. One more thing 🙂

    You might say that those to whom Moses and Paul were speaking would have needed to understand the basic content and meaning of the message in order to obey; and if you did, you would be right!

    And I know that you would say that we, today, need to understand the basic content and meaning of the message in order to obey; and I would agree again.

    Nevertheless, Moses and Paul were speaking to very specific people in the ancient world. Neither was saying that, “when people 2 or 3 millenia down the line read the bible, the content and meaning of my message will be just as perspicuous to them as it is to you who today stand before me”. Neither was even talking about the bible!

    I am not sure that we can infer anything from these statements with regard to this topic other than the fact that Moses and Paul believed that those who understand the content of the message today can indeed obey.

    • I agree that Moses and Paul were speaking to very specific people in the ancient world, and they may or may not have realized they were speaking to all people throughout all time throughout all the world. Why do you have such a naturalistic view of this? Is not God in the details? Did not God know this revelation would speak down the long corridors of time?

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