What it means when Christians say the Bible is clear

Editors’ note: 

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When I teach the Christian doctrines and come to the view of Scripture, almost every time at least one person objects to the phrase “the clarity of Scripture.” Why do Christians disagree about interpretation if Scripture is truly clear? This objection is also widespread among academics. For example, Christian sociologist Christian Smith wrote the book The Bible Made Impossible in 2011, arguing that Scripture must be obviously unclear when people with the same view of the Bible come up with conflicting interpretations.

I also find it difficult to believe that the Scriptures are clear because I find certain texts difficult to understand and because I do not always reach the same conclusion as my Christian friends. But when I still maintain faith in the clarity of Scripture, it is because the dogma is hardly as ambitious as it is often made out to be. It is not the whole Bible in all its statements that are clear as glass. There are significantly more nuances to it than that. Let me walk you through five of them:

Fundamental contradiction

First, Christians maintain that Scripture is clear because claiming that God contradicts himself or confuses his creatures is fundamentally contradictory. If God wants to be in contact with people, he manages to do it the way he wants. When God reveals himself – i.e., to make something hidden obvious—he is indeed capable of making it obvious. As the Australian theologian Mark Thompson says: “The clarity of Scripture needs to be placed firmly in the context of the living God’s involvement with the world he has made and the people he has saved.”

This does not mean that everything in the Bible is easy to understand, but it means that what God wants from the Bible—communicating the way to salvation for people—is evident in the Bible. We are saved by believing in Jesus as our savior, and this is evident when the Bible is read in its entirety.

We are unclear

Second, Christians must also accept that while the Bible is clear, we are unclear and limited. To put it a little highbrow, it is the nature of the Bible—its ontology—to be clear, while our ability to understand— our epistemology—is limited. The fact that we do not always manage to agree on an interpretation does not, therefore, have to mean that the Scriptures need to be clarified. The fault may be ours. This point can easily be overemphasized, for it is obvious that nothing is gained by having a clear text if the reader cannot grasp its meaning. But we must not forget the first point: God wants to make himself known and for people to know the way to salvation. So even though our cognitive ability is fragile, it is not an obstacle for God to communicate with us.

The whole, not necessarily the parts

Third, Christians have always said that the Bible itself is a part of the interpretation. That the obvious places must explain the less clear ones. When we say that the Scriptures are clear, we mean the whole Bible, and not necessarily the individual parts. We believe in the clarity of Scripture because we believe in the whole Bible. It is, therefore, consistent with the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture to maintain that the texts also have a depth that allows one to work with them for many years and still discover new things. Or like the church father Augustine noted with an elegant formulation already in the fifth century: “It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones.” In a way, it is a gift from God that we have not been given a simple and boring pixie book or a phone book but a text of both fascinating complexity and precise information about the way to salvation.

External vs. internal

A fourth nuance is that Christians distinguish between external and internal clarity. The external clarity is that the message of salvation in the Bible is straightforward. It is a proclamation of God’s works in the world so that people can have fellowship with him. It is a message that can be understood when you read the Bible, and it is understood pretty much the same all over the world. This outward clarity is available to all, believers and non-believers alike. The inner clarity is more tricky because it depends on the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind. It is, therefore, only accessible to the believer, and it is about the text not only being understood with the mind but also believed with the heart. That the message of Jesus as saviour is a truth for me, personally. That I have confidence that what the Bible describes as my reality really is true. It is a clarity not in the text but given by the Holy Spirit through prayer. In fact, external clarity also depends on the Holy Spirit. Still, it is a work that is more indirect because it is so immediately available to everyone.

Interpretation and authority

The fifth point is that if we maintain that Scripture is not clear, it is our job to make it clear through interpretation. And that makes us the judges of the text, a position the church cannot accept because it takes authority out of God’s hands. God’s word enlightens us, not the other way around (Ps 119, 105).

These five nuances do not remove the frustration that there are difficult passages in the Bible. But Christians have also never claimed that these troublesome texts do not exist. They are there and must be dealt with through interpretation. But the clarity of Scripture focuses on the overall message, namely that Christ is the only way to salvation, that Jesus is the only bridge between God and me. That is clear as the sun itself.

If we believe the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture says that everything is transparent and straightforward, then we are unnecessarily frustrated. Christians have never taught that. But the main point in the Bible is clear because God wants to make himself known and show us the way to eternal life. As Luther said: “If you don’t understand the obscure, then stay with the clear.” So if you get stuck in complex texts, stick to the main point.

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