Clarity

clarityGraham has recently done some thinking on clarity so I wanted to write to clarify my views, not so much for the reader but for my own sake. My major concern with popular articulations of clarity (or, if you prefer, perspicuity) is its limitation to the “gospel”. That is, the definition that goes something like, “Clarity is that doctrine by which we mean the elements essential to salvation are clear in Scripture”. The implication of this definition is that there are parts of Scripture that are unclear and this implication is leveraged as an explanation of why differing interpretations arise from a single passage.

Two important points the proponents of clarity make are (1) Scripture interprets Scripture (the unclear in light of the clear) and (2) clarity is not partial (that is, the “elements essential to salvation” are not only partially clear; they are fully clear). This is because the idea of clarity, if partial, is emptied of meaning: how is the interpreter to know which bit is unclear and which bit is clear? Following this, how is the interpreter to know which bits of Scripture to interpret in light of which others? Both of these points are important Scripture must guide our reading of Scripture and for clarity to mean clarity, it cannot be partial.

focusMy concern, however, is that by limiting clarity to “the elements essential to salvation” we are defining our clarity as partial. This leads, in my mind, to having to say that if we disagree about what is essential to salvation, either we must acknowledge that it is not essential (since it is not clear, and what is essential is clear), or we must conclude that our opponent is not a Christian since he cannot see what is clear. In our day and age we would probably opt for the former and the outcome would be a lowest common denominator kind of ecumenical Christianity but there are those who would err on the other side ending up with a “my way or the highway” type of Christianity. Let me, therefore, articulate the points I would want to make about clarity.

What Clarity Is

First and foremost, clarity is the promise of God to communicate. Scripture, as the revelation of God, is His Word to us; we no longer have prophets but we do have the written Word, the communication of the incarnate Word. If Scripture is not clear, God fails at his attempt to communicate. Clarity flows from the character of God as light, communicating himself to us and penetrating our darkness.

Second, the promise of clarity is not to say that the truth is equally accessible and comprehensible to all though. Rather, clarity is the promise that the truth is there and it can be searched out. Varying interpretations do not testify against clarity as though the commentators were wanderers in the dark. Nor does our clarity mean that each commentator is coming to his own truth as though the meaning is wrapped up in the subjectivity of each reader. Rather, varying interpretations testify to the fact that there is something to be gained by grappling with the text and more so in community with others who approach the same text illumined by the Spirit. Hermeneutics and exegesis are not aimless exercises where anything hit becomes a target; clarity teaches that truth is there to be sought.

informationFinally, the promise of clarity is unique to the reading of Scripture. This means that, where in any other field of reading and understanding, critical and creative thinking are at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, this is not the case when reading Scripture. The telos of the communication of God is not information but transformation. The scientific study that common grace affords the unbeliever does not, therefore, achieve the purpose of reading Scripture. The objective meaning of Scripture does not arrive at the recipient as a quiet guest but as one who would ransack the house of the sinful mind leaving everything on its head.

agree? disagree? tell me what you think…

James Cuénod
Student at Wheaton College
I love Jesus, preach his Gospel, disciple his children, study his word and I am incurably passionate about the glory of God.
Inching my way towards teaching pastors in South Africa. Student at Wheaton College. Excited by Hermeneutics, Old Testament and Biblical Theology.
  • Thanks for the succinct, structured and helpful post James. Who did you find worth reading on the topic? I have just two thoughts, maybe I’ll come back with more, later:

    I do not think that we can limit clarity to what is essential for salvation yet I can see the appeal. If the ecumenical movement is to retain the adjective ‘Christian’ there does need to be some sort of LCD, or agreement when it comes to what the gospel is. If ecumenism can’t agree on what is essential to salvation then it will begin to take on the shape of syncretism. Though ecumenism has sometimes tended towards this route it hasn’t been due to lack of clarity regarding the elements essential to salvation but rather an abandonment of what is known to be the gospel in favour of inclusivity, tolerance or whatever else. What I’m saying is that there is a point where we will ‘opt for the latter’ and say that the person concerned hasn’t seen and understood the gospel, as it is clearly communicated in Scripture. This isn’t ‘my way of the highway’ but a defence of the gospel.

    Secondly, because most pieces on clarity that I’ve read (such as Vanhoozer, John Webster, and Thiselton) argue that we should not, and really cannot, separate clarity from efficacy, I am inclined to say that there is some sort of partiality (Carson seems to suggest this in his essay, in Collected Writings on Scripture). There is a danger in overstating this relationship because it can result in robbing Scripture of clarity as property, limiting it to the act of revelation (illumination). Yet that property can remain partial. Webster shows that a way to explain this – along with answering the question of diverse interpretations and disagreements – is that clarity is located within the sphere of church tradition and is continually developing, being reworked and questioned. Despite shifts in tradition and doctrinal nuances the central message of salvation is unchanged. Maybe.

  • Pierre Queripel

    I found point 2 especially helpful. The clarity of scripture actually gives us incentive to dig deeper, and in community, confident that the truth is there.

    • Thanks. Yes, I’ve been thinking about it recently and although I think perhaps the term “clarity” can be misleading, it is critical to affirm or we end up with the type of Corycian Cave Erasmus was describing where the deeper we go into Scripture, the darker everything becomes. In actual fact, the opposite is true.

  • Jordan Pickering

    Same disclaimer: also just unofficial thoughts on the matter (because you invited them).

    I just wonder whether we have not in fact started describing the Bible’s *not-clarity*. I realise that theology makes use of technical terminology in which the plain meaning of a word and the theological meaning of the word differ substantially, but it sounds to me that the doctrine of clarity is another way of explaining why the Bible is frequently unclear and yet not for that reason useless for deriving theology.

    You already have described how ‘clarity’ means that we can use clearer texts to interpret *unclear* ones; how the texts may lead to honest disagreement; and how they require grappling, careful exegesis, discussion in community etc. That seems to me to be pretty much what we mean in English when we call something unclear. Whether it is unclear in part or in whole, or whether it is unintelligible or effective in its goals are separate issues.

    I entirely agree that the text demands grappling and communal interpretation and that these are good things, and I entirely agree that the unclarity of parts of scripture are not a challenge to their truthfulness: they still yield truth and effectively achieve the goals for which they were written, but I fail to see how we can call that ‘clear’ in any sense in which that word is actually used.

    The doctrine seems good to me; calling it ‘clarity’ less so.

    • Hey Jordan, thanks for the response.

      I think you’re right in that often our doctrinal concepts have undergone significant movement with regards to their underlying concepts (such as when we talk about the perfection of Scripture in light of the results of redaction and textual criticism) but the terms we use to refer to them have not changed. I think this is also true, for example, of Inerrancy. Sometimes it’s helpful to retain that terminology though because in essence we are trying to defend precisely what the people who invented those terms were trying to defend.

      More to your point, I think it’s worth exploring the relationship between clarity and simplicity because by your definition of clarity it sounds as though simplicity is required – maybe I’m misreading you though. The distinction of meaning you draw between the technical and plain use of words is helpful here because I don’t think the doctrine of clarity necessitates simplicity.