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…

Scripture’s Doctrine And Theology’s Bible: A Bilateral Hermeneutic

Circular hermeneuticsI recently wrote a post on what I labeled, The Dangerous Evangelical Assumption. In it I asked if we are in danger of limiting the work of the Holy Spirit to good exegesis. The comments made on the post helped me give some precision, which was originally lacking, and you can read the exchanges there. One comment raised the issue of the theological convictions with which we approach Scriptures. Scientific exegesis of a biblical text will not always bring us to the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ but instead gives us the author’s intent or original meaning. Our understanding of Scripture means we interpret texts within their wider salvation context and therefore Christian exegesis asks how the author’s intent – attained through careful exegesis – fits within the message of Scripture as a whole, the gospel of our Lord. I want to repeat my response below with supplementation.

The Evangelical approach to Scripture is both presuppositional and a result of perspicuity. In other words, the Christian worldview presupposes that God is the single author behind Scripture, therefore Scripture is read with that view; and exegesis of Scripture has lead to the understanding that Scripture contains a single, unified and coherent message. Our doctrine of Scripture is founded on and flows from Scripture. How do these two characteristics of the Evangelical approach fit?

Firstly, Christians presuppose revelation is coherent because God is the author behind it. So, in our age of narratives, Scripture is viewed as a metanarrative scripted by God. During the Reformation, and in protestation to the Catholic claims of exclusive interpretive rights, the analogia fidei was introduced as a corollary to non-contingent divine revelation. We can only use the clearer parts of Scripture to interpret the murky bits because of this presupposition. Furthermore, if God is the cause of Scripture in its entirety we can ask the bigger question of authorial intent for the work as a whole.

Secondly, studied exegesis of Scripture has and does yield its perspicuous message: the gospel of grace. Though our interpretation of Scripture is based on a theological conviction, outlined above, that theological conviction is proven by exegesis. As we study Scripture we see that the parts contribute to and are enmeshed with the whole, the grand unifying theme of salvation in the gospel. I have already noted that our theology is a fruit of exegesis and I believe that careful exegesis of Scripture results in us being confronted with the summons to salvation, as well as proving the presupposition that God is the single author. Perspicuity is, as the Reformers emphasised, an objective attribute of Scripture.

9780567083777_p0_v1_s260x420If this post argues for anything then it is this: there is a dialogue in hermeneutics between theology and exegesis. And we must hold that it is a dialogue and not a monologue. The latter would have us advance no further than Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum or Augustine’s ‘believing in order to understand’. There is no denying that we work from a presuppositional doctrine of Scripture yet, as John Webster reminds us, in his essay On The Clarity Of Holy Scripture, all dogmatic confessions are “wholly subordinate to the primary work of the church’s theology, which is exegesis.”

To close I will adapt something Karl Barth wrote in the introduction to the fourth edition of his commentary on Romans. We are never compelled to choose between strictly scientific exegesis and our doctrine of Scripture, for they enjoy an established and healthy bilateral relationship. And so, like Barth, we can expend all of our energy in endeavoring “to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit. What was once of grave importance, is so still.”

(PS: the title of this post is stolen from the collection of essays edited by M. Bockmuehl and A. J. Torrance, which is sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.)