29. The Clarity of Scripture
Discussions of Scripture in Reformed theology have often included reflection on certain "attributes" of Scripture, particularly necessity, authority, clarity (or "perspicuity"), and sufficiency....
It is therefore the doctrine of biblical clarity that will occupy our attention in this chapter. The Westminster Confession of Faith formulates this doctrine as follows at 1.7:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
This is a carefully nuanced statement, with important qualifications. It is directed against the attempts in the Roman Catholic Church of the time to keep the laity from studying Scripture on their own. The Roman Church feared that if laymen were to interpret Scripture for themselves, they would come up with unorthodox, even bizarre interpretations of it. That fear, as we can now observe, was not groundless.
However, Scripture itself (as in Deut. 8:3; Ps. 19:7; 119; Matt. 4:4) says that God’s written word is for everybody. We live by it. The Confession, of course, agrees. Nevertheless, the Confession’s statement does not encourage autonomous or lawless Bible study. It does not make every layman an expert in Scripture. It recognizes that not every part of Scripture is equally clear to everybody. Laymen, indeed all Christians, need to watch their step in studying the Bible. There are mysteries in Scripture beyond anyone’s understanding, and there are many things in Scripture that we cannot understand without more knowledge of the languages of Scripture and its cultural background.
So, the Confession also says that those who would study Scripture should be humble enough to seek help. The kind of Bible study it recommends is not individualistic. One should make "due use of the ordinary means." Those ordinary means include the church’s preaching and teaching. That teaching is not, however, as in the Roman church, an inflexible set of conclusions with which all Bible students must agree. Rather, it seeks to guide believers into paths by which we can progress in our knowledge of God, even beyond the levels attained by our teachers.
Prayer and the Holy Spirit are also means available to every Christian in Bible study. Involvement with God himself, the author of Scripture, draws us toward a greater understanding of the truth. So our understanding of Scripture is not directly proportional to the amount of education we have. It is for "not only the learned, but the unlearned."
A further qualification is that this level of clarity does not apply to everything in Scripture. It pertains to "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation." Now in this book, I have opposed distinctions between "matters of salvation" and "matters of cosmology, history, and science" in several contexts. In Chapter 24, 25, and 27 I have opposed the idea that Scripture’s purpose is redemptive in a narrow sense, so that it is not authoritative on other matters, and I will make similar points in regard to the Comprehensiveness and Sufficiency of Scripture. I do not think that Scripture’s purpose can be defined that narrowly, and, given the nature of salvation in Scripture, I don’t think it is possible to draw a sharp line in Scripture between "matters of salvation" and other matters.
Nevertheless, there is a legitimate distinction to be drawn within Scripture between what a person is required to know for salvation and what he is not. Nobody would claim, for example, that a person will go to Hell if he does not understand the difference between guilt offerings and trespass offerings in Leviticus. These are certainly "matters of salvation," but they are not matters one must know in order to be saved. So the Confession is not making the sort of distinction I have been opposing. I would say that everything in Scripture is a "matter of salvation," i.e. significantly related to salvation. But a person can be saved even if he does not know or understand some things in the Bible. The clarity of Scripture pertains to those fundamentals that constitute a credible profession of Christ.