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Scripture’s Paradox: Extraordinarily Simple & Profoundly Complex (Miniblog #156)

by Carson T. Clark on December 7, 2012

A recurring issue I encounter is that of Scripture’s perspicuity. That is, the doctrine of Scripture’s clarity. It’s a subject with which I used wrestle a great deal. On the one hand, the divisions between Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and approximately one bazillion Protestant sects manifestly illustrates the point that the Bible must be interpreted and interpretation is, unfortunately, an imperfect art. Even the Bible’s newest books are nearly 2,000 years old, the cultural-historical contexts of its authors and redactors are incomprehensibly different than our own, and its genres are often foreign to even well-read modern Westerners. We’re faced with a daunting task. On the other hand, who among us hasn’t felt that we’re searching so hard for these deep truths and nuanced details that we often miss the obvious message just beneath our noses? Kierkegaard once rebuked, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” That rings equally true to my ears. As I said, this self-evident paradox used to consume a great deal of time and energy. Then I learned to embrace it. Today I openly profess Scripture’s simultaneous extraordinary simplicity and profound complexity. Even a child can read the Bible and grasp its basic narrative and teachings unto salvation. I absolutely and unequivocally affirm that. At the same time (not “but”), a brilliant and devout scholar can spend a lifetime rigorously studying the biblical text only to feel as though he or she has barely scratched the surface. To my eyes, this is a tension we cannot responsibly alleviate.

  • Morgan Guyton

    Affirming scripture’s absolute perspicuity is a populist claim rather than a conservative one that has to do with the authority of the interpreter, not the authority of the text. It makes sense when 16th century Anabaptists clamor for perspicuity as a rebellion against the various magisteria. What’s asinine is when perspicuity becomes a control issue rather than an accessibility issue and you end up with the bizarre phenomenon of an ahistorical “conservatism.” I’m about to write a piece on Orthodox Father Thomas Hopko’s indictment of evangelicalism in his latest podcast, actually not agreeing with him uncritically but wrestling between my conservative side which longs for the authenticity of tradition and my progressive side which needs to believe in the priesthood of the believer and the Spirit’s unfolding revelation throughout history. Maybe you’d like to give me a guest post since it fits with what you’re talking about. 😉

  • Derek Rishmawy

    I love the Kierkegaard quote as well as the general point of the post. This is actually one section where I’ve found the Westminster Confession very helpful. In it’s section on Holy Scripture it states:

    “VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

    The key passage I love on this subject comes in the next section:

    “VII. 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.”

    It says very clearly that the main stuff is clear if you’re reading according to the “ordinary means”, basic reading skills and good hermeneutics, and you can gain a “sufficient understanding” of them. Still, it acknowledges that not all of it is clear or obvious. The doctrine of perspicuity, at least according to Westminster, isn’t the populist, absolute simplicity we are often sold.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    Actually, I remembered I posted something on this same issue with Kierkegaard and the issue of interpretation.

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