Question: "What is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture? Is the Bible perspicuous?"
Answer: The word perspicuity means “clarity.” To say that something is perspicacious is to say that it is clear. The doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture is one of the basic tenets of Protestant evangelicalism regarding the Bible, along with the doctrines of the inspiration, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture. In short, the doctrine of perspicuity means that the central message of the Bible is clear and understandable and that the Bible itself can be properly interpreted in a normal, literal sense.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains what Protestants believe about the perspicuity of Scripture: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet, those things that are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or another, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (1.7).
The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture was a main belief of the Reformers. Martin Luther taught against the Roman Catholic claim that the Bible is imperspicuous, that is, too obscure and difficult for the common people to understand. The Bible, the priests and bishops taught, was unclear, and the people should not be trusted to interpret or even read it for themselves. On the contrary, the Reformers encouraged lay Christians to study and interpret God’s Word on their own. The Reformers believed that the Bible proclaimed itself to be inherently clear and that God is able to communicate His message to all men, even the unlettered. A main tenet of the Reformation is that Scripture is clear enough for the simplest person to live by. Because of their belief in the perspicuity of Scripture, men like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Myles Coverdale, Thomas Matthew, and Pierre Olivétan went to great lengths to translate the Bible into the vernacular.
The Bible itself proclaims its own perspicuity. Deuteronomy 6:6–7 exhorts parents to teach the Scriptures to their children, indicating that they can be understood by children. The New Testament confirms this when the apostle Paul encourages Timothy to continue in the things he has known of the Holy Scriptures from childhood (2 Timothy 3:14–15a). Psalm 19:7 declares that the “testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (ESV). Surely, the simple cannot be made wise by something they are unable to understand. Psalm 119:130 further explains that God’s Word “gives understanding to the simple,” meaning that it is not necessary to be highly educated to comprehend its truths. The Bible’s meaning is clear to all.
The doctrine of perspicuity means the Bible is clear in its essential matters and able to expose to man that which is comprehensible to him about God—His nature, His character, His dealings with mankind in the past, and His plans for the future. The Bible is clear in all that is necessary for man to know in regard to his sinful state, his need for salvation, and the means of attaining that salvation, faith in Christ (Romans 3:22).
The doctrine of perspicuity does not mean that every passage of Scripture is equally clear as to its precise meaning. Certainly, there are passages that can be obscure to modern readers due to historical or cultural references. And some of the theology is difficult; Peter said that Scripture contains “some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). The perspicuity of the Word of God does not eliminate the need for interpretation, explanation, and exposition of the Bible by diligent scholars.
Finite man can never fully comprehend the infinite. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8–9). Impeded by the sin nature, our ability to completely understand all of Scripture won’t be perfected in this life. But one day, the understanding of all mysteries will be complete: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Nor does the doctrine of perspicuity mean that all the meaning of Scripture is fully comprehensible to sinful man. First Corinthians 2:14 says that the things of the Spirit are foolish to the man without the Spirit, and he cannot understand them. It is not that an unsaved person cannot understand what the words of Scripture are saying. Rather, he cannot have a spiritual understanding. The Word is understandable to an unsaved person on an external level. He comprehends the words, the syntax, and the sentence structure. Scripture is clear on that level, but, sadly, its spiritual meaning is either insignificant to him, or, worse, it is incredible. The doctrine of perspicuity must be coupled with the doctrine of illumination; the Holy Spirit must illumine the mind of the reader or hearer of Scripture if he is to grasp its spiritual significance.
There are dangers inherent in denying the perspicuity of the Word of God. If we believe the Bible is unclear about the doctrine of salvation, for example, then we will see ourselves as unaccountable to the gospel and live as we please. Worse, if Christ is the only means of escaping an eternity in hell, but God has obscured that message, then He would indeed be cruel and capricious. But God is neither cruel nor capricious. He is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). He has spoken, and He has spoken clearly. His plan of salvation is clear to all because He desires mankind to be saved (Matthew 28:19–20).
Denying the perspicuity of the Word of God would also allow us to ignore the commands to read, study, meditate upon Scripture and apply it to our lives. If the Word is unclear, then there would be no need to teach it in our homes or churches, as we are exhorted to do.
Another danger inherent in dismissing the Bible as unclear is that it absolves man of the responsibility to live within its precepts. If “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, KJV) can be called into question because it’s “unclear,” then what’s to stop us from sanctioning murder? If the Bible is not perspicacious, then everyone should be allowed to do what is right in his own eyes. God has commanded us to handle Scripture accurately (2 Timothy 2:15); those who promote misconceptions about the word of truth or who discount it due to a supposed lack of clarity will be “ashamed.”
Finally, if the Word of God is not perspicacious, then translating it from the original languages and disseminating it throughout the world would be pointless. If the words and meanings are unclear, translators could re-invent, distort, or ignore its precepts and commands, rendering Scripture null and void.
The Word of God is clear. Its meaning is comprehensible even to children and the simple. It gives light to our paths (Psalm 119:105). It is perfect, true, right, and sure (Psalm 19:8–9). By the perspicacious teachings of Scripture, we are given guidance, and “in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:11).