Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Perhaps Scripture is not so clear after all!

Wayne Grudem is a North American scholar with a well earned reputation for scholarship, as well as for influence on the life of the church, through being a productive author and speaker, much referred to by many, because he offers clarity and conviction in what he writes and speaks.

In the latest edition of Themelios you can read a published lecture by Wayne Grudem entitled "The Perspicuity of Scripture". As Wayne says, essentially the doctrine of perspicuity is about 'The Clarity of Scripture' or 'The Understandability of Scripture'. I do not think you will readily find a better or easier to understand lecture on this subject than you will find here.

But what do you think about Grudem's setting out of the matter?

According to this lecture Scripture is understandable if a number of conditions are met. I readily agree that to understand Scripture these conditions need to be met. But that raises a question, for me at least:

Is it appropriate to talk about the clarity of Scripture if a series of conditions need to be met before Scripture is understandable?

There is one other matter which intrigues me in in this lecture. Grudem specifically makes the following point about ...

"4.3. Roman Catholic Teaching

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the correct interpretation of Scripture must come from the teaching officers of the church:

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.[footnote 35]

But neither the teachings of Jesus nor the NT epistles give any hint that believing readers need an authoritative interpreter of Scripture such as the Bishop of Rome. Not even in the first century did the apostles suggest that ordinary believers needed an authoritative interpreter in order to understand Scripture rightly. The Scripture remains clear enough that it is able to be understood, now as in all previous ages, by ordinary believers who will take the needed time and effort, employ ordinary means, and rely on the Holy Spirit’s help."

I find this quite extraordinary as a claim about understanding Scripture rightly. Yes, we can readily agree that the NT does not teach that an authoritative teacher such as the Bishop of Rome is required. But can we so readily agree that,

"Not even in the first century did the apostles suggest that ordinary believers needed an authoritative interpreter in order to understand Scripture rightly."?

What was Paul doing in his writings but (often) correcting the misunderstandings of 'ordinary believers'? What were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John doing but offering an authoritative interpretation of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ for 'ordinary believers'?

Then, as if to underline my point above about the conditional clarity of Scripture, we find that Scripture is not 'clear' but 'clear enough' to those who take, time, effort, and rely on the Holy Spirit:

"The Scripture remains clear enough that it is able to be understood, now as in all previous ages, by ordinary believers who will take the needed time and effort, employ ordinary means, and rely on the Holy Spirit’s help."

But these last six words undermine Grudem's approach to denying Rome's approach to understanding Scripture: "rely on the Holy Spirit's help" ... raises questions such as 'how do we know when the Holy Spirit is helping us rather than another spirit?' The point of Rome's catechetical teaching is that an answer is given to this question, namely, the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. But Grudem gives no answer at this point. Protestantism, as any church history student will tell us, has seriously fudged the issue of knowing when the Holy Spirit is speaking to us and when the Holy Spirit is not - the fudging illustrated countless times with church division and fragmentation over "doctrine".

There is a way forward here. What suggestions do you offer?


  1. Thanks for giving us that link, Peter. I have read through his lecture carefully and find much in it to admire. More, I agree with it at heart more than I disagree. My disagreement includes the objections you raise as well as these:-

    1. Grudem seems a little to pleased to report that some new Christians have turned to his Systematic Theology as their first reading. I know he was making the point that his first priority in writing it was clarity. He seems to miss a further implication - that Scripture itself was not clear enough for these new readers to feed on without the help of an authoritative guide. If scripture is as clear in its doctrines as he believes, why would they need his massive tome? For these readers, temporarily at least, Grudem supplied their magisterium, which should not please him so well ...

    2. It is a brute fact of history that sincere believers sharing Grudem's beliefs about scripture have frequently disagreed about what God is saying to them as they read it. Grudem is too hasty in explaining this as an outworking of sin, given that he is so confident he can recommend his clear readings to others. Is he saying that anyone adopting different readings is likely to be more sinful that him? Probably not on the personal level, but given that he is speaking to an evangelical audience the plausibility of this principle seems to depend on a shared belief that evangelicals as a group find it easier to agree on what is obvious in scripture because they also tend to have a more authentic experience of redemption ...

    3. His argument also ignores another fact that is increasingly evident to biblical scholars at large - that holy scripture itself is frequently a conversation, or even debate, among inspired authors who disagree with one another, and that the process of inspired debate is essential both to the canonical process and to the emergence of God's truth. I think this aspect of scripture is more obvious to Jewish readers, including all the New Testament writers, than it has been to Protestant systematic theologians.

    4. While systematic theology is an essential task of the Church, it is a corporate rather than individual task ("Church Dogmatics" anyone?). That is, as soon as I move beyond affirming that scripture is clear enough to provide the guidance I need to nourish the saving relationship God offers me with himself through Christ and I begin to consider what God has to say to others then I must enter a conversation that includes listening to their reports of salvific encounters, including their readings of scripture.

    5. Grudem expresses his concern for the formation of preachers and pastors and for the future health of the Church if the clarity of scriptural doctrine is obscured for them. I suspect that two different concepts of proclamation may be in conflict here - one that makes the preacher/teacher/pastor responsible for getting the message right for everybody, and another that leaves the audience more responsible for what they hear in an inspired delivery. For me there is an issue of trust - Do I believe that the same God who speaks to me as I read scripture and guides me as I preach and teach is also active within the hearts and minds of my audience? If so, then I am interested in what they are hearing, rather than in whether they are getting it right. Even teaching is thus a process of conversation rather than a lecture, with God as the central participant. Isn't this what the ancient rabbis were on about when they thought of God joining them in daily Torah study?

    However, I want to end by affirming what I find most agreeable about Grudem's presentation - his insistance that holy scripture is accessible to readers at every level of understanding, and that it is to be read regularly as an essential element of Christian spiritual formation.

  2. Hi Howard
    Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful response.
    I agree too that Holy Scripture is "accessible to readers at every level of understanding etc".

  3. h/t Peter Ould

    The matter is quite simple. 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. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.


  4. Hi Rosemary
    That Kierkegaard quote is so good that I had already placed it on the left hand side of this site (h/t Christopher Johnson of MCJ).

    I think the challenge of (and response to) this quote deserves a full post which I will attempt to do over the weekend.

  5. Speak for yourself, mad Dane! What you say is true, but no the whole truth.