The Perspicuity [i.e., Clarity] of the Scriptures

As we continue our Bibliology Primer drawn principally from Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology we come now to the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. The objection here raised by the Roman Catholics is that the Scriptures are not in themselves clear enough to profitably nourish and grow the Christian. As a result, it is necessary that Church teaching/tradition come alongside the Scriptures in order to assist the word of God in the shepherding of the Christian in grace. To this affect Turretin writes,

“The papists, not satisfied with their endeavors to prove the Scriptures insufficient in order to bring in the necessity of tradition, began to question their perspicuity…in order to have a pretext for keeping the people from their perusal. Having concealed the candle under a bushel, they reign in darkness more easily.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 17, Sec. I.

Turretin then goes on to clarify what exactly is at stake in this question. Again, he writes,

“The question then comes to this – whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation…that without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers. The papists deny this; we affirm.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 17, Sec. VII.

As was discussed in the prior post on the point of perspicuity, “things essential to salvation” include the certainty and authority of Scripture; that the Scripture is trustworthy in itself. And before someone out there tries to press the point that all the Reformed have in view here are those passages which speak directly to salvation [e.g., the “Romans Road”], Turretin notes this as a known Catholic argument to besmirch the clarity and therefore authority of Scripture.

After quoting Ps. 19:8 – “the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes,” Ps. 119:105 – “thy word is a lamp unto my feet,” 2 Peter 1:19 – “a light in a dark place,” and Prov. 6:23 – “the law is light,” Turretin observes the following

“Nor is Bellarmine’s [a prominent Roman Catholic apologist] first objection of any force, that only the precepts of the law are meant and not the whole of Scripture. For the word ‘law’ frequently means the whole word of God, and the effects (consolation and renewal) teach that it ought so to be understood.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 17, Sec. VIII.

Turretin goes on in the same vein to say,

“The Scriptures are said to be luminous not only because they illuminate the intellect, but because they are in themselves luminous and naturally adapted to illuminate those who look upon them with the eyes of faith.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 17, Sec. VIII.

Note here that Turretin separates the effects of Scripture from what the Scriptures are. Certainly, we say the Scriptures are illuminating because of what they do in the hearts of the saved and lost alike. What is more, the Scriptures are illuminating in themselves. That is, they are not illuminated by some other source as the lesser light is illuminated from the sun. No, the Scriptures are in and of themselves light and light giving. As such, it is not necessary that something be added to make them light.

For those who demur at my and Dr. Riddle’s claim that we must work to know the Scriptures even though they are perspicuous, consider the words of that ignorant KJV-only fundamentalist from the 4th century AD, Chrysostom, when he writes,

“The Scriptures are so proportioned that even the most ignorant can understand them if they only read them studiously.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 17, Sec. XII.

How dare he assert the person in the pew be studious!? Still, how is what Chrysostom said any different than Dr. Riddle’s response to Mark Ward’s “Which TR?” or my post when I said, “If you are to be a friend to Scripture and Scripture to you then you must spend time with Scripture, ask questions of Scripture, study Scripture, know what Scripture likes to drink with its steak“?

How about that uncaring 7th century AD Ruckmanite, Gregory the Great who wrote,

“The Scriptures have, in public, nourishment for children, as they serve in secret to strike the loftiest minds with wonder; indeed they are like a full and deep river in which the lamb may walk and the elephant swim.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 17, Sec. XII.

My point here is that though the Scriptures are perspicuous/clear the challenge to search the Scripture (John 5:39) and to search for wisdom as for hid treasure (Prov. 2:4) is a fundamental feature of Christianity. Are some words and concepts of Scripture difficult to understand? Indeed, Peter says this of Paul when he writes, “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Note that the apostle Peter does not here compel Paul to democratize his language. No, instead Peter castigates the “unlearned and unstable” claiming that they twist the Scriptures to their own destruction. Turretin, following this Scriptural theme, writes,

“The ignorance and blindness of man are not to be compounded with obscurity of the Scriptures. The former is often pressed upon Scripture, but it is not so, nor can the latter be legitimately inferred from the former no more than the sun is obscure because it cannot be seen by a blind man.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 17, Sec. XIII.

To this day arguments are being made that because of a few instances of difficult/sneaky words like “halt” or “apt” in the KJV it’s time for a new translation of the Bible in English. Meanwhile, the Scriptures, Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and Turretin all make these arguments for studious diligence among the ignorant without having the advantage of computers, the internet, or Logos Bible Software, but somehow in a world where we have these tools at the ready, “halt” and “apt” are just a bridge too far.

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