Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity – Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In Chapter 6, Wayne Grudem discusses the clarity of Scripture. Grudem defines the doctrine as, “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.” 

The Bible affirms its own clarity in many places. One of the first instances was when Moses instructed ordinary parents to teach the words of Scripture to children (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible is understood to be mostly clear – with some exceptions in passages that are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

The Bible also affirms how understanding the Scripture is often more moral or spiritual rather than intellectual (1 Corinthians 2:14, Hebrews 5:14). That means there are many people who do not understand the Scriptures due to spiritual blindness. Others do not understand the Scripture because they make mistakes in interpretation. On more technical matters, biblical scholars help provide additional clarity on more difficult passages or passages that are challenged by other scholars.      

The Bible Affirms Its Own Clarity 

In multiple places, the Bible affirms its own clarity. From Moses (Deuteronomy 6:6-7) in the Old Testament to the apostles in the New Testament (2 Peter 1:20), the authors expected ordinary people (along with children) to understand the Bible. Even the “simple” or uneducated were expected to understand the Scriptures because God gave them understanding (Psalm 119:130). 

In addition, Jesus, expected his hearers to understand the Old Testament Scriptures. Christ gave no indication the words penned by biblical authors were too removed from his audience to be understood correctly – though they had been written 1,500 years before. Instead of taking an agnostic approach to the Scripture, Jesus rebuked his hearers with phrases like “have you not read” (Matthew 12:3), “have you never read” (Matthew 21:42), and “you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Jesus expected his hearers to understand the Old Testament.

The authors of the New Testament expected nothing different for their readers. Paul wrote his epistles to entire churches (1 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:2, Philippians 1:1) and heexpected each congregation to understand what he wrote. We should also remember many of his recipients were Gentile believers. They did not benefit from having previously learned the Old Testament Scriptures. And yet, the Gentile readers were expected to understand what the authors wrote even when wroting about ancient Israel (Romans 4:1-25, 1 Corinthians 10:1-11). Bottom line, the New Testament authors expected their readers to understand what they wrote because it was clear.   

Why People Misunderstand The Scripture?

Though the Bible is clear, the Bible is not always easily understood. There is a spiritual dimension to understanding Scripture. Paul wrote, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) Though the Scripture may be clear, it’s contents are not always apparent to because of the spiritual blindness in unbelief.

Even Jesus encountered many who failed to understand the Bible. In all four gospels, there are hearers who did not comprehend what he taught:

  • “Are you also still without understanding? (Matthew 15:16)
  • “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand” (Mark 4:12)
  • “But they understood none of these things.” (Luke 18:34)
  • “They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father.” (John 8:27)

So there is both a spiritual aspect of misunderstanding when people cannot receive what is in Scripture, and sometimes there’s a practical aspect when Jesus’ hearers did not understand what he taught at first (though this issue did not seem to persist in the disciples throughout the first century). 

To avoid making mistakes in interpreting Scripture, Bible scholars have developed “principles of interpretations”. Known as hermeneutics, this field aims to use “correct methods of interpretation – especially interpretation of Scripture.” The actual practice of interpretation is exegesis which is “the process of interpreting a text of Scripture.”

The fact that we have fields of study like hermeneutics and exegesis suggests that not all Christians always agree on the meaning of any given passage. So we may affirm the Scripture is clear, the meaning of Scripture may be unclear to some people because of improper interpretation, spiritual blindness, or other shortcomings.

In cases of “hard to understand” passages, scholars help interpret Scripture. They fulfill the role of “teacher” in the New Testament (1 Corinithains 12:28, Ephesians 4:11). They explore new areas of teaching in the Bible, and usually complement other core biblical doctrines. They help defend the teachings of Scripture against those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). In short, they understand, summarize, defend, and supplement the church’s understanding of the Bible for God’s people.   

Conclusion: A Practical Benefit to the Clarity of Scripture

In conclusion, the fact that the Bible is clear should be an encouragement. Though every Christian may not be able to understand the Bible completely, the Bible is at least mostly understandable to the seeking believer. Unbelievers stumble over passages because of spiritual blindness, but the Holy Spirit guides believers in their understanding in Scripture (John 16:13). Scholars and experts also help fill in gaps where there may be some uncertainty in understanding. In sum, God has given us a book that is clear to those who seek after him.      

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

Special Terms

  • clarity of Scripture
  • exegesis
  • hermeneutics
  • perspicuity

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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