Is the Bible clear?

The Bible, the Reformation and Postmodernism

© Lionel Windsor (2003)


The clarity of Scripture is analysed using the schema of author, text and reader. An analysis of the biblical material shows that the covenantal purposes of the divine author necessitate the clarity of his text. However, Scripture’s clarity is veiled to rebellious readers, who must be renewed by God’s Spirit. At the Reformation, the divine author was assumed by all, but the Reformers had to rearticulate clarity in the face of a ‘dual text’: Scripture and Church. In doing so, they expounded a number of qualifications to clarity.

With the Enlightenment’s replacement of the divine author with human Reason and postmodernism’s subsequent dethronement of all authority, including Reason, we face new challenges. We are aided by the Reformers’ qualifications but cannot rely solely on them. There are false trails, which do not adequately and critically deal with postmodern epistemology. A true recasting of the clarity of Scripture will reassert the triune God, redeem the clarity of the text, and insist upon the renewal of the reader by God’s Spirit. Thus, postmodern epistemology’s insights concerning the interaction between text and reader can be used to explore the mechanics of the interaction between renewed humanity and the text, and its failures and inconsistencies can be critiqued as rebellion against the divine author.


Historically, the clarity (or ‘perspicuity’) of Scripture is a doctrine whose articulation has been necessitated by controversy. Those who hold to Scripture’s divine authority normally proceed to read it with an implicit assumption of clarity. When alleged or perceived obscurity arises, however—particularly obscurity in relation to central and disputed doctrines—the nature of Scripture’s clarity must be explicated. This was particularly true at the Reformation, and is no less true in our time. Postmodern epistemology is calling into question traditional understandings of central Christian doctrines by assailing their hermeneutical foundations. One of these foundations is the belief that Scripture is clear, i.e. that it is reasonably intelligible,1 being both comprehensible and unambiguous.2 As part of an overall concern to engage with contemporary pluralism,3 Carson has flagged the need for an articulation of Scripture’s clarity that can answer the objections of postmodern epistemology.4 This essay aims to outline such an articulation, and to assess the extent to which it must recast previous articulations, particularly those formulated at the Reformation.

In Scripture

When approaching the clarity of Scripture, it is helpful to recognise the distinctions and connections between three entities: the author (from whom authority is derived), the text itself (i.e. Scripture), and the reader. There is a close relationship between the nature of Scripture’s clarity and its divine authority for human readers. Because Scripture is God’s inspired (qeopneustos) word (2 Tim 3:16), the reader can deal with God directly, unmediated by abstract or representative ideas.5 In other words, Scripture is a text whose author is God. Consequently, we should expect Scripture’s clarity to be consistent with the nature and purposes of its divine author.

Scripture itself bears this out (see, e.g., Carson’s6 and Allison’s7 summaries of the Biblical material). God’s purpose is to judge the world in righteousness (e.g. Rom 3:1–19) and to establish a saving covenant with his people. Consequently, both the old covenant (Deut 30:11–14) and the new covenant (Rom 10:6–10) are ‘near’ the recipients, in their ‘mouth’ and ‘heart’. The close proximity of this inscripturated word of God implies its clarity. This presupposition of clarity is further evident in a variety of Scriptural texts: attempts by Biblical authors to communicate clearly (Deut 6:4–9, Matt 24:15, Rom 6:19a, 2 Cor 1:13), the metaphor of Scripture as a light or lamp (Ps 119:105, 119:130; 2 Pet 1:19), calls to hear and obey which render the readers responsible (Deut 31:9–13, Deut 29:29, John 5:39–40, Col 3:16, 1 Tim 4:13, 1 Pet 1:22–2:3) and affirmations of Scripture’s utility (Ps 19:7–11, 1 Cor 10:1–11, Rom 4:22–25, 2 Tim 3:14–17, Rom 15:4). In order to fulfil God’s purposes in Christ, aspects of the Old Testament were temporarily hidden (musthrion), but with the completion of Scripture in the New Testament, they are made known (gnwrizw) (Col 1:27). Hence the identity of the Suffering Servant, although temporarily opaque to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:31–34), became clear once the full message of the new covenant had reached him (Acts 8:35–36).

There are, however, two categories of reader: rebellious humanity and renewed humanity. Lack of understanding is attributed to rebellion against God, which includes a moral and an intellectual dimension (Isa 44:18). Those who cannot understand are described as unspiritual (1 Cor 2:10–14), outside God’s kingdom and under judgment (Isaiah 6, Mark 4:10–12), perishing and controlled by Satan (2 Cor 4:3–4), ignorant and unstable (2 Pet 3:16). This last verse is important, for it occurs in the context of Peter’s ‘clear’ reading of Paul. Some aspects of Paul, while ‘difficult to understand’ (dusnohtos), are nevertheless understandable. The fault is not with Scripture, but with the ignorant and unstable readers. However, there is a renewed humanity, to whom the clear Scripture speaks. When God’s Spirit renews rebels (Jer 31:34, 1 John 2:26–27), the veil is removed and Scripture can be understood (e.g. Acts 17:10–12, 2 Cor 3:12–18, 2 Tim 3:14–17).

The Reformation

The doctrine of clarity was not invented by the Reformers. The Early Church Fathers widely appealed to the intelligibility of Scripture.8 However, the Reformers (and later Reformed theologians, e.g. Turretin) found themselves fighting against a powerful two-source tradition, which had arisen in the early and medieval church.9 The issue was not so much the identity of the author as the identity of the text. Both sides believed in the triune author of Scripture.10 However, the two-source tradition accorded Scripture and the Church equal and complementary divine authority, effectively creating a ‘dual text’. The Spirit who had inspired Scripture had given the Church the key to its interpretation. In practice, this put the Church above Scripture, for Scripture was held to be unclear and in need of authoritative interpretation.11 As Calvin observed, ‘a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church’.12 Theologically, the alleged obscurity of Scripture compromised central doctrines, such as the bondage of the human will.13 Pastorally, it ‘keeps the common people from reading Scripture’.14

As the Reformers reasserted Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone—as God’s text, they concurrently asserted its clarity. Clarity is a necessary corollary of both the nature of God as an accommodating self-communicator, and the nature of the Christian life. Scripture is the word of God, ‘as if there the living words of God were heard’.15 In his infinite wisdom, God, although transcendent, has accommodated himself to human understanding in order to communicate his promises. As in the incarnation, God has genuinely condescended in Scripture without compromising the truth of his being.16 Furthermore, for Luther, the Christian life consists in responding to God’s promises and therefore the clarity of those promises is necessary.17 Clarity was not just a polemical device for Luther.18 He employed it in a variety of contexts throughout his life, particularly in his Eucharistic writings.19 Turretin, in scholastic fashion, summarises the ‘causes’ of Scripture which imply its clarity: its effector is God who wishes to speak clearly, its purpose is to be a clear rule of faith and morals, it materially consists in clear law and gospel and it is in the clear forms of will, treaty and edict.20

However, the Reformers were not naïve about Scripture’s clarity. As they interacted with the controversies of their day, they expounded some of the mechanics and qualifications of clarity. For example, metaphor is possible, because clarity is consonant with genre and literary style (although Luther seems only to have paid lip service to this idea in the Eucharistic debates).21 Secondly, the need for translation does not imply obscurity, since a good translation does not clarify Scripture but conveys the clarity which is already present.22 Thirdly, clarity does not necessarily imply ease of understanding: hard work may be required to grasp the clear text—the proposed antithesis between effortlessness of reading and textual obscurity is indefensible.23 Fourthly, clarity is limited to the topics addressed by Scripture (e.g. the what of the Trinity) and does not necessarily extend to all theological issues (e.g. the how of the Trinity).24 Finally, clarity is particularly relevant for matters which directly concern the purposes of God, ‘those things which pertain unto salvation’.25 Turretin concedes a texture of clarity: the more necessary a matter, the more clear it will be (although earnest effort can discern even the less necessary matters).26 Similarly, the Westminster Confession emphasises the clarity of necessary doctrines rather than the equal clarity of each individual passage.27

This texture of clarity has led some to propose that clarity is located in the ‘essential content’ of Scripture and not necessarily in the units of language such as words.28 However, this is contrary to Luther’s second extended treatment of clarity in his Bondage of the Will, where he declares ‘concerning the whole of the Scripture, that I will have no one part of it called obscure’.29 Thompson demonstrates from this passage30 and also more generally from Luther’s Eucharistic writings31 that the clarity which pertains to God’s purposes extends to the words, the grammar and the syntax of Scripture. Nevertheless, this is not a simple concept, for in the earlier passage in Bondage of the Will, Luther can speak of words which are ‘obscure’ in one place but which are ‘clarified’ in another.32 This principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture by the ‘clear interpreting the unclear’ is not just limited to Luther.33 How can we reconcile the existence of these ‘obscure’ passages with the fact that Scripture’s clarity extends to all its individual language units? The key for Luther was context:

While he [Luther] insists that clarity extends to the words of Scripture themselves, those words almost never appear by themselves. [. . .] all Scripture has the same primary author, viz., the Holy Spirit [. . .] God has not left us with an obscure Scripture precisely because he has left us an entire Scripture. If the initial impression is that a particular text is obscure, then that can only be an initial impression. The unity of Scripture takes us beyond initial impressions to the true clarity of the Word of God.34

We have considered the Reformers’ notions of the divine author and the text of Scripture. What of the reader? The Reformers emphasised the distinction outlined above between rebellious humanity, to whom Scripture is veiled, and renewed humanity, to whom Scripture is clear. Luther attributes all lack of understanding to the ignorance, blindness, darkness and obscurity of the reader, rather than the text,35 as does Turretin.36 With the renewal brought about by the Spirit, however, Scripture’s clarity is discernible. Luther made a further distinction between external and internal clarity.37 Both are works of the Spirit, who has inspired the text, giving it an inherent clarity.38 This inherent clarity is expressed firstly through the public, accessible preaching ministry of the church (external clarity). External clarity is bound up with Luther’s insistence on the Christian life being lived through the neighbour in love,39 and establishes a communal ‘hermeneutical convention’.40 Secondly, the intrinsic clarity of Scripture is expressed through the private understanding of the heart (internal clarity). Because they are both works of the Spirit, external and internal clarity will converge in renewed humanity. Luther conceded, however, that since rebelliousness and ignorance continues in part even in renewed humanity, the elect may still misunderstand Scripture.41

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment saw a change, not so much in the text, as in the authority. The authority of God was replaced by the authority of universal human Reason.42 As critical studies took hold, the purpose and nature of reading Scripture was radically transformed. Scripture, like any other text, was read to further Reason, and confidence in understanding the text was based on confidence in universal Reason. Scripture remained clear, but on an entirely different basis.43 External clarity was disassociated from the work of God’s Spirit and associated with critical methodology.44 It was still important to understand the human ‘author’ (or at least his historical context, his psyche, etc.), but only along the guidelines of Reason. Often the text had to be bypassed to achieve this, denying the plain meaning of the text to find the ‘clear’ historical background.45


While postmodernism is difficult to define, a common ground is the rejection of Enlightenment philosophy, particularly the authority of Reason.46 For example, Foucault’s analyses of the relationship between power, knowledge and self are based on analyses of history beginning in the 17th Century in a society which upheld Reason and repudiated God.47 Another striking example is from Barthes’ influential essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, in which he claims that removing the author is ‘anti-theological’ because ‘to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law’.48 Postmodernism, by demonstrating the inadequacy of Reason, destroys its godlike authority. Even the human author is now ‘distanced’ from the text.49 Objective, inherent clarity is meaningless. The reader is not humanity, but plural individuals, interacting with the text and with each other in power relationships. Pluralistic internal clarity is the best we can hope for, and the claim to ‘external clarity’ is simply totalitarianism (e.g. Foucault).50 Therefore all of the intellectual resources of postmodernism focus on the interaction between texts and readers, or between readers.

Because the Reformation controversy (‘Which is the Author’s text?’) is different to the pressures we face (‘Is there an author at all?’), some rearticulation of clarity is needed to face these pressures. Not only are there different errors that must be refuted, but postmodern epistemology has given us insights about the interactions between texts and readers that must be considered. Nevertheless, we should expect the Reformers’ qualifications to be valuable. Before outlining our rearticulation, we will briefly consider some false trails.

False trails

Some rearticulations of clarity fail to deal with the pressures at all. When Luther, in his Galatians commentary, advocated coming to the text ‘empty’, without prejudice, he was not outlining an overall theory of clarity but commending a helpful frame of mind.51 Hence Sandin’s ‘Interpretation without pre-understanding’ is naïve and fails to deals with the legitimate postmodern concern that total ‘objectivity’ is impossible and meaningless.52 Allison engages well with the Biblical texts (see above) but does not interact with postmodernism.53

Other approaches simply react to the Enlightenment, paralleling postmodern critiques. They may make use of postmodernism selectively but uncritically, doing an injustice both to clarity and to postmodernism. Earlier Protestant reactions, such as Hodge’s,54 emphasised internal clarity to the detriment of external clarity (which had been taken captive by the Enlightenment).55 A number of contemporary approaches relocate clarity in the believing community. For Grenz, clarity is a property, not of the text, but of the direct author/reader relationship between illuminating Spirit and Church.56 For Callahan, clarity is best stated as a ‘hermeneutical convention’.57 But these approaches do not answer Foucault’s critique of the arbitrariness of human institutions. True external clarity is lost, because of the demonstrable plurality of believing communities.

Still other approaches retreat to Enlightenment assumptions and locate clarity only in the original historical circumstances or the human authors. To discern the ‘intentions’ of the human author (e.g. Paul) or his society (e.g. the Johannine Community) via critical techniques remains paramount. Adam demonstrates how postmodernism has exposed the inherent problems with this approach.58 Callahan also critiques intentionalism, but his critique is flawed by an indefensible antithesis between historicity and relevance.59 Furthermore, in criticising Vanhoozer, he fails to recognise that Vanhoozer has in mind the divine author rather than only human authors.60


It is, in fact, Vanhoozer’s schema which provides a promising way forward.61 When the divine author is ‘resurrected’, the text is ‘redeemed’ and the reader is ‘reformed’. Postmodernism offers a powerful critique of Reason and human autonomy.62 However, postmodernism itself may be criticised for its prejudiced refusal to replace Reason with any authority. When postmodern epistemology encounters authority it a-priori characterises it negatively. For deconstructionists, claims to interpretation are politically tyrannical.63 Ricoeur feels that he must ‘deplore’ authoritarianism and argues for a ‘dependence’ which is not ‘submissive to any higher, external command’.64 However, Christians can assert the sovereign, loving God as the authority in the power vacuum left when Reason is dethroned. Effectively, this is proclaiming the gospel. We do not assert the God of Enlightenment Reason, nor simply the ‘transcendental signifier’ of Derrida.65 Rather, we assert the Trinitarian God, who truly relates to the world and yet remains not the world.66

We are not simply looking for the dead human author. We aim to understand the divine author. The divine author is sovereign, and therefore able and willing to speak clearly. He is present by his Spirit, and therefore not distant from the text. Furthermore, he is purposeful. God’s purpose is to save the reader through the word, and the reader is held responsible for his response. Hence Scripture is clear. Nevertheless, because of God’s accommodating nature, the human authors are also comprehensible. Scripture is not docetic, and so may, in one sense, be interpreted like other texts. But it requires the divine author to have any relevance. In fact, the unity of history born from the concept of God’s purposes for the world provide a foundation for allowing past human authors to speak to us today.67

We can now reassert the distinction between rebellious and renewed humanity. Because the reader’s attitude to the text is largely determined by his attitude towards the author, and because humans are naturally rebellious towards God, God himself must create and continuously sustain a sympathetic attitude for Scripture to be clear. Postmodern epistemology’s insights concerning the interaction between text and reader can be used to explore the mechanics of the interaction between renewed humanity and the text. Furthermore, its failures and inconsistencies can be critiqued as rebellion against the divine author. In particular, we can move beyond what Carson calls the ‘indefensible antitheses’ of postmodern epistemology towards serious reflection on the nature of language.68 As Turretin observed centuries ago, difficult passages need not become impossible.69 Or, as Osborne observes, more realistic approaches to knowledge mean that the demand for certitude need not negate any knowledge at all.70

For example, a rebellious notion of ‘intertextuality’ would contend that, because all texts are linked to all others, a consideration of the infinite context makes the possible interpretations infinite and therefore any particular interpretation is arbitrary.71 But the sovereign God can provide limits to the canon, distinguishing Scripture from other books and also from the reader. Because the locus of inspiration is a limited text, external clarity predicated upon intracanonical context is possible. Renewed intertextuality, by discerning the inner-dependence of Scripture, can be sensitive to its linguistic texture.72 This provides helpful insights into the Reformers’ notions that context affects meaning and the clear can interpret the unclear without being arbitrary.

Similarly, Ricoeur’s ‘distantiation’ can be transformed into the act of humble submission to the clear word of God. In reader-response criticism, the locus of meaning is entirely in the reader or ‘reading strategy’ rather than the text.73 However, Ricoeur contends that only by ‘distancing’ ourselves from ourselves and appropriating the ‘other’ of the text can we truly receive an enlarged self. We are to understand ourselves in front of the text, not behind the text.74 This is similar to Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ between text and reader.75 It shows why Callahan’s antithesis between history and relevance76 is flawed, since the historical ‘otherness’ of Scripture is a powerful aspect of its relevance.77 However, Ricoeur’s approach relies upon a corresponding distance between the author and the text.78 This is inappropriate for Scripture, whose divine author is present. The aim of distantiation should be humble submission to the divine author rather than an ‘enlarged self’. In particular, narrative techniques can be applied to discern the mind of the narrator, taking seriously the power of the narrative genre within the Trinitarian metanarrative, rather than Riceour’s approach which subordinates God to the narrative text.79

We will outline three more examples. Firstly, the ‘hermeneutical circle’ is a continuous interplay between reader and text which does not require the reader to be neutral or unbiased, but simply aware of his own bias.80 This produces endless hermeneutical possibilities.81 Osborne proposes that gradual movement towards the intended meaning is possible, particularly if the author is God. So the ‘hermeneutical circle’ is transformed into a ‘hermeneutical spiral’.82 Secondly, deconstruction, which turns the discernment of tensions in the text into an overriding principle which destroys all meaning,83 can be transformed into careful exegesis which, like Augustine,84 values (sometimes unresolvable) tensions as a learning opportunity and is a robust defence against positivist heresies such as one-sided Christological formulations.85 Finally, church dogmatics, rather than being the rebellious totalitarianism of human power structures (as per Foucault), can be viewed as the hermeneutical community working together to discern the external clarity of Scripture. A ‘hermeneutics of the cross’ can emerge in which Christ-like sacrificial service to God and each other is the key.86


The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is in need of recasting for the postmodern context, because the nature of the challenge is different. But this ‘recasting’ does not substantially contradict the insights of Scripture or of the Reformers. Rather, it emphasises and clarifies certain aspects of clarity. Because postmodern epistemology rejects God, it must be critiqued by a robust Trinitarian theology. But because it also rejects the tyranny of the Enlightenment and takes seriously the interaction between text and reader, its insights are useful for those who truly desire to know God through his clear text.