Are the Scriptures clear? Most of us would tend to answer: “sometimes yes, sometimes no.” There are passages that seem straightforward and other passages that appear really confusing. What else could we expect of a collection of books written over the course of 1,500 years, by so many diverse authors, in so many diverse styles? Some passages are bound to make sense to us, and some are bound to be perplexing.
Consider the book of Proverbs. Almost all of us would admit that these little sayings of wisdom can be simple and powerful as well as complicated and mystifying at times. So for example Proverbs 26:4-5 reads, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Are we supposed to answer the fool on his or her own terms or not? The two verses suggest the answer is not so clear. What kind of clarity is it to say, “Sometimes yes, sometimes no”? This kind of conundrum may help us get clear about our notions of clarity. It may also help us distinguish some of our ordinary intuitions about clarity from the historically Protestant affirmation of the clarity of Scripture.
I may say to our teenage daughter, “Please get the groceries when you stop at the store.” Simple and clear, correct? Simple, yes, but not very clear unless she also knows which groceries to buy. In this case “simple” is not the same as “clear.” “Clear” seems to be appropriate only when she readily understands my words, and this is possible only if other words are part of our communication. It may also be that no information is being processed in this communication. It might in fact be a command or a reminder. On this reading, our teenager daughter may respond, “Why can’t someone else get the groceries?” If one understands the general practice of communication between a parent and teenage child, one also knows this statement is not clear unless one also has a lot of background information, unless one can interpret the tone of the words and see the body language when the question was asked, and unless one can determine if in fact it was actually a question. Given all the background information required and about which communication theorists may offer rich and elaborate explanations, the question “Why can’t someone else go to the grocery story?” may well have been a paradigm of clarity, in other words, “Dad, I don’t want to go the grocery store!” It accomplished its intended goal. The words did their job.
I want to suggest by analogy, the clarity of the Bible has less to do with any straightforward understanding of those who read the Book, as it has to do with how the words of Scripture actually accomplish the task for which they were written. It is the power of the words to provoke the intended response, which enables us to call them “clear.” This may seem counterintuitive to us. It also may seem out of accord with our ordinary use of the term “clear.” In what follows, let me suggest that understanding the Bible is indeed counterintuitive, and in many instances requires an out-of-the-ordinary kind of wisdom. And with Protestants more generally, I want to affirm that the Bible clearly accomplishes its goal, even when there are some who do not seem to understand it.
Clarity is a characteristic of the Scriptures themselves. The words themselves as inspired by the Spirit of God, and as applied to our understanding by the same Spirit, illuminate the true nature of the gospel. The words are clear not because we have found a way to understand them, but because the Spirit inspires clarity and illuminates minds clearly. Our trust in the clarity of Scripture, in other words, is the trustworthiness of the Spirit.
Consider the words at the very beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning, God… ” These words echo at the beginning of Genesis with great theological force. It is simply not an accident that these words are the very first words of Scripture! These words powerfully remind us that God stands as the fountainhead of everything. He is that in which everything finds its ultimate reference point. He is before all things, and he is that which orders and gives meaning to everything. He is the Sovereign of the created order and frames all of our creaturely tasks. He is the original against which all images are but reflections.
God is the key to everything that follows. God is the only one who speaks in Genesis 1. God is the only who acts in Genesis 1. God is the only one named in Genesis 1. He is the primary actor as well as the playwright of the drama that follows. He puts everything in its proper order, and everything appears as perfectly appropriate to its place in the drama that unfolds.
Of particular interest is the claim that God’s speaking appears as identical with God’s creating. In other words, when God says something in Genesis 1, God is creating that about which he is speaking. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. God says, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. Divine speaking accomplishes what it says. But why is that so? In the first instance we naturally want to say, “Well, because God is powerful, and he can do this sort of thing.” That would be true enough. But it is also true that God’s power is interwoven with his purpose. He not only makes things, he designs them as signs and symbols of himself. He makes creatures that are moral because he is moral. He makes creatures that govern because he governs. He makes creatures in relationship, because he is in relationship. God’s nature is “communicated” to the created order, in the language of speaking creation into being.
Not all of God’s words through the Scriptures are “creative words,” but the early chapters of Genesis provide us with a model to think about the way we are to understand the clarity of God’s words. Generally speaking, as his creatures we are not in need of an abstract theory of interpretation before we can interpret God’s words. Sophisticated word studies and a nuanced theory of semantics may aid us in bridging the gap between the worlds and words of Moses (the human author of Genesis) and our own, but there is no such gap between the Creator’s speaking and our ability to understand the divine words, precisely because God has made us to understand his speech. He is a God who creates by speaking, and he creates persons who are “word-using” beings. We speak because we reflect the God who made us. We understand because he has wired us for understanding.