January 14, 2020

The Perspicuity of Scripture

Barry Cooper
The Perspicuity of Scripture

Anyone can come to Scripture and discover how they can be saved, even children and those lacking formal education. Today, Barry Cooper shows that the Bible is clear in its teaching about salvation and its basic principles for pleasing God.


What do people mean when they talk about the perspicuity of Scripture?

I just came back from a trip to China, and it’s fair to say there was a bit of a language problem. I’ll spare you the details, but the first day I was there, my credit card was swallowed by an ATM, so I spent a good few hours sitting in a bank in Shanghai and trying to work out the Mandarin for “My credit card has been swallowed by an ATM.” I think the Mandarin for “ATM” is “ATM,” but that’s about as far as I got.

It’s fair to say that Mandarin is not, for me, “perspicuous.”

Ironically enough—given that it’s not very clear—perspicuity is a word that means “clarity” or “clearness” or “understandability.” So when we talk about the “perspicuity” of Scripture, we’re talking about the idea that God’s Word is clear about things that are necessary to be understood and obeyed in order for a person to be saved. The Bible’s teaching on salvation can be understood by anyone and everyone.

Psalm 119 puts it like this: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” Even though, at times, the Bible requires us to patiently and humbly wrestle with it, we can indeed come to know what it means regarding salvation and the basic principles for pleasing God, even if we don’t have a college degree or subscribe to an enjoyable podcast that explains big theological words in a simple way.

In fact, God’s Word is simple enough that it can be taught to children, as it says in Deuteronomy chapter 6: “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You 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.”

When Moses said these things, he was speaking mostly to people who not only had no formal education to speak of; many of them, most likely, couldn’t read. And yet it’s clearly assumed that they could not only understand God’s Word but also teach it to their children. And their children would be able to understand it.

Paul says of Timothy that he was acquainted with the sacred writings from childhood, and that these writings are able to show a person how they can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ.

Anyone, then, can come to Scripture and discover how they can be saved. It doesn’t require special training or education, and it’s not just for adults.

Of course, this presupposes that you have God’s Word in a language you can understand. And that has not always been the case. The “democratization” of Scripture—its translation into multiple modern languages so that it could be understood by the average member of the public—was one of the great causes of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Before that time, the Bible—translated as it was into Latin—had become the preserve of the educated classes and the clergy.

But the belief that the Bible could—and ought to be—understood by everyone, together with the invention of the printing press, meant that suddenly the Word was “released into the wild.”

As Martin Luther put it: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

That could only have happened because of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture.

Now of course, the perspicuity of Scripture doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is easy to understand. Peter says this explicitly when he says of Paul’s letters, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”

There are some things in the Bible that can be tricky to grasp. But that doesn’t mean that they’re impossible to grasp.

And the perspicuity of Scripture assures us that even when they are hard to grasp, the Author intends His words ultimately to be understandable by anyone.