Perspicuity… Per-spi– what?

Yesterday I uploaded a file to the website for the independent study course I am teaching for Tozer Seminary. The course is called “Christian Theology.” It is essentially a course in systematic theology. Systematic theology is an attempt to clarify, harmonize, and collate all that the Bible teaches on several major subjects. glassesbible.jpg

I love studying theology.

Anyway, like I said, yesterday I uploaded a file that the class participants will read. And I realized just how little most of today’s Christians know about this topic.

What is that topic? you ask… The Perspicuity of Scripture.

Do not be alarmed. Say it with me. per-spik-YOU-itty.

Quick: give me a five minute speech on the perspicuity of Scripture. Can’t? That’s okay. Most pastors couldn’t either.

biblestudygroup.jpgPerspicuity simply means that the Scriptures are written in plain language… and that anybody who’s willing to think and apply him- or herself can grasp its message. The Bible is clear on what it teaches.

Or if you like things complicated:

Scripture can be and is read with profit, with appreciation and with transformative results. It is open and transparent to earnest readers; it is intelligible and comprehensible to
attentive readers. Scripture itself is coherent and obvious. It is direct and unambiguous as written; what is written is sufficient. Scripture’s concern or focal point is readily
presented as the redemptive story of God. It displays a progressively more specific identification of that story, culminating in the gospel of Jesus Christ. All this is to say:
Scripture is clear about what it is about.

[ James Patrick Callahan, The Clarity of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2001) 11.]

Before you go listing all the hard places, and all the obscure statements in Scripture, take a deep breath.

Perspicuity doesn’t mean that the Bible is easy. It means that it is clear… i.e., that what is hard in one place is easy in another. It does not mean that you can approach Scripture casually and expect to understand it all. You have to apply yourself.


Augustine wrote:

augustine_of_hippo3.jpgThus the Holy Spirit has magnificently and wholesomely modulated the Holy Scriptures so that the more open places present themselves to hunger and the more obscure places
may deter a disdainful attitude. Hardly anything may be found in these obscure places which is not found plainly said elsewhere.

Right on, Augie.

For many years, the Medieval Church prohibited the PEOPLE from reading the Bible. Why? Because they denied the perspicuity of Scripture. This gave them a monopoly on truth, and therefore on heaven and hell.


During the Reformation, Luther and others fought back. They declared that even the most humble saint can understand the meaning of Scripture, without “mother church” telling him or her what to believe. Luther argued that the denial of perspicuity paved the way for men to be superior to the Word in matters of faith and doctrine.

The church shot back in the Council of Trent:

“In order to restrain petulant spirits [the Council] decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall — in matters of faith, and of moral pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, — wrestle the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, — whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, –hath held and doth hold.”

Get the point of that? Can’t have the “little people” reading the Bible! Only “the church” can correctly interpret the Scripture.

The later reformers shot back… back… The incredible Francis Turretin:

It is not a question of perspicuity that excludes necessary means for interpretation, such as the inner light of the Spirit, the attention of the mind, the voice and ministry of the church, lectures and commentaries, prayers and vigils. We acknowledge such means are not only useful but also normally are necessary, turretin.jpg

but we want to deny any obscurity that keeps the common people from reading Scripture, as if it were harmful or dangerous, or that leads to a falling back on traditions when one should have taken a stand on Scripture alone.

AAAA-MMMMMENNNNNNNN! [That guy is Italian, and grew up in Lucca, where my grandfather came from!!!!!! His real name is Turretini, but he’s more commonly known as Turretin.]

Guess what! This battle over perspicuity is heating up again today. It comes in the form of CYNICISM. It sounds like this: “There are so many different interpretations, who’s to say which one is right? All we can do is be loving… and to not fight over doctrine.”

Horse doo-doo.


If God’s Word is a LAMP to our feet, and a LIGHT to our path, shouldn’t we expect it to be understandable? We should. And it is. If we dig in and apply ourselves. Which waaaayyy too few of Jesus’ followers are doing today. Yes, we’ll have our debates and come up with differing interpretations. But not on the really big stuff–not as long as we hold fast to what has been written.

Want to read the whole article that my class is reading? Click here.


10 thoughts on “Perspicuity… Per-spi– what?

  1. Just this morning, “Focus on the Family” ran a message from Dr. John McArthur that touched on this topic (although I don’t think anyone used the word “perspicuity”). He made the observation that those who don’t outright deny the Bible as God’s word, but question whether we can “understand” it when it adresses “hot” issues of our day, are playing a variation of the Serpent’s game in the Garden: “Hath God said….?” If we “can’t understand” the Bible, we can pretty much ignore what we don’t like.

  2. I read the whole article your class is reading. Thanks! I love this classroom online! I’m just simple enough to imagine the letters Paul wrote to his “children” churches were not so high and mighty they wouldn’t possibly understand what he wanted them to know!
    I am getting to love that man, Martin Luther! Especially when he stated: “Nothing more pernicious could be said than this, for it has led ungodly men to set themselves above the Scriptures and to fabricate whatever they pleased…believing and teaching nothing but dreams of madmen.” Way to go, Marty!!! (sorry I’m quoting…) ((I quote Dr. G too…))

  3. Just to prove that I’ve done my homework: In English “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” admits a quibble about the grammar of “come.” All…[have] come short, or All…[do] come short? Yes, we have–and we do.

    And you sent me to my dictionary to clarify that “perspicuity” is not the same as “perspicacity.” I think I prefer the word “clarity,” which is more familiar and a couple syllables shorter 😉

    We are blessed to be able to settle into our comfortable chairs with good light and our own copies of the Bible. I wonder what it looked like when the Bereans searched the scriptures daily…?

  4. Interesting article. I have always felt that, to some extent, “progressive revelation” opens the door to claims of the next installment of progressive revelation as found in religions that claim to supersede Christianity (such as Mormonism, Islam and the Baha’i faith).

    Personally, I reject such claims but it seems to me that the position which assigns theological priority to the NT has a stronger defense against claims of subsequent extra-canonical revelation.

  5. Curt,
    Thanks for the comment. I think that the Scripture itself assigns EQUAL priority to both testaments. The Canon of Scripture is equally authoritative in all its parts. When Paul wrote: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16, 17, NKJV, he had the Old Testament in mind (primarily). The OT books stand on their own and teach the same theology as the NT, when rightly read.

  6. Hi Janet,
    To prove my perspicacity into the perspicuity of Scripture, here is a note from Robertson’s Word Pictures on the tenses of the verbs in Rom 3:23… The verb “sinned” is in the aorist tense, and that the verb “fall short” is in the present tense… Ready? (the Greek words won’t look right… sorry… I’ll transliterate them)

    “Sinned (hamarton). Constative second aorist active indicative of hamartano as in 5:12. This tense gathers up the whole race into one statement (a timeless aorist). And fall short (kai husterountai). Present middle indicative of hustereo, to be usterov (comparative) too late, continued action, still fall short. It is followed by the ablative case as here, the case of separation.”

    Got that? A constative aorist collects all the actions of the verb into a single whole and says that they happened–whether they happened repeatedly (iteratively), once, a million times, ongoingly, sporadically… none of that matters to the constative aorist. This tense sets aside the actual frequency and duration and rolls up all the actions into a singular action: We all sinned (in the past) and we all fall short of the glory of God (in the present).

  7. I brought this up the other night at my churches training time: God’s word is not a magic book & it’s meaning is clear to the sincere seeker. Loved the class.

    I have a question. In Acts 5 God strikes two people dead because they lied to him. I assume this act was intended to serve as an example. Too, Luke records this event in Acts because it is important in understanding God correctly. What does this say about grace?

  8. Thanks for the grammar lesson. My computer sometimes shows strange stuff when people use apostrophes, so if you had tried to send untransliterated Greek, it would have come out a mess! I thought my NIV was probably accurate; when I memorized Rom. 3:23 in the KJV, I assumed “come” was a participle. So when Clearwaters used it as an example of unquestionability, I couldn’t resist.

    How about those Bereans?

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