The Reformation: A Bible Movement (Part 2)
In the first post in this series we briefly considered the way in which the Reformers viewed the Scriptures--as they are in truth, the authoritative written word of God. But God’s Word is not only uniquely authoritative; it is also uniquely clear, or perspicuous. It is intelligible and accessible to ordinary Christians for the work of faith. This teaching of the scripture’s clarity is as crucial to Reformed view as the teaching of inspiration. After all, no matter how inspired scripture is, it causes little practical effect if it is not knowable to ordinary humans.
The Westminster Confession, that great document of the English Reformation and the governing theological document for certain confessional churches like my own, teaches the following:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other…(WCF 1.6)
In other words, the scholars and pastors who gathered to compose the confession recognized that scripture was not without its difficult passages. As an Old Testament professor I am often asked about certain passages that have vexed the church for millennia and also fed not a few horrible theological errors. There are usual suspects: “Who were the Nephilim?” is a common one. “Who were Seth’s wives?” “What is going on between Zipporah and Moses during the circumcision scene in Exodus 4?” The early books of the Bible provide a home to some of the Bible’s most titillating mysteries. Then there is always Jude 9. There is a lot we can say about these questions, but at the same time, we have to admit that their meaning is just not explained in full.
We should be clear that the authors of the confession are not being overconfident about these questions, and they aren’t ignorant of them either, but rather the confession states outright that the scriptures are not plain in the same way across the board. Taken as a whole, the scriptures are clear in regards to what is required to be known, believed, and observed for salvation.
That is also not to say that the scriptures cannot be used to deceive. Some heretics may twist scripture to damnable ends, but that is not the fault of the text. It is the fault of the deceiver.
The Westminster confession goes on:
…are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other…that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
The scriptures are clear to the point that not only the learned, the educated, but also the unlearned, in due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Now the operative phrase here is the “due use of ordinary means.” That is, this clarity of scripture does not rely on extraordinary means such as new revelation or mystical meditation, but rather the clarity of scripture is on display by simple ordinary means of teaching and communication.
What are the ordinary means? Reading, hearing, teaching from pastors and biblical scholars who through experience and study can help you understand the text. But these aren’t all. Reading and hearing assumes translation into your native tongue, or at least a language you understand. These all presume access to the actual text of scripture.
The ordinary means are mentioned throughout the scriptures as necessary for faith. In the Nehemiah 8, the scribe Ezra calls a covenant renewal ceremony, and in it he reads from the law. Much time has passed since the writing of the law, including some fifty to seventy years of exile in a foreign nation where they were forced to operate in a foreign language. The people gathered to hear the law read by Ezra might not have been able to understand what they heard unless the elders explained it to them. This is not a fault of Moses, nor is it an insurmountable linguistic problem, but it does require the translation and explanation of learned teachers. With such ordinary means, the people understand.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is blunt about the ordinary means (Rom 10:13-15). How can people believe the gospel if they never hear it, how can they hear if no one is sent to tell it to them? These are questions of ordinary means, questions of simple translation and communication and access. Paul consistently relied on the ordinary means in his own evangelistic work, speaking the gospel message in the vernacular of his audience, and expecting them to understand and respond (cf. Acts 17:22-33).
The Westminster Confession is saying that, given such ordinary means, the scriptures are clear, understandable, and accessible to ordinary Christians for whom they contain the words of life.