Systematic Theology 6: The Clarity of Scripture

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology with a view towards ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts start with Grudem but are modified. I agree with Grudem’s two presuppositions, “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Each week, one interaction with South Asian Islam will also be noted. Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

This lesson is on the second of four characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority, (2) Clarity, (3) Necessity, and (4) Sufficiency. This post is the fifth of seven about the Word of God. God’s Word, the Bible, is foundational for the development of theology. Therefore, an understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God is our beginning place for theology.

  1. The Word of God. Discussion of five ways that the phrase “Word of God” is used in Scripture. This lesson also discusses three reasons that the Bible as the Word of God is the focus for theological study.
  2. The Canon of Scripture: What belongs in the Bible, and what does not belong? “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54). 
  3. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority. “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of [the Bible][1] are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of [the Bible] is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). 
  4. The Inerrancy of Scripture: Are there any errors in the Bible? “The inerrancy of Scripture means that [the Bible] in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91).  This lesson largely focused on the manuscripts of the Qur’an and the New Testament, showing that the evidence is clear that the New Testament has not changed. However, there is good evidence that the Qur’an has changed.
  5. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity. Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly? “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all [who read it by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit]”[2] (Grudem, 108). 
  6. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity. For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible? “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral law” (Grudem, 116). 
  7. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (4) Sufficiency. Is the Bible enough for knowing what God wants us to think or do? “The sufficiency of Scripture means that [the Bible] contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, 127). 

The question of the Clarity of Scripture is who can understand the Bible. Throughout church history, this has been a controversial question. For example, the Catholic Church kept the Bible in Latin for hundreds of years so that the average believer could not read it. They believed that only priests could understand Scripture. Therefore, the Bible was kept in a language that only the priests could study and learn it. Unfortunately, this led to a time in church history when even the priests did not understand the Bible well. 

One of the key acts of the Reformation was to translate the Bible into common languages so that the average believer could have access to it. Translating the Bible into common languages usually led to the persecution of the faithful men who undertook these tasks. Consider these two brief stories.

  • In 1534 AD, Martin Luther published his German translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew texts. Luther was famously excommunicated from the Catholic church for his teaching. More than once, Catholic leaders sought to kill Luther for his teaching and for his work in Bible translation.
  • In 1535 AD, William Tyndale translated the full Bible into English for the first time. In 1536 AD, Tyndale was publicly burned to death for translating the Bible. 

Luther and Tyndale published their translations of the Bible at a time when the printing press had recently been developed. As a result, their translations were printed in mass and made available to a much broader audience. For the first time in hundreds of years, the Bible was made available for the ordinary follower of Jesus.

Today, the same issue occurs. Many pastors believe that only people with formal theological education can understand the Bible. The result is that they are slow to put the Bible into the hands of their disciples and encourage them to read it for themselves. Sometimes people are afraid that new believers will misinterpret the Scriptures. Therefore, they tell believers to come and hear their teaching while de-emphasizing their disciples learning directly from God in the Bible.

The doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit. This doctrine has two parts:

  1. God has revealed His Word in a clear way that ordinary people can understand.
  2. God has given His Holy Spirit to each believer so that His Spirit can guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

The Bible is Clear

“The revelation of your words brings light and gives understanding to the simple.” Psalm 119:130 (Psalm 19:7)

The word “simple” here is a reference to a person without insight and understand. It is a reference to an ordinary person without a great deal of education. The testimony of the Bible is that the Bible is specifically designed to give insight to simple people. 

Without a doubt, the most accessible sections of Scripture to understand for new believers are the stories, or the narratives, of Scripture. God, in His wisdom, gave us a Bible that is 43% narrative. The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are undoubtedly the most important books of Scripture. God gave them in narrative form. 

According to the Indian census, 59.1% of Muslims in India are literate. Many of these 59.1% are of low literacy, meaning that they can do simple tasks like writing their name but cannot read a book. For those coming to Christ who are illiterate, the stories of Scripture are easily taught. Recordings can be provided of these stories in their heart languages so that the average believer who cannot read and read can still have access to much of Scripture. The Holy Spirit can guide even the illiterate to understand His truth.

While some passages of Scripture are more challenging to understand than others (see 2 Peter 3:16), God has provided His Word in a form that is understandable to most people.

The Holy Spirit Guides Believers to Understand the Bible

Several passages of Scripture show that the Holy Spirit guides believers to understand all truth.

  • “’Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel in those days’ – the LORD’s declaration. ‘I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts.’” Jeremiah 31:33, quoted in Hebrews 8:10
  • “I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statues and carefully observe my ordinances.” Ezekiel 36:27
  • “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” John 14:26
  • “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13

In contrast, several passages emphasize that those without the Spirit – or those outside of Christ – cannot understand the Bible correctly.

  • “But the person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually.” 1 Corinthians 2:14
  • “When [Jesus] was alone, those around him with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. He answered them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that they may indeed look, and yet not perceive; they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back and be forgiven.’” Mark 4:10-12
  • “Yet still today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” 2 Corinthians 3:15-16

The defining difference between these two kinds of people is whether they have the Spirit of God living in them. If we have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will guide us to understand all spiritual truth. If we do not have the Holy Spirit, then we cannot fully understand the Bible.

How to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit

If the Holy Spirit’s indwelling power is what determines our ability to understand the Bible, then we need to understand what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Bill Bright’s booklet, “Are you Experiencing the Spirit-Filled Life,” is one great way to understand these issues. Click here to go to Bright’s booklet (the three diagrams below are from this resource).

Bill Bright defined three kinds of people: (1) those without the Spirit, (2) those filled with the Spirit, and (3) followers of Jesus who neglect the Spirit and live their own lives. The following three diagrams use circles to show a person’s life. Inside the life is a throne, indicating who is the Lord of their life. The cross indicates Christ, and the “S” indicates self.

When a person outside of Christ hears the gospel, they repent and by faith allow Christ to become the Lord of their life. When they repent and believe, God fills them with the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-8). When Christ is on the throne of their life, they study the Bible, and the Holy Spirit guides them into all truth.

Unfortunately, all followers of Jesus sin (1 John 1:5-10). When we sin, we essentially remove Christ as the Lord of our lives. We put ourselves back on the throne of our lives. In this state, the Holy Spirit is no longer guiding us and transforming us. Many followers of Jesus live sinful lives, and as a result, they are not filled with the Spirit of God. The Spirit no longer teaches them. For them, understanding the Bible is difficult because God’s Spirit is not leading them.

Those followers of Jesus who live sinful lives also need to repent from their sin and place their faith in Christ again. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of walking by the Spirit is a constant choice to turn away from sin and walk by the Spirit. Any time we turn away from God’s way, we need to repent and follow Him again.

The point is that new believers can walk by the Spirit, turning away from sin, and following God. As they walk by the Spirit and read the Bible, God will guide them into all truth.

Conclusion

The result is that when any person comes to Christ, we need to get the Bible to them. As the Holy Spirit comes into them, the Spirit will teach them the truth of His Word. If we neglect to put the Bible into the hands of new believers, we fail to believe that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to teach the truth to God’s people. If we lack confidence that new believers can understand the Bible, our lack of confidence is really in the Holy Spirit. We are saying that the Holy Spirit is weak. Often those who de-emphasize the ability of the Holy Spirit to teach new believers overemphasize their own ability to teach the Bible. Consider this, if someone’s confidence in their own ability to teach the Bible is greater than their trust in the Holy Spirit to teach the Bible, this person is undoubtedly guilty of pride.

On the other hand, God has given Bible teachers, pastors, and scholars to the church (see Eph 4:11-13). The purpose of these people is to equip the body of Christ so that believers can directly approach God. Some passages of Scripture and some doctrines are harder to understand. It is beneficial to have godly men and women who can help believers grow in their understanding of the Scriptures. However, these leaders must not fall into the Catholic Church’s trap that persecuted Luther and Tyndale for translating the Bible! Every Christian leader should long for those under their leadership to be like the Bereans who took Paul’s teaching and carefully compared it to the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).

Therefore, as Muslims come to Christ, we must get the Bible into their hands. We must encourage them to read the Bible with prayer. As we do so, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will be their best teacher. As they study the Word, we should continue to disciple and mentor them with the hope that they will become wiser than us as they meditate on the Word of God (Psalm 119:99).

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[1] In the definitions for the Authority of Scripture, the Inerrancy of Scripture, and the Sufficiency of Scripture, the term “Scripture” has been replaced by “the Bible” as seen in brackets. The reason is that the definitions could have been confusing from a perspective of Muslim-Christian conversation. 

[2] I have modified Grudem’s definition. What is in the brackets was originally “will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” in Grudem.

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