Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

The Ecclesiological Implications of the Perspicuity of Scripture

It is important for us to consider the interconnections between our doctrine of Scripture and our ecclesiology because the ontology of Scripture is always to be related to Scripture’s teleology.  Recognising this allows us to rightly locate our doctrine of Scripture dogmatically within the economy of God’s activity rather than inadvertently reducing Scripture to being solely a matter of theological prolegomena. This paper will attempt to examine the ecclesiological implications of the perspicuity of Scripture. To achieve this, the statement concerning the clarity of Scripture in the Westminster Confession of Faith is, firstly, examined in some detail from three complementary angles – that of the content of Scripture (recognising that not all things in Scripture are equally clear), the readers of Scripture (recognising that there are things inherent within the reader of Scripture that will advance or hinder its inherent clarity) and the reading of Scripture (recognising that the approach to reading and the context in which that reading occurs are crucial factors that impact its clarity). These complementary perspectives usefully illuminate the teaching of the Confession on the clarity of Scripture and provide the basis for an exploration of their implications on ecclesiology. These implications are, secondly, set out through adopting the classical four-fold attributes of the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. A clear Scripture leads us to expect a certain kind of one-ness in the church, sheds significant light on the nature and the progressive sanctification of the church, helps us think rightly about our catholicity in the church, and is foundational in enabling the church to be apostolic throughout her history.  Seeing these implications ensures we think rightly about Scripture and the church and the organic and inseparable connection between them.  

Considering the impact of perspicuity on ecclesiology is important for three reasons. Firstly, it allows us to examine the connections between the ontology and teleology of Scripture. It is noteworthy that Paul connects the ontology of Scripture – “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16)[1] – with the teleology of Scripture –“[it is] profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16). There is an organic and inseparable connection between what Scripture is and what Scripture aims at. Thus, considering the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture[2] – which is, amongst other things, a statement concerning its ontology – should encourage the exploration of the doctrine of the church, since the formation and building up of the church is part of Scripture’s teleology.  

Secondly – and flowing from the first reason – considering this question is important as it ensures that we connect the doctrine of Scripture with the doctrine of God and situate it within his economy.[3] As Thompson reminds us: “[the perspicuity of Scripture] says something about God... what we say about the Bible has important implications for our understanding of God and his purposes...”[4] Examining the connections between Scripture’s perspicuity and the doctrine of the church will mean that we do not treat the clarity of Scripture in an abstract or mechanical way, but rather that we see this as an aspect of the work of a holy God who through his holy word acts to form a holy people. If this does not happen then we run the risk that, in Ward’s words, “the doctrine of Scripture can begin to look like a preface or an appendix to the central doctrines of the Christian faith... as such it can seem easily dispensable... it can turn out to be a doctrine that seems impoverished and thin, lacking deep roots in the rich glories of the character and actions of God himself.”[5] Thus, the conclusions we reach about the perspicuity of Scripture will shed light on the nature of God’s work for and in his church. This essay will model how we must not separate Scripture from the active and ongoing work of God in his world and for his church.

Thirdly, considering this question is important as it provides further evidence for the suitability of adopting an ancillary ecclesial analogy of Scripture. Traditionally, the doctrine of Scripture has been examined using an incarnational analogy.[6] This analogy has normally been employed to defend the concept of inerrancy by arguing that just as Christ had a human and a divine nature yet was without sin, so it is possible for Scripture to be both a human and a divine product without necessarily containing error. It is helpfully summed up in Article II of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Interpretation:

We affirm that as Christ is God and Man in one Person, so Scripture is, indivisibly, God’s Word in human language. We deny that the humble, human form of Scripture entails errancy any more than the humanity of Christ, even in his humiliation, entails sin.[7]

However, Castelo and Wall are among a number of voices highlighting some of the weaknesses inherent in the incarnational analogy.[8] In summary, their contention is that an appeal to the incarnational analogy has “a penchant for misreading Chalcedon, but it also creates in the process a number of category confusions with regard to Scripture’s ontology and ends.”[9] They argue that “this ‘ecclesial analogy’ is more helpful in accounting for the nature of Scripture as a means of grace that serves its readers in directing them to the transforming and life-giving work of the triune God.”[10] Castelo and Wall slightly overstate their case, but at the very least this ecclesial model can and should supplement the traditional incarnational analogy. The ecclesial analogy of Scripture allows the nature of the church to inform us about the nature of Scripture. Specifically, from the properties of the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic… it follows logically that the material properties of Scripture… are of a piece with the church”.[11] Considering this essay question will underline the interconnectedness of Scripture and church and allow us to see that the connections between Scripture and church run the other way as well in a complementary account to Castelo and Wall’s. It will enable us to see the ways the nature of Scripture illuminates the nature of the church.

This essay will argue that in several important ways the perspicuity of Scripture informs our doctrine of the church – especially in what it means for the church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In order to examine this we will first consider the perspicuity of Scripture – through an exposition of the doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Reformed tradition associated with it – and then proceed to highlight the ways this doctrine informs the doctrine of the church.

I. The Perspicuity of Scripture Considered

The Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on Scripture has, rightly, been described as “the most thorough statement of classic Reformed Protestantism on the subject of Scripture and possibly the finest to date from any source”.[12] This description ensures that considering the perspicuity of Scripture as it is set out in the Confession will be a worthwhile and representative task which is beneficial in forming a contemporary doctrine of Scripture. To attempt to discern the Confession’s relevance for us today is not to suggest that it was crafted in isolation or in an ahistorical vacuum[13]. Recent scholarship has shown the connections between the creators of the Confession and the Continental Reformed as well as their debt to, amongst other sources, the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles and Archbishop Ussher’s Irish Articles.[14] Further, it is clear that those who wrote the Confession were in debt to such figures as William Whitaker who had contended earlier for the perspicuity of Scripture against the Roman Catholic position.[15] It is vital that we do not read the Confession in an arbitrary and unhistorical way. It was framed in light of contemporary debates – most noticeably between the Reformed and the Roman Catholics on one side and the Antinomians on the other[16]. However, that does not mean that it is so tied to its historical period that is can serve no didactic or edificatory function today. It simply means that it must be interpreted on its own historical terms before it can be made to speak today. With this in mind, we turn to the Confession’s statement about the perspicuity of Scripture:

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, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.[17]

It is worth noting that “in the 1640s, Rome still maintained that Scripture must be interpreted only by the church authorities”.[18] This was simply the continuation of the official position expressed at the Council of Trent which warned against the individual interpretation of Scripture “contrary to that sense which holy mother church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds”.[19] This historical context clearly influenced the Confession’s statement of the perspicuity of Scripture – just as it had with earlier writings on the clarity of Scripture in discussion with Roman Catholic polemic. To aid our consideration of perspicuity as expressed in the Confession, it will be helpful to examine its teaching deploying three broad categories that are represented in this statement.[20]

1. The Content of Scripture [21]

The Confession makes a distinction with regard to the content of Scripture and its perspicuity. It acknowledges that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves”.[22] It recognises that not all matters in Scripture are equally clear. There are mysteries, hard to understand elements and parts that yield their teaching only after much prayerful effort and study. After all, affirming that the Scriptures are perspicuous is not to suggest that they are simple.[23] At this point the Confession appeals to 2 Peter 3:16 where the apostle Peter acknowledges that “there are some things… that are hard to understand” in Paul’s epistles. However, this should not be taken too far to argue that Scripture is in large measure opaque. While “it is likely that [Peter] does have to work on understanding some of what Paul says… his concern is not with people like himself who are well instructed in the faith but with “ignorant and unstable” people…”[24] Further, it seems that “our author appears to be attributing guilt to these people… [as] being uninstructed can be… the result of refusing instruction… [and is] an active process.”[25] They deliberately and maliciously distort Paul’s teaching – even if that teaching does have elements that are hard to understand in it. It is not thus the Scriptures fault that these people misunderstand and twist its meaning and message.[26] When examining the implications of 2 Peter 3:16 for the perspicuity of Scripture it must be noted that:

It is one thing for dysnoēta (“things hard to be understood”) to be in the Scriptures, another for anoēta (“unintelligible”), which cannot be understood however diligently one studies. Peter says the former… not the latter. It is one thing to say that there are “some things hard to be understood”… which we concede; another that all are so… which we deny. It is one thing for them to be hard to be understood… in Paul’s manner of delivering the epistles, which we deny; another in the things delivered, which Peter intimates… it is one thing to be hard to be understood… by the unlearned and unstable, who by their unbelief and wickedness wrest them to their own destruction (which we hold with Peter); another that they are hard to be understood… by believers who humbly seek the aid of the Holy Spirit in searching them.[27]

So, while not everything in Scripture is equally clear, “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, that… [everyone] may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”[28] In speaking of “those things… necessary… for salvation” the Confession is not suggesting that there are elements of Scripture’s teaching that are entirely unrelated to salvation leading to a conception of salvation that is truncated or diminished[29]. Rather, it recognises that although everything in Scripture is integrally related to everything else – so that, from one perspective, everything is a matter of salvation in that it explains what it means to live under God’s Lordship – one can be saved without fully grasping or perceiving these connections.[30] It posits that there is an irreducible core gospel content that can be understood clearly from the Scriptures without recourse to an authoritative human interpreter.

2. The Readers of Scripture [31]

The Westminster Confession clearly acknowledges that there are things inherent within the readers of Scripture that further or hinder its perspicuity. It states that “all things in Scripture are not… alike clear unto all”.[32] A person’s individual capacity will impact how clear they find the Scripture to be.[33] This could refer to things such as intellect, exposure to sound teaching and personal spiritual maturity.[34] There is no indication here that Scripture will be equally clear to all people irrespective of personality and spiritual receptivity.

However, for those who humbly seek God in the Scripture they are clear “not only to the learned, but the unlearned”.[35] The Confession acknowledges the implications of intellect on the understanding of Scripture but it emphatically rejects the idea that intellectual capacity is ultimately determinative of understanding.[36] Regardless of whether a person is “learned” or “unlearned”, the Scriptures can be understood clearly. This is explained as achieving a “sufficient understanding of them.”[37] This is not to be understood as an autonomous achievement.[38] Rather, it is always dependent on the ministry of the Holy Spirit within God’s economy.[39] There is no suggestion that a “sufficient understanding” is at the same time an exhaustive understanding.[40] At this point, the Confession appeals to Psalm 119:105 which refer to the Scriptures as “a lamp to [one’s] feet and a light to [one’s] path”. Whitaker is surely correct when he writes, in contrast to the Roman Catholic position, that Scripture is,

called a lamp, because it hath in itself a light and brightness wherewith it illuminates others, unless they be absolutely blind, or wilfully turn away their eyes from this light… the comparison… of scripture to a lamp is to be understood to mean that we are thereby illuminated, who by nature are plunged into darkness, and see and understand nothing of what is pleasing to God. A lamp hath light in itself, whether men look upon that light or not: so also the scripture is clear and perspicuous, whether men be illuminated by it, or receive from it no light whatever.[41]

3. The Reading of Scripture

The Confession also refers to the reading of Scripture when it speaks about the importance of the “due use of the ordinary means”[42] as part of the process of understanding the clear Scripture. It is through and by these “ordinary means”[43] that understanding comes. These means would include prayerful supplication for God to grant true understanding of the matters addressed, reading within the communion of saints both past and present and giving due attention to the other means of grace that are available. So, although reading is an individual activity it is also a corporate one. However, the most obvious “means” referred to includes the careful, attentive, repeated reading of Scripture. There is no suggestion in the Confession that understanding is easy, immediate or superficial. Rather, a humble and committed willingness to read the Scriptures is essential to find them clear and perspicuous.[44] This makes sense of the oft commented on exhortation of Jesus that Christians should “search the Scriptures” (John 5:39). 

In summary, the understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture as set out in the Westminster Confession is biblical, nuanced and able to integrate the objective and subjective elements under consideration. Having considered the perspicuity of Scripture as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, we now turn to identify some of the ways that this doctrine informs our doctrine of the church.

II. How Perspicuity Informs the Doctrine of the Church

In order to highlight the ways perspicuity informs the doctrine of the church it will be helpful to recall the four classical marks or attributes of the church noted in the Nicene Creed as “one, holy, catholic, apostolic”. We will adopt this schema as a framework to breakup our analysis. Before we turn to these connections, however, it is important to note that the basic question we face when considering the perspicuity of Scripture – to whom is it clear? – ensures that we consider the church. After all, Scripture is not clear to “those who are perishing… [because] the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:3-4).[45]  This means that “the gospel… is plain to believers”[46] but not to unbelievers. This, of course, does not mean that an unbeliever can understand nothing of the Bible at the level of grammatical comprehension, but rather that he cannot have “a spiritual understanding”[47] of the content that is bound up with salvation. This fits well with the nature of Scripture as a covenantal document, which itself strongly suggests its clarity, since such “a testament, contract, covenant or edict of a king… ought to be perspicuous and not obscure”.[48] In summary, we must affirm that there is a “selective”[49] clarity to Scripture. So, considering the perspicuity of Scripture demands that we accept the reality of this fundamental antithesis between people to whom it is clear and those to whom it is not. It is to a further examination of the community formed by those who clearly hear the Scriptures that we now turn.

1. The Oneness of the Church

The confession of the “oneness” of the church “marks out the material uniqueness of a particular community’s public life in the world”.[50] In other words, it captures the truth that each Christian experiences “theological and moral agreements with other Christians”.[51] Thus, this confession expresses the deep and profound unity that binds Christians together within the one church of God through a shared receipt of God’s Spirit. It is built on the conviction that “the Church is one, as there is, and can be but one body of Christ”.[52] In several ways, the perspicuity of Scripture informs our understanding of this oneness.

Firstly, affirming the perspicuity of Scripture undergirds rather than imperils this oneness. Whilst this doctrine affirms the spiritual propriety of each and every believer searching the Scriptures individually, it also recognises that the Scripture is heard most clearly within the company and fellowship of God’s people.[53] A right hearing is not absolutely dependent on this – as in the Roman Catholic teaching concerning the magisterium – but is nonetheless best achieved within this context. Perspicuity should not be pressed in artificial ways to encourage an individualistic approach to Scripture. This is the potentially unhelpful move that Hodge makes when he introduces the category of “private judgment” into his explication of the concept.[54] The Westminster Confession’s reference to “a due use of ordinary means”[55] necessarily entails the settled teaching ministry of the church. In fact, the perspicuity of Scripture actually underpins the practice of biblical preaching. As Ward insightfully comments: “expository biblical preaching… assumes rather than denies the clarity of Scripture. An expository preacher takes it that his sermon can be judged as either a faithful or an unfaithful exposition of Scripture by his hearers, as they discern for themselves whether his teaching is or is not warranted by his biblical text”.[56] Without a clear and perspicuous Scripture then it becomes impossible for anyone to weigh and evaluate a person’s teaching which would make it impossible to fulfil the command to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). In addition, the perspicuity of Scripture also entails the communal interaction with the church past and present as a key element in hearing the clear Scripture. A true understanding of the doctrine does not imperil the church’s oneness but rather undergirds it.

Secondly, God has left one word for his one people. Since this is the case, we would expect this one communication to be clear. As God’s purpose in giving his word is for the growth and stability of the church, it would be perplexing if God – the ultimate effective communicator[57] – had spoken an unclear word to his one people. As Whitaker reminds us: “God does not mock us when he bids us read the scriptures; but he would have us read the scriptures in order that we may know and understand them.”[58] A commitment to the perspicuity of Scripture informs our expectation of how God communicates to his people. However, it reminds us that we need all of this one word, for “Scripture interprets itself; the obscure texts are explained by the plain ones, and the fundamental ideas of Scripture as a whole serve to clarify the parts”.[59] This principle was formalised as the “analogy of faith”. Therefore, the one clear word which is not to be divided or have one part set against another, illuminates the oneness of the church which is likewise not to be divided.

Thirdly, perspicuity informs the nature of the oneness the church confesses. This is particularly relevant in light of the reality of many disagreements in the church over doctrine and practice. Does this division not render the belief in the perspicuity of Scripture at best redundant and at worst downright naive? We do not believe so. In attempting to refute this charge, we must note that the “unanimity of biblical interpretation through history is quite remarkable”.[60] In addition, a nuanced concept of perspicuity recognises that “some of our differences in interpretation arise from the inherent richness and polyphonic voices of the human authors of Scripture”.[61] A correct view of perspicuity also permits the potential in the human reader to misunderstand or distort the meaning of Scripture – which doubtless has been at the root of some disagreements within the church. Yet, contrary to what might be expected, one of the significant implications of the perspicuity of Scripture is that the church will not always agree on everything. That would be to push the concept of clarity too far, for the doctrine maintains that the matters addressed may be difficult even if they are clearly expressed. Thus, Leigh can comment “the Scriptures teacheth that there is one God in three persons, the words are plain and easy; every man understands them; but the mystery contained in those words passeth the reach of man”.[62] So, Scripture can be clear even while profound mysteries remain over which believers may disagree. Rightly understood, the perspicuity of Scripture yields the implication that the church should be making some progress to full agreement, but it is illegitimate to posit that this will be achieved before the eschaton. The Westminster Confession recognises that perspicuity secures the clarity of the central matters of salvation which vast number of churches hold in common. However, the oneness of the church has always been understand as an eschatological confession, as a statement of what is true but not yet fully realised. So, perspicuity is compatible with this in that much in Scripture is clear, but not all. It may be that we should even conceive of perspicuity as an eschatological concept. Due to the oneness of the church being an eschatological confession it is perfectly acceptable to confess the perspicuity of Scripture yet also the necessity of a churchly hearing of the Scripture and a recognition that difficulties will always remain in hearing the clear voice of God in them. In these ways the perspicuity of Scripture informs our conception of the oneness of the church.

2. The Holiness of the Church

The holiness of the church has been defined as “the unfolding sanctification of its membership as the concrete effect of its calling and empowerment by the triune God… [in addition to] its purity practices… with the effect of its being set apart for worship of and witness to a holy God”.[63] This is especially connected to the third person of the Trinity for “where the Spirit of God is, there is holiness. If, therefore, the Spirit dwells in the Church, the Church must be holy”.[64] The perspicuity of Scripture informs this holiness in several important ways.

Firstly, it is an ethical doctrine.[65] Rightly understood, it removes excuses for failing to hear and obey the Scriptures. The clear Scripture can and should be read by every Christian for profit and edification. A person will not be able to excuse their moral failure or lack of holiness by appealing to the dark and confusing subject matter of Scripture. At the very least, the clear teaching of Scripture concerning those things that we need to know as essential to salvation ensures that it is possible for humble readers of Scripture to be holy in that sense. Further, this ethical thrust to perspicuity reminds us that “whatever is needful for the preaching of the church and the teaching of its fundamental doctrines is somewhere stated clearly and plainly”.[66] This ethical approach to the perspicuity of Scripture grounds the conviction that the church has been bequeathed with all she needs in the Scriptures.

Secondly, perspicuity also indicates something significant about the nature of this holiness – that it is progressive. Due to the presence of indwelling sin – individually and corporately – the church will always tend to mishear, disobey and wrongly constitute God’s word: “the church is not only fallible; it is prone to misinterpret God’s Word apart from the constant faithfulness of the Spirit’s illuminating grace”.[67] Thus it is crucial for God to bestow a clear word to his church that is growing in holiness but has not yet fully attained this. This clarity is essential if Scripture is to achieve all that God intends for it in light of the ongoing struggle of the church with its sinfulness.

Thirdly, the best defenders of perspicuity have always integrated their explanations for the remaining presence of the difficult parts of Scripture with the process of sanctification. Thus, Turretin can insist that God has included certain hard to understand elements in Scripture, “on purpose to excite the study of believers and increase their diligence; to humble the pride of man and to remove from them the contempt which might arise from too great plainness”.[68] Further, Whitaker explains the obscurities in Scripture as:

God would have us to be constant in prayer, and hath scattered many obscurities up and down through the scriptures, in order that we should seek his help in interpreting them and discovering their true meaning… he wished thereby to excite our diligence in reading, meditating upon, searching and comparing the scriptures… he designed to prevent our losing interest in them… God… would have our interest kept up by difficulties… God willed to have that truth, so sublime, so heavenly, sought and found with so much labour, the more esteemed by us on that account… God wished by these means to subdue our pride and arrogance, and to expose our ignorance… God willed that the sacred mysteries of his word should be opened freely to pure and holy minds, not exposed to dogs and swine… God designed to call off our minds from the pursuit of external things and our daily occupations, and transfer them to the study of the scriptures… God designed thus to accustom us to a certain internal purity and sanctity of thought and feeling… God willed that in his church some should be teachers, and some disciples; some more learned, to give instruction; other less skilful, to receive it; so as that the honour of the sacred scriptures and the divinely instituted ministry might, in this manner, be maintained.[69]

These difficulties are permitted by God to remain in Scripture to aid the progressive sanctification of the church. They are permitted so that we would seek after him in the pursuit of understanding.

Fourthly, the fact that the Scriptures are clear is foundational to how they are to be used to aid the church’s corporate holiness. The pattern we see in Ephesians 4:11-16 is that the risen and ascended Christ gives individuals who can share, teach and explain the Scriptures to his church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:12). As noted earlier, this word-based ministry includes activities such as preaching which presuppose the perspicuity of Scripture. However, as a result of the equipping of the saints they learn to “[speak] the truth in love” (4:15) to others in the church so that the church “[grows] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15). This reference to “the truth” is best taken to refer to the truth of the gospel – the perspicuous word – that each Christian is to share and remind every other Christian. When this happens the church “builds itself up in love” (4:16) which is another way of talking about its growth and progress in holiness. Thus, the perspicuity of Scripture enables and underpins the “truth speaking” ministry to which every Christian believer is called to play a part. This ministry of the clear word from every member of the body is integral to the health and holiness of the church.

Fifthly, given the ongoing spiritual battle in which believers are engaged[70] which would interrupt and hinder the church’s growth in holiness, God has left his church a clear word so that they would be protected from the malignant influence of Satan. Thus, for the pastoral support of believers it is imperative that the Scriptures are perspicuous. Whitaker comments, “the people should not be deprived of these arms by which they are to be protected against Satan. Now the Scriptures are such arms: therefore the scriptures should not be taken away from the people; for taken away they are, if the people be prevented from reading them”.[71] For the church’s protection against Satan and its growth in holiness, it is essential that the Scriptures be clear – and therefore open and available to all.

Sixthly, the perspicuity of Scripture reminds us that the holiness of the church is an eschatological confession. The church will not always grasp the full interconnectedness of Scripture which would be necessary to ensure full holiness of thought, action and attitude. The church will not always manage to hear and obey the clear Scripture. This does not undermine its perspicuity in any way. Rather, it situates it within an eschatological horizon – not least within the eschatological holiness of the church that has long been confessed. In these ways perspicuity informs the holiness of the church.

3. The Catholicity of the Church

The catholicity of the church “reflects the observation of its global reach and also the inclusiveness of its network of redeemed-but-diverse members”.[72] This is a subset of the church’s oneness: “The Church is one, because it embraces all the people of God”.[73] The perspicuity of Scripture informs this catholicity in several important ways.

Firstly, it was needed to ground catholicity in a meaningful sense. This is the original context for the Reformation and Post-Reformation debates with the Roman Catholic Church about the clarity of Scripture. The connection between Scripture and church resolved into the question whether all of the Scriptures were for all of God’s people. The Roman Catholic Church denied this whereas the Reformed position, without overthrowing churchly order, answered this question more positively. Scripture is for all of God’s people and can be read by them profitably. It is right and fitting that the Scriptures are read by all – even if “a due use of the ordinary means”[74] grounds this reading within the context of formal church ministry and preaching. The perspicuity of Scripture ensures the catholicity of the church – inasmuch as it approves the practice of universal reading of the Scriptures among God’s people and overthrows the necessity of authorised, human structures to arbitrate the meaning of the Scriptures for us.

Secondly, perspicuity encourages the individual, but never an individualistic reading of Scripture.[75] A nuanced understanding of the doctrine will always insist upon the importance of reading communally and historically; communally, as it must happen in fellowship with the people of God as they are currently identified; historically, as this reading must take place in the light of the creeds, confessions and exegetical traditions of the previous generations of Christians. So, rightly defined, the perspicuity of Scripture connects at significant points with the catholicity of the church – a catholicity that exists as a spatial-temporal category.

Thirdly, the perspicuity of Scripture secures the necessity of Scripture for all of God’s people while also recognising that it is not equally necessary to all. The necessity of access to the clear Scripture is in some sense person-specific. So, Leigh can comment: “neither is it required that all things be understood of all men; the knowledge of more places is necessary in a Minister, than in a Trades-man and Husband-man, yet it is an infallible Rule to every one in his Vocation.”[76] This connects with the idea that the clarity of Scripture is an ethical doctrine and can be summarised in the statement that “Scripture is always clear enough for us to carry out our present responsibilities before God”.[77]

Fourthly, since Scripture is clear is should be read by all God’s people – and this inevitably entails the need for translation of the Scriptures into languages that can be understood by all God’s people. Again, the polemical contest with Rome threw this issue into sharp relief as revealed in the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on the Vulgate as the sole, authorised Bible version. So, the perspicuity of Scripture which entails the need for it to be translated into different languages and dialects gives ample testimony to, and secures in some degree, the catholicity of the church as it is made up of diverse people from different backgrounds. Since there currently remains a great need for the translation of the Bible into languages and dialects, we remember that the catholicity of the church is also an eschatological confession that will not be realised until the clear Scriptures are proclaimed to every tribe, tongue, nation and language under heaven. In these ways the perspicuity of Scripture informs the catholicity of the church.

4. The Apostolicity of the Church

The apostolicity of the church reminds us that “the church is of and by the apostles; it is their witness of the incarnate Word of life that is the plumb-line of Christian proclamation and the criterion of the community’s koinonia with God and God’s Son (1 John 1:1-5)”[78] This is another way of expressing the “historical unity of the Church… [which] is now what it was in the days of the apostles”.[79] The perspicuity of Scripture informs this apostolicity in several important ways.

Firstly, it enables the church to be apostolic through the generations. The New Testament presents the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). In this image, the NT apostles and prophets[80] are the foundation on which the church is built as they are the unique, inspired, authoritative recipients of divine revelation and commission from Christ. Thus, the church is truly apostolic when it adheres to the apostolic word. This apostolic word is one that Christ predicted his apostles would commit to writing and that would continue to govern life in his church.[81] This apostolicity can best be achieved and guaranteed through a clear word rather than one that is ambiguous. The church’s apostolicity – its faithfulness to the apostolic word – would be imperilled if the Scripture that the apostles left the church was unclear in the central matters of salvation. Thus, the perspicuity of Scripture grounds the possibility that the church through all the ages and generations can truly be apostolic as it has access to the clear foundational word that Christ, by his Spirit, caused his apostles to write for posterity.

Secondly, perspicuity safeguards the church from heresy – and therefore from losing its apostolic status. In the original polemic against Rome, the Reformed took issue with the argument that the best safeguard against heresy was to stop the people reading the Scriptures as in their unlearned state they would twist and distort their true meaning. In contrast, Whitaker insists: “it is much better that the scriptures should be read, and that, from the scriptures read and understood, heresies should be condemned and overthrown, than that they should not be read at all; and that by such means the rise of heresies should be prevented”.[82] The fact that the Scriptures are clear encourages rather than inhibits the reading of them by all Christians as a safeguard against heresy and error.

Thirdly, perspicuity also indicates that the apostolicity of the church is an eschatological concept. It preserves the truth that sometimes the church will fail to be truly apostolic because it fails to read the Scriptures in humble dependence on the Spirit and in conversation with the church through the ages. It ensures that the church continues to seek to be as apostolic as it can before the eschaton, working hard to hear the clear word, knowing that sometimes that clarity is “hard won”.[83] The perspicuity of Scripture rightly acknowledges that “some things in them [that is, Paul’s letters] are hard to understand”.[84] Nevertheless, there is no indication that it is impossible for the church in every generation to be apostolic – even if that apostolicity is never fully attained until the consummation. In these ways the perspicuity of Scripture informs the apostolicity of the church.

III. Conclusion

The perspicuity of Scripture is an important contemporary doctrine,[85] not least because it throws light on our doctrine of the church. This essay has argued that there are numerous significant ways that the perspicuity of Scripture, particularly as it is outlined within the Westminster Confession of Faith, informs how we conceive of the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. This is as it should be as the ontology of Scripture must be joined with the teleology of Scripture. Noting the ways that the perspicuity of Scripture informs the doctrine of the church means that we keep the form and function of Scripture together, that we pay attention to Scripture’s work within God’s economy, that we locate our doctrine of Scripture, not merely as part of the theological prolegomena, but as an integral aspect within the salvific and redemptive work of the Triune God.[86] Ultimately, our conviction is that the perspicuous word is always read in “the presence of its ultimate author”[87] – God himself. This essay has attempted to follow, in part, Work’s desire that “the full range of Christian theological and practical categories, not just the ones most directly related to texts, can and should inform any adequate Christian doctrine and practice of Scripture”.[88] Further theological thinking in this area could profitably examine in what ways the other classical attributes of Scripture – its authority, necessity and sufficiency – may inform our doctrine of the church. For example, how Scripture’s authority grounds our understanding of the church as a creature of the word under the gracious rule of the Triune God, how Scripture’s necessity ensures that we conceive of the church as always in need of divine instruction supremely found within Holy Scripture, how the sufficiency of Scripture reminds us that the church has no recourse to appeal to ignorance of God’s expectations and desires for his people. However, this stands beyond the remit of this current essay so must be left to others to pursue. This essay has profitably begun to open up such discussions by arguing that in numerous and significant ways the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture informs our doctrine of the church. This is a much-needed connection today. 

 

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