What do we mean when we speak of the Perspicuity of Scripture?
While there are certainly many areas of scripture that are difficult to interpret and to understand, given that the Bible was given to all people throughout history, not to just a select few, and given that the Bible was given for the edification of people of every age and level of intelligence and education, not just those trained as theologians, in matters of salvation, the scriptures are clear enough that all can understand what God has communicated, particularly with respect to the question of salvation. The church fell into grave error in the medieval period when it argued that the scriptures were too difficult for any but the clergy to understand and thus restricted the Bible into the hands of the educated elite of the church. This is contrary to the Biblical testimony of the early church, where the gospel was proclaimed and the command to study scripture was given to all believers. The Bible is clear on the question of what sin is, the fallen state of man, the reality that man needs a redeemer, the fact that Jesus came and paid the penalty for sin for those who come to him in faith, and that if we yearn for redemption, we must flee to Christ. The Bible is also clear in terms of the explanation of what the life of the believer should look like in terms of moral behavior and good works. These things, even a young child or one with the least amount of education can understand and thus the scriptures should be read and studied by all who call themselves believers in Jesus Christ. This does not ignore that there are difficult passages of scripture; such passages should be labored over and assistance sought from reliable theologians and commentaries should be sought, but the last thing one should do is to flee from them.
What do we mean when we state that the Bible is infallible as well as being inerrant?
As discussed above, the Bible is inerrant, or, in other words, without error. The idea of infallibility takes the premise one step further. When we say that the Bible is infallible, we say that the Bible is incapable of making mistakes, or in practical terms, that the Bible is incapable of leading the believer into error. This is not to say that there have never been students of the Bible that have drifted into error, indeed, the history of the church is filled with those who have done just that. Yet, the reason that they drifted into error is not because they were misled by scripture, but it was because their own sin got in the way of the proper interpretation of scripture. To understand scripture fully, it must be approached in faith and with respect for what it is, and thus guided by the Holy Spirit for its interpretation. Many non-believers have spent their lives studying the Bible and have often provided valuable insights into the text, but they eventually fall into error because they do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and as a result, their minds are not illumined by the Holy Spirit. Yet, for those who are born again believers, those who are trusting in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, prayerful study and application of the scriptures will not lead them into error.
In addition, the scriptures are infallible in teaching the way by which men and women must be saved. To put it another way, it is through the writings of scripture, being taught and proclaimed, that people come to know the beauty of Jesus and to experience the wonders of salvation that Jesus wrought. So important was this idea that the Apostle Paul wrote the following words:
Therefore, how are they to call on him of whom they have not believed? And how can they to believe in whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without one preaching? And how can they preach if they have not been sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of the one who proclaims the good news!” But they have not all heard the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what they heard from us?” Therefore, faith comes out of hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14-17)
Thus, the very content of our proclamation of the gospel and of our preaching in the church must always be God’s word. The thoughts and ideas of the pastor can lead one to fall, but God’s word is incapable of doing just that.
There have been different approaches to this concept in the history of the church. The Eastern Orthodox church has largely held that since the early Christian councils were so scripturally based, said councils should be considered to be infallible as well as the scriptures. The difficulty with this view is that there have been many books, creeds, and confessional texts that are deeply based in scripture, but when one argues that infallibility extends from scripture to those writings based on scripture, one enters into subjectivity in terms of what constitutes a document based on scripture. Such a view also places a great deal of weight upon the interpretation of scripture and not upon the scriptures themselves. Invariably, this view will lead you into theological error and toward crediting the minds and the pens of men with honor that God never intended that they be given. Such a position elevates the writings of these church councils to the level of scripture as well, and the dangers of that matter have already been touched upon. While there are many wonderful texts that have been written to guide our studies, we should always be cognizant that they have been written by men and not by God.
The Roman Catholic church has taken a different approach to this as well. They have held that the Pope, as “Christ’s Vicar” on earth is preserved by God from entering into error on matters of the church, faith, and morality. He is said to demonstrate that infallibility when he speaks from “Peter’s Chair,” properly known as speaking ex cathedra. This is built on the assumption that Peter was the first Pope of the church and that through the process of a succession of Popes, the Apostolic authority of Peter was handed down from generation to generation. Again, this makes the error of assuming that men are incapable of failing, something all sinful men can do, no matter the character of the individual. It is only God who is infallible and thus the infallibility of God extends to his divine word alone, not to the words of men. What we do with that word is what opens us up to error.
To what extent is the Bible inspired and thus inerrant? Does the inspiration extend only to the ideas conveyed or to the very words of scripture?
A debate that has been taking place between the Orthodox branches in the church and what is normally called the Neo-Orthodox movement, is over the question of the extent of revelational authority. Another way of phrasing the question is, “Is the Bible the word of God or does the Bible contain the word of God?” This presents a contrast between a view of the inspiration of scripture and the view of the plenary inspiration of scripture.
The Neo-Orthodox movement in the church has held that it is not the words of scripture that contain the inspiration of God, but it is that when those words find themselves to rest upon the ears and the heart of a believer, then, and only then, genuine inspiration takes place. This allows the Neo-Orthodox theologian to not get very hung up by source critical arguments because, after all, it is not the words of scripture that are important; rather, it is the effect that those words have on the believing heart that is important. As one can see, this scheme of understanding revelation becomes extremely subjective and robs the text of any genuine content, for content, according to this view, comes from the hearer’s interpretation of the words. Exegetical theology also becomes nearly impossible, for exegesis becomes about “what this text means to me…” instead of what this text actually says. And though this position can be attributed to Neo-Orthodoxy today, it is not a new sin, but one that can be traced all of the way back to Adam and Eve who doubted God’s word that they would die if they ate of the forbidden fruit.
In response to this, the Orthodox theologians have taken a strong stand on the plenary (or complete) inspiration of scripture. In other words, every single word of scripture is a result of the inspiration of God. Every noun, every verb, ever preposition, every adjective, every pronoun, ever article is a result of the breathing out of God and thus carries with it the full authority of God himself. This view holds that meaning comes from within the text and not from within the hearer. This view holds that God is a rational and intentional God and that as a result, when he rationally and intentionally communicates with his people, he has a plain and intended purpose and meaning behind what was said. This view holds that the very statements of scripture contain propositional truth given to God’s people so that we might know him and glorify him with our lives. This view holds that while we see the stylistic fingerprint of the human authors within each text, that it is God who is writing through them, using all of their gifts and talents to produce his word, and that word—every word of it—is true and perfectly given and preserved by the Holy Spirit.
There are many in the post-modern world that would contend that words in themselves contain no meaning. They would continue that words are nothing but culturally formatted symbols with which we communicate and that it is the context in which language is used that conveys meaning. On one level, there is a degree of truth to this argument. We have already spoken of the dynamic nature of language as it is used by a culture. Many of our words carry with them very different meanings depending on the context in which they are found. For example, depending on the context, the word “dope” in English could refer to illegal drugs, to someone who is foolish or not intelligent, to gossip that is shared, to a form of varnish used on aircraft, or to lubricant that is used as a sealant. Context, then determines which form of the word you are using. This being said, words in a culture do have a fixed and limited set of meanings. Dope does not also mean dog, cat, and grocery cart; it cannot mean anything we want it to mean. If it could, then language would become meaningless, for “Dope dope doped dope” could then mean, “I need you to pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery store.” If such use of language were ever to become the case, then, as a culture, we would be returned to the state people found themselves in at the Tower of Babble, when God confused the languages. Culture cannot exist and reproduce itself if language is rendered meaningless.
Yet, even the post-modern thinker, when pressed on the issue, would assert that language does contain meaning, though it pains them to do so. Post-modern thinkers write books for people to read. Certainly in writing a book, the post-modern thinker expects people to understand what he is trying to teach. When a post-modern thinker goes to the bank and asks that his paycheck be deposited in his checking account, certainly he expects the teller to understand what he is saying and he trusts that the money will actually go into his account rather than in some random account. When the post-modern thinker goes to the emergency room in agony because he has kidney stones, when he communicates this to the doctor, he does not expect the doctor to start by examining his knees. When the post-modern thinker goes to a restaurant and orders an expensive meal, the post-modern thinker expects to be served the meal he ordered. Thus words have meanings and any rational person is forced to admit such by the way they use their words in practical situations. And, as God is a rational God, the words that God speaks in scripture are spoken with an expectation that they be understood—and that they be obeyed!
It is important to note that scripture was not given as dictation, squelching the various personalities through whom God wrote. We see stylistic language, artistic structure of texts, and themes that run through the writings of given authors, showing us something of the human nature of the Bible. Exodus 4:14-17 records the calling of Aaron to be Moses’ prophet (also see Exodus 7:1). God would tell Moses what to say, Moses would tell Aaron what to say and Aaron would speak it. The words that the prophet speaks belong to God (or in Aaron’s case, Moses), but the mannerisms, inflections of speech, and personality belong to the prophet. So too with scripture—the words belong to God, but the structure and personality of the writings belong to the prophetic or Apostolic author.
It is worth emphasizing here that only the Orthodox view of plenary inspiration preserves the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture. When the meaning of scripture becomes subjective, the truth of scripture becomes subjective as well. In addition, scripture itself claims to be the word of God, not just to contain God’s word. As the scriptures claim to be inspired in a plenary sense, to claim otherwise is to invalidate the value of scripture as a whole, suggesting that it is nothing more than a book of lies.
If the Bible is incapable of error, to what extent does that infallibility extend, just to theological matters or to all maters to which it speaks?
We have already touched on this idea but it bears repeating. Given that the Bible is written by God, it is impossible for the text to be in error. God is omniscient and as he is the author of the Bible, the Bible reflects his omniscience in all areas. This means that the Bible is inerrant in the history of which it speaks, of the geography of which it speaks, of the science of which it speaks, and of real existence of the miraculous deeds that it records. It is our obligation, when our own understanding seems to contradict the revelation of scripture, to submit our understanding to the revelation that is given. Anything that compromises this view accuses God of being untruthful in his revelation of all things or it denies that scripture is divine revelation altogether and accuses its authors of being charlatans and frauds in the name of religion.
How do we know that the Bible is a unified and complete book in its presentation to us and that it alone contains the written revelation of God for his people?
While the Bible has many human authors through which the text was written, there is one divine author. This is clear by looking at its overall unity. There is not a humanly produced book, wherein multiple authors have contributed over a long span of time, that contains the unity that scripture contains. Not only does the Bible not contradict itself, it also presents a progression of theology that could not have evolved from the imagination of men. Themes and theological concepts are found in their infancy in early Old Testament writings, are developed further in later Old Testament writings, and are found complete within the New Testament—all without contradiction or inconsistency.
More importantly than its unified nature are the many claims that the Bible makes of itself being God’s word. Throughout the scriptures there are commands to “write this down” or “speak this to my people” given by God to his prophets and apostles. The Old Testament itself contains more than 600 instances of “and God said” or “thus says the Lord.” That in itself is an occurrence of about once every 35 verses. The New Testament contains numerous direct quotes from Jesus himself, again being God’s speech recorded by the Apostles. The Bible goes as far as to refer to itself as being the very “breath” of God and thus the revelation of God to his people.
To those who would suggest that there are other texts that necessarily supplement the Bible that also contain God’s word, the Bible contains strong warnings that judgment will come upon those who suggest such things. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians and told them that anyone who proclaimed a gospel not consistent with that of scripture would be accursed. The consistent witness of every prophet and apostle within the history of the Biblical writings is that these words that are recorded in the scriptures contain the very words of God.