The most important doctrine
you’ve never heard of
Pastor Paul Naumann • Tacoma, Washington
“Well, that’s your interpretation!”
Sadly, this is how the conversation sometimes ends when you attempt to discuss the Bible with a friend or acquaintance.
For example, when you cite what Scripture says about creation, or the sacraments, or the natural depravity of man, your friend may very well respond, “That’s your interpretation.” The implication is not only that you are not correct but also that it is impossible to know what is correct. This is a very common response. It is also a tacit denial of one of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith–the perspicuity of Scripture.
Perspicuity is a big theological term for a relatively simple teaching.
Perspicuity is a big theological term for a relatively simple teaching–that the Bible is clear. The founders of the Church of the Lutheran Confession echoed the historic teaching of Lutheranism when they stated, in Concerning Church Fellowship, “We say and teach with all conviction that Holy Writ is clear and makes all doctrines and precepts laid down in the inspired Word freely accessible to every reader.”
The teaching that the Bible is clear has never been argued among confessional Lutherans, but it is rejected by nearly every mainline denomination today.
It is easy to understand why. Every other area of life is open to varying interpretations–business, politics, parenting, relationships, marriage, sports, art and literature, to name a few. A fan of Ernest Hemingway may argue that the short story “Big Two-Hearted River” is about a young soldier coming to grips with his experience in war. Another may say it is just a story about fishing. One person’s opinion is just as valid as another’s. It is possible that both may be right.
That’s true about every other book in the world—but is it true about the Bible? When it comes to scriptural teachings, is my interpretation just as valid as yours? Might it even be that we both are right? Is it in fact haughty and arrogant to insist that a certain statement of the Bible means one thing and not another?
When you think about it, all this boils down to a single question: Is the Bible clear? Because, in the final analysis, if the teachings of Scripture are open to varying interpretations, that means that the Bible is not clear.
What does Holy Scripture say of itself? “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Bible spreads light, not darkness. God’s Word illumines our understanding, it does not obscure it. It shows us the truth rather than conceals it. Ask yourself: if God’s Word were not clear, how could King David refer to it as a lamp?
In the New Testament Jesus says, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). How could Jesus direct us to abide in His Word if it were impossible to say with certainty what that Word means? How could He promise, “You shall know the truth,” if that Word were open to varying and contradictory interpretations?
The Apostle Peter says, “We have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). Where the Word is, there is light. It is, in fact, the only thing that can bestow the light of spiritual understanding. Martin Luther argued this very passage with Desiderius Erasmus in their famous debate about free will. Luther astutely pointed out that the real root of their disagreement lay in the perspicuity of Scripture, which Luther upheld and Erasmus rejected. Luther wrote, “I say with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure. What we have cited from Peter holds good here, that the word of God is for us ‘a lamp shining in a dark place.’ But if part of this lamp does not shine, it will be a part of the dark place rather than of the lamp itself.”
No, God has not given us an ambiguous Word. In fact, many passages take for granted the fact that the Bible is clear and unambiguous. “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). “But as God is faithful, our word to you was not Yes and No” (2 Corinthians 1:18). Thus throughout the Bible.
While the doctrine of perspicuity holds that all the teachings of Scripture can be clearly understood, frail and sinful humans don’t always do so. A particular individual may be ignorant of a certain Bible teaching and require enlightenment from God’s Word. Another may intentionally distort a teaching from Scripture to suit his personal agenda. Both are common occurrences; neither means that the Bible is unclear. Just the opposite is true. Scripture is not the cause of confusion and false teaching, but rather its cure: “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:8).
As individuals we dare never say, “I cannot be wrong!” However, we can – and must – continue to say, with confessing Christians of every age, “God’s Word cannot be wrong!”