A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of ScriptureBy Mark D. Thompson (InterVarsity, 2006).

Begotten as the Annual Moore College Lectures (2005), the premise of this book of five chapters is that the clarity of Scripture must be defended upon a theological basis, not simply on historical or literary-critical grounds. The stitching together of a series of talks, however, has produced the conglomeration of somewhat less-than-cohesive topics, not particularly bound together by a theological defense of claritas Scripturae. Perhaps the most obvious lacuna is the absence at the outset of a “clear” definition of what, according to the author, constitutes the perspicuity of the biblical text. Without that destination displayed up front, one is often left wondering about the terminus of the book’s arguments.

Chapter 1 deals with traditional objections to the Bible’s clarity—the mystery of the Scriptures, the role of the church as interpreter, the frailty and fallibility of language, the diversity of interpretations, and Scripture’s own acknowledgement of its obscurity. Thompson’s framing of the controversy in the contemporary post-modern milieu, with its incredulity regarding reality, objective truth, and authorship, is quite illuminating.

Chapter 2 is the theological backbone of the book, and consists of an excellent discussion of the nature of a communicating God; it is God’s attribute as the guarantor of scriptural clarity that renders valid the claim of perspicuity: the Trinitarian “God-talk” of the Scriptures is made possible by God’s decision to be known and His purposeful self-revelation in the canon. Regrettably, the love of God and the doxological focus in His communicational transactions barely get mention; the role of the Holy Spirit is assigned only about a page’s worth.

Chapter 3 concerns itself mostly with the use of the OT in the NT; Thompson musters a series of strong arguments to show how the NT assumed, as a given, the perspicuity of the OT. Without a definition of the author’s conception of the clarity of Scripture, the reader is left without many clues as to where all this is leading. Thompson asserts that the text is neither “necessarily transparent”, nor “surrounded by impenetrable darkness”. It is with “further engagement with the text”, “attention to its context”, “integration … into … a broader biblical theology” that clarity is attained (88, 91). Quite a task! On 2 Pet 3:14–16, Thompson notes: “Peter evidently does not see darkness or obscurity as something characteristic of Scripture as a whole. He does not even think it is characteristic of everything Paul writes, only some things” (108). Degrees of clarity? A hierarchy of topics, some clearer than others? A definition of perspicuity early on in the book could have forestalled this puzzlement; a deductive development of his thesis would certainly have bolstered Thompson’s own clarity in his otherwise meticulous undertaking.

The hermeneutical discussions (chapter 4, and parts of chapter 2) are quite informative and substantial. Chapter 5 covers mostly historical ground, primarily the Luther vs. Erasmus and Whitaker vs. Bellarmino debates. The backgrounds of these contentions for the perspicuity of Scripture outline the issue quite crisply; it appears that the arguments for and against clarity have not changed much in the centuries that have followed these polemical interactions. That clarity is to do with the subject matter of the Scriptures as a whole, Luther seems to agree: “with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure” (147). Whitaker insisted that what is clear are “all things necessary to salvation” (153). Salvific clarity is, of course, also affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “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 … clearly propounded”. Yet one is left wondering if clarity is no more than an indistinct, interpretive impression than a precise attribute of any portion of the biblical text.

It is not until the final paragraph of the book that a definition of clarity is provided: The clarity of Scripture is that quality of the biblical text that, as God’s communicative act, ensures its meaning is accessible to all who come to it in faith (169–170). Though he appears dissatisfied with Vanhoozer’s concept of clarity, this reader found that definition to be a more pragmatic expression of the doctrine: “[C]larity means that the Bible is sufficiently unambiguous in the main for any well-intentioned person with Christian faith to interpret each part with relative adequacy” (Is There a Meaning in This Text? 315; italics added). I quite liked those qualifications. Perspicuity as the Reformers used it indicated its utility as a hermeneutical principle (against the claim that the meaning of the Bible is inherently unstable and indeterminate), as a critical principle (against the claim that the Bible is to be interpreted exclusively by a magisterium), and as an epistemological principle (against the claim that the meaning of Scripture is insufficiently comprehensible to shape Christian practice) (ibid.). Understood in this sense, any negation of the clarity of the canonical text vitiates the authority of the Word, the necessity of its exposition, and, indeed, the very purpose of its existence; a denial of perspicuity is a violation of the attribute of God as communicator, along with all that that divine characteristic entails.

In sum, this is a useful book on the clarity of Scripture: its strengths lie in its fastidious documentation of the historic objections to this doctrine and in a strong defense thereof—a carefully reasoned rejoinder that is based upon the attribute of God as a communicating entity. Thompson’s work will no doubt strengthen the preacher’s confidence in the text, but even more so in the God who inspired that text, a God who has spoken clearly to His people and to His world.

beginningwithmoses.org (2007)

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