The Clarity of MoS

One of the striking things about Bart Campolo's testimony to his loss of faith is the fact that it was the Bible’s teaching on the illegitimacy of homosexual acts which was a key element in his rejection of Christianity.   I say ‘striking’ because it is strangely refreshing to hear someone at least face up to the clear teaching of the Bible on the issue.  In a world where many seem tempted to twist the Bible in such a way as to avoid its obvious imperatives on the matter, such honesty is bracing.

It points, of course, to the Reformation principle of the clarity of scripture.  This was articulated in a foundational manner by Martin Luther in his response to Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will.  His arguments became the starting point for later sixteenth and seventeenth century discussions of the same, with theologians essentially elaborating the basic ideas he used in that work.

Despite frequent cheapshotting from its opponents, the clarity of scripture was never intended to mean either that all things in the Bible are clear, or that the individual with his Bible could sit by himself and simply happen upon elaborate orthodoxy via his own unaided effort.   Luther and subsequent generations saw correct understanding of scripture as connecting to the ministry of the Word and thus as involving regular attendance upon the means of grace, catechizing, and willingness to listen both to competent teachers in the present and the great exegetical and theological contributions of the past.   Understanding scripture correctly involved both technical and moral aspects which were cultivated in the context of the church as part of ordinary discipleship.

What the notion of perspicuity denied was that the scriptures were in themselves so obscure that ordinary believers could have no access to what they taught, and no confidence that they taught the truth, without external church authority and tradition to validate and explicate them

Turretin clarifies the precise nature of what is at stake in debates over scriptural clarity in this way (Institutes 2.17.6-7):

‘[P]erspicuity does not exclude the means necessary for interpretation (i.e., the internal light of the Spirit, attention of mind, the voice and ministry of the church, sermons and commentaries, prayer and watchfulness).  For we hold these means not only to be useful but also necessary ordinarily.  We only wish to proscribe the darkness which would prevent the people from reading the Scriptures as hurtful and perilous and compel them to have recourse to tradition when they might rest in the Scripture alone.

'The question then comes to this – whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation (not as to things delivered, but as to the mode of delivery; not as to the subject, but the object) that without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers.’ 

Bart Campolo is thus to be commended at least for this: that he realised that interpreting scripture is not as complicated as many would have us believe, especially in these times when the cultural and political pressure to find the Bible obscure or ambiguous on an issue such as homosexuality can be overwhelming.

And when I consult commentaries as I prepare my sermon each week for the Lord’s Day, it is not because I do not believe in the clarity of scripture; it is because I believe in the dullness, obscurity, and even the deliberate darkness of my own mind.