Let me be clear, comedian Steven Wright is either very clear or very confusing. At least, I think so. But maybe you better decide for yourself. Here are some well-known Steven Wright questions/queries that I think are clearly important. For instance:
- “Why isn’t the word ‘phonetically’ spelled with an ‘F’?”
- “What’s another word for ‘Thesaurus’?”
- “If people from Poland are called Poles, why aren’t people from Holland called Holes?”
- “Do Lipton employees take coffee breaks?”
- “Why are there five syllables in the word monosyllabic?”
- “How come abbreviated is such a long word?”
Let me be clear, The Westminster Confession of Faith’s doctrine of Scripture is either very clear or very confusing. You decide. Here is the Confession’s statement in 1:7: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet, those things that are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or another, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Now, if you are like me, that sounds confusing. But wait, there’s more. To further confuse the issue, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is formally called the Perspicuity of Scripture. Again, it seems to me that if we are talking about how clear something is, that we ought to use a word that is at least somewhat clear to at least a few of us. Now granted, we all WANT the Confession to be right here. We all want to believe that the Bible is very clear about most things, but it seems to me that understanding the Scriptures is far more complicated than the Confession indicates, unless “those things that are necessary to be known” are few and far between. But unfortunately, most of us believe that the Bible is overwhelmingly clear about the majority of things it teaches. But that is just not so.
But don’t take my word for it. In the last decade or so, several well-known evangelical publishers (Zondervan, IVP, Baker, etc.) have found a very lucrative market. They understand that not everything in the Bible is as clear as we would like, but instead of seeing this as a negative, they have mined them thar hills for everything they can. As a result, we now have two or three series of books that are commonly called, “Counterpoints” or the “Views” books. The publishers pick a topic and then ask four or five scholars who disagree vehemently on that topic to write about it. And then they wrestle it out on paper. But here’s the thing. These are not insignificant topics. For instance, we have these recent books (and this list is far from exhaustive):
- Five Views on Justification
- Five Views on Sanctification
- Four Views on the Role of Works
- Four Views on Eternal Security
- Four Views on Biblical Inerrancy
- Four Views on How to Understand and Apply the Bible Today
- Three Views on Creation and Evolution
- Three Views on the Historicity of Genesis
- Four Views on the Historical Adam
- Four Views on Hell
- Four Views on War
- Four Views on the Apostle Paul
- Five Views on the Law and the Gospel
- Four Views on Women in Ministry
- Five Views on the Church and Politics
- Five Views on Christianity and Psychology
- Four Views on Christianity and Science
- Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy
And if that was not enough, we have, Four Views on the Doctrine of God. We can’t even agree on what the Bible says about God!
Now, it is possible that the Confession would not categorize any of these topics as “necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation”; and that is fine, although some of these issues, I think you would agree, are pretty important. But for the sake of argument, let’s grant that none of these are critical “for our salvation.” However, I think I could list off some other topics that we would be highly reluctant to dismiss as of secondary importance, topics upon which the protestant church from the very beginning has never agreed.
Case in point: the Eucharist. Jesus gave his church bread and wine as the sign of the New Covenant in his blood. It is a meal we are to take regularly in remembrance of him. At River’s Edge, we celebrate communion at least 13 times a year because it is so important. Many of us have been partaking of the bread and wine for decades. One would think, therefore, that we would have a firm grasp on what it all means; but sadly, that is not the case, and it has never been the case. See, Luther believed the Bible clearly taught that Jesus was physically present in the bread and wine (that the body and blood of Jesus are “truly and substantially present in, with and under” the elements). Calvin vehemently disagreed. He believed the Bible clearly taught that Jesus was only spiritually present (and not physically) in the elements (when Jesus said, “this is my body” he meant “this represents my body”). Zwingli thought both of them were wrong. He believed the Bible was clear. The Lord’s Supper was a memorial meal, a way for us to look back on what Jesus had done for us (“Do this in remembrance of me”). According to the New Testament, how important is the Lord’s Supper? I think we would all agree. It is very important; and yet, we don’t understand what happens in that meal. Why? Because the Bible is not particularly clear here.
Case in point: Baptism. In the Great Commission, God calls us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. That makes baptism a rather important topic; and yet, even here, we can’t agree, at least on how baptism ought to be administered. Luther and Calvin believed in infant baptism and in sprinkling. The Anabaptists believed in adult baptism upon profession of faith and dunking. We believe in one baptism. Other churches believe in re-baptism and in some cases, re-rebaptism (I heard of one person being rebaptized 56 times!). Some churches believe in dunking backwards once, others dunking backwards three times, and other churches dunking face forward three times. Now, I would argue that baptism isn’t close to a peripheral issue, but a rather important part of our faith; and yet, serious Christ followers read the Bible differently here.
Case in point: the gospel. What would you say is at the heart of the gospel? For Luther, it was justification by faith. For Calvin, it was the glory of God. For Zwingli, it was the grace of God. What does the Bible say? It all depends on how you interpret it.
And that is the point: how we interpret the Bible (and the rules we use to do so) is incredibly important, but most of us don’t give this aspect of our discipleship nearly enough attention. But we desperately need to do so. Why? Because the Bible’s perspicuity could be clearer. Now, we are going someplace here. There is a great new book written by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler entitled, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently. For the next month or two, we want to discuss this book and use it to think about how we go about interpreting the Bible and interpret it well. And step one in that process is to realize both the incredible need for and importance of interpreting the Bible. See, we believe that Scripture alone is our only guide for faith and practice; but the truth is, Scripture is never alone. It always is accompanied by interpretation.
Steven Wright once said, “My nephew has HDADHD: High-Definition Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder. He can barely pay attention, but when he does it’s unbelievably clear.” In some areas, Scripture is very clear (who Jesus is, for instance), but in other areas, perspicuity is not the word I would have chosen. And in those areas, we need to have some high-definition skills in interpretation. And that is what this series of blog posts will seek to impart. More next week. But, first, let me be clear, thanks for reading!