I remember sitting in my office with a student who was thinking about moving out of evangelical Protestantism and into a different church tradition. He began thinking this way after he started reading widely in the writings of Christian authors from earlier eras. After being exposed to various authors who sometimes expressed divergent viewpoints from his own, he became increasingly unsure about whether the Bible on its own was clear in what it taught. He was considering changing to a church tradition that could interpret the Bible for him. Since, in his thinking, we can’t be certain what the Bible actually means when we read it, we need an authoritative guide. Let me assure you, there are people out there who will gladly tell you what the Bible means if that’s what you want!
Another conversation with a different student also comes to mind. She wasn’t sure whether she could really give herself to Christ in faith because she didn’t know if the message of the gospel was actually true. But the more we talked together, the more I realized that she wasn’t struggling with which truth claims were correct and which were false; she was struggling with whether anyone could know something was true at all. So whenever I appealed to the Bible I didn’t get any traction in our discussion because she didn’t think we could actually come to know truth through a written text.
Both of these students were struggling with whether the Bible was clear. Despite the differences between the two students (the first confidently describing himself as a believer and the second questioning whether she actually was a believer) their similarities in regards to the Bible far outweighed their differences. In fact, I think that both of them utilized the same reasoning: “There are so many different interpretations of the Bible, how can we know which is correct?” As a result, neither really valued the Bible. The guy wanted someone else to authoritatively tell him what the Bible meant; the girl thought that nobody could know. Both needed a revival of valuing the Bible.
In fact, both students were breathing the air of this age. Did you know that in the generation in which we live, there exists a general distrust of authoritative texts? During doctoral studies I had to read a book called Is There a Text in This Class? by Stanley Fish, a Duke University professor at that time. In his opinion, there are actually no meanings that you can discover from reading written words. Instead, social groups create their own subjective meanings when they read texts. Said differently, it isn’t possible to read a text and actually know what it means. You are stuck with trying to make some sort of meaning out of it in whatever setting you find yourself.
Have you ever heard the following comment? “Well, maybe the passage means that to you, but it doesn’t mean the same thing to me.” Anyone who makes such a comment is inhaling the same air as the professor I just mentioned. A moment ago I mentioned two of my students who said to me, “There are so many different interpretations, how can we know which is correct?” They were also breathing the same air.
The Bible both assumes and asserts its own clarity. Jesus expected that people could understand him when he spoke to them or quoted from the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 15:10; 12:3–5). He chided his disciples when they didn’t understand (Matt. 16:11; Mark 8:17). The apostle Peter looked back at what the Old Testament prophets wrote and claimed “that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). He lamented that people sometimes “twisted” through wrong interpretation the writings of Paul and the rest of the Bible (2 Peter 3:15–16). The apostle Paul corrected the Corinthians’ wrong interpretation when they missed what he had intended them to understand in a previous letter (1 Cor. 5:9–11). If it isn’t possible to understand the meaning of a written text, then Paul had no right to correct them.
Furthermore, remember these lines from Psalm 19?
“the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple”
“the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes”
This doesn’t mean that people don’t sometimes misunderstand. Nor does it mean that one passage of Scripture is as easy to understand as another. Peter admitted as much when he wrote about the wisdom that God had given to Paul, “there are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15–16). But none of this speaks against the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, which asserts that all things necessary for life and godliness are clear in the Bible (2 Peter 1:3-4). This means that you can come into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ and live a God-pleasing life by knowing and doing what is written in the Bible.
Is it necessary for life and godliness to know that Jesus rose from the dead? Yes. This central doctrine of the Christian faith is abundantly clear in the Bible (see, for example, 1 Cor. 15:1–20).
Is it necessary for life and godliness to know that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? Yes. This central teaching is clear in the Bible (see, for example, Eph. 2:8–9).
Is it necessary for life and godliness to know that sin can be overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit? Yes. You cannot live a consistent Christian life without knowing that you need the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome sin (see, for example, Rom. 8:1–27).
Paul says that women should have “authority” on their heads during worship “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10). Is it necessary for life and godliness to know what the expression “because of the angels” means? No.
Now what is the difference between the first three examples and the “because of the angels” example? The difference is that the various passages affirming the resurrection in the Bible are reinforced by other passages that teach the same thing; each passage stands as part of a biblical theme. The same is true about salvation being by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit for overcoming sin. In contrast, “because of the angels” has nothing supporting it outside of the one passage in which it is found, so it is difficult to know what it means. The Bible is clear on everything needed for life and godliness, but you do not need to know what “because of the angels means” to come to salvation or live a God-honoring life.