The psalmist calls God’s word “a lamp to (his) feet and a light to (his) path” (Psalm 119:105), affirming that what God says helps him walk as God desires. Today’s culture tends to treat the Bible as a dark and confusing path, rather than a light. But God’s word is intended to be understood in the contexts and times in which it was originally given, and with a minimum of effort, and we can understand and apply it to our modern contexts as well.
Traditionally, this doctrine is known as the clarity or perspecuity of scripture. It affirms that “Scripture can be and is read with profit,with appreciation and with transformative results.”1 Some might argue that since the Bible is God’s word, one requires divine help to read it. But the evangelical doctrine of clarity assumes that the divine help is built into the inspired text itself.
In fact, one reason that people often have problems understanding scripture is that in addition to being God’s word, it is also written with human words.2 Hermeneutics, the science of biblical interpretation, exists to help human beings understand the meaning intended by the original human authors of scripture. God did not bypass the minds of those human authors. His word is written in their words. The more we understand them, the more we will understand him.
When biblical texts are treated in accordance with the rules of literature established for the genres they reflect, their meaning is obvious. Willful ignorance of the teachings of God’s word cannot be excused by claiming that the Bible is too confusing.
Many stumble over the lists they find in the Bible, and fail to see how such lists – e.g. the genealogies – can be theologically appropriate, or devotionally uplifting. But the existence of these numerous lists is the very thing that made these texts come alive to the original recipients, since they realized that what God did effected the lives of people like them, and – in many cases – their own families.
Some object that the scriptures are outdated, and thus obsolete. Every writing is a product of its own time, and the scriptures are no exception. But the really good writings are so good that they are worth the time and effort it takes to overcome the time barrier. Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, for example, are still performed today, and many versions of his works are available. People still study his writings, and some do it exclusively. Often a Shakespeare book will be published with professional annotations. The reason is that without those explanatory notes, many of the sayings, although written in English, would be incomprehensible. Time has so changed how things are communicated in English that such extra study is necessary if we are to understand what Shakespeare meant. But no one blames Shakespeare for that. It is not that he wrote without clarity. Time has made his clear words unclear. It only takes a little effort and study to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare. The same is true of God’s word.
In fact, it takes less time and effort to understand the Bible than it does Shakespeare for several reasons:
1) Scholars continue to research the background of Bible texts, revealing insights that help the average Christian understand what the original authors of scripture intended to say. This is actually one of the purposes for commentaries and Bible textbooks.
2) New translations of the Bible help to clarify texts, words and phrases that were difficult to understand in the past. This is why Christians should not get hung up defending just one translation of the scriptures, as if God has only endorsed one. That is just not true. The King James Bible may have been the best translation available to explain God’s word to English speakers in 1611, but a lot has changed in the last 400 years. Biblical scholarship has changed, and not all of it has been modernist. The English language has changed drastically. In fact, if you ever see one of those King James Bibles written exactly as they were written in 1611, you will notice how hard it is to read it.
I recommend that every serious student of the word of God possess two English language Bibles: one should be more word-for-word literal, and the other should seek dynamic equivalence. Just in the short time that I have been preaching and teaching the Bible, the actual versions that I recommend have changed several times. Currently I recommend the ESV (English Standard Version) for its literal rendering of the original words, and the NLT (New Living Translation) as an example of dynamic equivalence.3
3) Theologians continue to posit theories and doctrines that are aimed at showing the meaning of the Bible as a whole, or the particular emphasis of a biblical author. As more work is done in this area, the average Christian is more able to explain what scripture means. As long as we continue to draw a distinction between those doctrinal systems and the Bible itself, this process can only magnify the clarity of scripture.
4) Unlike Shakespeare, the Bible is best understood when its message is applied. “Application focuses the truth of God’s Word to specific, life-related situations. It helps people understand what to do or to use what they have learned.” 4 Those who commit themselves to living the Bible find its message less complex. As believers find themselves walking in the footsteps of the biblical characters, they understand why God blessed them when he blessed them, and why he withheld blessing or brought judgment when they rebelled or sinned.
5) The truly born-again Christian has the help of a resident Bible expert: The Holy Spirit, who inspired the Bible, and thus can explain its message best. The Holy Spirit accompanies the word, and brings about understanding and conviction (1 Cor. 2:11; 1 Thess. 1:5; 1 John 2:27). He encourages listeners not to harden their hearts when they hear God’s voice (Heb. 3:7-8). He also appears to particularly accompany the preaching of the word, so that it has special power (1 Peter 1:12).
One of the characteristics of scripture that leads many to label it as confusing is that it is a collection of many different types of writing, not just one. A genre is a type of writing. Poetry is one genre, and history is another. One would never approach a book of poetry expecting to get the kind of information she can get from a history book. But the untrained reader often approaches an obscure text of scripture expecting to be “blessed” the same way she was blessed when reading John 3. It doesn’t work that way.
The Hebrew compilers of scripture recognized this fact, and grouped together books of similar genres. This simple grouping consisted of the Torah, the Neviim, and the Chtuvim. The whole Hebrew Bible is thus often called the Tanach, from the first letters of those three genres.
Torah = “Law” (Instruction from Moses about who the Israelites are, and what God has planned for them.) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Neviim = “Prophets” (A look at the Israelites from God’s viewpoint.)Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve Minor Prophets.
Chtuvim = “Writings” (A look at the Israelites from their own viewpoint.)
Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles.
Both the Neviim and the Chtuvim were (in a sense) commentaries on the Torah, since the Torah served as the basis for the Israelite identity, as it carved out the pattern for the nation in relationship with its LORD. The Torah established the parameters of the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic ceremonial regulations were important because they accentuated this covenant relationship, and tied together the Israelites as a separate people, intended to be uniquely God’s.
The Neviim held the Israelites accountable for living up to the demands of that covenant. That was why the prophets often condemned their own people. God was speaking through them, calling them to task for their failure to be who he wanted them to be, encouraging them to live up to who they were. Reading the prophets requires keeping that in mind, and continually tracing the prophetic pronouncements back to the original covenant stipulations they reflect. While prophetic texts contain many predictive elements, they are best read not as merely history written beforehand, but as historical reflections on Gods plan as revealed in the Torah. This explains why the Hebrews considered some historical books (e.g. Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) as prophets.
The writings category is somewhat surprising as well. It contains poetry and wisdom literature, but also some historical books. The biggest surprise is that the Hebrews categorized the book of Daniel as a writing instead of a prophet. The best way to see this category is as sort-of the opposite of the prophets. While the prophets showcase God’s people from God’s viewpoint, the writings view life from the perspective of God’s people themselves. Perhaps Daniel is included in this category as an example of how godly wisdom works its way out in the life of a leader in exile. Of course there are prophecies in Daniel, just as there are examples of poetry and wisdom in the Torah and Neviim.
The New Testament
The Gospels: Instruction from Jesus about who Christians are, and what God has planned for them.Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
Revelation: A look at Christians from God’s viewpoint.Revelation
Acts & The Epistles:A look at Christians from their own viewpoint.
Acts, The Pauline Epistles, The General Epistles
The New Testament contained books which followed a very similar pattern. The new covenant was explained by Jesus to his disciples. Revelation is a means of encouragement from God as Christians seek to live their lives in obedience to that covenant while encountering opposition from the Dragon (Satan), the Beast (political powers), and the False Prophet (religious deception). Acts and the Epistles swing back in the other direction as the new Church seeks to define and defend itself as the new covenant people of God.
New Translations and Versions
When it became necessary to translate the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Hebrew Bible, and add the new inspired writings of the New Testament, new versions came about which did not follow the Jewish tripartite categories. Eventually a new standard classification system developed which divided the OT into law, history, poetry and prophecy, and the NT into Gospels, history (Acts), epistles, and prophecy (Revelation). No classification system is inspired, and this new one had its flaws, but it was an honest attempt at classifying texts according to their genre. The problem was that each biblical book may contain examples of several genres.
Genre Classification Today
The approach today is to treat smaller segments of text within the biblical books, and seek to understand their meaning based on the type of writing they reflect. Thus any text might be classified as apocalypse, epistle, genealogy, gospel, law, narrative, poetry, prophecy, proverb, psalm, or wisdom and with each classification comes a different set of rules for interpreting the text.5
The Problem with Lights
Like every other electrical device, a flashlight has to be turned on to work. The Bible is a light to illumine dark paths, but it will do no one any good if it stays on the shelf. Just claiming that you have a flashlight is not going to be very helpful. You have to pull it out and turn it on. Millions have found encouragement and solace in the Bible, but each has had to put their trust in it. Those of us who have had the privilege to study the Bible for many years can testify that it never fails to light the path for those who dare to use it.
1 James Callahan, The Clarity of Scripture. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 9. See also Gregg Allison, The Protestant Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture. (Deerfield, IL: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1995), 516-517. Allison provides and defends the following definition: “Perspicuity is a property of Scripture as a whole and of each portion of Scripture whereby it is comprehensible to all believers who possess the normal acquired ability to understand oral communication and/or written discourse, regardless of their gender, age, education, language, or cultural background. However, the level of people’s comprehension of perspicuous Scripture is appropriate to and usually varies proportionately with various factors, including, but not limited to, spiritual maturity. In addition, the doctrine of perspicuity is always affirmed in the context of a believing community, a context which assumes the assistance of others in attaining a more precise understanding of Scripture, and perspicuity requires a dependence on the Holy Spirit for Scripture to be grasped, and calls for a responsive obedience to what is understood. Moreover, perspicuity includes the comprehensibility of the way of salvation to unbelievers who are aided by the Holy Spirit, and it does not exclude some type of cognition of Scripture in general by unbelievers.”
2. Moises Silva, “Who Needs Hermeneutics Anyway.” in Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 16.
3. Serious Bible students can now have access to dozens of versions, and the more, the better. Bible software programs have made this possible for many, as well as Bible study websites on the Internet.
4. D. Veerman, How to Apply the Bible, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Tyndale,1993), 15.