What is "the perspicuity of scripture" and is it soundly Biblical?

This exchange from another thread deserves its own discussion:

I don’t think anyone is claiming that God is incapable of clear cross-cultural communication. The better question is the extent to which God has chosen to communicate clearly in the scriptures.

Many church statements of faith mention the doctrine of the Perspicuity of the Scriptures. Does this imply an “absolute” perspicuity or are there limitations within the definition?

To put it most simply, is everything in the Bible crystal clear? And is absolute clarity inherent in Biblical inerrancy?

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I already know what you have to say on this. You always seek to introduce doubt and lack of clarity any time the Bible talks about issues pertaining to those Peter brought up in 2 Peter 3: that is, Creation and the Flood. Let the reader take from this what they may.

I don’t know what you have to say to these questions—so that is why I’m asking.

I was hoping you wouldn’t but you have certainly dodged all of these questions.

Here are the four key questions prompted by your post on the other thread:

What is the doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scriptures

Is it scriptural?

Is everything in the Bible crystal clear?
@PDPrice implies that it is.

And is absolute clarity inherent in Biblical inerrancy?

If your answer is, “I don’t know” that kind of honesty is certainly an acceptable answer.

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I am sorry that I have presented myself that way; it certainly hasn’t been my intention. My intention has been to show that things may be more complicated than we thin, but that isn’t to bring lack of clarity or even doubt. Pointing out that things aren’t always as simple as we think that they are is a good thing in my mind.

I don’t post here for the sake of argument. I am interested in what people think and why they think it. If I push back on things it is because I am not convinced that what is being said is correct. I have in fact bowed out of conversations when it became clear that I was not contributing anything worthwhile. Would you like me to do so here, and leave the discussion between you and others? Genuine question, no sarcasm in it.


Hey Allen, I created a separate thread before I saw that you created this one.

I am happy to keep them separate as this is more about doctrine, when I want to look at it from a more linguistic perspective. Happy with that or is it just creating clutter?

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That was addressed to Miller, not you.

I was questioned on another thread about my views on creation and I referenced my belief that it is an act of communication and would not be clear in the same way to different audiences.
My view is grounded on a linguistic theory called relevance theory, that I have referenced elsewhere.

As a summary of the key points of the theory, horrendously simplified and hopefully with little jargon

When we see an act of intentional communication we presume that it has the following features
a. it is at worth our attention top spend the effort processing it
b. it is the most relevant that the communicator can make it according to their preferences and abilities.

All other things being equal, the more changes, additions or falsifications of our current views that we take on the more relevant the communication is. The strength of those is also key.
All other things being equal, the more processing effort it takes to understand the message, the less relevant it is
Basically it is a balancing act of the above

The human mind is geared towards maximisation of relevance and will engage in that balancing act. It will assess interpretations and fill in bits where needed in order of cognitive accessibility and stop when it achieves enough effects to justify the processing effort. The communicator communicates in such a way as to try to ensure that we stop at the interpretation that they desired. We can go further than that, but at that point we take responsibility for the fact that this may not be intended at all!

So, with the above in place we need to deal with what is communicated.

For RT words such as nouns and verbs are pointers to conceptual spaces. These comprise

  1. lexical information such as tense, aspect, person, number etc
  2. Logical information related to such things as category membership (cat / feline / animal / mammal)
  3. Encyclopaedic data. This is a “grab-bag” of information around attitudes towards something, cultural knowledge, information around associations with other things.
    Contextual information around the co-text (surrounding text/speech), context etc all shape the communicative situation

The problem is that for every act of communication the audience doesn’t share the exact same set of information. This is true for people in the same culture, but especially in different cultures. So the communicator makes a trade off - they inform as much as they have to for the communication to make sense, without overburdening the hearer/reader with information that is not needed. The more information they give which the hearer doesn’t need to make sense of what is being communicated, the more effort that reader has to go through to process the message. What could have been said in 10 words ends up being said in 30-40. An example is a trip abroad I took, when waiting for the coach the driver looked at me and said “English?”. I inferred that he meant “are you English / can you speak English” I responded accordingly. If he were to say “are you able to speak in the language that is called English” I would probably have assumed he was trying to be funny, because it is just unnecessary verbage
The hearer/reader on the other hand has their own job in this communicative situation. Their job is to go through an inferential process of fleshing out the meaning of the message. The actual words themselves do not encode all the information in a message, the communicator gives enough information to point to their intention and leaves the rest to inference. This means that we ALL go through a process of interpretation, and we ALL will have a slightly different set of beliefs, knowledge, cultural assumptions etc that we bring to it.
This also means that what was clear to one audience and involved little processing may be unclear to another audience. They don’t share the same cognitive environment, nor even the same categories, so clarity may require additional words to make it make sense to them in the same way. Those additional words would have burdened the original audience and made the text less relevant, their lack of burden is our burden though

The Bible is an act of communication. To say it can communicate with the same clarity across cultures is to deny the way that humans process information and communication specifically. We ought to approach it as such and recognise that our “clear reading” may be based on something completely different to what is “clear” to others because of the factors above

I ought to point out that this theory is not the only theory of linguistics (pragmatics in particular) out there, but it is one that has a LOT of experimental work going on in it and is well regarded. It has also been extensively applied to biblical studies
The scope of the theory can be seen by the size of the online bibliography maintained by Dr Yus

I don’t think I should go more into this theory right now, although I am happy to flesh out more on elements. I also don’t want to get into examples right now of how I see this applying to specific texts. Until people who want to interact on this one are clear on the approach I am taking then there isn’t much point in me then going on and trying to defend things that I derive from taking this approach

Hope this makes sense


No problem. I moved your post on that other thread to this one because I definitely want to explore both the doctrinal and linguistic aspects.

Amen to that. One would think that this simple fact would be obvious—but apparently it is not obvious to many people. Of course, when it comes to the Bible, some people immediately employee “magical thinking” and apply tradition-based concepts which are absent from the scriptures. For example, many naively assume that everything in the Bible is crystal clear and that Bible translators simply (and almost robotically) substitute a target languages word for the source language word.

Indeed, I’ve told the story on this forum of years ago when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association wanted to translated various Graham book to some of the less prominent Eastern European languages, such as those of the Baltic states. They were unsuccessful finding volunteers until a paraplegic woman said that she was on disability and had plenty of time for translating Graham’s three most popular books into all of the Baltic languages. A Graham representative happened to be in her city and brought copies of the books to her home. He asked her, “Do you grow up in the Baltic States or were your parents from there and you grew up speaking the languages at home?” She said, "Neither. When I heard you needed translators, I mail-ordered these pocket dictionaries. I have lots of time on my hands. I can simply look up the words one-by-one and use my typewriter to type the English translations.

Obviously, language issues alone introduce ambiguity and complications—but lack of clarity is regularly apparent in the original text for the reasons you mentioned. Indeed, the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is necessary to understanding some ideas and Jesus said that he spoke in parables in order to hide their meaning!

Anybody who thinks that everything in the Bible is crystal clear has never:

(1) Spent any time in a seminary exegesis or systematic theology course.

(2) Sat in a Bible translation committee meeting.

(3) Attended a typical Evangelical Theological Society conference session.

(4) Had lunch in a faculty lounge on virtually any seminary campus.

Here are some Bible specifics which are not clear:

What does it mean for Peter to have the keys of the kingdom?

Is there special significance in the PETROS versus PETRA usage in Jesus’ exchange with Peter concerning “on this rock will I build my church.”

Is there a pre-tribulation rapture described in scripture?

One big lack-of-clarity: most of the Book of Revelation.


Well I clearly need to learn to look at the context :wink:

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The doctrine of perspicuity can be construed in at least two ways. First, and less known today, is the Reformers’ insistence that the Bible should be studied like any other book, with no need to depend on some “secret” key (e.g., the papacy) to truly understand. This says nothing about how “easy” or “simple” interpretation might entail, just that one would need to use the normal tools of investigation.

Second, the more popular/modern notion of perspicuity is that the Bible is clear/simple/obvious in the area of salvation…and I would add the basic nature of God and basic expectations of obedience. In no ways does this suggest an “obviousness” in other areas.

When it comes to creation, perspicuity might apply to the fact of creation (even ex nihilo), but I can’t imagine much else would qualify.

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Your summary of perspicuity complies exactly with what I was taught about a half century ago in a Church History course sequence at a secular university and then again in Systematic Theology in seminary a few years later.

Indeed. And the Bible itself doesn’t have a lot to say about its own perspicuity, per se.


@deuteroKJ and @deuteroKJ and @AllenWitmerMiller with this definition in mind, wouldn’t we concerned about some approaches to making use of ANE literature in interpreting Genesis?

To be sure, I do think the original cultural context is important. But I also have some discomfort with presentations fo ANE that are totally dismissive of readings of Genesis that don’t include ANE. Given that ANE was just recently brought into our awareness, this sort of reasoning can start to feel like that “secret” key in a different form…

Not all use of ANE raises this concern, and I’m not sure how much of this is in actual use vs. rhetoric. What are your thoughts?


This is a fair concern…and has rightly, to some degree (but way too much IMO), been used against ANE specialists like John Walton. But the proper understanding of perspicuity is helpful here, e.g., nothing known from archaeology (i.e., giving us a better sense of ANE texts and culture) will affect the big things of salvation, God’s character, etc. The early church knew very little about Hebrew or ANE backgrounds. In God’s providence, we have learned a lot from the past 200+ years of archeological discoveries. But nothing has radically changed the basics.

I do feel the tension. As a Protestant, I don’t want the scholar to replace the papacy as a magisterium. Still, God, in his infinite wisdom, chose to reveal himself in a culture, language, time period, etc. that does take some investigative work to more fully understand. Also, in his providence, we have unearthed (literally) helpful content to better understand that ancient culture. We do our best to understand, while also holding on to a firm belief that the church has never been left without a clear witness of the most important things.


I think that’s the issue.

I can agree that ANE can be used to improve our interpretation. At the same time, it seems, we should be concerned about rhetoric and reasoning that uses ANE to reject tradition in sweeping terms, and takes Scripture out of the hands of the Church itself.

Walton does go that direction, but I’ve been more off-put by others. It seems that both ANE and evolution have been used as justification for grand revisions and paradigm shifts in theology, but such reasoning seems to fly in the face of Perpescuity.

Instead, I’m inclined to see traditional readings as basically correct, ripe for recovery, and also refinement, but not wholesale rejection and revision. In my book I link church tradition in this way, rather than the Pope, with the doctrine of infallibility.


Yes, we’re in agreement and share the same concerns. Actually, I don’t see ANE study nor science capable of upending orthodox positions. Have they raised interesting, even complex, issues? Sure. But I find orthodox Christianity flexible enough to “handle” these newfound complexities. Your work on GAE is a great example of addressing these complexities while remaining “true” to the tradition.


Yeah we seem to see these things on similar ways. Are your views on this the majority or minority position in the field now?

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depends on what you mean by “the field.” But my world of evangelical OT scholarship (broadly construed) would agree. To be honest, however, those who work in more conservative circles are afraid to admit this.

What are they afraid to admit and why are they afraid?

Your answer here might help me in engaging with ETS in a couple months, and any advice is much appreciated.

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We probably should discuss some of this privately. But I find many evangelical OT scholars quite open to the data (including scientific evidence on evolution) and even consider options to “reconcile” with their orthodox positions, they fear the necessary nuance and complexities such thinking entails. While GAE is a huge help to them, they fear it may not be enough to keep them “safe” from administrations and constituencies who may not appreciate the nuance.

Yes, let’s talk before ETS. I know the terrain too well :slight_smile: