Perspicuity and the Pastor

by Jesse Randolph May 20, 2021

One often-overlooked characteristic of Scripture is its perspicuity (or, to use a more modern theological term, its clarity).[1] According to the doctrine of perspicuity, not only is the Bible divinely-inspired (or “God-breathed,” 2 Tim 3:16), inerrant, infallible, sufficient, and authoritative, it is a clear Word from God. The Bible is “not a dark and cloudy book.”[2] It is neither opaque nor outside of our reach. Instead, as the early Princeton theologian Charles Hodge once put it, the Bible is “a plain book.”[3] It is accessible. It is understandable. It is clear.

Sadly, this generation suffers from “[a] strange combination of theological amnesia and an uncritical acquiescence in the least disciplined forms of postmodernism have made many Christians highly suspicious of hearing any sure or clear word from Scripture.”[4] What a sad indictment this is, considering that Scripture testifies internally to its clarity. In no uncertain terms, the Bible itself declares: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105); “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130); “in your light do we see light” (Ps 36:9); and “we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet 1:19). What each of these passages communicates to us is that God’s Word is clear. Scripture shines light on God’s person, plans, and purposes in the way a lamp—or the moon—shines light on the nighttime traveler’s path.

The central contention of this article is that the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture ought to be a treasured truth for pastors in particular. For those who have been called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet 5:2), there is a special charge to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). And the Word that Christ’s undershepherds are called to minister—whether through their own devotional study, their counseling, their discipleship, or in their public preaching and teaching ministries—is a clear Word, a Word that serves as “a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Pet 1:19). This article traces out how the doctrine of the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture ought to shape, influence, and profit the pastor as he commits himself to prayer and the ministry of God’s perspicuous Word.

Perspicuity Promotes Prayer

The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture benefits the pastor first in his own communion with God – specifically, as he prays over God’s Word and engages in his personal study of Scripture.

First, the pastor who truly appreciates the great gift God has given us in the Word overflows with praises to God for who He is and what He has revealed in the pages of Scripture. He praises God not only for revealing Himself to mankind both through creation and conscience, but also for revealing key aspects of His limitless wisdom, His perfect purposes, and His unfathomable ways in the pages of Scripture. He praises God for the fact that Scripture itself is God-breathed, inerrant, infallible, sufficient, and authoritative. He praises God that His Word convicts, corrects, sharpens, and edifies the follower of Jesus Christ. He praises God that Scripture is a divinely-given instrument (a spiritual “sword,” Eph 6:17), and as such, it is a powerfully-effective instrument. And he praises God for the fact that, as John Owen put it, “all necessary truth is plainly and clearly revealed in Scripture.”[5] He praises God, in other words, for a clear and perspicuous Word—a Word that does not need to be interpreted by a Pope, corralled by a man-centered hermeneutic, or corrected by modernized, anti-biblical notions of “justice.” Instead, what he reads and studies is a clear and a timeless Word which can rightly be understood through the illumination of the Spirit who indwells him.

In addition to promoting praise, the perspicuity of Scripture promotes petition. It does so because what the perspicuity of Scripture does not mean is that every passage of Scripture is equally clear or immediately understandable. Indeed, we know from Scripture that this is not the case. Peter, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit, recognized that there were “some things” in the writings of his Paul, his apostolic contemporary, which were “hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16). In the fourth century, John Chrysostom, likened Scripture to a river: “In one part there are whirlpools; and not in another.”[6] According to Section 1.7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” The aforementioned Charles Hodge noted: “It is not denied that the Scriptures contain many things hard to be understood.”[7] There truly are “hard sayings” in the Bible. “The clarity of Scripture means that understanding is possible, not that it is easy.”[8]

What all of this means is that the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture does not eliminate the need for hard work in the pastor’s study as he seeks faithfully to mine the truths of the text before him. Scripture’s clarity is not to be confused with its simplicity. To the contrary, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture drives the pastor to his knees as he petitions the Lord for a clearer understanding of what he knows is a sure and clear Word.

John Webster picked up on this link between perspicuity and pastoral prayer when he said: “the very act of interpretation is itself an episode in the struggle between faith and repudiation of God. We can cloak our own darkness by calling it the obscurity of the text; we can evade the judgment which Scripture announces by endless hermeneutical deferral; we can treat Scripture not as the clear Word of judgment and hope but as a further opportunity for the imagination to be puzzled, stimulated and set to work…That is why the promise of claritas scripturae is inseparable from the prayer: ‘Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law’.”[9]

The pastor who understands the parameters of the doctrine of perspicuity—both what the doctrine means, and what the doctrine does not mean—is a pastor who prays.

Perspicuity Promotes Proclamation

Pastors, though divinely-appointed heralds, are still imperfect vessels and fragile earthen jars (2 Cor 4:7). We are known to mumble, we occasionally fumble, and there are times when we trip over our words—just as some of the prophets and the apostles did who came before us. However, though we can be guilty of speaking with a lack of clarity, no such charge can be laid against God’s perspicuous Word. Instead, the perspicuity of Scripture is, in part, what powers our proclamation of God’s Word to others, whether that proclamation takes place in private settings (counseling, discipleship relationships, Sunday patio conversations, interactions over meals in church members’ homes, etc.) or in public settings (in a formal preaching or teaching capacity).

John Wesley, who along with his brother Charles was used by God to spark the Evangelical Revival in England in the 1730s and 1740s, understood this link between the clarity of God’s Word and a pastor’s responsibility to faithfully proclaim the truths of God’s Word. Wesley remarked:

“I want to know one thing—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself was condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it; here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here than I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In his presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: ‘Lord, is it not thy word, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God”? Thou hast said, “If any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.” I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will.’ I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual.’ I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”[10]

In his public ministry, as he preaches the Word, counsels the Word, and otherwise ministers the Word, the pastor who has an understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture will be far less prone to dispensing trite platitudes. Instead, he will be able to deliver God’s truth without varnish and without compromise, knowing that the Word he has been charged to minister is not only clear in its content, but it clearly compels a response. Since he is ministering a clear Word, he can, with a clear conscience, call on his people to respond to the Word. As Martin Luther said: “Christ has not so enlightened us as deliberately to leave some part of his word obscure while commanding us to give heed to it, for he commands us in vain to give heed if it does not give light.”[11]

Knowing that he is ministering a clear Word will propel the pastor’s proclamation of the Word, which will be of great benefit to the people he is shepherding, regardless of their stage of spiritual development. As the English Puritan poet John Milton once wrote:

The very essence of Truth is plainness and

brightness. The Scriptures protest their own

plainness and clarity, calling them to be

instructed, not only the wise and learned,

but the simple, the poor, the babes.”


A recurring theme in the pages of Scripture is the connection between light and truth (Ps 43:3 (“O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me”); John 3:21 (“But he who practices the truth comes to the Light”)). Scripture, having originated with God, is truth. And Scripture is truth which has been clearly delivered by a God who is perfect in all of His ways—including the clarity with which He communicates.

Especially in the confused culture climate in which we live and minister, may we who have been entrusted with proclaiming the riches of Christ remain committed to doing so unashamedly, unapologetically, and prayerfully—knowing that He has given us a clear Word to proclaim.

[1] The word “perspicuity” comes from the Latin perspicuus, which means “transparent, clear, evident, or manifest.”

[2] Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 1: Revelation and God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 346.

[3] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979 repr.), 183.

[4] Mark L. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (New Studies in Biblical Theology, vol. 21) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 9-10.

[5] John Owen, Works of John Owen, Volume 14 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1966), 276 (quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 146)).

[6] Larry D. Pettegrew, “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” The Masters Seminary Journal 15/2 (Fall 2004), 213.

[7] Hodge, Systematic Theology, 183.

[8] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 317.

[9] John B. Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics, volume 2 (London: T.&T. Clark, 2005), 67 (quoting Ps 119:18).

[10] John Wesley, Works of John Wesley, Volume 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 2 (quoted in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 477-478)).

[11] Thompson, A Clear and Present Word, 14.

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