Scripture’s Clarity: A New Testament Defense

by Brandon Freeman October 29, 2020

As we saw in the article on Scripture’s clarity in the Old Testament, explicit and implicit references to the clarity of Scripture abound in number. This article will focus on Scripture’s clarity in the New Testament.

The clarity of Scripture is affirmed by the hundreds of references and allusions to the Old Testament found in the New Testament. Jesus believed “Moses and all the Prophets” (Lk 24:27) could be understood and he sought to explain and interpret in those writings “the things concerning himself.” By rightly searching the Scriptures, Jesus trusted readers would see that they bear witness about him (Jn 5:39­–40). The decisive element of Christ’s argumentation recorded in the Gospels was an appeal to the Old Testament. Such an appeal was not empty because Christ knew the Old Testament to be understandable. He “builds upon the acknowledged meaning of the texts he cites.”[1] His teaching at the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Lk 4:16–21; cf. Is 61), his sermon on the mount (Mt 5:2–7:27; “you have heard it said…but I say to you”), and his explanation of the new covenant at the Passover meal (Lk 22:7–37) showcases Christ’s expectation of familiarity with those Scriptures. Replete throughout his ministry and the Gospels overall is the refrain, “it is written” (Mt 2:5 4:4, 7, 10; 21:13; 26:31; Mk 1:2; Lk 2:23; 24:46; Jn 6:45; 8:17; 12:14). Jesus believed Scripture could be understood and that any misunderstanding on the part of the listener was not due to Scripture’s obscurity, but on some spiritual defect in the person or group. Grudem asserts, “Whether he [Jesus] is speaking to scholars or untrained common people, his responses always assume that the blame for misunderstanding any teaching of Scripture is not to be placed on the Scriptures themselves, but on those who misunderstand what is written.”[2]

Common to Jesus’s interaction with the religious leaders was his rebuke, “Have you not read?” (Mt 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mk 12:10, 26). The effect of Jesus’ question is grounded in the understandability of the Old Testament. Even in passages thought of as more difficult to interpret, like Matthew 24:15 (cf. Mk 13:14; Lk 21:20), the insertion “let the reader understand,” informs us that the biblical author wants the reader to understand. Due to the particular clearness of salvific content in the Bible, it is always expected in the Bible that upon hearing the gospel, people can respond in faith (Acts 2:37).

The New Testament was written to be clear. “From translations of foreign words to descriptions expressed in familiar terms, from editorial comments to background information, the biblical writers supply information designed to enable their readers to better understand what they have written,”[3] Allison writes. Translations are given from Hebrew (Mt 1:23; Mk 7:11; Jn 1:38, 41; 9:7; Acts 4:36) and Aramaic (Mt 27:46; Mk 5:41; 15:22; Jn 1:42; Acts 9:36). Idiomatic expressions are given explanation (Mk 3:17) and background information is supplied (Mk 7:3–4). Unfamiliar features are elucidated (Gn 13:10; 1 Sm 9:9) and interpretive commentary is provided (Mk 7:18–19; Jn 7:37–39). These findings demonstrate that the biblical authors intended for their writings to be understood. In Paul’s words, the authors are “not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand” (2 Cor 1:13).

Further evidence for the understandability of the Scripture is the basic observation that the New Testament epistles were written to entire congregations (Rm 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:2; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2; 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:1). Paul’s letters were beneficial to other churches as well: “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). John’s vision on the Lord’s day was communicated to seven churches (Rv 2–3). Feinberg remarks, “If the vast majority of these books’ contents were opaque, even to the most mature and learned, there would be no point in addressing them to the whole church.”[4] Furthermore, the command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tm 4:13) would be senseless if listeners could not perceive what was being read and taught. The New Testament was written to be passed on, not just congregationally but personally, as illustrated by the Great Commission (Mt 28:18–20) and Paul’s exhortation to Timothy (2 Tm 2:2). Every Christian is to have the “word of Christ dwell in them richly” (Col 3:16). Such can only be done if Scripture is intelligible and its meaning can be grasped.

On the whole, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rm 15:4). The sin and judgment experienced by Israel “happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (1 Cor 10:11). Scripture’s clarity is validated by the Bereans being able to “examine the Scriptures daily to see” if Paul’s proclamation was biblical (Acts 17:10–12). Christians are to “long for the pure spiritual milk” of the Word (1 Pt 2:2) for by it they grow up into salvation. Paul teaches that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rm 10:17). There is always a cognitive object in which faith is given to. The command to “call on the name of the Lord” (Rm 10:13) to be saved evidences the gospel’s lucidity recorded in the Bible. Readers are to “think over” what is written because Scripture is clear (2 Tm 2:7). There is a “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) that is recognizable and should be contended for. Since Scripture is perspicuous, false doctrine can be rejected and sound doctrine can be instructed in (Ti 1:9). God’s word is understandable. It is expected to be trusted in, defended, proclaimed, and nourishing to those to read it in faith. Paul reasons with people for them to see the glory of Christ (Acts 17:2, 14, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:25) and promises the Ephesians that upon reading his letter, they can “perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4). Explicitly and implicitly, the biblical testimony affirms the clarity of Scripture. The subject matter is entirely accessible and comprehensible—able to be received (1 Thes 2:13–14) or rejected (2 Thes 2:9). 

[1] Mark D. Thompson, “The Generous Gift of a Gracious Father: Toward a Theological Account of the Clarity of Scripture,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 624.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004),106.

[3] Gregg R. Allison, “The Protestant Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture: A Reformulation on the Basis of Biblical Teaching,” (PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1995), 574.

[4] John S. Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 634.

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

We’re giving away a free eBook copy of Praying the Bible, where Donald S. Whitney offers practical insight to help Christians talk to God with the words of Scripture.