An Evening at Brixton and The Perspicuity of Scripture
So we came to a probable end to the matter (of resolving whether there is authoritative evidence to underpin the claim that each person can exegete Scripture – “read the Bible on their own” in the parlance of a certain evangelical circle), then i headed to Brixton to walk off the accumulated adrenalin.
A great number of residents have Afro-Caribbean heritage, and the universal fate of such vibrant ethnic neighbourhoods is gentrification.
At Brixton Market,
And further down Coldharbour Lane or across Atlantic Road from Brixton Market, Brixton Village Market (fka Granville Arcade, facebook):
with a good variety of international cuisine and hipster custom: Kaosarn (Thai), Brixton Cornercopia (ultra-local food), Okan (Unit 39, Japanese okonomiyaki), Mama Lan (Chinese dumplings), The Agile Rabbit (Unit 24, facebook), Honest Burgers (meat from The Ginger Pig with options for coeliacs), The Brick Box (Unit 41/42), Fish, Wings & Tings (facebook) etc.
To be explored in further depth at some point…
There was tentative resolution to the issue of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture however, much to my relief, thanks to a passing word with The Tutor who confirmed my conclusions. (Not that his word is the ultimate authority, but it’s good to know i’m not alone!) After more than a week of harrassing everyone who would listen* (usually, unfortunate souls politely asking,”How was your Christmas?”) and reading every book in sight, it seems that my doctrine has been less than accurate:
- the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture (“The old term for the clarity of Scripture was perspicuity, a term that simply means “clarity”. That term itself is not very clear to people today, and I have not used it in this book.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology) ought to refer to ability of the Bible to be understood by humans. It is not, however, a promise that the Bible can be understood by any one all at once, without effort, without hard work and good hermeneutical skills and proper exegesis, without teachers, without the help of the Spirit;
- Wayne Grudem’s chapter on this in his Systematic Theology, which I guess is where I got my doctrine from as a new Christian, is then less than helpful because it does not contain the same emphasis as Scripture on the role of the teachers and church community in understanding the Bible. His John Wenham Lecture on The Perspicuity of Scripture at the Tyndale Fellowship Conference in 2009 was slightly more useful, with its qualifications.
- Scripture itself affirms that it is God’s ultimate official way of communicating with us (not via dreams etc, though these aren’t precluded in certain circumstances).
- The text is meant to be understood and meditated on and obeyed (eg. Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Psalm 1:2, Deuteronomy 30:11-14), and there is a fixed meaning to the text. My queries have therefore not been about the understandability of the text but the method by which the text can be understood.
- It is important to understand Scripture correctly (cf. the ignorant and unstable who twist Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).)
- A search of Scripture does not reveal any promise that the individual, acting alone, will be able to understand what is being written and comprehend it. It doesn’t say he can’t; it is simply silent on this matter.
- What Scripture does say is that God’s help (Psalm 119) and the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3 – 4) are needed to understand, accept, and obey the content of God’s Word in Scripture.
- Despite Grudem’s conclusions from these passages, Matthew’s Gospel relates Jesus rebuking the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees (and not the common people) for not reading the Old Testament properly (“Have you not read” (Matthew 12:3,5; Matthew 19:4; Mathew 22:31), “Have you never read in the Scriptures” (Matthew 21:42).
- And what Scripture keeps talking about is that those who are given the gifts of teaching within the church community should teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9, Titus 2:1), and that merely reading Scripture isn’t adequate – there must also be exhortation and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13).
- Therefore, the position seems to be almost as articulated by Timothy Ward in Words of Life (as mentioned previously): individual reading of Scripture should therefore be “derivative of, and dependent on, the corporate reading and proclamation of Scripture in the Christian assembly” – that is, because “the church is the primary means God has given us for coming to encounter him in his Word in a way that enables us to hear his voice and respond to him”, “giving priority to the corporate use of Scripture over the individual…recognises that the Lord continues to give his church pastor-teachers who will expound the biblical writings of the prophets and apostles, in order to equip his people for works to service…”
This has been bothering me since it has implications for ministry. So in consequence:
- missionaries to far-flung places, while being concerned with translating the Bible into the vernacular and even teaching whole tribes to read, should be more concerned with having teachers within the communities to teach the people the truth. And obviously, just air-dropping Bibles isn’t quite God’s way of propagating the good news;
- “teaching people to read the Bible for themselves” is not the primary role of those with teaching gifts – explaining and preaching the content of the passage is;
- but in 121s (one-to-one meetings), the teachers should also teach those with teaching gifts to exegete Scripture. With adequate hermeneutical skills and the help of the Spirit, there should be little need for commentaries, since everyone is working on the same text. Though, insights of a two thousand years of people studying the passage might be useful (or not!).
This is not to say that those with teaching gifts are superior to the rest of the congregation. Rather, each member of Christ’s body has been given different gifts – those who can teach are meant to use those gifts to equip the rest of the saints for ministry, and should not attempt to have everyone else take on the same role within the body. i hope this is right, just haven’t found any reason to be persuaded otherwise.
*Reactions to my queries have been interesting to observe. They seemed to fall into four major camps:
- the uninterested: basically, “Oh, I don’t know these things. Why don’t you ask xxx.” (Foundation Year Associate.)
- the scoffers: “I don’t need to know all this. Just read the Bible and you’ll know.” (A fellow student at The School.)
- the not-quite-convincing quoters who used not-quite-on-the-point passages to try to back up their personal conviction that every person should be able to read the Bible on their own (eg. Jeremiah 31:33-34 which i would take to be at most, a now-but-not-yet fulfilment) (Some Second Year Associates and lecturers at The School.)
- the moderates: “I’m sure it’s just a balance between the two.” (Several church workers and leaders, but without convincing Scriptural evidence.)