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Clarifying Scripture’s Perspicuity: A Look at the New Testament

The perspicuity or clarity of Scripture is affirmed by the hundreds of New Testament references and allusions to the Old 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 Scripture 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. 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 Scripture. The New Testament attests to its own perspicuity, 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. 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. Click To Tweet

The Understandability of the New Testament

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,”[2] 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 New Testament is the basic observation that its 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.”[3] 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).[4] 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 to which faith is placed. Due to the particular clearness of salvific content in the Bible, it is always expected that upon hearing the gospel, people can and should respond in faith (Acts 2:37). People are commanded to “call on the name of the Lord” (Rm 10:13) for salvation. 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 gospel’s truth (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 comprehendible—able to be received (1 Thes 2:13–14) or rejected (2 Thes 2:9).

For a look at Scripture’s perspicuity in Old Testament texts, click here.


[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] 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.

[3] Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place, 634).

[4] Allison, “The Protestant Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture,” 370: The word of Christ “would have consisted of the basic kerygma, or foundational message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the growing body of apostolic teaching transmitted both orally and, even more so, in written form (cf. Col 4:16); and certainly would not have excluded the Old Testament which constituted the canonical Scriptures of the early church and thus was the authoritative document for understanding the person and work of Christ.”

Brandon Freeman

Brandon Freeman is a pastor at Liberty Baptist Church and a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 2015, he graduated from Ouachita Baptist University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biblical Studies. He serves as the Executive Assistant To the Vice President of Institutional Administration at MBTS.

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