Clarifying Scripture’s Perspicuity: A Look at the Old Testament
Perspicuity is an older term for clarity. Explicit and implicit references to the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture abound in number. From the beginning, God’s speech has been understood, by creation (Gn 1:3, 6, 9) and the pinnacle of creation, humans (Gn 3:2, 9–10). When God speaks to the serpent (3:14–15), the woman (3:16), Adam (3:17–19), Cain (4:6), Noah (6:13), and Abraham (12:1), his communication is understood. As John Frame expresses, “When God speaks, he at the same time assures us that he is speaking.”
In the biblical storyline, God’s word is eventually written down (Ex 31:18) and God means for it to be spread to others. In Deuteronomy 6:6–7, God spoke to Israel and said: “these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” This text is significant for our doctrine of Scripture’s clarity because it establishes that God’s word is understandable to the degree that it can be passed on—even to children. Grudem comments, “All the people of Israel were expected to understand the words of Scripture well enough to be able to ‘teach them diligently’ to their children.” Proverbs 6 outlines a father fulfilling Deuteronomy 6. He pleads with his son to trust God’s word and promises to him that “when you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you” (v. 22). “Simple” people—those that are inexperienced and naïve in life—are also said to be capable of understanding Scripture and benefitting from its content (Ps 19:7; 119:130; cf. Prv 1:4; 7:7; 8:5; 9:6; 14:15, 18; 22:3; 27:12). Scripture is far from being applicable to only the religious elites; its message has implications for simple people and small children. Scripture is far from being applicable to only the religious elites; its message has implications for simple people and small children. Click To Tweet
Scripture’s intelligibility to young persons is repeated in Deuteronomy 31. Moses instructs the priests (31:9) that “at the end of every seven years…at the Feast of Booths” (v. 10), they are to
assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess (12–13).
God’s assembled people are to “hear and learn…and be careful to do all the words (v. 12). The declared words of Yahweh are given for the purpose of obedience—lifelong obedience (v 13) for all the people in Israel, including “men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner” (v. 12). When Ezra read the “Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel” (Neh 8:1), those in the assembly were “men and women and all who could understand what they heard” (v. 2). The word of God was to be read to all who had basic skills in comprehension because it was clear enough to be understood. “The Book of the Law” was not to depart from the mouth of Israel, but they were to “meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Jo 1:8). The blessed man of Proverbs is the one who delights “in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:2). Meditation presupposes understanding, so verses that call for meditation are implicit arguments for the clarity of Scripture.
God assures Israel in Deuteronomy 30 of the clearness of his commands. Its message is attainable upon delivery. God’s word is near the reader.
For this commandment that I command you today is not too had for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (vv. 11–14).
Scripture is understandable, near, and obeyable. There are secret things that belong to God (Dt 29:29), “but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The author emphasizes throughout Deuteronomy that God’s law is for all who are able to understand and given so that all would obey and live. Feinberg notes, “Calling this information revealed and holding Israel accountable for obeying or disobeying it makes sense only if the instruction is understandable.” Deuteronomy 29:29 argues for the complete perspicuity of the Christian Scripture. There are “secret things” and “revealed things,” which are intelligible and given for godliness. It has been common in constructing definitions on the clarity of Scripture to restrict Scripture’s perspicuity to salvation. Allison argues, however, that confining Scripture’s clearness to soteriological content is contrary to Deuteronomy 29:29: “Deuteronomy 29:29 will not allow us to make the division along these [unintelligible and intelligible] intrascriptural lines. Rather, it places the dividing line separating what is perspicuous from what is not perspicuous between what is revealed and what is not revealed.” In like manner, Grudem states, Scripture does “not seem to support any limitation on the areas to which Scripture can be said to speak clearly.”
The effects of Scripture recorded in the Old Testament are numerous. In Psalm 19 alone, the perfect law of the LORD is said to “revive the soul” (v. 7), “make wise the simple” (v. 7), “rejoice the heart” (v. 8), and “enlighten the eyes” (v. 8). God’s word is a light and lamp that provides guidance for the present (Ps 119:105) and the future (Ps 119:81). God’s word provides strength for the sorrowful soul (v. 28) and encouragement of heart for those who “run in the way of your commandments” (v. 32). The psalmist expresses his delight in the Scripture (v. 16), dependence on the Scripture (v. 34), trust in the Scripture (v. 42), and love for the Scripture (v. 47). Altogether, the depictions of Scripture given by the psalmist illustrate Scripture’s clarity—it can be understood, it grants direction, it enthralls the saint. Various lines of support in the Old Testament provide strong support for Scripture’s perspicuity. Allison concludes,
If the metaphor of a light/lamp is to be an appropriate one, then the intelligibility of Scripture must be assumed; if Scripture is to occasion all that it claims to in terms of benefits for its hearers/readers, then its comprehensibility must be presupposed; and if the commands and exhortations to read/hear Scripture are to make any sense, then the Scripture to which people are encouraged to give heed must be presumed to be understandable.”
No sense could be made out of the psalmist’s declaration of Scripture as “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps 19:10) if Scripture could not be understood. The Old Testament resoundingly affirms the Scripture’s clarity.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010), 136.
 Deuteronomy is one of the most important Old Testament books for understanding Scripture’s clarity (6:6–7; 29:29; 30:11–14; 31:9–13).
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 106. A similar instruction is given in the New Testament in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
 Feinberg, John S. Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 627.
 Some, however, have defined Scripture’s clarity only with respect to its salvific content. Francis Turretin is one such theologian. Turretin: “Whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger, 3 vols. [Phillipsburg: N.J.: P&R, 1997], 1:144).
 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), 551.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 108.
 Allison, “The Protestant Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture,” 546.