Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grudem: The Clarity of Scripture

Continuing my weekly series reviewing Grudem's Systematic Theology

This week is chapter 6, "The Clarity of Scripture."
Grudem builds to this definition of the clarity of Scripture (perspicuity is the more technical term): "The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God's help and being willing to follow it" (108).  He rejects a more limited understanding of clarity, one that believes that the Bible is primarily clear in relation to "all things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth."  He doesn't think the Bible itself sees it this way or puts such a limitation on clarity.

Back up to the first section of the chapter.  Here he quotes a few verses where some teaching seems clear.  Deuteronomy 6:6-7--teach the commandments of the Law to children.  Psalm 19:7--the testimony of the LORD makes the simple wise.  Jesus talks to some of his enemies as if it is their problem that they don't understand, not the fact that Scripture is ambiguous.  Paul writes to Gentiles about Jewish Scriptures and assumes they can understand. So on these paltry instances ripped from their contexts Grudem supposes that pretty much every word of the Bible is clear.

In a second section, he links the clarity of Scripture also to one's spirituality.  So while the Bible itself is written clearly, "it will not be understood rightly by those who are unwilling to receive its teachings" (108).  In his fourth section, he expands on reasons why people misunderstand.  One is a lack of faith or hardness of heart.  For certain, in his mind all disagreements are our problem, not a problem with clarity.

In the end, his fifth section suggests two reasons for disagreements: 1) we are trying to conclude on an issue on which Scripture does not take a position (and therefore on which we shouldn't) or 2) we have made a mistake in our interpretation (we left something out or we have a spiritual problem).

He ends the chapter by clarifying what role biblical scholars (i.e., people who know Greek and Hebrew for him) might then play:
  • They can teach.
  • They can explore new areas because new issues arise.
  • They can defend the Bible against attacks.
  • They can supplement the Bible with other things like church history.
They don't have the right to decide for the church what is true and false doctrine.  That's for the "officers of the church" (111).

The idea of the clarity of Scripture goes back to the Protestant Reformation and, indeed, Martin Luther himself.  Luther debated Erasmus (the key figure behind the Greek text of the King James Version) over whether the Bible was clear enough for individual believers to understand it properly or whether people needed the Church to interpret it for them.  Luther argued that Scripture was clear. Erasmus that it was not.

To hear the issue posed this way often evokes an immediate response--of course I don't need someone to tell me what the Bible means!  But the actual history of the last 500 years tells a definitive answer.  History smashes Grudem's wishful thinking to bits and gives the debate far more to Erasmus than to Luther.  At least on the details, the Bible has been read in so many different ways that it's ridiculous.  In fact there are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 distinct denominations.  Either Grudem is embarrassingly wrong about the clarity of Scripture or perhaps only one of these tens of thousands of groups is God's favorite and the rest of us are hell bound.

I belong to a small church in the Methodist tradition and I did sincerely marvel once in my teens at how amazing it was that I just happened to be born into the church that had everything right.  What were the odds, I thought.  A year or two into seminary I shifted my perspective.  I began to talk about how my tradition sees things, interprets the Bible, in contrast to other traditions.  At one point such talk of tradition so annoyed a family member that she stopped me and said, "Stop talking about our tradition.  We just read the Bible and do what it says!"

Grudem would disagree.  Those who are predestined and are spiritual see the clarity of Scripture, even down to many details.  Au contraire.  I would assert that truly spiritual people will believe exactly the opposite.  They will recognize that there are equally spiritual people in almost all if not all of these tens of thousands of groups.

There are Roman Catholics who are just as spiritual as Grudem.  There are Methodists who are just as spiritual as the most spiritual Lutheran, who is just as spiritual as the most spiritual Baptist, who is just as spiritual as the most spiritual Assembly of God person.  This is because God is primarily interested in people's hearts, not their understanding.  Otherwise he would correct all the spiritual people who don't agree with me.

Grudem's handful of verses are pretty thin.  The ones in Deuteronomy and Proverbs have to do with knowing and doing the laws that God gave to Israel.  It's hard to know which laws in particular are in view.  Certainly keeping commandments like not stealing, killing, or committing adultery could result in a not too insightful person living a wise life.  But that's light years from what Grudem is arguing about the clarity of Scripture.

It highlights the "proof-texting" dimension of his entire theology--you rip some words out of context and read them in a way that seems clear to you (because of the tradition you're in and not acknowledging).  Jesus does sometimes come across rather strongly in some of the passages Grudem mentions. But what we find is that we are not only hearing Jesus in the Gospels. We're also hearing the gospel writers' presentation of Jesus.  It is at least possible, especially in Mark, that part of what we are hearing is not Jesus' harsh tones but the disciples' own frustration at themselves for not initially getting it.

So why do people disagree about what the Bible means?  The main reason is that it was written to people who lived 2000-3000 years ago whose world was drastically different than ours.  Indeed, someone from Africa is more likely to read the stories of the Bible with the right socio-cultural connotations than someone from North America. It is almost a joke that Grudem would think he's going to pick up on all that just out of the blue.

That's not to say that God can't and doesn't speak clearly to people through the Bible, especially godly people.  But in such instances they're normally hearing a direct word from God, not necessarily what those words meant originally.  I agree with his implication that a scholar is not necessarily more gifted to hear God in Scripture than anyone else.  I agree with him that the church is where God helps us know how to apply the Bible to today.

Scholars are part of that equation, but being a scholar only means you're more likely to know the original meaning, not what God wants for the church today.  To be a scholar of the original meaning of some part of the Bible, 1) you must know the original language of that part.  2) You must know the historical-socio-cultural background that informed the meaning of that part, the "language games" that gave meaning to those words at that time.  3) Certainly an expert should know the history of interpretation, because you would imagine after hundreds of years of scholarship, most of the possibilities are out there and a lot of non-starters have already been weeded out.  4) And of course, you need to know the rules of exegesis and how to read the Bible inductively.  This involves how to do historical research and how to follow a literary text.

Grudem isn't such a scholar, period.  In my opinion, he lacks spiritual discernment as well.  It's possible he's a nice guy, just not someone who should be allowed to teach theology.


Phil W said...

I came into contact with Grudem a lot in my women in ministry research. It's just this circular type of reasoning that gets us into the stalemates we're in. "the bible is clear to those willing to understand it." The subtle thought beneath that statement, then, is that Grudem thinks that he understands the Bible, then the only ones willing to understand it are those who land in the same place as he does in their understanding of it. Everyone who disagrees, I can only assume, has a hard heart.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this post!

Donald Johnson said...

This is an excellent post.

Grudem is dead wrong and arrogant in his being wrong, which makes it all the sadder, since his arrogance means it becomes very challenging to even BEGIN to show him how he is wrong. What he has done is sanctified HIS interpretation of Scripture, which is a very dangerous place to be, for how can he learn any better way if he does not want to?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'm not wrong guys you need to read the Bible more.