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About the Author
Mark D. Thompson is Academic Dean and lecturer in theology and church history at Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia. His PhD, on Luther’s doctrine of Scripture, is published as A Sure Ground on Which to Stand. He is co-editor of The Gospel to the Nations.
This contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series examines the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. It engages with the biblical text as well as with historical, systematic, and philosophical theology. Thompson is conversant with the contemporary challenges stemming from postmodern epistemology and hermeneutics, and he seeks to demonstrate the intelligibility and necessity of the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. He brings together classical and contemporary reflections to show that clarity is defensible today, and that it is indispensable.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Oh Sweet Obscurity: The Absurdity of Claiming Clarity Today
Chapter 2 The Effective Communicator: God as the Guarantor of Scriptural Clarity
Chapter 3 It is not Beyond You: The Accessible Word of the Living God
Chapter 4 Engaging the Hermeneutical Challenge
Chapter 5 The Sharp Double-Edged Sword: Restating the Clarity of Scripture Today
Oh Sweet Obscurity: The Absurdity of Claiming Clarity Today
The view that the Bible is the Word of God is a hallmark of evangelical Christianity. The doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity (i.e. clarity) has also been upheld. This view has always been challenged, but today there is a special challenge concerning our ability to properly and accurately interpret what the Bible (or any text) says. How can we be confident that we actually know what something means? In church history some scholars have pointed out that God is transcendent and incomprehensible, so there will be much about him that we will never understand. The Roman Catholic Church has positioned itself as the official interpreter of Scripture, disallowing private interpretations to challenge their official teachings. Part of their rationale is the difficulty of biblical interpretation, and the incredible diversity of interpretations that exist in the world. Even in other church denominations, the role of the community over the private interpreter is increasing. Another objection to the doctrine of clarity is located in the fact that the Bible consists of human language, and language is notoriously opaque and easily misinterpreted. This is exacerbated when we add all of the difficulties of retaining meaning in linguistic translation. There is also the fact that the actual text that we have contains ambiguities, broken syntax, etc. Empirically, if Scripture is clear, why are there so many diverse interpretations, even amongst those who insist on Scripture’s clarity? One last objection to the doctrine of clarity is that the Bible itself acknowledges the difficulty of proper understanding, and saints had to pray to God for understanding, since the Word was difficult to interpret.
In contemporary biblical interpretation, postmodernism has exerted a strong influence and challenge. There have always been skeptics and relativists in the history of philosophy, but modernism was confident that truth could be known and discovered with absolute certainty. Postmodernism has rejected modernism’s optimism, and it points to the enormous diversity and pluralism in the world as proof that truth claims are relative. Foucault has gone further and argued that truth is a construct that allows people to express power in self-interested ways. Today, many opponents of the clarity of Scripture charge its supporters with relying on a discredited and unsupportable modernist epistemology. They argue that our “knowledge” is really a relativistic construct, and so the voice of God is always obscured through the human (mis)interpreter.
In postmodern literary theory, authors are not authorities on the meaning of their texts, readers contribute meaning to the texts, and communities shape what readers expect and can see in the text. In regards to the author, we may not know what the author actually intended, the text might not accurately represent the author’s intention, and our reconstruction of the author’s intention may dissolve into biography and psychology. Both reading and writing take place in social contexts. Readers are shaped by their communities and these communities limit what they can see. Different communities will read the same texts in different ways on the basis of their presuppositions and noetic structures. Derrida and deconstructionists have asserted that language is an arbitrary arrangement of signs pointing to other signs (so they do not point to reality). There is no final meaning in a text, but an open-ended plurality of interpretations. Although not every postmodern interpreter agrees with all of the foregoing points, there is a consensus that any talk of an authoritative, clear meaning of a text is simplistic and erroneous (and possibly immoral). Some theologians have embraced postmodernism or at least been heavily influenced by it, while others have published serious critiques of it. The implications of postmodern thought for the doctrine of Scripture—and clarity in particular—are obvious. If the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is lost, then the doctrine of Scripture’s authority is eviscerated. All of the objections against the doctrine of clarity can be answered, and today we need a strong theological reformulation of it.
The Effective Communicator: God as the Guarantor of Scripture Clarity
Christian theology is talk about God. Every subtopic of theology is concerned with God or how things relate to God. Christian theology, then, is inescapably trinitarian. The reason we can talk about God is because God has chosen to reveal himself to us; he has chosen to be known. In his love, God has determined to be known in this world, and not even our sin and rebellion can derail his plan. God has spoken and acted in our world, and so theology is authoritative inasmuch as it conforms to his self-revelation.[To continue reading this summary, please see below....]
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A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture