The perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture has been denied by the Roman Catholic Church, the Socinians in the 17th century, and other such groups. During and after the Reformation, the Reformers had to explain, teach, and defend this doctrine (e.g. WCF 1.6-8). What does the clarity of Scripture mean? What doesn’t it mean? Francis Turretin (d. 1687) had a good discussion on it. I’ll summarize it below.
A) The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that they are perfectly clear to every person. Scripture is not clear to unbelievers and the unregenerate (2 Cor. 4:3). It does not mean that a person can understand the Word apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that there are no mysteries in Scripture, nor does it mean that all parts of Scripture are equally clear. The clarity of Scripture does not mean that we never need help (prayer, teachers, sermons, etc.) in understanding it.
B) The perspicuity of Scripture does mean, however, that Scripture is clear about the things essential to salvation: “Without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, [Scriptures] may be read and understood profitably by believers.”
This truth may be proven from Ps. 19:8, 119:105, and 2 Pet. 1:19. In the Old Testament, God tells his people to obey the law, which means they understood it (Dt. 30:11). The clarity of Scripture can be further proved:
- By their efficient cause (God, who cannot be said either to be unwilling or unable to speak plainly without impugning his perfect goodness and wisdom).
- By their design (to be a canon and rule of faith and practice, which they could not be unless they were clear).
- By the matter (that is, the law and the gospel, which anyone can easily apprehend).
- By the form (because they are to us in place of a testament, contract of a covenant or edict of a king, which ought to be perspicuous and not obscure.
Furthermore, the church fathers acknowledge the clarity of Scripture. Chrysostom said,
“The Scriptures are so proportioned that even the most ignorant can understand them if they only read them studiously.” He also said, “All necessary things are plain and straight and clear.”
“In the clear declarations of Scripture are to be found all things pertaining to faith and practice.”
Similarly, Irenaeus wrote,
“The prophetic and evangelic Scriptures are plain and unambiguous.”
I’ll end with Gregory:
“The Scriptures have, in public, nourishment for children, as they serve in secret to strike the loftiest minds with wonder; indeed they are like a full land deep river in which the lamb may walk and the elephant swim.”
You can read Turretin’s brief and helpful discussion in volume 1, pages 143-147 of Institutes of Elenctic Theology.