THE CLARITY OF THE WORD

by Jonathan Master; PLACE FOR TRUTH
March 21, 2017

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.[1]
This quote, contained in both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, has always struck me as particularly well-put. More than that, the truth it describes, known as the perspicuity (or clarity) of scripture is a great and enduring comfort.

But something struck me recently as I read through this statement again. While the clarity of scripture is a great comfort, it also presents an ideal that we often try to avoid emulating. What I mean is that this ideal of communicating clearly to both “learned and unlearned” is something we praise and embrace in the scriptures – and rightly so. But we often avoid it in our own contemporary discussions of the Bible and theology.

This avoidance takes at least two forms. The first and most obvious is the jargon-filled obscurantism which passes for academic theological publication today. This is not limited to theology, of course. For years, Dennis Dutton gave an annual award for the worst academic writing he’d encountered in the last twelve months. He called it, quite appropriately, the Bad Writing Contest. One of the shorter excerpts he gives is this: “If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”[2] That is worthy of a Bad Writing Award, though I have to admit I’ve waded through worse sentences in modern theological books. I don’t for a moment believe that the author knows what “enunciatory modality” really is; I certainly don’t, and I’m not sure I’m intended to.

But there is another, perhaps worse, type of theological writing and speaking, so different from the clarity of God’s word. It is the kind described by J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism. Machen describes the liberal preacher with these words:

It may well be doubted, however, whether the assertion ‘I believe that Jesus is God,’ or the like, on the lips of liberal preachers, is strictly truthful. The liberal preacher attaches indeed a real meaning to the words, and that meaning is very dear to his heart. He really does believe that ‘Jesus is God.’ But the trouble is that he attaches to the words a different meaning from that which is attached to them by the simple-minded person to whom he is speaking. He offends, therefore, against the fundamental principle of truthfulness in language. According to that fundamental principle, language is truthful, not when the meaning attached to the words by the speaker, but when the meaning intended to be produced in the mind of the particular person addressed, is in accordance with the facts. Thus the truthfulness of the assertion, ‘Jesus is God,’ depends upon the audience that is addressed. If the audience is composed of theologically trained persons, who will attach the same meaning to the word ‘God’ as that which the speaker attaches to it, then the language is truthful. But if the audience is composed of old-fashioned Christian, who have never attached anything but the old meaning to the word ‘God’ (the meaning which appears in the first verse of Genesis), then then language is untruthful. And in the latter case, not all the pious motives in the world will make the utterance right. Christian ethics do not abrogate common honesty; no possible desire of edifying the Church and of avoiding offense can excuse a lie.[3]

Daryl Hart summarizes Machen’s concern this way: “Machen parodied the liberal notion that each generation had to interpret the Bible or the creed according to its own time and place…According to Machen, the standard liberal response was, ‘Of course we accept the proposition that ‘the third day he arose from the dead’’ but because each generation has a right to interpret the creed in its own way, “we interpret that to mean, ‘the third day He did not rise again from the dead.’”[4]

Obscure technical jargon is one thing, but this is something entirely different. Here is the intentional use of language to say one thing to one group and to communicate something entirely different to another. In this case, these preachers and theologians actually used language to comfort and to fool – in other words, to pacify – the unlearned masses, knowing that the same language communicated something entirely different to their own peers. It was dangerous and deceitful.

But don’t we often do just the same thing? Our evangelical academics can’t afford to lose the support of the average person in the pew, yet they also crave the acceptance that comes with being perceived as being on the modern cutting edge.

And it is not just the scholars and false teachers who do this. Don’t we often parse our words very carefully when speaking to our non-Christian friends and co-workers? We want to avoid totally denying the teachings of the Bible, but also to phrase things in such a way so as to escape the sharp edge of counter-cultural offensiveness. There are topics and doctrines taught by Jesus Christ that we intentionally avoid by muddying the waters and changing the subject. We actively avoid clarity.

It is a comfort to remember that the Bible was written so that both learned and unlearned can understand its main teachings. The scriptures are not written to deceive or to trick us, nor are they intended to lead us away from a clear and honest understanding of their meaning. Thank God for this. And as you thank God for the clarity of his words, consider for a moment the lack of clarity which so characterizes our own.

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NOTES:

[1] The Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) I:7 [emphasis mine]. Like much of the 1689 BCF, this was taken from the earlier Westminster Confession of Faith.
[2] This example, and many others can be obtained at http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm (accessed 2/5/2014).
[3] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002 reprint) p. 111-112.
[4] D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R 2003) p. 77.

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Jonathan Master serves as professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. At this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01) he will be speaking on the theme of the Word of God in his two addresses, Living and Active, and Sharper Than A Two-Edged Sword.

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