Perspicuity is the concept that Holy Scripture is clear and understandable from a plain reading of the text. While disputes over the clarity of Scripture have been with the Church since its founding, the Protestant Reformation asserted Scripture to be innately perspicuous and perspicuously understandable as the sole rule of faith and practice. In layman’s terms, Protestants by and large hold that the Church’s interpretation of Holy Scripture has no authority over an individuals. Among most Protestants (and especially Reformed), this is accepted as a matter of doctrine.
By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church, via its commitment to an authoritative methodology, asserts Holy Scripture to be imperspicuous apart from the interpretive framework of the Catholic Church itself. In other words, the Roman Catholic Church claims authority to interpret Scripture over her parishioners. For Roman Catholics, as for Protestants, the higher authority of the Church in matters of Scriptural interpretation is taken as a matter of doctrine.
- Protestants do not believe in the authority of the Church’s interpretation of Holy Scripture.
- Roman Catholics disagree. The Church has final authority over the interpretation of Holy Scripture.
Luther’s understanding is interesting. Luther does not deny that some passages are difficult to understand, but he locates the difficulty not in the words of Scripture but in the limitations of our finite minds to comprehend divine revelation expressed in human terms. In this regard, Luther argued that the perspicuity of Scripture was not the same as Scripture being simple or easily comprehended. Even when the subject or propositions of Scripture are clear, Luther claimed that they are not necessarily simple or easy to understand because the ideas, concepts, or meanings are beyond the ability of finite minds to comprehend.
Now, with this in mind, what are we to learn from the following texts?
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithi’ah, Shema, Anai’ah, Uri’ah, Hilki’ah, and Ma-asei’ah on his right hand; and Pedai’ah, Mish’a-el, Malchi’jah, Hashum, Hash-bad’danah, Zechari’ah, and Meshul’lam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jesh’ua, Bani, Sherebi’ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab’bethai, Hodi’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Keli’ta, Azari’ah, Jo’zabad, Hanan, Pelai’ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense [of the law], so that the people understood the reading.
“Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus”
Do not these texts suggest that the LORD expects us to raise up people who can teach and help us understand His revelation? At the same time, these same texts seem not to suggest the existence of an interpretive authority either (but they do prescribe severe penalites for wrong teaching, e.g., Matt 18:6).
Now, go and study