What is the “Perspicuity” of Scripture, and Why Does It Matter?

When I was a missionary in Hungary, we used to visit a refugee camp populated with thousands of people from muslim-majority countries, with whom we didn’t have a common language. Everyone in the camp got by with a mix of English, Russian, and sometimes German words that formed a special form of refugee pidgin. But this was insufficient for deeper conversations, such as those about God, Jesus, and salvation.

So, with the help of the International Bible Society, we were able to get New Testaments in Urdu, Dari, Farsi, and other languages, and we handed these out along with humanitarian aid, telling those we met to read them, and then we would follow up. For many of them, this was their first time ever having access to the New Testament in their own language, and by God’s grace, we did see many of them become followers of Jesus.

But this approach to ministry was based on an underlying assumption: that anyone with average reading comprehension skills can sufficiently understand the meaning of the Bible when it comes to what it says about who Jesus is and how salvation is possible through Him.

This assumption is known as belief in the “perspicuity,” or clarity of Scripture.

Not everyone embraces the idea that Scripture is perspicuous, notably the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches – as well as fringe groups including the Mormons (AKA Latter Day Saints) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It was after a friend of mine converted to Roman Catholicism based on claims he had heard about Scripture not being perspicuous that I was intrigued by this topic and wanted to research it further. I ended up writing my Masters dissertation on the topic – specifically looking at the question of whether the concept of the perspicuity of Scripture was novel to the Reformation, or if it is also found in the writings of the early Church Fathers – which would mean that the insistence on the perspicuity of Scripture in the Reformation period was actually a return to the way the early Christians understood and viewed Scripture.

In this week’s episode of the Theology for People Podcast, Mike asks me questions about the perspicuity of Scripture; what it is and why it matters, and what is at stake when it comes to this issue.

You can listen to the episode in the embedded player below, or by clicking this link: The Perspicuity of Scripture: Is the Bible Clear? Can Everyone Understand It?

The Perspicuity of Scripture: Is the Bible Clear? Can Everyone Understand It? Theology for the People

Can anyone pick up the Bible, read it and understand it? Is Scripture "clear," and if it is: about what and for whom is it clear? I wrote my Masters dissertation on the topic of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture. This is an important topic, because whether or not we view Scripture as clear affects how we handle and use the Bible and how we relate to church traditions, and how we view the world in the midst of a culture in which many long-held beliefs and assumptions are being challenged. In this episode, Nick and Mike discuss the concept of the perspicuity of Scripture, looking at the history of this concept and what is at stake in this debate.  For more articles and content, make sure to check out the Theology for the People website.

What are “Winds and Waves” of Doctrine, and How Can We Recognize Them?

In this week’s episode on the Theology for the People Podcast, Mike and I discuss what it means in Ephesians 4:14 where the Apostle Paul talks about “winds and waves of doctrine.”

What are they? How do we recognize them before it’s too late? And how do we avoid being carried away by them?

We give some examples of winds and waves in the recent past, as well as the desire to move beyond the basics of Christianity to the “deeper things.” We discuss what people often mean when they use that phrase, and how to discover and experience the deepest things in reality.

Listen here, or in the embedded player below: What are “Winds and Waves of Doctrine,” and How Can We Recognize Them?

Theology for the People Now on GoodLion Podcast Network

The Theology for the People podcast is now on the GoodLion Podcast Network, where you can find a lot of other great podcast content. As part of joining GoodLion, all of our episodes were updated with new graphics. Check them out:

What Did John Calvin Mean By, “We must remember that Satan has his miracles too”?


In a recent post titled If Satan Has Been Defeated, Why Is He Still “Prowling Around”?, we looked at how Satan is not God’s counterpart, and certainly not his equal. How then can someone like John Calvin, who has a high view of God’s sovereignty and power, say that “Satan has his miracles too?

Calvin was referring to Matthew 24:24 – where, in his Olivet Discourse, Jesus states that during a time to come of great tribulation, “false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

The Context of Calvin’s Statement: A Response to Roman Catholic Criticisms About a Lack of Miracles in the Reformation

This statement is only part of a bigger statement by John Calvin. It is found in the “Prefatory Address to the King of France,” at the beginning of Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this section, Calvin is responding to Roman Catholic criticisms of the Reformation, one of which was that the Reformation lacked miracles, which they said proved that the Reformation was not a legitimate, apostolic, work of God.

In his response, Calvin said that the immediate purpose of a miracle like healing was to bring relief to the individual, but the ultimate purpose was to prove that the apostolic preaching was true. Calvin then argues that the Reformation is not a new revelation, but rather the reaffirmation of the original apostolic preaching, therefore it does not necessitate miracles to confirm its validity.

Calvin then takes it one step further by suggesting that many of the supposed miracles reported by the Roman Catholic Church may not be from God, but may instead be of the sort talked about by Jesus in Matthew 24:24, i.e. performed by false prophets by the power of Satan to lead people astray and deceive them.

Interestingly however, Calvin does not disavow miracles entirely, but suggests that there were actually miracles that accompanied the Reformation. He then makes the concluding point that the test of miracles should be what they cause you to worship and trust in. Any miracle which causes you to trust in false doctrines or turn away from the Word of God, he says, are suspect in their origin.

This final point is a good one; you might remember that in Exodus, Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do replicate some of the miracles which Moses performed. The effect of these miracles was to cause people not to listen to God and repent, but to trust in false gods. I have witnessed a similar phenomenon amongst people in some circles today who seek signs and wonders; sometimes the signs they seek cause them to trust in things other than God, His Word, and the gospel.

You can read a larger excerpt of what Calvin wrote here, but here are some highlights:

In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.

But the mark of sound doctrine given by our Savior himself is its tendency to promote the glory not of men, but of God (John 7:18; 8:50). Our Savior having declared this to be test of doctrine, we are in error if we regard as miraculous, works which are used for any other purpose than to magnify the name of God.

And it becomes us to remember that Satan has his miracles, which, although they are tricks rather than true wonders, are still such as to delude the ignorant and unwary. Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles, and miracles of an astonishing description have given support to idolatry: these, however, do not make us converts to the superstitions either of magicians or idolaters.

But our opponents tell us that their miracles are wrought not by idols, not by sorcerers, not by false prophets, but by saints: as if we did not know it to be one of Satan’s wiles to transform himself “into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).

We, then, have no lack of miracles, sure miracles, that cannot be gainsaid; but those to which our opponents lay claim are mere delusions of Satan, inasmuch as they draw off the people from the true worship of God to vanity.

Source: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, cited in: The Reformation’s Lack of Miracles: A Response by John Calvin

Catechesis Today

Catechesis is an education in the faith of children, young people and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.”

A few years ago, Christianity Today published some statistics about the lack of knowledge of basic Christian doctrine amongst evangelicals. See: ‘Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies’.

This data was very eye-opening for me, and solidified my decision to introduce a Christian education program at White Fields which we now call School of Ministrybut which we eventually plan to build into something bigger that will reach beyond our church.

One of the reasons for the lack of knowledge of basic Christian doctrines among evangelicals is that although many evangelical churches have a strong focus on Bible-teaching, oftentimes that teaching is focused on personal application rather than explicit doctrinal instruction and core doctrines are assumed rather than explicitly taught.

It could be argued that if you teach expositionally through the Bible, then all major doctrines will eventually be addressed and taught and a systematic theology will naturally develop. I believe this is true, and it is why I take an expositional and verse-by-verse approach in teaching the Bible in our church. However, I do think that along with an expositional approach to biblical theology, a systematic approach is also important. A systematic approach is when you say, What does the Bible teach about ________?  If we’re honest, everyone has a functional systematic theology, although it may change or develop over time, and we employ that systematic theology whenever we approach the Bible expositionally.

For these reasons, we’ve started a foundations class at White Fields. I originally assumed that this class would be attended mostly by new believers and youth, but I’ve been surprised at the amount of interest from people who have been Christians and have been attending church for years, who feel like they need this instruction on the core Christian doctrines.

On a personal level, one thing we’ve started doing in our home with our kids is going through the New City Catechism.

I can already anticipate the question: “Catechism? Isn’t that a Catholic thing?” The answer is: No. The word catechism means “to teach orally”, and “throughout the history of the church, Christians have used catechisms—collections of questions and answers designed for memorization and recitation—to teach others the core doctrines of the faith. The New City Catechism is a modern-day resource aimed at reintroducing this ancient method of teaching to Christians today.”1


There are some great things about the New City Catechism that make it helpful:

  1. It has a free app for iPhone, iPad and Android, as well as a printed version which can be purchased
  2. It has 52 questions, designed to be memorized at one per week
  3. It has a children’s mode, which includes simplified answers and songs to help them learn what is being taught

Our kids enjoy doing it. We do it at the dinner table, and then throughout the week we’ll practice together. I would recommend it as a great tool for individuals and families. If nothing less, it is a way to get yourself or your family focused on, talking about and thinking about Biblical doctrine throughout the week.

Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies

Christianity Today posted this article about surveys done of evangelical Christians, which revealed how many American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.

Here’s the article:

New Poll Finds Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies: Survey finds many American evangelicals hold unorthodox views on the Trinity, salvation, and other doctrines.

It’s worth reading. Here are a few of the poll results:

The concluding statements were also very insightful and worth taking note of:

Beth Felker Jones, professor of theology at Wheaton College, said, “Orthodoxy is life-giving, and God’s people need access to it.” Participants who gave unorthdox answers are not heretics, but probably lacked quality resources, she said. “Church leaders need to be able to teach the truth of the faith clearly and accurately, and we need to be able to show people why this matters for our lives.”

For Nichols, one way forward in understanding God and ourselves is to consult the historic church. “While slightly over half see value in church history, [nearly] 70 percent have no place for creeds in their personal discipleship,” he said. For Nichols, the church’s knowledge of its past will determine its future. Knowing heresies and how they were overcome, he says, will help the church stay on the right track theologically.


The Importance of Old Testament Ideas of Sacrifice in a Christian Understanding of Atonement

This is an article I wrote for a seminary class on Christology and Atonement, which I have found to be particularly relevant in many discussions – especially the part towards the end about “expiation” vs. “propitiation”.
Feel free to leave feedback in the comments section below.

The Christian doctrine of atonement is an attempt to achieve an understanding of the event of the crucifixion of Christ and the benefits of Christ gained for believers by his death. Atonement theories deal with the question of how an historical even in a specific place and time – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – can somehow constitute universal saving power in perpetuity, as the New Testament claims that it does (1 Jn 2:2, Heb. 10:10-14). Unarguably, it is from the sacrificial system of ancient Israel that we have inherited the framework and terminology of the Christian idea of atonement. A consideration, therefore, of the Old Testament ideas of sacrifice gives insight into and shapes our view of what was accomplished through the crucifixion.

The Christian claim from scripture and tradition is that Christ’s action constituted God’s gift of salvation, and was not merely illustrative of it. Gunton points out that sacrifice is the primary New Testament metaphor regarding the crucifixion. The early church interpreted Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms, which developed out of a context of the temple cult. It is important to remember that the setting in which Jesus and the early Christians lived was one in which the Old Testament sacrifices were still being offered; in fact, these sacrifices were being offered during practically the whole period of the composition of the New Testament. The antecedents of New Testament ideas of atonement are found in the Old Testament sacrificial system. The book of Leviticus, therefore, gives some of the clearest insights into biblical religion and is fundamental to the New Testament’s understanding of atonement.

In the Old Testament, sacrifice is the divinely appointed way of securing atonement, and the need for atonement exists because humankind is estranged from God by sin, hence the need for reconciliation or ‘at-one-ment’ between humans and God. An important understanding in the Old Testament is the distinction between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. One of the duties of the priest was to distinguish between these (Lev. 10:10). Cleanness in the Old Testament understanding has little to do with hygiene; it has to do with imperfection, a distortion of existence. Examples of what would make someone unclean were things like contact with a dead body, a bodily excretion, and committing acts of sin or lawbreaking – either intentionally or unintentionally. God is the super-holy and should anyone unclean come near God, they are liable to be destroyed. Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness, so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.

Leviticus lists five main sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Each of these, besides the grain offering, included the shedding of the blood of animals. Each was a sacrifice in the metaphorical sense, in that they were of significant cost to the person who presented the sacrifice, which drives home the idea that atonement has a high price and sin is never to be taken lightly. The sin offering and the guilt offering were for the purpose of atonement for committed sins. The sin offering was particularly focused on purification, whereas the guilt offering carried more of the metaphor of compensation for wrongdoing.

In each of the animal sacrifices, the blood of the animal is shed, and the animal dies. Thus, it is clear that in the Old Testament it was recognised that death was the penalty for sin (Ezek. 18:20), but that God graciously permitted the death of a sacrificial victim to substitute or ransom for the death of the unclean person. Herein we have the basis for the substitutional and representative death of Jesus as a sacrifice on behalf of humankind. This same understanding of substitutional sacrificial death which results in atonement can be found elsewhere in the Old Testament, e.g. in Ex. 32, where Moses seeks to make atonement for the sin of the people by asking God to blot him out of the book which he has written. However, in the Old Testament sacrifices, it is not the death of the animal which is the climax of the rite, but rather what is done with its blood. The blood of the sin offering acts as a spiritual cleanser. Jesus’ blood is also spoken of as that which cleanses from sin, e.g. 1 Jn 1:7. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the sacrificed creature was required to be unblemished, representing perfection, hence the importance in the New Testament that Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 4:15, 7:26, 9:14, 1 Pet. 2:22, 1 Jn 3:5); otherwise he would not have been qualified to be an atoning sacrifice.

God says in Leviticus 17:11 of the atoning blood ‘I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.’ From this we learn that although human estrangement from God is because of human shortcomings, God took the initiative to provided the means for atonement. This idea carried into the New Testament view of atonement, in which, once again, God is the one who provides the means for our atonement by sending Jesus to be our atoning sacrifice.

Furthermore, the greatest day in the Old Testament calendar was the Day of Atonement, which was so significant that it became simply referred to as ‘the Day’. On this day, special sin offerings were made by the high priest for himself and for the whole nation. One of the elements of the Day of Atonement was the scapegoat ceremony in which the high priest laid his hands on the goat and confessed all the sins of the people, thereby symbolising the transferring of the nation’s sins onto the goat. Herein we have the basis for the understanding of making atonement for a large group of people at one time, rather than only for individuals, as well as the idea of transference of sin and guilt onto an innocent party – both of which are central to the Christian concept of atonement, in which our sins are transferred onto Jesus, and he who knew no sin becomes sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21, Is. 53:6, Jn 1:29, 1 Pet. 2:24).

The importance of Old Testament ideas of sacrifice in the Christian account of atonement are perhaps nowhere more greatly pronounced than in the letter to the Hebrews, which David Ford calls ‘the most fully developed theology of the death of Jesus in the New Testament’. The great concern of the letter to the Hebrews is to show that the Old Testament sacrifices were inadequate except as types, which foreshadowed and pointed to Christ. This is proven by the fact that they cannot provide entrance into the holy of holies, nor free the conscience from guilt. Rather than remedies for sin, they are reminders of sin, imposed until a time of reformation. (Heb. 9:6-10, 10:3), which has now come in Christ, who was the true and final sacrifice, after which no more sacrifices for atonement are needed (Heb. 10:11-14).

Furthermore, according to Hebrews, Jesus is not only the atoning sacrifice, but he is also the fulfilment of the high priest, who enters heaven (the reality of which the holy of holies was merely a representation), not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood. (Heb. 9:23-26). Thus, Jesus’ death is not simply seen as having been the result of wicked men rising up against him and overcoming him because he was not able to resist them, but as an intentional sacrifice, which Jesus came to present, in order to make atonement for humankind (Mk 10:45).

However, it is not only the letter to the Hebrews which reflects this understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as being an atoning sacrifice. References to atoning sacrifice, which use the language and imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system are found throughout the New Testament. He is spoken of as the true passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-8) and as a sin offering (Rom. 8:3). Jesus spoke of his blood as the blood of the covenant which was poured out for the forgiveness of many (Matt. 26:28).

Historically, Christian accounts of atonement have been culturally mediated, deriving from their socio-political contexts, and reflective of prevailing philosophical ideas. In this sense, it is understandable why Christianity, born in a Jewish context, would have drawn so heavily on Old Testament ideas and imagery of sacrifice. In modern times, the idea of a sacrificial cult in which blood has to be shed in order for forgiveness of sins to take place is generally considered crude, primitive and unsophisticated, and it has been suggested that Christians should take on different views of the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, for example an exemplarist view, in which we learn from Christ the virtue of self-sacrifice, and are moved by his act of self-sacrifice to repentance and faith and are motivated to live a life of holiness. Wellhausen’s moral evolution account has contributed to this line of thinking, in which he claimed to see a critique of cultic practices present in the prophets. However, since most of the prophets were also priests, they were involved with sacrifice and were rather criticising the practice of making offerings in the wrong spirit rather than critiquing the cultic practice of sacrifice itself. Another modern emphasis on sacrifice is that it be understood metaphorically in terms of a ‘gift’. Fiddes points out that this is a slippage form the ancient use of the term which formed the context for early Christian reflection on the death of Christ. Even in Old Testament times, there was precedent, e.g. in the Psalms, to speak of sacrifice in metaphorical terms (‘spiritual sacrifice’), but this was not a substitution of the literal animal sacrifices. In fact, early Christians drew on both the spiritual sacrifices and the literal sacrifices to provide a backdrop and meaning for the death of Jesus.

During the Reformation, one of the theories of atonement which became popular was that of penal substitution; that the law of God demanded punishment from those who breached it and that God, as a strategy of love, effectively propitiated himself in Christ, satisfying the demands of his own justice. The attraction of this theory has been that it does appear to explain how the death of Christ is a final and decisive event, and after his death the anger or truth of God needs not be propitiated again. However, the shortcoming of this theory of atonement is that when we consider the Old Testament sacrificial system, what we find is that atonement is centred around cleansing the unclean person from that which makes them unclean, rather than about dealing with the reaction of God against sin. If we are to claim that the Old Testament sacrificial system is the basis for the Christian understanding of atonement, then we must recognise that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not focused on dealing with God’s reaction to sin, but with removing sin and making the unclean clean. Fiddes contends that when Romans 3:25 says that Jesus was ‘propitiation by his blood’, that the word translated propitiation (‘hilasterion’) should rather be understood as ‘expiation’ (‘to wipe away’), because God is always the subject of the process of atonement, never the object. Although the word ‘hilasterion’ means ‘propitiation’ when it is used in other texts of the period, Fiddes claims that when the New Testament writers use it they are intentionally changing its meaning to mean expiation, which is what the Old Testament atoning sacrifices describe. Certainly the Bible does depict God being angry against sin (e.g. Rom. 1:18). But even though God does feel anger and wrath towards sin, when he acts to make atonement he is not acting to satisfy his anger, but to remove sin. Those who refuse to appropriate this atonement will remain unclean and estranged from God.

It is clear that the writers of the New Testament drew heavily on the imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system in regard to the significance of the life and death of Jesus. This imagery was not only used by the writer to the Hebrews, but is also found in the writings of Paul, Peter, John and the writers of the Gospels, who give us examples of Jesus speaking in such terms about himself. If then the Old Testament sacrifices are the basis of our Christian account of atonement, we can gain insight into what the crucifixion of Christ did and did not mean when we consider the purposes and effects of the Old Testament sacrifices.

Beckwith, R.T., ‘Sacrifice and Offering’ , in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 1035-1044
Carter, D., THY303 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2012)
Currid, J., K. Nobuyoshi and J.A. Sklar, ‘Leviticus’, in ESV Study Bible, ed. by L.T. Dennis, W. Grudem, J.I. Packer, C.J. Collins, T.R. Schreiner and J. Taylor (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), pp. 211-256
Fiddes, P.S., Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989)
Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989)
Goldingay, J., ‘Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ’ in John Goldingay, (ed.) Atonement Today, a Symposium at St. John’s College, Nottingham (London: SPCK, 1995), pp. 3-20
Marshall, I.H., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996)
McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Morris, L.L., ‘Atonement’, in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 102-104
Morris, L.L., “Theories of the Atonement”, Monergism <http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/atonementmorris2.html&gt; [28/06/13]
Wenham, G.J., The Pentateuch, Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 2003)