‘Just me and my Bible…’

Timothy Ward on the clarity (‘perspicuity) of Scripture:

Turretin summarizes: ‘The question then comes to this — whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation . . . that without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers. The papists deny this; we affirm it.’ [Institutes 2.17]

Without that context [:polemical, contra ‘the papists’] given in our doctrine of biblical clarity we risk giving the impression that individual believers, with no reference to preaching, teaching or good biblical scholarship, and therefore deprived of the traditions of biblical interpretation meditated through these channels, ought to be able to make good sense of Scripture on their own. The Spirit may graciously allow them to that, but there is no promise from God that he unfailingly will. . .

Some individuals pick up a Bible, with no one to explain it to them, and find the gospel of Christ coming across loud and clear. Others, though, ask for God’s help and read Scripture with an open spirit, but find that the gospel of Christ is not especially clear to them without a teacher to teach them the gospel from Scripture and to show them how to read Scripture (cf. [Philip and the Ethiopian] Acts 8:30–35). . .

From Words of Lifepp. 125, 126

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the necessity of the church in the life of the Christian. In America we are culturally conditioned to understand Scripture and the Christian life through an individualistic lens, and overlook the communal aspects. We read passages in the plural as if they were singular. We view our relationship with God as primarily individual, to the exclusion of necessary church-community aspects.

The church is essential to the life of a Christian. There are things we cannot learn, sins we cannot overcome, needs we cannot meet, and Scripture that isn’t clear to us apart from the grace of God working through the church by His Spirit.

I was surprised and delighted to see how Ward relates this to the clarity/’perspicuity’ of Scripture. We protestants have been (rightly!) taught the ‘priesthood of all believers’, yet, we err if we overreact to ‘papist’ claims with hyper-individualized claims of our own. God gave the church teachers (Eph. 4); Paul told believers to teach one another (Col 3:16, Rom 15:4). ‘Just me and my Bible’ won’t cut it — we need the church, even when it comes to Scripture itself.

John 16:13 says ‘When the Spirit comes He will guide you into all truth.’ Read it in Greek — it’s a plural pronoun — humon. How many times have I read that as a promise to me as an individual? Our cultural glasses are really thick.

Ward concludes:

Therefore, we are right to trust that God in Scripture has spoken and continues to speak sufficiently clearly for us to base our saving knowledge of him and of ourselves, and our beliefs and our actions, on the content of Scripture alone, without ultimately validating our understanding of these things or our confidence in them by appeal to any individual or institution. (p. 127)

The key word there is ‘ultimately’. Our ultimate basis of clear knowledge is not the church, but Scripture itself, contra the papists. But affirming this does not preclude the necessity, at times, for the church, even in the clarity of Scripture for salvation. For more along these lines, and many others related to an evangelical, grounded, historical, yet contemporary doctrine of Scripture, I highly recommend Timothy Ward’s book: Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God.

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