In his book, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture Mark D. Thompson shows the reader how to understand, speak about and believe in the effectiveness of Scripture despite all other objections to the idea.
Thompson begins the book with the question, “Can we really be certain about what it [Scripture] says or what it means? In many ways this would appear to be the question of the hour” (18) because in the last 50 years the arenas of literary theory and philosophy have purposed strong objections to the perspicuity of Scripture. So, as a response, in chapter one Thompson covers the five main protests to the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture as they have emerged throughout history. This was my favorite chapter in the book. As well as detailing the main objections, this chapter doubles (unintentionally?) as a 30-page summation of the history of hermeneutics as it relates to the theological question at hand.
Certainly my own profound appreciation for such a thoroughly nuanced and yet smooth distillation is a result of having just recently read some of the big intros to the topic – to name just three of them: Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (545 pages), Duvall and Hays’ Grasping God’s Word (490 pages), and Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: an Introduction (355 pages). Somehow, Thompson took all of that history and summarized it in just a few pages. What a feat! This highlights one uniqueness of the author: Thompson is an extremely skilled summarizer. As a historian Thompson knows his stuff and is able to summarize big ideas sufficiently and succinctly. How he covered what he covered in only 170 pages is baffling to me. Very impressive.
In defending the belief that Scripture is clear and effective, Thompson reminds us that Christian theology is not just talk about God made possible by God’s prior decision to be known, but it is unique in that the Spirit of God helps us as we read it. No other book comes with such a promise. As Thompson remarks, “Unlike any other text we might name, the biblical text never leaves the presence of its ultimate author. God attends not only the production but the reception of this text” (77). So, God has not only spoken. In this text he still speaks (78). This means that the usefulness of the text is an activity of God Himself! ( 92)
Numerous times in the book Thompson reminds us that “caritas scripturae” doesn’t always equal “easy to understand” or is the same as “uniform simplicity” or even “transparency.” As he admits, in some cases, “the clear meaning of a passage is hard won” (102) and “the clarity of Scripture does not guarantee that all who read will truly grasp its meaning.” But yet, at the same time, Thompson encourages us to let this truth stand over all other attempts: we can say with confidence that our God, “The living God is an effective communicator.” (80)
Some of my favorite lines of the book come from chapter three, titled, “It is not beyond you: The accessible word of the living God.” In speaking of the effectiveness of God’s word, Thompson points to Isaiah 55:10-11 (on page 100) which says,
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Thompson clarifies, “God does not speak aimlessly. His words are not confused, tangled or ineffectual. When God speaks, his purpose is certainly fulfilled. As Westermann put it, ‘God’s word is a word that does things. When God speaks, something comes about.’ Just as there was no cosmic resistance when the words, ‘Let there be light’ were uttered at the beginning of time, nothing thwarts or even retards his intention whenever he speaks. With the word of God there is certainty and that certainty entails clarity.” (100-101)
Too often we forget that the confusion we have with Scripture may not be located within its own pages but ends up “showing up” as a result of our bringing our own baggage to the table. Which, by the way, doesn’t render the text indiscernible, it just means we might have to work a little harder to understand it than we’d like. As John Webster puts it so well,
“The act of interpretation repeats the basic motif of Christian existence, which is being drawn out of the darkness of sin and turned to the light of the gospel. Holy Scripture is clear; but because its matter is that to which we must be reconciled, readers can only discern its clarity if their darkness is illuminated. ..Interpretation of the clear Word of God is therefore not first of all an act of clarification but the event of being clarified. Reading, therefore, always includes a humbling of the reader, the breaking of the will in which there is acted out the struggle to detach our apprehension of the text from the idolatrous schemas which we inevitably take to it, and by which we seek to command or suppress it or render it convenient to us.” (Quoted on page 141)
Just as “the nature of God’s dealings with his people generates confidence rather than confusion” (135) so as I read this book I gained an even greater sense of the goodness of God’s Word and the effectiveness of its teachings. Now, if only I could figure out how to stop suppressing it, stop ignoring it, and stop “rendering it” more convenient to my life than it actually is. Where’s the book on how to figure out THAT problem?! :)
(To read a similar post of mine on “Three Barriers to Hearing God’s Word as it shows up in Peter Adam’s Book (in the same series), Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality, go here).