Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1: The Clarity of Scripture
Section 7 of the first chapter of the Confession of Faith deals with our ability to understand the Word of God. There is a clear polemic here against the insistence of Roman Catholicism that the church is indispensable to an understanding of the Bible. The Confessional position is that this is not necessarily so, although by the Church God has ordained 'ordinary means' by which the meaning of the Bible is clarified.
Four main propositions are affirmed in the Confession of Faith at this point.
1. There are Passages in the Bible whose Sense is Somewhat Obscure.
The Confessional language is very exact - not all passages of Scripture are equally plain in themselves, and not all passages are equally plain to the readers of the Bible. A.A. Hodge puts it thus: "Protestants do not affirm that the doctrines revealed in the Scriptures are level to man's power of understanding. Nor do they affirm that every part of Scripture can be certainly and perspicuously expounded, many of the prophesies being perfectly enigmatical until explained by the event" (Outlines of Theology, p.85). A distinction must be maintained between what is above reason and what is contrary to reason. While much biblical revelation is beyond man's power of understanding, nothing in the Bible is contrary to logic and reason.
Cunningham draws a further distinction between the obscurity that is inherent in the subject revealed and obscurity attaching to the revelation of it. For example, in 2 Peter 3:16 Peter says of Paul "As also, in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things in which are some things hard to be understood", where the 'hardness of understanding' refers to the subject matter rather than to the epistles themselves. So the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly taught in the Bible, but not so clearly understood. There is an obscurity inherent in the doctrine tour, although the revelation of the doctrine in Scripture is perfectly clear.
2. There are Various Levels of Understanding and Attainment Among Men.
What is obscure to one may be clear to another. There may be debate among men as to the meaning of a particular passage; it may be difficult for some to fix their mind on a particular interpretation. Some people "wrest the Scriptures to their own destruction". There are differences in men's natural and acquired abilities, differences of context in which men approach Scripture, differences of resources with which men can deal with matters of biblical interpretation; all of which can render the Bible clear to some and more obscure to others.
Which highlights, first, the danger of the notion that a man, simply by the power of his own reading of the Bible, can understand it perfectly. Kenneth's Wuest's caveat to students of the Greek New Testament is valid for all studious readers of the Bible: "Golden nuggets of truth do not lie on the surface" (The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament, p. 127). They must be mined. We need to dig deep to uncover the meaning; and we also need one another. How often in the company of God's people, discussing and debating the meaning of passages and verses has the Spirit of God unveiled the meaning and scattered our obscurity!
And it highlights, secondly, the need to give room to every interpretation until it is judged by us in the light of Scripture. It is not good to criticise a man simply because his interpretation differs from ours. The possibility always remains that he might be right.
3. The Bible is Crystal Clear on All Matters Necessary to be Known and Believed on for Salvation.
There is no dubiety here. There is a level of obscurity regarding some matters and issues revealed in Scripture, but none regarding what a sinner must believe and do in order to be saved. That is why, as Prof. Whitaker said in the sixteenth century, the Bible is a "river in which the elephant may swim and yet the lamb may walk" (quoted in To Glorify and Enjoy God, p.95). There is in Scripture what will tax the most superb intellect, and also what can illuminate savingly the least able mind.
4. All Men, Irrespective of Education or Learning, can Know the Truth of God in a Saving Manner.
This is explained in two ways. First, the doctrines of salvation centering upon the Person and Work of Christ are so clearly propounded somewhere or other in the Bible that sinners will be saved.
Secondly, by a "due use of the ordinary means" it is possible to attain to a sufficient understanding of the Bible. So that although the church is, at one level, not indispensable, on another level God has made it the ordinary medium of illumination. God has purposed to channel His grace through intermediate channels of blessing, to which people must come, and in which they must be exercised. These include preaching, the Sacraments, prayer, and so on. In this way the church becomes what Paul called 'the pillar of truth' (1 Timothy 3:15), on which the truth of Scripture is displayed and made clear to all.