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Total Depravity and Divine Knowledge (Part 2)

In the first article of this brief series we examined Total Depravity, as a prerequisite to evaluating the following statement: “Those who believe in total depravity have more confidence in the possibility of humans having divine knowledge- detailed, down to the footnotes knowledge- than many who don’t call themselves Calvinists.” I indicated that I did not wish to debate Total Depravity at that time, but instead merely wanted to define it. After ninety eight posts (and counting) in the forums I have to conclude that Total Depravity is quite the hotly-debated topic and is one I will have to return to in more detail in a later series. I do not think it is a topic that can be covered sufficiently in only a few paragraphs. With the promise to return to Total Depravity at a later date, let’s move on through this series and examine the clarity of Scripture.

The clarity of Scripture (also known as the perspicuity of Scripture) is a critical doctrine and one that was hotly debated at the time of the Reformation. During the Reformation the Protestant leaders affirmed their belief that the Bible was not a book that had to be kept only in the hands of the religious authorities, for with the Spirit’s guidance any Christian could read and understand it. They pointed to passages in the Bible that seemed to affirm this doctrine, insisting that Scripture testifies that it is clear.

Perhaps the best-known affirmation is in Deuteronomy 6:6-7, a passage that was of utmost importance to the Israelites. “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” God expressly commanded that the Bible was to be taught to children and thus it was assumed that they could understand it. He expected that every person would know, discuss and understand His Word.

David, in Psalm 19, goes so far as to say that the Word of God will make the simple wise. “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). He expresses this again in Psalm 119. “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). Surely David would not have suggested that the Scripture can make the simple wise if it was too difficult for them to understand!

Jesus never gave reason for us to believe that the Scriptures are too difficult to understand. He repeatedly expressed surprise and disgust that the religious authorities did not accept what was so obvious. He often chastised them with words similar to, “Have you not read…” The reason they did not understand the Scriptures was not due to any fault within the Word, but because of the hardness of their hearts which kept them from seeing what was so clear.

Before we proceed, let us clarify what we mean by the clarity of Scripture. Wayne Grudem defines it in this way: “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.”

As is often the case, it is also useful to examine what we do not mean by the clarity of Scripture. The clarity of Scripture does not mean to say that all parts of Scripture are equally clear. There are some parts that are clearly more difficult to understand than others. Even the apostle Peter had to admit that “There are some things … that are hard to understand” within Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:16). Anyone who has sought to understand the books of prophecy can also attest to the abundance of difficult passages. However, the basic message of Scripture is crystal clear within the Bible and can be known and understood by even a person with no prior religious knowledge. The Bible is sufficient, with the Spirit’s help, to bring a person to an understanding of the basic message and thus a saving knowledge of Christ.

Last year I attended a conference in Toronto that featured James White. He spoke of a man he met who had previously lived in Afghanistan. At one time this man had never met another Christian in his life, nor did he have access to any books or commentaries, yet had found a Bible and by reading it had become a believer, not knowing if he was the only Christian in the world. Clearly the Scriptures were sufficiently clear for this man.

It is important to note that it is precisely because of the Bible’s clarity and simplicity that many people find it offensive. The Bible teaches with great clarity that we are sinners and stand condemned before God. With equal clarity it teaches that only through Jesus can we have a restored relationship with the Father. This, the very heart of the message of Scripture, is offensive to unregenerate human beings, particularly those who suffer from what R.C. Sproul calls “intellectual arrogance.” In Knowing Scripture he relates an encounter he had with a young man who told him that Christianity is “primitive and obscene”. What this man meant as an insult was absolutely correct! Sproul asks rhetorically, “What kind of a God would reveal his love and redemption in terms so technical and concepts so profound that only an elite corps of professional scholars could understand them? (page 16).” Certainly not the God of the Bible, who revealed his love and redemption with the utmost of clarity.

What we learn from examining Scripture is that the qualifications for understanding the Bible are not primarily intellectual, but moral and spiritual. Though written simply, only those who are humble spiritually and morally can understand the deep things of God. Any unbeliever who opens the pages of Scripture earnestly seeking salvation will find it and any Christian who goes to the Word, seeking God’s help, will understand it, for this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He illumines the Scripture.

This doctrine is one of great encouragement to the believer, for we can have confidence that if we approach the Scriptures, the very Words of God, asking the Spirit for His help, we will be able to know and understand them. God has given His Word so that all might have access to Him through them.

So what of the correlation of Total Depravity and the revelation of truth? We will examine this in our next article.