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A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (New Studies in Biblical Theology) Paperback – August 21, 2006
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. . . a solid and clearly written introduction to the biblical and theological issues that frame the conversation. (John R. Franke for Religious Studies Review, April 2007)
. . . Timely and relevant in a climate where attacks on the character of Scripture as Gods word are radical and far-reaching. (Gordon Cheng for The Briefing, December 2007)
"Certainly there are few topics more pertinent in the first decade of the twenty-first century. . . . The 'perspicuity of Scripture' (often designated claritas Scripturae) has fallen on hard times. Dr. Thompson's clearly written and robust articulation of the clarity of Scripture will help many people think about these matters knowledgeably, crisply, faithfully, pointedly. The purpose . . . is to handle Scripture itself with greater wisdom and confidence." (D. A. Carson, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
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Features & Benefits
* Addresses often-ignored or derided doctrine
* Includes a survey of past and present objections to the doctrine
* Restates the relevance of the doctrine for today
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Others have given solid summaries of the content of the book, so I'll limit my observational comments to two specific areas (Historical Framework and the Doctrine's Definition), and then briefly give my overall thought on why this book needs to be read.
1. Historical Framework of the Doctrine - The Clarity of Scripture as a debate among Christians has primarily been a Reformational debate into the present time. It's not that the Fathers didn't speak of Scripture's authority, infallibility, etc., but the debates of the early and even medieval church weren't surrounding the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. Thompson does an excellent job as an historian to frame the discussion, giving us the context and helping us understand that the debate about Scripture's clarity essentially is a debate about Christology, namely, who is Christ and what has He done? This has a dramatic effect on how Scripture operates and functions. This issue reached a fever-pitch in the early Reformation and (Catholic) Counter Reformation, primarily between Martin Luther and Erasmus. Thompson traces the Reformational arguments and defense six decades later between Cambridge (Puritan) Biblical Scholar William Whitaker and the Catholic Controversialist Theologian Robert Bellarmine.
He spends a large part of two chapters (1 & 4) dealing with the past 50-60 years of engagement with Scripture's clarity, how we understand it in light of language (linguistics), and various attempts to salvage or scuttle the Scripture's clarity during this period. Essentially, he traces out the trajectories of Nietzsche and Barth and discusses they're various theological offspring. Nietzsche, as he leads us into post-modernity, and Barth, as he tries to save the Church from the foundationalism of modernity and Protestant Conservatives, and the existentialism and experiential subjectivity of Protestant Liberalism. To a degree, Barth was successful, though his bibliology at times is questionable as it relates to the Evangelical tradition. On the other hand, postmodernity has scuttled any attempt at knowing real meaning apart from the relativistic communities and socially agreed upon language which constructs it. Largely through the thought of Nietzsche, Ricoeur, Focault and Derrida (being the most radical), at best, real meaning is localized at a communal level. Objective ("Speech-Act") communication is ridiculous for them.
Lastly, as a side note on this section, Thompson only touches here and there on the Princetonian scholars, A.A. Hodge, Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield and their contribution to the historical doctrine. They are relegated mostly to the footnotes. In American Protestantism, this doctrine was crystallized by these Presbyterians, so it was surprising to see so little engagement with them.
Overall, Thompson did a magnificent job framing the historical conversation from the Reformation to the present day. His brevity was excellent. However, given that he was trying to be brief about the doctrine's historical framework, his limited conversation largely overlooked the "Big 3's" (Hodge, Hodge and Warfield) and their significant voices in the conversation. I think the framework would have been stronger and richer by engaging their significant contributions. (4.5/5 Stars)
2. Defining the Doctrine of "Scripture's Clarity" - This is where is gets the murkiest. Thompson does a good job reiterating time and again what he means by "Scripture's Clarity" - and what he does not. His definition (pp. 169-70): "The clarity of Scripture is that quality of the biblical text that, as God's communicative act, ensures it's meaning is accessible to all who come to it in faith." This definition is richly worded, carefully crafted, with each phrase communicating the boundaries and substance of the "Clarity of Scripture". But with such a clear definition, why is it still murky? It's because the definition is highly complex, just like the clarity of Scripture.
Therefore, what Thompson doesn't mean by Scripture's clarity, is that all Scripture is equally simple (as much is deeply complex); that we don't need exposition and study to help both draw out the clarity for us, and draw us into the clarity of the story as well; that people's private interpretation is adequate outside the communal framework of Christian identity, or that human being's falleness doesn't come into play. Time and again, Thompson clarifies that these are issues that must be included in defining what we mean by the "Clarity of Scripture" and what we don't mean. A careful reading of this will save the reader from confusion.
Also, Thompson does a masterful job reminding the reader of the (Reformed) perspective of both Scripture's clarity AND presence. Which simply means God is still working in and through His text, not because His voice is found somewhere in there, but because the Bible is the very voice of God. As Luther put it, "the Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid". God's Word is actively powerful and accomplishes what it intends to do (Isa. 55:10-11). This is a much-needed corrective for the information-laden Evangelical landscape which continues to preach about God and information concerning Him, but forgets the continuing living presence of God (Spirit), communicated by the living voice of God (Christ), through the living Word of God (Word & Spirit). This alone is worth the read.
Overall, I think Thompson does a fantastic job discussing and defining the doctrine in both it's positive and negative qualifications. As another reviewer mentioned, I would have liked to see a bit more exegesis from time to time (maybe 1-2 solid case studies), but understand this book was written as more of a survey as it relates to biblical exegesis. However, Thompson did engage with every classical argument and passage in the debate, and left no stone unturned in that regard. Also, I think it would have been helpful if Thompson would have included a brief section in how he understood and married together the doctrine of Scripture's "Clarity" and "Progressive Revelation". This might be a subject for another book, but I was waiting for some form of engagement here and it never came. We would have a better understanding of Scripture's clarity if we also had an introduction to its relationship to progressive revelation. Thompson engages with a number of Old Testament texts but doesn't quite tease this relationship out, in my opinion. This would have given even greater clarity regarding his positive and negative definitions of the doctrine. (4.5/5 Stars)
3. Why You Should Read This Book - If you are a Christian leader, its a must-read. The Scriptures are a hallmark of Evangelical Theology specifically, and the Christian community broadly. Our identity in God's truth and love cannot be separated from the Word of God. A greater confidence in God's Word and it's clarity leads to a greater confidence in God. If anyone needs that conviction, it's Christian leaders. I would suggest a more entry-level introduction for an interested lay-person, such as Sinclair Ferguson's "From the Mouth of God" or any book from D.A. Carson regarding this matter. An excellent book and highly recommended for the Christian leader or serious lay-person.
In a nutshell, this book is an invaluable contribution to scholarship and to the history of Protestant theology, offering a solid yet highly nuanced defence to this particular doctrine of Scripture. Future scholars in this area who are worth their salt would do well to interact with the arguments in this book.
In the simplest terms, this book seeks to answer this question: Can we really be certain about what the Bible says or what it means?
Summary Overview & Content Review
In the introduction (Chapter 1 - Oh sweet obscurity: The absurdity of claiming clarity today), Dr. Thompson orders several traditional (during the Reformation) and contemporary (modern and postmodern) objections to this doctrine. What is remarkable here is that the author presents the opposing arguments in a fair and most gracious manner, without erecting straw men or taking potshots. His interaction with them is worthy of commendation.
In Chapter 2 (The effective communicator: God as the guarantor of scriptural clarity), the author begins with laying the theological foundations for his case, essentially that the triune God of the gospel has purposed to communicate to his people through human words, and that since God is the Creator of human language, he is an effective communicator.
While one can argue that Dr. Thompson has smuggled in theological presuppositions even before making his argument, we are reminded that we are discussing precisely the Word of God, and all discussions must make sense in this theological context and worldview. We do not examine a message we receive without taking into account the person who has sent them. Thus, in our case, the starting point is with God himself and how he has shown himself in his gospel. As such, given that God, being God, is an effective communicator, the question now is whether he has given us an obscure text with hidden messages.
In Chapter 3 (It is not beyond you: The accessible word of the living God), Dr. Thompson draws out from multiple passages from all over the Old and New Testaments to make the case that Scripture claims for itself clarity and the final word. Besides the explicit statements, much can be inferred from how Jesus and the apostles used Scripture to make a decisive case against detractors, remarkably with little or no exposition. In other words, if Scripture is unclear, those arguments would not have been straightforward.
The author also addressed a caricature of the historic orthodox position, namely that all passages in Scripture then would then be equally clear without the need for exposition. With little effort, he sets the record right by showing that this is not the position of the reformers or the classical exponents of this doctrine. In other words, clarity does not mean equal simplicity. Texts can be abused or misused due to ignorance and perversity.
In Chapter 4 (Engaging the hermeneutical challenge), the author interacts with recent theologians and philosophers like Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Schleiermacher, Hans Frei and Karl Barth, among many others. In a nutshell, while some have presented their challenges aggressively, they are not as serious as they may first appear. A common and fatal error in their discussions is that God is ignored and the self-testimony of the text is assumed beforehand to be tainted. As such, the remaining scenario is that the reader himself is left to decide the meaning of the text in his isolated present context.
Finally, in Chapter 5 (The sharp double-edged sword: Restarting the clarity of Scripture today), Dr. Thompson points us to two historical debates on this issue. Firstly, there was the discussion between humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam and reformer Martin Luther. While the subject proper of their debate was on Free Will, the real underlying issue was in fact the clarity of Scripture. The next debate was between the Doctor of the Roman Catholic church Robert Bellarmine and William Whitaker, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.
The chapters are clearly delineated, with multiple topics and sub-points. Each section is fairly concise but intensely packed with materials. At times, one would wish for further elaboration and exposition, but the presentation is as good as it gets without it turning into a massive and cumbersome tome.
While the language is not what you find in your average Harry Potter or Twilight novels, it is still fairly accessible with focus and concentration. Not to mention that this book is worthy of your time and study. I would heartily commend it to all pastors, students of Scripture and even laypersons who seek to engage the secular world around them.
In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that regardless of whether you are a proponent or opponent of this doctrine, Dr. Thompson has presented to us a cogent and valiant defence of the doctrine of Scripture. Further scholarship would do well to interact with this monograph.