The Bible can seem so unclear to us because we have rejected the ground of clarity in the goodness of God. Of course, that struggle is even more painful because of our own natural finitude and the cultural distance between us and the authors, but the start of it all was a human refusal to cling to the goodness of God. We have a moral problem obscuring the clear light of Scripture. We need to see God’s glorious goodness in the pages of his book to rightly understand it, but our hearts have been blinded by our love of idols.
Ironically, the main reason why we talk about the clarity of Scripture is that it often seems so unclear.
Even though Scripture says that it’s intelligible in part and whole, and even though we know theologically that God’s goodness grounds the clarity of his communication, we still bang our heads against the unforgiving concrete of hard texts. Zophar’s diatribes, Moses’ “bridegroom of blood,” and John’s Apocalypse can feel unsurmountable. John Calvin didn’t preach Revelation, and likewise, Martyn Lloyd-Jones never finished Romans. And the apostle Peter himself says, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand…” (2 Pet 3:16).
If the Bible is so clear, then why is it so unclear?
One way to begin answering this question is to make a distinction between the intrinsic clarity of Scripture and the extrinsic clarity of Scripture. God has spoken clearly, but that doesn’t mean that we will always listen clearly. We can intentionally and unintentionally misinterpret Scripture, or cultural and historical factors outside our control can make interpretation difficult. None of those communicative barriers prevent God from inspiring a clear biblical text, but they do make the text seem unclear to us. Scripture is intrinsically clear but can be extrinsically unclear.
A few illustrations may help. If I tell my kids to “clean up your toys,” and they choose to interpret that as “don’t clean up your toys,” the obscurity does not lie in the speech but willfully in the hearer. Or, if you send a clearly worded email to a client who earnestly tries but fails to understand it, then the fault could unintentionally be on the hearer’s end as well. Or, an English speaker may turn on the radio and hear a song being sung clearly and beautifully in Spanish; he hears the clear words, but because of his cultural distance doesn’t know what they mean. While there may be intrinsic clarity all the way through, there can simultaneously exist extrinsic difficulty in interpreting those clear words.
While such categories about obscurity may be philosophically useful, we need to find out if they are biblically grounded. If it’s true that God’s clear Word can be mangled by our misinterpretation willingly and unwillingly, do we see that borne out in Scripture? And if so, where did obscurity in communication begin?
To see the genesis of our unclear interpretations, we need to head back to the garden.
Did God Actually Say?
Moses writes, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’” (Gen 3:1).
According to Scripture, this serpentine deceiver is the source of our obscurity. And he delivers his poisonous confusion in two attempts aimed at Eve, Adam’s wife.
The serpent (identified as Satan in Revelation 20:2) begins his attack with a plain falsification of God’s command to Adam. No, God did not say they couldn’t eat from any tree. He said almost exactly the opposite (Gen 2:15-17)! Satan is hoping, it seems, to suggest that God is hardnosed and miserly, unwilling to share his good creation with his image-bearers. But, in fact, God is immensely generous, liberal, and kind-hearted with his newly-minted world, and Eve remembers that, albeit with some modifications of her own (3:2-3).
Satan’s first attack is bound up in the word “really,” which translates two little letters in Hebrew. Implied by that word is something like, “Would God really do such a thing to you? How horrible! I’m shocked! Why would he be so tight-fisted with such a wonderful servant as yourself? I almost can’t believe that he would be so stingy. Did he really say that? How un-Godlike of him.”