With adult Sunday School starting up again this Sunday, and as I plan a new batch of sermons for this fall, I've been thinking about the essential role of the Bible in our Christian lives. As a pastor, I recognize just how dependent I am on this strange and wonderful book. Take it away and I am like a fireman without water, a banker without money, or a waiter without food. It is my stock and trade.
But even more compelling is just what the Bible means to you and me as believers in God through Jesus Christ. Take away the Bible from our personal or common life and we are like a football team without a playbook, stage players without a script, a people without a purpose. It is our comfort, our correction, and our cause. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)
I want to invite each of you to find ways this fall to renew your engagement with the scriptures, and in doing so I want to introduce you to a wonderful term in our tradition: perspicuity. (What a great word! Try it out on your coworkers at the water cooler, on your family at the dinner table. Watch their heads turn!) It means "clear, lucid, and understandable." Of the many beliefs we have inherited from the 16th Protestant Reformers like John Calvin, one of them is their insistence on the perspicuity of the Bible. In the words of Eugene Peterson, it is the belief that "the Bible is substantially intelligible to the common person and requires neither pope nor professor to interpret it."** Most of us, on most days, should have no problem with most passages.
In the stiff English of 1647, the Westminster Confession of Faith freely admits that "all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all." That's true, especially if you have ever tried to read through, say, the hurly-burley books of Daniel or Revelation! Yet, even so,
… those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF I. vii.)
And in this we rejoice, that the Bible is essentially open to our understanding without having always to lean on academics or clerics. To be sure, sometimes a passage leaves us more confused than before, but more often than not the simple meaning of the Bible comes through with prayer and patience. We're grateful for the experts' help when the going gets rough, but we must not think we need them in the room every time we crack the cover.
"God's word is simple and clear, and no one should let himself be turned from a direct uninhibited contact with the word, or allow his contact with it to be dimmed and dulled, by problems and mental reservations aroused by the thought that scholars interpret a text quite differently and more accurately than he can."
Hans Urs von Balthasar (a great Swiss theologian whose dramatic name is fun to say out loud in the shower!) wrote those words in 1963, and they still ring out with truth for us today. In fact, Presbyterians have always taught a truth that is grounded in the lived experience of Christians in every era: When a person wants to get serious about being "more spiritual," a person should get serious about reading the Bible. Notes Peterson, "All our masters in spirituality were and are master [readers of the Bible]."** And not only should we read it for our correction and comfort, with its plentiful perspicuity we give thanks to God that we even can. The best way to begin is, well, simply to begin. We learn how to do it as we do it.
Sunday School cranks up again this week. Before long, our Tuesday night Bible study will return. Every Lord's Day bulletin has both readings for each weekday and readings for the next Sunday. Study Bibles and Bible studies abound, both online and in your bookstore of choice. And of course your pastor always delights in having conversation about these matters with you in person. (That's why I'm here, after all.) Bottom line: We live in plenteous times, with ample resources for enjoying the generous perspicuity of the Bible. I invite you to renew your commitment to listen for the word of the Lord with me—day by day, Sunday by Sunday, season to season.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Presbyterians, may the Holy Spirit brood over your week, blessing you with imagination and energy for living out who you already are: a child of God, saved and sent by his grace.
**Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, pages 49-55