How clear is Scripture on matters of importance to its readers?
More technically, is Scripture "perspicuous"?
Is Scripture clear/perspicuous on some matters and not on others?
Is Scripture clear on a matter in one generation but not in another?
Lee Gatiss, Director of the Church Society, has recently spoken critically of Lambeth 2022 and some things Archbishop Welby said during it.
Essentially, his critique of Welby is this (my bold):
"That was the issue at hand as he spoke: can we bless same-sex marriage, or not? And rather than clearly identify the glaringly obvious deviation from historic Christian orthodoxy, he spoke very highly of those who deny the truth: their “long prayer” and “deep study” and their view of scripture and of Christ. Those who would have been seen as heretics by every previous generation of Christians across the world were invited and treated as brothers and sisters in full communion."
Or, Scripture is completely clear on blessing same-sex marriage (i.e. Scripture says No), those who think otherwise are clearly heretics. Ergo, the ABC is wrong not to exclude churches which either do not think Scripture is clear on this matter, or may think Scripture is clear that the answer is Yes.
Now, you could probably predict where I might want to go on this: Scripture is not actually clear on such blessings (because it does not address the particularity of our age). Actually, that would be to go down a pathway often gone down here. No further need!
Let's go in a slightly different direction and focus on the general question of the clarity/perspicuity, or otherwise of Scripture.
Let's assume, by the way, that Scripture is clear on matters of salvation.
Is Scripture unclear on other matters?
I've been recently thinking that there has been and is something of a challenge re the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture when we shift from reading Scripture about our relationship with God and read Scripture about our relationships with each other, about our human experience of relationality.
Take the relationship between humans known as slavery. Good Christians argued for and against the keeping of slaves in days gone by. Fair enough in many ways because no text in Scripture unambiguously says, Stop keeping slaves. Put in other words, Scripture is clearly not against slavery but arguably unclear whether it is in favour of slavery or simply in favour of making the best of a systemic feature of ancient economies. Most NT texts speaking about slavery focus on masters treating slaves well and slaves impressing their masters with their virtuous and diligent service. That now Christians are very clear that we should not keep slaves, that there should be no slavery anywhere is not a triumph of the perspicuity of Scripture!
(Ironically, we might also note that the nearest we come to Scriptural clarity about employers/employees is to read the texts on masters/slaves and make appropriate translation to modern working conditions. We make that shift in relating Scripture to modern life. Do we do so on other matters?)
We could then look at marriage and divorce. A rough trajectory through Scripture is that marriage is permanent (Genesis 2) but reasons for divorce press on the making of Israel's laws (other books in the Torah) and divorce is permitted in some circumstances. Through subsequent centuries discussion about divorce continues and by the time of Jesus two schools of rabbinic thought debate with each other, one "hard" and one "soft" on the matter. When Jesus is asked about divorce, our best take is that he sides with the "hard" school and either (in his original response) gives no grounds for divorce or only one ground (adultery). Yet Matthew's Gospel in chapter 19 provides a so-called Matthean Exception and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 provides a so-called Pauline Exception so there are signs that the earliest church faced questions (as Moses did) and came up with some variation to what the Lord had laid down. Fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries, and we see further variations being worked out through time in the main Christians traditions, none of which is clearly taught by Scripture. No annulment process is laid down in Scripture for Roman Catholics, no variations in the character of weddings for second or even third marriages is set out Scripturally for Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism has engaged with questions unknown to Scripture such as a wife leaving and divorcing an abusive husband.
Incidentally, each such main Christian approach is reasonable on the basis of seeking to match Scripture with life, and each such approach develops a tradition of interpretation of Scripture and yet Scripture as "supreme authority" cannot readily dislodge where each church has gotten to on these matters because the reasonable, traditional response developed has precisely evolved from finding Scripture to not offer a once and for all circumstances authoritative answer to human questions.
Next up is the relationship between women and men in the life of the church, a question partly discussed in relationship to the Christian family: the relationship between husband and wife; and partly discussed (in some churches) in relationship to the (im)possibility of ordination of women to positions of responsibility in the ordering of the church: deacon, priest/presbyter or bishop.
On the former we have faced the challenge of Ephesians 5:22 (and similar verses) and (unless otherwise belonging to a school of thought called "complementarianism") determined that this might not mean what it looks like it means, e.g. because it is governed by Ephesians 5:21. But doing this (which I do happen to do), does rather call into question the clarity with which (e.g.) Anglicans once held on the matter, expressed in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service which asked the wife to be to declare that she would "obey" her husband, but asked of the husband to be to declare that he would "love" his wife.
On the latter we have faced the challenge of a variety between texts of Paul (or his Pauline imitator(s)), some of which seem to support women in leading roles (Romans 16, references elsewhere to Priscilla and Aquinas, a possibility in 1 Timothy 3 that women as deacons is supported, all in keeping with the genderlessness of Galatians 3:28 and the apostolicity of Mary in John 20) and some of which appear, in a similar spirit to Ephesians 5:22, to subjugate, even silence women to the authority and voice of men (1 Corinthians 11, 14; 1 Timothy 2).
Possibly the school of thought known as complementarianism may have a virtue of consistency in believing Scripture is clear on this matter; but the overwhelming tendency in contemporary Christianity (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Prostestant, Pentecostal) is to explore, with a lesser or greater urgency re actual change, the possibilities for a new found recognition of the equality of women to men as both being fully human and fully alive and gifted in the Spirit of God. In some thinking among conservative evangelicals - I find - it is the apparent lack of clarity of Scripture on the matter which permits them to support the ordination of women. For some, this exploitable lack of clarity only extends to ordination to the diaconate; for others, it extends to presbyters or to presbyters and bishops.
This exploitation of lack of clarity on one matter only highlights the exploitation of clarity on other matters of humans relating to humans. Is there Scriptural clarity on the matter of how we interpret Scripture in favour of modern life when some texts are in tension with each other compared with when Scripture provides (or appears to provide) clarity?
Another matter of humans relating to humans concerns one human killing another human. Generally this is prohibited ("Do not kill"), through both Old and New Testaments, but exceptions happen and so debate occurs over those exceptions. Is war (which necessarily involves killing) such an exception? For some time in earliest Christian history, war was not an exception and Christians determined - with Scriptural clarity, with respect to the teaching of Jesus - they would not be soldiers. While a pacifist streak continues in Christianity, mostly we accept that sometimes war cannot be avoided and Christians will kill. For centuries Christians have presided over justice systems in which execution of criminals was accepted. Currently capital punishment is no longer possible in some jurisdictions in which Christianity has and may still provide a dominant religious influence on the framing of laws; but some strongly Christian jurisdictions, notably the USA make capital punishment an option. Such legal support for killing another human being seemed unquestionable as a clear outcome of (e.g.) Romans 13. Yet such clarity has not prevailed everywhere.
There has been and continues to be greater unity among Christians on the question of abortion, that is, on the question of not killing an unborn child. But, even on abortion, differences prevail on the question of whether access to abortion (whatever Christians think about abortion) should be a legal possibility for those who wish, for whatever reasons, to secure an abortion of their unborn child. Scripture is unclear on the degree to which being against killing means one should be against legal access to abortion (e.g. if one's support for access to legal abortion presupposes illegal abortions will be procured).
The approach I am taking above involves great clarity about Genesis 1:27-28. Men and women are made in the image of God, what does that mean for reading, interpreting and obeying Scripture in 2022?
I think it also involves questions of justice: what is fair and consistent treatment of another human being? Is an enslaved human being (no matter how well looked after) being treated fairly, given that an enslaved human being means another human being (i.e. the enslaver) is treated differently? Is it fair that men may speak out loud in church, but women should be silent? Or, that women, otherwise gifted and able to teach, may not teach because they are viewed as inherently untrustworthy relative to men?
Nevertheless, all said above is prolegomena to detailed, depth consideration of the issues I have referenced with just a paragraph or two above.
The argument above is pretty simple: that we should recognise that Scripture may not be as clear as we either think, or would like it to be, on matters involving humans relating to humans.
Whether this makes any difference to arguments on That Topic is the discussion! Even this week I have had engagement on Twitter with a leading English evangelical in which his thesis amounts to: Scripture is clear on That Topic, end of discussion; but not clear on the ordination of women, so we may so ordain. So, please don't assume that my "prolegomena" above settles anything on That Topic or another issue.
But if my prolegomena prompts any reader to think again about Scripture's perspicuity in general, re human relationships, my post for this week's job is done!