AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 57, 2009
MARK D. THOMPSON, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (New Studies in Biblical Theology 21; Nottingham: Apollos, 2006). Pp. 196. Paper. £12.99.
This book started its life as the Annual Moore College Lectures, delivered in August 2005, and Mark Thompson’s erudite exposition of the theme of the perspicuity of Scripture now finds permanent form in the high-profile New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by D. A. Carson.
Thompson writes in a climate in which the direct appeal to Scripture to settle an issue seems to many to be the height of arrogance or folly. He is therefore sensible to begin his discussion with a rehearsal of five perennial arguments against the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture and an honest explanation of the peculiar challenge represented by the contemporary postmodern situation. He certainly does not underestimate the difficulties faced by those who would wish to restate and defend a doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, but believes that all the objections and difficulties patiently outlined in the first thirty pages of this volume can be answered.
The answer, according to Thompson, must start with “robust theological exposition” (47), that is, any defence and exposition must be grounded in the doctrine of God. God as an effective communicator is the guarantor of scriptural clarity. What is refreshing in such an approach is that it focuses of God’s revelation of himself in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that the theology of revelation is thoroughly Trinitarian in form and substance. Thompson argues that both the Old Testament and the New Testament present God as speaking and as an effective communicator and that language is a divine gift (e.g. God is the first to speak in Genesis 2), not a human invention, so that it can be an adequate vehicle for what God wants to say to us. The Bible’s claim is that it is God’s Word written down and that God’s Spirit ensures that it will fulfil its communicative purpose. This reviewer believes that Thompson has provided a convincing theological framework in which human words do not frustrate the divine purpose in communicating to humanity.
Thompson answers the objection that the doctrine of claritas scripturae claims more than the Bible does for itself by pointing to the confident dominical and apostolic appeal to and quotation of the Old Testament. So too a number of Old Testament passages (e.g. Deuteronomy 30:9–14; Psalm 119:105) show that Scripture is accessible and understandable to the people of God as a whole (not merely to an educated elite). The author does not avoid dealing with difficult texts that have often been used to dispute the doctrine he is advancing, for example Mark 4:10–12 and 2 Peter 3:14–16. The first text is about the obscurity of Jesus’ parables and the other concerns the difficulty of understanding Paul’s writings, but these (Thompson argues) refer to the resistance to and misuse of Scripture by fallen humanity. The clarity of some passages of Scripture may be hard won, but the doctrine being argued for does not require the uniform simplicity of the text of Scripture.
According to Thompson, this doctrine can survive in the present climate of hermeneutical preoccupation and indeed sophistication only if there is an acknowledgement of the theological character of biblical hermeneutics, namely that the Bible is not merely a text to be read through the glasses provided by general hermeneutics. The narrative character of most of the Bible, the different genres used by its authors, and its overall canonical shape, are no dispensable shell. Form as much as content is vital for a correct reading. The Bible is both descriptive of reality (referential) and does things (illocution). We must approach the text with some awareness of our own presuppositions. Readers must use a critical approach that is a servant of the text (resisting the temptation to lord it over the text). It is necessary that we be aware of the danger of misusing Scripture in the interests of personal or corporate will to power. God is always present with his word, so that the reading of this text can never be entirely divorced from its divine author. It is no ‘free-floating’ text that can be co-opted for our own purposes and prejudice. A Christian ethics of reading begins with humble and prayerful dependence on God and an openness to what he communicates in Scripture. With a biblically-conservative readership in view, Thompson helps his readers not to be afraid of contemporary hermeneutical theory or to think that it somehow disproves the traditional Christian affirmation of the authority and clarity of Scripture.
In his final chapter Thompson rehearses and comments upon two sixteenth-century controversies over the issue, that between Erasmus and Luther, and the one between Bellarmine and Whitaker. He does so with the aim of showing that these classic treatments of the subject provide helpful resources for contemporary treatment of the clarity of Scripture. Finally, Thompson seeks to demonstrate the relevance and importance of this issue in a time of falling biblical literacy within the church and when many people question whether the Bible can speak to current ethical debates. He says that the Bible’s clear teaching about Jesus’ uniqueness and exclusivity as Saviour is needed to fire Christian mission in a multi-faith global village. The guild of Christian scholars must avoid giving the impression that only they can understand the Bible. Indeed, a denial of the clarity of Scripture will undermine scholarly efforts, for why make an effort to understand the Bible if it is enveloped in a thick fog and study is not likely to pay any dividends? The book as a whole is summed up in his final sentence: “God has something to say and he is very good at saying it.”
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