"So All Could Understand”
By Tom Brown
Reformed theologians use the term “perspicuity” to refer to a quality they believe Scripture to possess. By this they mean that Scripture’s meanings are plain and evident for even the ordinary reader, and that the Church is not a necessary interpretive intermediary. If Scripture were not perspicuous, then either the Church would be a necessary interpreter, or the simple minded would be excluded from the Bible’s truths. With this doctrinal belief in mind, I was struck while recently reading from the Book of Nehemiah. The Prophet Nehemiah tells us that:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithi’ah, Shema, Anai’ah, Uri’ah, Hilki’ah, and Ma-asei’ah on his right hand; and Pedai’ah, Mish’a-el, Malchi’jah, Hashum, Hash-bad’danah, Zechari’ah, and Meshul’lam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jesh’ua, Bani, Sherebi’ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab’bethai, Hodi’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Keli’ta, Azari’ah, Jo’zabad, Hanan, Pelai’ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.1
The “book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Moses” is Sacred Scripture, but it does not appear here to possess the quality of perspicuity. The people in Nehemiah 8 were competent, capable of hearing with understanding. The people were listening carefully; the ears of all were attentive. They listened with worshipful hearts, crying “Amen!” and falling on their faces upon seeing the Scripture. In short, we have an ideal setting for an audience to be able to understand the Scripture that was read to them. And yet Ezra and the teachers were needed to give the meaning of the text “so that the people understood the reading.” These faithful listeners’ qualities of being competent, attentive, and worshipful were not independently adequate to understand Scripture.
The Reformed belief in the perspicuity of Scripture, to the exclusion of an essential need for an interpretive authority, is at least in tension with this text of Scripture. Given that Scripture is inerrant, in light of this passage, the Reformed belief in perspicuity must be false unless another portion of Scripture shows that this audience did not need to have the plainly read book of the law of God interpreted “so that all could understand.”