Willful Blindness

The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus tried to defend the obscurity of Scripture against the tides of the Protestant Reformation. In his letter to Luther called On the Freedom of the Will, Erasmus parroted the Roman Catholic judgment about the Bible’s relative darkness. The Scriptures, said Erasmus, reflect the vast, unsearchable depths of God – who could hope to rightly interpret such mysteries? And you can hardly expect the “common herd,” he continued, to be able to judiciously handle such a holy instrument as the Word of God. In the end, Erasmus asserted that he’d like to do away with assertions altogether, if possible. He disliked even truth that was subversive.

In that short aphorism, Erasmus exposed the heart disease driving his commitment to the obscurity of Scripture. Certainly, there are intellectual challenges to interpretation because of our human limitations, and the clarity of Scripture needs to account for those. Still, God has spoken clearly in his Word, and we know that because we know that God is good. So why does Scripture still seem obscure to so many?

According to Erasmus, Scripture is obscure because of what he dislikes. He doesn’t hear clearly because he doesn’t want to hear clearly, even though God has spoken clearly. He can’t see because he won’t see.

In other words, the clarity of Scripture is a moral issue. Unbelievers see the Bible as a shrouded fog and believers see it as a cloudless day; the difference lies in our hearts, all the way down to our desires.

Sin obscures Scripture. Obedience reveals Scripture’s clarity. Who can read the Word the God and understand it? Those who will obey what God has clearly said.

Willful Blindness

In the Bible, the primary reason why Scripture is unclear to so many is their own sinful hearts. The apostle Paul says as much to the Corinthian church:

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”1 Corinthians 2:14

The “natural person,” the unregenerate man without the Spirit of God, chooses not to “accept” the things revealed by God’s Spirit, meaning that he won’t welcome them into his heart as one would welcome a guest into his home. He refuses to have them in his mind because he thinks they are just plain stupid – “they are folly to him.” When the unbeliever reads the Bible, Paul says, he “is not able to understand” it because he does not want to understand it. He blinds himself to the clear light of Scripture.

Exhibit A: Geneticist Steve Jones published a book titled The Serpent’s Promise in 2015 to show how foolish and unscientific Scripture really is. A worldwide flood? Merely an ice age. Original sin? More like genetic traits. And on and on. If you’ve had conversations with skeptics before, then you know the drill. However erudite the packaging may look, the scoffing is the same, base impulse of every natural man who refuses to allow Scripture to speak on its own terms.

The Bible, then, claims to be different from every other book. In Christopher Ash’s words, “The goal of the Bible is Bible performance, not Bible interpretation.” You could gladly read, digest, and fully apprehend the meaning of any young adult novel, math textbook, or travel brochure without ever having to make a kind of moral commitment to the content or to its author.[1] However, when God speaks, he requires not only attention, not only apprehension, but also full submission. That’s why “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7a). If you don’t fear God such that you’re willing to obey what he says, then you’ll inevitably come up with some excuse for why he hasn’t said it clearly enough and move on without ever gaining knowledge. In other words, “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7b).

We see this willful blindness in response to general revelation (Creation) as well as special revelation (Scripture). According to Paul, God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). God is the most obvious reality on the planet because he has put himself on display in the planet, but people still say, “There is no God.” Why? Because they don’t want to obediently respond in worship. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:21-23).

Humanity chooses blindness over sight because of our idolatry. Apart from the internal light of God, all people are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18). Like the Jews of Paul’s day, so it could be said of every rebel that “their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted” (2 Cor 3:14). Being unwilling to see the light, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4). Without Christ, we are willfully blind to the light of the gospel of the glory of God in Scripture. Obscurity is another excuse for idolatry.

Not Too Hard

This moral dimension of clarity echoed across the plains of Moab. At the end of Moses’ sermons that make up the book of Deuteronomy, the preeminent prophet of ancient Israel delivered a strong warning to God’s chosen people:

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”Deuteronoym 30:11-14

Moses anticipates and extinguishes Israel’s excuses before they even leave their lips. No, God hasn’t hidden some part of his requirements for you in the back of the throne room. No, he didn’t give a different law to some other people group such that you need to go on an epic journey to find it and bring it back. It’s in plain Hebrew, right here. It’s “not too hard for you” – this is graspable language with understandable commands. In fact, it’s so intelligible, you can say it, you can know it, you can teach it, and you can obey it.

In the following verses, Moses does not say, “So, if you happen to interpret this thing correctly, which is a one-in-a-million shot, then you can follow God and inherit the promised land. If you can’t understand it, that’s not a big deal. God wasn’t trying to be understood by anyone. He’s too mysterious, and you’re just commoners anyway.”

No, of course not! Here’s what Moses actually says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life…” (Deut 30:19). Choose life! This is a clear word, and if you want it to stay clear and to reap all of the blessings therein, then choose life!

But, Moses says, “if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish” (Deut 30:17-18). For Moses, not hearing is a willful act. It’s a decision, a choice. You choose whether or not to submit to God’s Word, and understanding or obscurity inevitably follows. The clarity of Scripture is a moral issue.

The prophets testify to this moral dimension of the clarity of Scripture by rebuking Israel’s refusal to hear God’s clear testimonies. In Isaiah’s message, the prophet says, “And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’ And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot read.’” (Isa 29:11-12). Why is God’s Word such a closed book to them? Because “their hearts are far from me” (Isa 29:13).

Jeremiah likewise complains that there is nobody to preach to because, “Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it” (Jer 6:10). Jeremiah eventually delivered the eulogy on Israel’s ears, “Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction” (Jer 17:23). Hard hearts and stiff necks mean heavy ears and blind eyes (Isa 6:10).

Scripture is only clear to those who, with soft hearts and open ears, are willing to obey it. To those who will not submit to God and his Word, the Bible remains as dark as midnight.

Sixteen months after Erasmus published his defense of Scripture’s obscurity, Martin Luther launched his explosive response over the European world, a work titled The Bondage of the Will. In it, Luther rebuked Erasmus’ dislike of clear Scriptural assertions and asserted at length the plainness of Scripture’s meaning. In the culmination of that argument, Luther wrote the following:

“It is true that for many people much remains abstruse; but this is not due to the obscurity of Scripture, but to the blindness and indolence of those who will not take the trouble to look at the very clearest truth… Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God.”Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will

Maybe you know a skeptic of Scripture, or maybe you are a skeptic reading this yourself. If so, know that the Bible’s message is not up for more intellectual debate. There is no understanding for a mind that has already set itself against God. The battle for the truth of Scripture is not won or lost on the merits of geological evidence or conflicting manuscript fragments. No, there is one simple question that needs to be answered, and it’s this:

If you understood the Bible, would you obey it?

Therefore, choose life, and the light will come. What will that light look like? A man from Nazareth who speaks with authority, whom we will see in our next post.

Dan Crabtree

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: