One way to formally state the clarity of Scripture principle would be as follows: "Always go with the simple, straightforward, ordinary, obvious, plain, direct, normal and natural meaning unless there is a very good reason not to do so"! The "unless" must always be because of other clear Scriptures and not just an alternative which has been contrived by subtle reasoning. For example, James 2:26 states that, "faith without works is dead." It must be acknowledged that a "simple, straight-forward, ordinary, obvious, plain, direct, normal and natural" interpretation of this verse would favor salvation by works. But other clear Scriptures guard against such an interpretation. They are "a very good reason not to" go with what at first appears to be clear. God has protected His Word in this way so that "exceptions" to the clarity of Scripture are backed up by other clear Scriptures and not by skillful casuistic logic.
Practicing the principle of the clarity of Scripture does not ignore the fact that there may be a "fuller meaning" which God has incorporated into a particular text--the types in the Old Testament, for example. However, the "fuller meaning" of a text never denies the clear and obvious and normal "surface" meaning of the passage. Ignoring the plain and direct meaning breaks the clarity of Scripture principle. Recognizing the clarity of Scripture means that we don't try to come up with new and sensational ideas or teachings from the Bible. In fact, we should be very leery of those who give unusual meanings to the text--meanings which differ from what appears to be the obvious meaning. And when practicing the principle of the clarity of Scripture we don't look for ways to "get around" certain passages of Scripture that happen to bother us, nor do we "add to" certain texts of Scripture to make them fit our biased and prejudiced opinions!
Unfortunately, the principle of the clarity of Scripture is not always practiced. Some Christians not only come up with novel interpretations to suit their own fancy, but they force the Scriptures to say (or not say) what they want them to say (or not say)! The problem is not that the Scriptures are unclear--most of Scripture is quite clear and easy to interpret. The fact that 2 Peter 3:16 states that some of the things that Paul wrote are hard to understand implies that most of what Paul wrote, as well as the rest of Scripture, is not hard to understand. So the root of the problem is not in the Scriptures, but rather it is the sinful nature of the people who interpret the Scriptures. Instead of acknowledging the clarity of Scripture, the pride of man is prone towards practicing "casuistry."
What is "casuistry"? If you look up the word in the dictionary you'll find that it has to do with determining what's right and wrong in special cases, by first applying general principles of ethics and then deciding how far the limits can be stretched or altered because of unusual or mitigating circumstances. Because the sinful heart of man always moves in selfish directions, the word casuistry is normally used disparagingly, of subtle and evasive reasoning in questions of duty. In this sense, casuists are disingenuous reasoners who quibble and rationalize and use faulty logic to suit their own purposes. A good contemporary example would be a sharp lawyer who gets a defendant who is clearly guilty off the hook by rationalizing the circumstances or using legal loopholes.
The use of casuistry in interpretation of the Scriptures rears its ugly head when a Scripture is "stretched" to include areas and situations which go beyond the obvious intention of the Author or, on the other hand, when the application of a Scripture is limited or excluded from areas or situations which clearly are being addressed. The sin of casuistry often subtly hides behind a too-broad or too-narrow interpretation of a text.
In Mark 7:9-13 we see an example of casuistry. In order to get around the clear command of God to "honor your father and mother," the self-righteous Jews of Jesus' day were excusing themselves of this responsibility by using the "It is Corban" escape clause. They claimed that they had dedicated all of their money and possessions to God, and therefore they had nothing left with which to support their parents in time of need or old age. In reality they hadn't given up any of their substance to the service of God! They had only made a sanctimonious statement as a legal loophole to get around God's clear command to care for their parents. The Lord denounced them in no uncertain terms and stated that they had invalidated the Word of God. They were guilty of practicing casuistry and willfully ignoring the clarity of Scripture.
The sin of casuistry was not confined to the unbelieving Jews of Jesus' day. The early Church was not immune to this sin. Casuistry was exactly what Peter was talking about in 2 Peter 3:16 when he related what some early Christians were doing with Paul's writings. They were making the Scriptures say what they preferred to believe by "twisting" the difficult statements in Paul's letters. The Greek word which is translated "distort" or "wrest" is used only once in the New Testament--in this verse. This is the Greek word which was used to describe the hideous fate of victims who were put on the Roman torture rack. The arms and legs of the victim were locked in place, and as the rack was turned, the whole body was painfully stretched and pulled and twisted out of joint. The result was a horribly distorted and contorted human body. The use of this Greek word conveys the fact that some early Christians were torturing Scripture in the same way, with the same distorted results! Sadly, 2 Peter 3:16 is not just a description of the habit of certain early Christians--it describes the practice of some Christians today as well. In fact, the casuistic approach to Scripture has become a way of life for some Christians today.
No one would deny that some of the things written by the apostle Paul are "hard to understand," and interpreting these "hard passages" is not easy, to say the least! In fact, we'll have to wait until we get to heaven to see "who was right" in the interpretation of some of the difficult things in Paul's letters, as well as the rest of the Bible. But difficulty and distortion are not the same. The point of 2 Peter 3:16 is not just that some difficult Pauline passages are misinterpreted, but that they are mishandled and cleverly misinterpreted by some Christians with an ulterior motive! The verse goes on to say that "other Scriptures" besides the difficult passages in Paul's writings are subjected to the "torture rack" as well. That would include the clear passages in Paul's writings--along with the rest of the Bible! Can you believe it? Instead of practicing the clarity of Scripture principle, some Christians are guilty of intentionally using casuistry when interpreting the Scriptures!
Notice, by the way, that the letters of the apostle Paul were assumed to be Scripture, right from the start of Christianity. The early Christians were not in any confusion as to the status of Paul's epistles. Paul's writings were not "in limbo" until the Church got around to officially canonizing his letters! Even those Christians who were distorting Scripture were not questioning the fact that Paul's epistles were Scripture. It stands to reason that if there were any questions as to the inspiration and authority of Paul's writings, those early critics wouldn't even have bothered to try to stretch, twist and misinterpret them to suit their own purposes--they simply would have dismissed them out of hand.
Their sin was not a wrong view of the canon of Scripture, but the deliberate use of casuistry when it came to the interpretation of Scripture. Like the "It is Corban" Jews of Jesus' day, these early Christians were "practicing casuistry" instead of "practicing clarity." The same is true today. There are Christians who would be willing to die for the doctrines of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, but they are guilty of casuistry in their interpretation of the Bible. They twist and distort even the clear and straightforward Scriptures to make them fit what they want to believe and what they want to do.
What kind of Christian would be guilty of the terrible sin of casuistry--distorting even the clear passages of Scripture for selfish reasons? Peter tells us: it is "the untaught and unstable." It's not hard to see how "untaught" people might distort the Scriptures to suit their own liking. Untaught people are ignorant of the truth and it's only natural for them to lean towards easy-to-live-with interpretations.
But the other group that's mentioned are "the unstable." This word means "not fixed" or "not steadfast." This would describe Christians who, for whatever reason, are not steadfast or firm in their faith and lifestyle. This could apply to any Christians, even mature believers, if pet peeves or "axes to grind" or other selfish motives cause them to manipulate and force Scripture to mean what it does not mean!
According to 2 Peter 3:16, then, it is possible for any Christian to fall into the sin of practicing casuistry when interpreting the Scriptures. We must ask ourselves: "Do I consistently use the clarity of Scripture principle, or am I sometimes guilty of using casuistry to suit my own purposes?
Let's briefly mention a few examples of the practice of casuistry today, or some typical ways in which Christians deliberately ignore the clarity of Scripture in order to satisfy their own ends. 1 John 2:16 indicates that selfish ends could be categorized as the "lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life." An example of the use of casuistry in the area of the lust of the flesh would be how the sin of fornication is condoned by some Christians. Fornication is any practice of sex outside of marriage. The Bible leaves no doubt as to the seriousness of this sin. Ephesians 5:3 states that it should "not even be named" in the Christian community.
However, Christians who commit fornication attempt to get around the seriousness of this sin by using a number of casuistic rationalizations. Some say, "I want to be sure I have the right partner for marriage--after all, sex is a gift from God, so sexual compatibility is an important part of marriage." Others say, "We're not committing the sin of fornication because we're involved in a beautiful love relationship and our intimacy does not involve lust." Some even say that they are actually "married" because they prayerfully said some private vows to each other "before God." And there are Christians who justify their immorality by comparing themselves with other Christians who, in their estimation, are guilty of "worse" sins such as hypocrisy, pride and greed. These are just some of the casuistic attempts that Christians have been known to use to compromise the clear teaching of God's Word concerning the sin of fornication.
An example of the practice of casuistry in the area of the lust of the eyes (that is, the strong desire for gain) would be how some Christians justify suing other Christians in civil courts. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 is quite clear that such lawsuits involve deliberate disobedience to the Law of Christ, regardless of how wrong or right one side seems to appear. The point of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 is not that wrong between Christians should be swept under the rug, but that such cases should be settled "in-house." Certainly there should be enough fair-minded, wise and godly believers within the church to rule on such cases without having to resort to a worldly court of unbelievers! But because the strong desire of human nature is to not suffer loss in any way, a number of specious justifications have been wrested from Scripture by Christians who bring lawsuits against fellow believers.
Questioning the salvation of the other side is one casuistic attempt to take the situation out of the 1 Corinthians 6 context. Laying down prerequisites for the other side to meet before coming to the arbitration table is another casuistic escape. With this approach it can be claimed that "we were willing but they refused" and therefore a civil court was the only way to "responsibly" solve the problem. And then there's the rationalization that Paul had only individual Christians in mind--certainly not Christian ministries or churches in the 20th century! Some Christians have even suggested that since America is called a "Christian land," it therefore has Christian courts following Christian principles, unlike pagan Rome at the time Paul was writing. Thus 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 actually condones Christians settling their disputes in the civil courts of a "Christian" nation today.
Excuses such as "the Church is corrupt" or "the Church cannot deal with this case" are further casuistic quibbling around the clear implications of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. The idea that we are God's stewards, responsible for all the material possessions He has given, has also been used as an excuse by Christians who, for monetary gain, seek to sue their fellow believers. Finally, a downgrading or redefining of certain lawsuits as non-binding judgments or "something less than what Paul had in mind" has been used by willful Christians. All of these casuistic arguments could be "shot down" with counter arguments. It should be obvious that if the clarity of Scripture is not acknowledged, then any Scripture can be set aside by skillful casuistic reasoning. The lust of the eyes and the strong desire for gain have caused many distortions of Scriptures throughout the history of the Church.
In the area of the pride of life or vanity, an example of casuistry would be the ways Christians have rationalized their disobedience to the clear teaching of Mark 10:43. Here Jesus declared in no uncertain terms that "if you want to be great in God's Kingdom, serve one another." So often, however, we do everything but serve one another - or if we do serve one another, it's done with self-serving motives. Would we be involved in Christian service activities, for example, if we got no recognition or credit whatsoever here on earth? One casuistic tactic we take is to say, "I am serving my fellow believers in a leadership capacity!" That may be true, but too often Christians grasp after leadership positions out of a desire to "call all the shots" over their brothers and sisters rather than out of a desire to really serve them.
And what about the "serving-one-another-is-mutual" reasoning? The logic is scripturally valid, but many times this is our casuistic way of saying "I'd rather have you serve me than me serve you"! The fact that often the "servees" do not thank or appreciate the servers, and actually take advantage of them, can be very discouraging and needs some correction but should never be a reason for distorting or disobeying the command to serve one another. Perhaps you know of, or have even used, other casuistic reasonings in your rationale for not serving other believers. Not a single one of our excuses would pass the "clarity of Scripture" test.
We've seen from 2 Peter 3:16 that we are all vulnerable to committing the sin of casuistry. We all need to examine ourselves constantly (right now, in fact) to make sure we are not guilty of this sin. Peter states categorically that to practice casuistry is to incur our own destruction. That is, we will (not maybe!) suffer some type of ruin and loss in our lives as believers. In the final analysis, there are absolutely no benefits to the use of casuistry. Let's make sure that we always practice the principle of the clarity of Scripture as a safeguard against the sinful and destructive practice of casuistry.