Perspicuity, Sufficiency, and 1 Corinthians 11

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

In order to make sure I wasn’t over stretching my idea of the perspicuity of Scripture, I looked it up on Below is Vanhoozer’s definition and the WCF definition.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer Is There a Meaning in This Text?

To begin with, it is important to note what the clarity of Scripture does not mean. It does not mean, first of all, that interpretation is unnecessary – the biblical meaning will be delivered up by some mystical process of hermeneutical osmosis. Nor does it mean that an autonomous individual can, by employing critical techniques alone, wrest the meaning from the text. Rather, clarity means that the Bible is sufficiently unambiguous in the main for any well-intentioned person with Christian faith to interpret each part with relative adequacy. In the context of the Reformation, the perspicuity of Scripture was the chief weapon for combating the authority of the dominant interpretive community: Rome (pg. 315).

The idea that the Bible is clear does not obviate the need for interpretation but, on the contrary, makes the work of interpretation even more important. The clarity of Scripture means that understanding is possible, not that it is easy. Redeeming the text does not mean reconciling all interpretive conflicts. The clarity of Scripture is neither an absolute value nor an abstract property, but a specific function relative to its particular aim: to witness to Christ. The clarity of Scripture, in other words, does not mean that we will know everything there is to know about the text, but that we will know enough to be able, and responsible, to respond to its subject matter. The clarity of Scripture is not a matter of its obviousness so much as its efficacy; the Bible is clear enough to render its communicative action effective (317).

Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7)

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 119:105, 130).

These two definitions do not seem to be precisely the same. Though I am aware that I may just be misreading them, it seems that the WCF limits the scope of its definition to “those things…necessary to…believe…for salvation”, while Vanhoozer seems to paint a broader brush, saying of any text, “we will know enough to be able, and responsible, to respond to its subject matter.”

I use “perspicuity of Scripture” as a statement of the clarity of all of Scripture, to varying degrees, but to a sufficient degree anywhere that a person willing to work can understand a text’s meaning simply by considering the text itself and its immediate context, the context of what has been revealed up to that point in the Bible, and the context of the canon as a whole.

And when I say, “sufficiency of Scripture”, I am affirming that when we have questions as to what to believe and how to live, the needed answers are in the Bible.

I do not believe that any extra-biblical resource is needed to rightly understand the Bible as a whole or any of its parts. I do believe they can be a wonderful, tremendously helpful aid.

It seems with this text that many, at least in what they articulate, make their case based on extra-biblical information.

I think I can make a case for understanding the command in 1 Corinthians 11 as culturally based just from the passage, not from outside knowledge. It would generally flow like: “Huh, what is this talking about? Head coverings? I’ve never heard of that? Oh! Verse 10! Women need to be visibly marked by a symbol of authority when praying or prophesying. Got it.”

How we handle this passage and explain it to others is very important. I do not want to accidentally set a pattern for them that will allow them to get out from under culturally transcendent commands for the church. Paul gives commands in 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Timothy 2 that, for liberated post-modern Americans of our generation, seem like they are from another planet. “Women need to wear head coverings?! Women can’t teach men or exercise authority over men?! What’s going on with that?” In both cases, the ground for the command that Paul provides seems to be located in a reality of creation itself, not something specific to one culture. Women are not to teach men or exercise authority over men because of the God ordained order of creation and the roles assigned to men and women. Women are to wear head coverings when praying, and men are not to wear head coverings, because “woman is the glory of man”. Again, the ground in both passages seems to be the order and design of the creation of man and woman.

That seems to be straightforward, right? Can I say that one is not in practice binding on the church today without cutting off my legs when I arrive at the other one?

Now, what are the head coverings of which Paul speaks? I recognize that this question is highly contended by scholars and that I have not extensively researched the question as have these scholars. But it sure seems, just looking at the passage, that Paul answers in verses 14-15: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” That sounds like a woman is supposed to have long hair. When she prays to God, she is to use that long hair to cover her head (bun?). A man is not to have long hair. Nor is he to use the long hair he does not have to cover his head.

So if someone concluded that the practice, because of the principle, was binding on men and women today, it would seem like:

1. Women should wear their hair long and use it to cover their heads when they pray. That does not mean they can never get a haircut. It would mean they shouldn’t cut their hair so short that they can’t use it to cover their heads.

2. Any woman who for some reason was unable to grow long hair should use a shawl, a hat, or something else to cover her head when she prays.

3. Men should not have hair sufficiently long to use to cover their heads.

4. If men are wearing a hat, they should remove it before praying.

5. You might make the argument that men should not wear hats when praying or reading/teaching the Bible. The covered/uncovered commands are connected to God speaking to us and our speaking to God. So you’d have to make a case that, insofar as God speaks to us through the reading and teaching of Scripture, it is best for men to have their heads uncovered in those events. It would be a reasonable case to make. At a minimum, it is wise. At most, it is a matter of right and wrong.



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