In response to my recent foray on sola scriptura and perspicuity, 1 a commenter on Facebook asked, presumably rhetorically, whether Acts 8.31 didn’t disprove the idea of the clarity of Scripture. I answered, “No.” I answered this way in part because the question presumed what it sought to disprove, viz., it presumed that I could read and understand the passage in question.
But the passage itself seems to go in the other direction, doesn’t it? Here is the verse, with context (ESV):
And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said,“How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
“How can I understand Scripture without a guide?” And yet the question assumed I could understand Scripture well enough to know that I couldn’t understand Scripture. Are we caught on the horns of an “all Cretans are liars” dilemma?
Again, no. There are a couple of different ways to approach this.
Here is the passage from the prophet Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
What I would suggest is the following: the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand this passage–not grammatically, but in its full salvific import–because he did not yet know the Christic or Messianic meaning of the Old Testament as it is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. How does one come to know this, to understand this–to hear it with the understanding of faith? Only by the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. That is how the eunuch was to know it was this one, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was the res of the Old Testament’s signa. Hence, it was an apostle that the Spirit sent to the eunuch, who “opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture…told him the good news about Jesus.” It was Jesus himself (about) whom the eunuch needed to know. Under the inspiration of the Spirit, the apostles testified to this Jesus, thus providing the key to understanding the prophecies and shadows of the old order. It is on the foundation of the apostles (here Philip) and prophets (here Isaiah), after all, that the church is built, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.
How might we know contextually that what the eunuch needed was to hear the prophet Isaiah savingly, rather than simply to understand at any level the words on the page before him? He wished to be baptized immediately after hearing Philip’s teaching.
John Calvin takes a different approach, though one that is not, I think, inconsistent with the foregoing. He refers to the common distinction (cf. Augustine, De doctrina christiana) between clearer and less clear parts of Scripture (the passage of Isaiah would be an example of the latter), and notes the significance of the Spirit’s help, along with the aid of teachers and interpreters, for understanding such passages. The eunuch had some profit from the text already from the former, but he received still more through its combination with other means that God has provided for understanding. Calvin’s comments are lengthy, but they repay reading in full.