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.
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31. How should I? Most excellent modesty of the eunuch, who doth not only permit Philip who was one of the common sort, to question with him, but doth also willingly confess his ignorance. And surely we must never hope that he will ever show himself apt to be taught who is puffed up with the confidence of his own wit. Hereby it cometh to pass that the reading of the Scriptures doth profit so few at this day, because we can scarce find one amongst a hundred who submitteth himself willingly to learn. For whilst all men almost are ashamed to be ignorant of that whereof they are ignorant, every man had rather proudly nourish his ignorance than seem to be scholar to other men. Yea, a great many take upon them haughtily to teach other men. Nevertheless, let us remember that the eunuch did so confess his ignorance, that yet, notwithstanding, he was one of God’s scholars when he read the Scripture. This is the true reverence of the Scripture, when as we acknowledge that there is that wisdom laid up there which surpasseth all our senses; and yet notwithstanding, we do not loathe it, but, reading diligently, we depend upon the revelation of the Spirit, and desire to have an interpreter given us.
He prayed Philip that he would come up. This is another token of modesty, that he seeketh an interpreter and teacher. He might have rejected Philip according to the pride of rich men; for it was a certain secret upbraiding of ignorance when Philip said, Understandest thou what thou readest? But rich men think that they have great injury done them if any man speak homely to them. And, therefore, they break out by and by into these speeches, What is that to thee? or, What hast thou to do with me? But the eunuch submitteth himself humbly to Philip that by him he may be taught. Thus must we be minded if we desire to have God to be our teacher, whose Spirit resteth upon the humble and meek, (Isaiah 66:2.) And if any man, mistrusting himself, submit himself to be taught, the angels shall rather come down from heaven than the Lord will suffer us to labor in vain; though (as did the eunuch) we must use all helps, which the Lord offereth unto us, for the understanding of the Scriptures. Frantic men require inspirations and revelations from heaven, and, in the mean season, they contemn the minister of God, by whose hand they ought to be governed. Other some, which trust too much to their own wit, will vouchsafe to hear no man, and they will read no commentaries. But God will not have us to despise those helps which he offereth unto us, and he suffereth not those to escape scot free which despise the same. And here we must remember, that the Scripture is not only given us, but that interpreters and teachers are also added, to be helps to us. For this cause the Lord sent rather Philip than an angel to the eunuch. For to what end served this circuit, that God calleth Philip by the voice of the angel, and sendeth not the angel himself forthwith, save only because he would accustom us to hear men? This is, assuredly, no small commendation of external preaching, that the voice of God soundeth in the mouth of men to our salvation, when angels hold their peace.
It is obvious from this that the Reformed understanding of sola scriptura has nothing to do with dispensing with ordinary means, human teachers, and so on, nor of dispensing with the presence, help, and illumination of the Holy Spirit. All of these are part of the economy God employs to bring his people to the saving understanding of the gospel of the saving Messiah.