The Perspicuity of Scripture and Other Creation Myths

Last week, I wrote a little piece on the ways in which the various Protestantisms filter the sometimes ambiguous text of Scripture through various semi-permeable membranes in order to accept the bits of the Catholic Tradition they approve of while a) removing those things they dislike and b) stapling on those human ideas and notions they want to add or elevate to the status of Divine Revelation.

That sort of seditious talk immediately got blasted as a “classic attack on the perspicuity of Scripture” in the normal circles of anti-Catholic apologetics huff-puffery (my encounters with which I have discussed elsewhere).

A few words on that whole “perspicuity of Scripture” thing: it is a classic case of stapling on a purely human idea to the Tradition and elevating it to the level of equality with the word of God. It works like this: the enthusiast for the doctrine of the “perspicuity of Scripture” reasons “God always does what is best. Having a Bible that is perspicuous is best. Therefore, God has done that.”

(You can play that game with anything you like, by the way: “God always does what is best. Having the gift of tongues is best. Therefore, God demands all believers have the gift of tongues.” “God always does what is best. Health and wealth are best. Therefore, God wills all believers to be healthy and wealthy.”)

You can always find some sort of biblical justification for your pet idea. Didn’t Paul thank God that he spoke in tongues more than anybody (1 Cor 14:18)? Doesn’t Scripture say of the righteous man that whatever he does prospers (Psalm 1:3)? Doesn’t it say that the command of the Lord is clear (Psalm 19:9)? QED! And with sufficient will power or ego, you can trumpet your pet idea as the Revealed Will of God Almighty, denouncing anybody who questions your pet theory, not as somebody who questions your pet theory, but as an enemy of God who “rails away” at God Almighty, while “The child of God knows better.” It’s a very cozy way to congratulate yourself.

The thing is, the perspicuity of Scripture is one of those ideas, like Marxism, that is the result of theory run amuck and removed entirely from the laboratory of real life. Basically, it’s a creation myth that was fadged up in order to get rid of the need for the Catholic Magisterium. The reasoning was archetypally fallacious. It went like this: God always does what is best. Communicating his revelation in the form of a book of pellucid clarity is best. Therefore, that’s what he must have done. Otherwise, you condemn the Bible to the dreadful prospect of being interpreted by the Church and, worse still, by a Magisterium that sometimes directly contradicts what I am quite certain it must mean.

Since the whole project of the Reformation consisted of insisting that wherever the Church’s Magisterium taught things not believed by A Man and His Bible, the Church was wrong, maintaining that creation myth was absolutely essential.

The problem is, doing that requires the believer in the perspicuity of Scripture to resolutely shut his eyes to the constant blandishments and encroachments of reality, reason, common sense, experience, and the very testimony of Scripture itself.

To this is often made the reply that “We walk by faith, not by sight.” True enough, but faith never contradicts reason, whereas the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture achieves this feat on a daily basis.

Make no mistake: Christianity has room for doctrines that can’t be empirically verified. The doctrine of the Trinity is a classic example. We believe it because God revealed it to us through Christ and his Holy Church. There’s no scientific demonstration of it. Neither is there scientific disproof of it. It’s not open to empirical investigation. You either trust God and his Church on this or you don’t. All arguments against it can be refuted by reason. But it can’t be proven by reason alone.

Other doctrines have a toehold in empirical observation (though, again, they are not provable by reason alone). A good example of this is original sin. People who deny it and assert the Pelagian notion that we can work our way to God on our own steam find that the Laboratory of Reality has proven this false in every single experiment where it has been attempted. The bulk of what the doctrine of original sin has to tell us about ourselves can be verified by reading a newspaper or turning on the TV.

But people who assert things like the Perspicuity of Scripture as Revealed Truth have to face the fact that the Laboratory of Experience is simply against them. The one thing Scripture is not is perspicuous. That’s not me talking, that’s Scripture:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Standard boilerplate replies from the perspicuity dogmatist generally run toward saying things like “Paul’s writing is perspicuous, it’s just the ignorant and unstable who screw things up.”

Mmhmm. Except that’s not what it says. It says that there are some things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand. Yes, the ignorant and unstable muck up the interpretation of those letters. But that’s partly because the letters themselves are “hard to understand”. Whatever that is, it ain’t perspicuity. And anybody who reads Paul can testify to that. It was C.S. Lewis who remarked of Paul, “I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.”

Heck, forget Paul. Anybody who says that Revelation is “perspicuous” is simply a fool. Calvin was smart enough to not attempt a commentary on it because he knew it would give the lie to the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture. Luther, with his characteristic bluntness, sized the book up by remarking “A Revelation ought to reveal.” He tried to solve the problem by just excising it from the New Testament.

And this bleeding obvious lack of clarity goes for great portions of Scripture. Jesus himself sometimes seems to labor to be cryptic and difficult to understand. The meaning of the parable of the Unjust Steward does not, for instance, leap off the page. His Olivet Discourse (cf. Matthew 24) is chockablock with mysterious passages. Likewise, the turbulent mixture of Paul’s prose is often hard to follow. The prophets are often obscure and mysterious. The wisdom literature can be clear as mud sometimes (what, for instance, does the book of Job mean? It’s not that there’s no meaning, it’s that it’s so rich in meanings that one comes away puzzled by what to make of the thing.) And don’t get me started on the problems surrounding the “clear” meaning of Genesis 1-3.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying Scripture is a sealed book. I’m saying the problem is not so much that the meaning of Scripture is dark and obscure as that it is bright—like the sun in Plato’s parable of the cave. Our eyes can’t take in the dazzling radiance. We need, just as the disciples on the Emmaus Road and the Ethiopian Eunuch needed, somebody to help us understand what is written, because we can’t understand it on our own.

Jesus, recognizing this need, gave us not just a book, but a teaching office that could help us understand the book. In founding that office, he told the apostles: “”He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40). And they, acting on this, likewise ordained bishops to guard the deposit of faith handed down by them with the help of the Holy Spirit.

What doctrines like the “perspicuity of Scripture” really mean is “Scripture means what I take it to mean, no more, no less. The easy to understand parts are the parts that agree with what I think. The hard-to-understand parts are the parts that a) talk about unimportant stuff or b) must be subordinated to what I understand.”

It’s a useful fiction elevated to the level of Revealed Teaching so that self-appointed one man Magisteria can say, “Ignorant and unstable people may twist Scripture, but I am safe from all that so I understand perfectly what Scripture means. And when the Catholic Church disagrees with me, that’s because the ignorant and unstable Church is disagreeing with me, who am not ignorant or unstable.”

In short, it’s the rationale for erecting the sundry semi-permeable membranes of the sundry Protestantisms. Not surprisingly then, the Bible teacher who claims that his special take on Scripture “disproves” the Church will react to criticisms of the absurd doctrine of the “perspicuity of Scripture” with the claim that it is an attack on God himself. He has to say that or his whole shell game comes apart. He has to say, in essence, “Oh sure, criticisms on the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture work in reality. But do they work in theory?” Because, as with Marxism, theory trumps reality, not simply in the experience of anybody who has ever attempted to read the Bible, but in the experience of the fragmented and mutually contradictory Protestantisms.

Normally, the standard boilerplate response to that last point is to a) deny the fragmentation of Protestantism by recourse to the “Catholics exaggerate the 33,000 denominations thing” complaint and to accentuate the differences among Catholics (this sort of boilerplate is as ritualized as kabuki).

Fair enough. Let’s grant that Catholic apologist types beat the 33,000 denominations drum too much and don’t really pay attention to the commonalities that exist in much of Protestant theology. Let us also grant that Catholic apologist types often don’t pay attention, in such polemics, to the divisions in our own house.

But guess what? At the end of the day, none of that really helps support the whole “perspicuity of Scripture” bunkum. If we grant that many denominations and little storefront churches are the result, not of some acrimonious split over doctrine, but of an amicable and harmonious church planting mission or something else; if we grant that, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Catholics agree about everything, it is only everything else they disagree about” we are still faced with colossal and mutually contradictory differences between say, Oneness Pentecostals (who deny the Trinity) and Trinitarian Protestants. We still have serious and flatly contradictory disagreements about whether baptism regenerates, whether children should be baptized, whether communion is or is not the body and blood of Jesus, whether marriage is a sacrament, whether anything is a sacrament, which books belong in the Bible, and so forth. You can’t even get agreement on which issues are “core issues” and which are “peripheral”.

And that points to the bleedin’ obvious truth that none of this is very good prima facie evidence for the perspicuity of Scripture. Eventually what it always returns to is that the individual Bible teacher declares that he can’t see what the big deal is with baptism or communion or what not, so it’s peripheral, while the things he cares about are “core”. And on those matters he thinks important, Scripture is perspicuous: it clearly teaches what he says it teaches while, on any matter where the Catholic Church disagrees with him, you can take it to the bank that the Church is wrong and he, the Famously Not Ignorant or Unstable He, is right.

What could be clearer?

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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  • mrteachersir2

    I get the sense that your buddy James White is a avid reader of your blog. You’d think he’d learn something…after all, he says he has a doctorate.

    I don’t always agree with you, but I enjoy your wit. Keep it up.

  • telemachussneezed

    This fellow seems to have a good analysis of the 33,000 thing: http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/a106.htm. There’s a lot of other interesting stuff on the site.

    I’d never heard of this “Perspicuity of Scripture” idea. I knew instinctively that non-Catholics had to have a principle of some sort that would allow for them to interpret Scripture as they see fit without acknowledging the resultant dis-unities amongst believers. Thanks for the article Mark.

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