The Semi-Permeable Membranes of the Various Protestantisms

In which I dilate upon some ideas I was noodling here last week.

That bit of noodling got blasted last week as a “classic attack on the perspicuity of Scripture” in the normal circles of apologetic huff-puffery.

A few words on that: The whole “Scripture is perspicuous” thing is a classic case of elevating human tradition to the level of equality with the word of God. It works like this: the enthusiast for the doctrine of the “perspicuity of Scripure” 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 grants all believers the gift of tongues.” “God always does what is best. Health and wealth are best. Therefore, God will all believers to be healthy and wealthy.”)

You can always find some sort of biblical justification for your pet idea. 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. Now Christianity has room for doctrines that can’t be empirically verified. The doctrine of the Trinity is a classic. 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.

Similarly, 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 2 Peter:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 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 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 “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. And this goes for great portions of Scripture. Jesus himself sometimes seems to labor to be cryptic and difficult to understand. Likewise, what 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.

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 Church disagrees with me, that’s because the ignorant and unstable are 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 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 the whole shell game comes apart. He has to say, in essence, “Oh sure, attacks 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” and to accentuate the differences among Catholics.

Fair enough. I think Catholics beat the 33,000 denominations drum too much and don’t really pay attention to the commonalities that exist in much of Protestant theology. I think Catholics 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 the whole “perspicuity of Scripture” bunkum. Once you acknowledge that many denominationa snd 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; once you grant that, in the words of the Prophet Chesterton, “Catholic agree about everything, it is only everything else they disagree about” you are still faced with colossal and mutually contradictory differences between say, Oneness Pentecostals (who deny the Trinity) and Trinitarian Protestants. You still have serious and flatly contradictory disagreements about whether baptism regenerates, whether children should be baptised, 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”. 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. Meanwhile, on the matters he thinks important, Scripture is perspicuous: it clearly teaches what he says it teaches. And where the Church disagree, 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?


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