Dialogue: Clearness (Perspicuity) of Scripture

Dialogue: Clearness (Perspicuity) of Scripture May 13, 2016

. . . and the Formal Sufficiency of Scripture (vs. Carmen Bryant)


Image by “Jsaneke88” [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


Counter-Reply to: Carmen Bryant’s paper: “The Perspicuity of Scripture: How did the Evangelical Church Come to Insist that the Message of the Bible is Clear?”


(8 June 2000)


Carmen Bryant is a friendly Internet acquaintance. I greatly appreciate her ever-present cordial manner and Christian charity (oftentimes rare qualities in Internet debates, especially across religious lines), as well as her long labors for the sake of the gospel. She
has an M.A. in Exegetical Theology from Western Seminary (Portland, OR) and a recently-acquired Master of Theology from Western Seminary. She was a missionary with CBInternational 1969-1997 in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia she was a Bible translator, working in two Dayak languages in West Borneo, and has taught many seminars, especially in church music. Carmen is presently on the faculty at Multnomah Bible College and Western Seminary in Portland, OR and a missionary under Mission to the Americas, working with international students. Her paper on perspicuity (the subtitle above) was related to her master’s thesis (“Unpacking the Language of the Faith: Translating Theospeak”); parts of it appeared therein.

Carmen’s view represents the generally held Protestant position on this matter. Catholics need to fully understand Protestant views (those of us who converted to Catholicism are a bit better acquainted, as we used to believe these things ourselves). Carmen’s words throughout shall be in blue.

* * * * *


I. Introduction and Statement of Theses and Premises

II. Is Scripture Clear Enough So That Anyone With the Aid of the Holy Spirit Can Interpret It Correctly?
III. Sound Hermeneutics
IV. Does Scripture Interpret Itself to the Extent That Church and Tradition are Ultimately Unnecessary?
V. “Essentials” of the Faith and “Central, Primary” Doctrines, or Doctrinal Relativism and Indifferentism?
VI. The Role of Conscience
VII. A Matter of Authority
VIII. The Middle Ages: Catholicism as the Avowed Enemy of Scripture?
IX. Postcript and Reiterations
I. Introduction and Statement of Theses and Premises

The Church has not always believed that Scripture is clear enough for everyone to read without an official interpretation.

The Catholic Church — I want to stress — does not dictate how every Bible passage must be interpreted. Actually, there are very few individual passages which must be interpreted a certain way (and Catholics and Protestants would not disagree on the plain meaning of vast numbers of passages, such as, e.g., those having to do with the divinity of Christ, or God the Father’s attributes). But the Church does require its members to interpret the Bible according to received, Catholic Tradition.
The online Catholic Encyclopedia article on BIBLICAL EXEGESIS states (emphasis added):
(a) Defined TextsThe Catholic commentator is bound to adhere to the interpretation of texts which the Church has defined either expressly or implicitly. The number of these texts is small, so that the commentator can easily avoid any transgression of this principle. The Council of Trent teaches that Rom., v, 12, refers to original sin (Sess. V, cc. ii, iv), that John, iii, 5, teaches the absolute necessity of the baptism of water (Sess. V, c. iv; Sess. VII, De bapt., c. ii), that Matt., xxvi, 26 sq. is to be understood in the proper sense (Sess. XIII, cap. i); the Vatican Council gives a direct definition of the texts, Matt., xvi, 16 sqq. and John, xxi, 15 sqq. Many more Scripture texts are indirectly defined by the definition of certain doctrines and the condemnation of certain errors. The Council of Nicæa, e.g., showed how those passages ought to be interpreted on which the Arians relied in their contention that the Word was a creature; the Fifth Ecumenical Council (II Constantinople) teaches the right meaning of many prophecies by condemning the interpretation of Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Soon after the apostolic period, allegorical methods with roots in Greek philosophy began influencing the interpretation of Scripture.

More on this below.

Many of the Church Fathers found “spiritual” meanings hidden beneath the literal words of Scripture. Often the spiritual meaning bore no obvious relationship to the literal meaning.

Likewise, often the meaning of New Testament interpretations of Old Testament bore “no obvious relationship to the literal meaning” of the Old Testament texts. But these are inspired Scripture, often from the mouth of Our Lord Himself. There is, then, obviously more at play in the words of inspired Scripture than the straightforward literal interpretation, as if the Bible were some sort of hyper-literal and rationalistic philosophical or scientific text devoid of the need for a regenerate, spiritual, faith-based (and traditional, apostolic) interpretation and understanding.

The Church eventually adopted the view that since the Church was the proper guardian of Scripture, only its representatives could interpret authoritatively what was the true meaning of Scripture. The laity were denied free access to the Scriptures lest they interpret them improperly and disseminate false doctrine.

This is inaccurate in its overly-broad and “dichotomous” either/or presentation. Some might interpret the above as if the (Catholic) Church was some sort of Gestapo- or KGB-like thought police, monitoring every biblical reading by its members. This is a convenient Protestant cliche, caricature, and stereotype (even if Carmen didn’t mean to imply this, surely many readers have that picture in their minds), but it is historically untrue. Nor was the Church absolutely opposed to the popular availability of the Bible (i.e., after widespread literacy and the possibility of mass literature occurred, in the 15th century) or vernacular translations. This will be thoroughly documented below. The Church was concerned about private judgment and heresy, dislodged from apostolic Tradition, and bad translations, just (in the case of the latter) as any conscientious Protestant tradition is (or should be) today. Bad translations distort the word of God in Holy Scripture, no matter who does them or what doctrinal bias may be present.

In the later Middle Ages, the allegorical approach to hermeneutics began to lose its hold. Some theologians promoted a modified methodology, most notably St. Thomas Aquinas. Others threw out allegory and insisted that Scripture was so clear that even an uneducated believer could understand at the very least the Bible’s message of salvation and its instructions for holy living. A corollary of this position was that all persons should have access to the Bible in the vernacular.

And this was nothing new, of course. Even the preface of the King James Version notes the long tradition of vernacular translations, starting hundreds of years before the onset of Protestantism.

The Reformers of the 16th century began to formulate the doctrine that came to be known as the Perspicuity of Scripture.

They “began” to “formulate” it?, or did they supposedly “re-formulate” and re-introduce what was allegedly the position of the Apostles and the early Church? I shall argue for the former, and that this was not taught by the Apostles and Fathers. 

Evangelicals are heirs of this doctrine. Evangelicals believe that Scripture is comprehensible enough so that, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and by using a sound hermeneutic that allows Scripture to interpret itself, anyone who desires to do so can understand God’s message. This being true, all Christians should have unrestricted access to God’s Word in his or her own language.

I think this is both an ultimately absurd and dangerous position, which has led to ecclesiological anarchism, doctrinal relativism, and moral chaos, as I have argued in many ways in my papers cited above. The methods of attempting to evade tragic, sinful, radically unbiblical Protestant sectarianism and internal contradiction used in this paper and elsewhere fail miserably (in my humble opinion). Try as they may, Protestants cannot rationalize or minimize the consequences and lessons of the state of affairs brought about by this novel adoption of sola Scriptura (and its sub-category of perspicuity) as a formal and authoritative principle of faith apart from a binding teaching authority.

To a generation of Christians unschooled in the historical reasons for the Reformers declaring Scripture clear, the traditional name for the doctrine has been perhaps misleading. The implication of the word perspicuity is that any believer of average intelligence should be able to read the Bible and understand what it is talking about. If that is so, then there is no need for any ecclesiastical judge to declare authoritatively the meaning of a scriptural passage.

On the contrary, there is indeed a great need, as people always have disagreed on Christian doctrine, for whatever reason. Without Church authority, notably even the definition and number of the books of the Bible themselves could and would not have been determined. Likewise, in the early Church there were all sorts of heresies equally decried today by Catholics and Protestants alike, which were condemned by the authoritative Catholic Church – without whose authority many devout Christians would have not known what was true and proper Christian doctrine. This included even the doctrines of God (theology proper) and Christology (which constituted the primary controversy of the first several hundred years of Christianity).

As stated already, the Church declares that Christians should believe certain things (which all Christian groups do, of course), and that no one may interpret any passage of Scripture in a manner which contradicts these received doctrines (which is logically a far different proposition). Protestants do exactly the same thing, just in a more limited manner. Luther, e.g., was absolutely convinced that “this is my body” meant a literal Eucharist (consubstantiation), while Zwingli adopted a symbolic view and was therefore dismissed by Luther as a reprobate and apostate.

Likewise, Calvinists today have a whole set of biblical passages (e.g., their favorite, Romans 9) related to their notions of double predestination, unlimited election, irresistible grace, and limited atonement (TULIP), concerning which they do not admit any difference of interpretation. If the whole truth be known, I suspect that Protestants are more guilty of the practices decried above than the Catholic Church ever was. It is Protestantism which is far more “hung up” on proof texts from the Bible which supposedly can only mean one thing. The Catholic Church is much more concerned about true doctrine, received from the Apostles, than about particular proof texts. That’s not to say that proof texts aren’t offered (my website is devoted to that very thing); just that the emphasis is different.

When this position is taken to an extreme — as it has been by some Protestants — the individual becomes the supreme authority on the meaning of Scripture, claiming revelation from the Holy Spirit to authenticate an interpretation not necessarily validated by the Church as a whole.

I agree. The internal logical problem here is the troublesome phrase “Church as a whole.” Protestants allow (quite consciously and deliberately) a host of doctrinal relativisms to exist. Indeed, Carmen below argues for a thoroughgoing theological relativism with regard to the Eucharist, as if it were some sort of disposable doctrine, and one which cannot be determined by consulting the Fathers (who were almost literally unanimous in favor of a Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist: body, blood, soul, and divinity). So – as always -, the Protestant position, however formulated, breaks down as unbiblical, illogical, and contrary to the facts of the beliefs in the early Church.

The ludicrousness of this extreme position is quickly seen when multiple contradictory interpretations supposedly come from the same Holy Spirit of truth, with the result that truth is made relative.

Again, I agree. Where I would differ is the cause of the admitted relativism within Protestantism. I contend that it is in the flawed first principles of private judgment and Scripture as not only materially sufficient, but also formally sufficient as a rule of faith over against the authoritative, apostolic teaching Church. So in effect, Carmen is arguing the Catholic position here. She just doesn’t know it. :-)

A typical Catholic argument runs like this: “If Scripture is clear, why are there so many Protestant denominations? Why can’t Protestants agree among themselves about the meaning of Scripture?” If we are to respond honestly, we must admit that the scandal of division among Protestants over supposedly biblical issues does not provide credibility to the assertion that Scripture is clear. It is a charge that cannot be lightly dismissed.

Indeed. I commend Carmen for acknowledging the (at least perceived) difficulty, but I think it is a fatal objection, whereas she thinks it can be overcome by the analysis and “solution” she offers presently. With all due respect for her thoughtful and conscientious effort, I think she has failed. An untruth remains an untruth, no matter how brilliant or skilled its defenders may be. A good lawyer may get an acquittal for a guilty client, but the client remains just as guilty as he was before the verdict!

. . . it is necessary to realize that the perspicuity of any message can be viewed from two perspectives: (1) that of the message as it has come from the speaker, and (2) that of the message as it is heard by the listener. Since language always involves two parties, both parties must be playing the same language-game in order for communication to be successful.

The author of Scripture is also the creator of language. Furthermore, as the omniscient God who chose to reveal himself and his will to man, he knew thoroughly all the rules of the language-game. God is not a cheater. Although his revelation may have been selective, the truth he chose to reveal was disclosed according to the rules of the language-games known by the writers of Scripture. The message itself, then, was clear. From this perspective, the perspicuity of Scripture means that there is no way whereby the message could have been improved. It was true and it was clear. To say otherwise is to put a limitation either on God’s ability to deliver a message or on his ability to choose the appropriate persons to record the message.

This assumes what it is trying to prove. It takes for granted from the outset that Scripture must be clear without an ecclesiastical Guide and Infallible Interpreter, which is precisely what is at issue in Catholic-Protestant discussions on the nature of authority, the roles of Scripture and Tradition, theological certainty, and the rule of faith. Scripture doesn’t have to be clear for any reader to ascertain its meaning if it was always intended (by God) to be understood within an overall context of Church and Tradition (as I would argue and attempt to demonstrate with many proof texts that it itself teaches). In other words, the Church would provide the foolproof method of proper interpretation of a Scripture otherwise often misinterpreted due to sheer ignorance or prior doctrinal biases and predispositions (see, e.g., 2 Peter 1:20-21, 3:15-17). So the above claim is a false dilemma and a circular argument.

From the perspective of the listener, however, Scripture may not be clear. It is this perspective from which most people answer when asked if Scripture is clear. A negative response does not denigrate the quality of the message. Rather, it calls us to recognize that there are factors which can distort or prevent one’s understanding of an otherwise clear message.

Then this is going to boil down to the fallacious “sin argument” that I have critiqued in my other papers. It appears that no amount of resulting relativism, or contrary evidence, no matter how compelling, can falsify perspicuity in the minds of its proponents. I maintain that it is a prior axiom, held in blind faith without biblical or rational proof (originally by Luther as the only alternative to accepting the authority of the Catholic Church). In practical terms, “clearness” can only be viewed in terms of actual,human exegesis and interpretation.

God (as an omnipotent, sovereign Being) is just as able to bring about the institutional and doctrinal unity He wants (within His established Church) as He is able to theoretically write the message in a clear fashion without need of authoritative interpreters. To say it is “clear” regardless of how it is variously interpreted is not only illogical, but also, in the final analysis, a reduction of Christianity to a mere abstract, theoretical philosophy, when in fact it was intended by God to be very practical, concrete, and lived out. The Church exists for a reason, and it is an extension of the Incarnation, the Body of Christ. It has real, tangible authority. It is not simply an invisible society of like-minded individuals, who possess authority each one for themselves (as if the Church was optional or a convenient historical accretion). Christianity, like Judaism before it, was always a fundamentally historical religion.

Catholics do not disagree about the importance of understanding the original languages and cultural context of the biblical books.

. . . Spiritual clarity means that only those who have accepted God’s grace in Jesus Christ can understand the spiritual concepts.

We agree, except that we emphasize Christianity as a communal and historical entity, much more so than an individualistic enterprise. So then, there is such a thing as a “mind of the Church,” informed by the Holy Spirit, which is more profound than the “spiritual mind” of one person, be he Luther or anyone else. Luther was not infallible (though he often seemed to think so), but we believe that the Church is to a large extent (and popes and Councils, under certain circumstances). We apply the passages in John 14-16 about the Spirit’s leading believers into all truth primarily to the Church as a whole. They can apply to individuals as well, but not as a norm for the faith: that must be historical and communal; ecclesiastical. And we maintain that this is the biblical (as well as the historic Christian) position, not some arbitrary and irrational “Catholic corruption” supposedly separate from Scripture and the Apostles and early Church.

Essential clarity “refers to the understanding of the mysteries of the faith, of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Cor.13:9-12. The Bible thus is grammatically clear to all men of sound mind; it is spiritually clear to all who believe in Christ; it is essentially clear to the saints in heaven, who see God face to face.” It is this last category, essential clarity, that characterizes the nature of Scripture as it came from God. In the perfection of heaven, all barriers to understanding God’s revelation will be removed.

Well, in my mind, this epitomizes the incoherence and practical impossibility and ultimate absurdity of this position. Carmen comes right out and admits that the only people who can understand Holy Scripture “as it came from God,” are the saints in heaven!!! If that is so, then (quite ironically) the Protestant position of perspicuity certainly makes the Bible more obscure than the Catholic position, which holds that its doctrines can be definitely known, with the guidance of a teaching Church, ordained by God and formally established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

But if one has a prior (oftentimes philosophical or “personal”) objection to Catholic dogmas, then they must have some alternate form of authority. It is easy (but neither biblical nor logical) to locate that in an individual or an (ultimately) arbitrarily chosen denomination. As for the second category of “spiritually clear,” well that doesn’t resolve the difficulty of competing interpretations. Are we to believe that those who differ from us are therefore not “believers in Christ” or of sound mind? This position is a house of cards. It cannot possibly succeed in real life. It is refreshing to see an admission (perhaps unintentional) that it only totally “works” in heaven. :-) Catholics are much more optimistic than that about the understanding of Holy Scripture.

We can therefore say that Scripture is clear (1) because perspicuity describes the very nature of the message as it came from God; and (2) because it is indeed possible for all people, and for believers in particular, to understand that message.

But as Carmen just stated, it is only fully possible in heaven. That Scripture is clear to the God who “breathed” it is an uncontroversial truism. But that doesn’t help us to understand it. We don’t have the mind of God. I find this entire argument quite insubstantial and circular. It is largely (at least thus far) presented axiomatically, as if anyone who simply heard it would automatically be compelled to accept it. I don’t find it in the least compelling myself. Perhaps the argument gets stronger as it continues on (I am answering as I read; I did skim the essay originally).

From this latter perspective, the doctrine of perspicuity is not absolute but qualified. As stated earlier, Scripture is comprehensible enough so that, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and by using a sound hermeneutic that allows Scripture to interpret itself, anyone who desires to do so can understand God’s message. If we break this statement into its parts, several limitations to perspicuity from the listener’s perspective are immediately apparent.

Several potential problems are also immediately apparent: who determines the “sound hermeneutic,” and by what authority? How does someone determine that another Christian with a divergent interpretation on any given doctrine does not “desire” to understand Scripture? How are these differences resolved? They cannot be resolved by recourse to this abstract sort of criterion. They certainly can be resolved by appealing and submitting to a demonstrable apostolic and historical Tradition, consistent with Scripture, which is the biblical, apostolic, patristic and Catholic method.

II. Is Scripture Clear Enough So That Anyone With the Aid of the Holy Spirit Can Interpret It Correctly?

Certainly there are many concepts within Scripture that are not clear even to the most able exegete. Perspicuity of Scripture does not deny this. Perspicuity, however, is based on a view of God that sees him as the one who reveals, not the one who hides. “Comprehensible enough” means that the teachings of Scripture are presented in straightforward language that can be understood in the normal way that one hears and understands language.

To a large degree this is true; not to the extent, however, that it makes a teaching Church unnecessary. We believe in material sufficiency and the ability – very broadly considered – of the regenerate, Spirit-filled individual to understand much of the Bible. But we think that the “check” of historical interpretation is necessary as the final determinant of true doctrine and guarantee of unity.

Even persons without faith can understand the sentences of Scripture, assuming that a good translation is being used. This is true, regardless of whether one is reading or listening to Scripture.

They can, theoretically (and actually, in many cases). That they often don’t is evident; hence the need for something more than Scripture Alone.

Without faith, however, the message itself may sound discordant because the spiritual concepts of Scripture are out of tune with the worldview of unbelievers.

Granted, yet even with faith, these problems aren’t resolved by Scripture Alone, are they? We need the Holy Spirit; no one denies that (and so there is no need for me to argue it here; I and my Church agree). The bottom-line issue, I think, is whether this is applicable to individuals apart from a necessary communal, ecclesiastical (and historical) authority (and how Protestants can possibly resolve their differences, as all parties claim this spiritual guidance and faith).

. . . Perspicuity requires the Spirit’s activity, not just his presence. In the context of the above passage from 1 Corinthians 2, not everyone had received understanding because not all were allowing the Spirit to work freely. Paul addressed the Corinthian Christians as carnal believers, as mere infants that couldn’t be fed solid food because their spiritual digestive systems had not developed enough to be able to handle it. They had been given the Spirit, as attested by the spiritual gifts distributed among them, but were hindered in their understanding because of their divisive attitudes and worldly behavior. 

This is the classic “sin argument.” So when Protestants disagree, if we consistently apply this criterion and standard, then the “other guy” must not be open to the Holy Spirit, or he is carnal, or a spiritual babe. He and they must be possessed of “divisive attitudes and worldly behavior.” Does anyone seriously believe that someone like, e.g., John Wesley, must have had one or more of these characteristics, when he disagreed with the Calvinists about the distinctives of Calvinism? I don’t even believe that as a Catholic (who happens to greatly admire Wesley in many ways)! At least Luther was largely self-consistent when he regarded Zwingli as damned because he rejected a belief (Real, literal Presence in the Eucharist) which had always been held by the historic Church.

Today, Protestants such as my esteemed friend Carmen, are far more tolerant and subtle. They simply maintain (as she does below) that the nature and “hows” and “ins and outs” of the Eucharist are unimportant; believers may freely disagree and contradict each other (the logical result being error necessarily present) – no big deal. This is a far cry from the Apostle Paul’s frequent and non-optional insistence that there was “one” doctrine “passed down” and “received” by the Church. I find the Protestant distinction of “central doctrines” and optional “secondary doctrines” to be radically unbiblical and philosophically relativistic.

Nevertheless, because the Spirit was theirs, the potential for understanding was still within their grasp.

So, then, why the “other guy” doesn’t “get it” – given this freely-available potentiality (assuming for a moment that he does have the Spirit), is, I believe, one of the dilemmas and insuperable problems of perspicuity.

Paul, in claiming to have the wisdom of God, did not regard this possession as a private privilege but as something to which all were entitled if they would take advantage of it.

Indeed; hence the Protestant dilemma. It leads inexorably to both logical absurdity and an unseemly judgmentalism of our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Catholic, on the other hand, need not judge the heart and motives of individuals when they hold a different belief. We simply compare their beliefs with that of the apostolic doctrines of the Church, passed down historically (as seen especially in the Fathers), and fully preserved in the Catholic Church, and if they differ, then we say they are simply mistaken in that belief, apart from the inner state of their soul, which we leave up to God to determine.

III. Sound Hermeneutics

It is in the matter of interpretation that some of the major differences have arisen regarding the perspicuity of Scripture. The roots of the disagreement are historical. As described below, allegory became a significant method for interpreting Scripture in the post-apostolic period; this approach required seeking a deeper and more spiritual meaning of Scripture beyond the transparent meaning of the words.

Again, “transparent” (?), yet Protestants can’t agree on any major doctrine except (pretty much) the ones which Catholics also accept, along with them. Protestants, have, e.g., five major camps on the question of the nature and consequences of baptism.

Although allegory was not a universally accepted method, it was the method that prevailed into the Middle Ages. It was this allegorical method to which the Reformers objected, especially that which produced fanciful interpretations that seemed to depart so far from the literal meaning of

But since all Protestants have rejected this approach to hermeneutics, this analysis alone doesn’t explain their differences, within the framework of their own grammatico-historical method. It is not nearly as simple as “Catholic allegorical interpretation vs. Protestant literal interpretation.” Otherwise, Protestants should largely agree (presumably at least far more than they in fact do), but of course they don’t. So we’re back to judging the hearts of those “in error,” since they claim to be (and are) using the same hermeneutical methodology.

According to the doctrine of perspicuity, Scripture must be approached as a divine document written in ordinary human language, with all due consideration given to the grammatical and historical details of the text.

Also, according to Catholicism. It is not “either/or.” Rather, the literal sense was always considered fundamental, and the other senses were built upon this premise. Nor do Protestants totally reject metaphor and allegory, and multiple meanings. The latter is seen particularly in the multiple fulfillment of many prophecies, where in one passage there can be several applications and fulfillments. For instance, in the prophecies about Christ, oftentimes one passage will switch back and forth between Our Lord’s first and second coming. It was very difficult to comprehend this without the benefit of hindsight. It was understandable that the Jews at the time of Christ (even the disciples before Pentecost) would expect a powerful, reigning Messiah because that is how many messianic prophecies read on their face (i.e., “literally”).

In other words, there are many complexities in biblical interpretation, and it is not always evident that a literal approach is the only one. Protestants manage to become very un-literal when it comes to the Eucharist, for instance. The second half of John 6 is a literal passage, we believe. Protestants allegorize it away because they don’t like a literal Eucharistic presence, which goes back to the prior philosophical bias (in this case an aversion to the quite biblical, sacramental notion of matter as a conveyer of grace and spiritual reality) I have referred to.

With its companion doctrine, the priesthood of the believer,

Itself quite unscriptural, in the Protestant version of it . . .

perspicuity means that every believer has the potential of hearing and reading God’s message with understanding. Therefore, ecclesiastical authority is not necessary in order to discern the true meaning of Scripture.

It certainly is, because in fact, there exists disagreement, and the “sin argument” cannot explain all such disagreement. It is far more plausible and feasible that the Protestant formal principle of Scripture Alone is itself flawed.

The Reformers did not condone interpretive lawlessness with this doctrine. Christians were still to be subject to the Church and be guided by its pastors and teachers.

Which “Church”, pray tell? Curiously, Protestants continue to speak of the “Church” as an identifiable, concrete entity, possessing obligatory authority (as the Fathers and the Apostles themselves habitually do), as if any claimant besides Catholicism or Orthodoxy makes any logical, biblical, or historical sense. So Calvin sets up his “Church.” So does Luther. They even make it subservient to the state, a la despots such as Herod or Peter the Great or Lenin (albeit to a lesser degree). The Anabaptists set up their variant of the “Church” – far less institutional. Their version of the “Church” has prevailed amongst today’s evangelicals. The word “Church” scarcely has any meaning in Protestantism. Yet they continue to use it, as if it does. I find this to be an odd sort of “ecclesiological sleight-of-hand;” ultimately intellectually dishonest, though not intended at all to be so. The use of the noble, biblical word “Church” simply isn’t examined closely enough.

Christians who have used the priesthood of the believer to endorse personal anarchy in interpreting Scripture and to reserve for themselves the right to rebel against the leadership of the Church are not complying with the intent of the doctrine of perspicuity.

Good principle, except that it is impossible to apply or understand within the Protestant framework, where there is no one “Church.” There are more than 24,000 denominations, and members can always leave one for another, when the going gets rough, and in the rare case that they are reprimanded or disciplined. Thus Luther excoriated Carlstadt and Zwingli alike, but he could not show how they were acting inconsistently with his own recently-arrived at ecclesiological opinions. Luther claimed “Scripture and plain reason” as his criteria and rejected popes and Councils; so did they. But they included his “Church” and some of his beliefs in the category of things which they rejected, by applying Luther’s anarchic principle of Worms in 1521. Actually and ironically, however, in rejecting Zwingli’s eucharistic symbolism, Luther explicitly appealed to apostolic, Church Tradition. So he arbitrarily wavers back and forth himself, according to doctrine. His Eucharistic and Mariological views were quite traditional and “Catholic.” Many of his other views were novel and revolutionary.

IV. Does Scripture Interpret Itself to the Extent That Church and Tradition are Ultimately Unnecessary?

Scripture interprets itself.

No argument with inspiration, or a unified, non-contradictory meaning, nor with this. The Catholic view on those things is at least as strong (I say more so) as any Protestant (non-liberal) version (more on that below). Our disagreement is in elevating this truth to a formal principle over against the Church and Tradition. There can be, and are, many rival belief-systems in Protestantism, all operating on this principle. The need for regeneration and spiritual guidance are truisms, but don’t establish that the Church and a communal, historical understanding is therefore unnecessary or disposable.

Since the message itself is clear, the possibility exists for understanding. Its grammatical clarity means that everyone of average intelligence can understand the straightforward instructions on how to be saved from sin or how to live a moral life pleasing to God. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved;” “Repent and be baptized;” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart;” “Love your neighbor as yourself” – these commands are clear.

No they are not, because Protestants differ amongst themselves about how one is saved (e.g., Arminianism vs. Calvinism; the Lordship vs. Free Grace debate) and about the meaning and nature of baptism (adult vs. infant, regenerative vs. symbolic, sprinkling vs. immersion, some not practicing baptism at all).

Long before the Reformation, Augustine taught the same as Luther and Calvin: the Scriptures plainly teach that which is necessary for faith and salvation as well as how the Christian should live.

Indeed it does, but this is not the same thing as equating material sufficiency with formal sufficiency, or with sola Scriptura and perspicuity. St. Augustine rejected those things, and did not oppose the Church to the Scriptures, as Protestants do (as will be demonstrated below). Catholic apologist Mark Shea writes:

The Catholic Faith can agree that Scripture is sufficient, But . . . it also warns that there is a distinction between material and formal sufficiency . . . Simply put, it is the difference between having a big enough pile of bricks to build a house and having a house made of bricks. Material sufficiency means that all the bricks necessary to build doctrine is there in Scripture. However, it also teaches that since the meaning of Scripture is not always clear and that sometimes a doctrine is implied rather than explicit, other things besides Scripture have been handed to us from the apostles: things like Sacred Tradition (which is the mortar that holds the bricks together in the right order and position) and the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (which is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things – Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium – are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God. In contrast, those who hold to Bible-only revelation hold the notion that Scripture Alone is formally sufficient and therefore does not need Sacred Tradition or the Magisterium to elucidate its true meaning. (in Not by Scripture Alone, edited by Robert A. Sungenis, Santa Barbara, California: Queenship Publishing Co., 1997, 181-182)

J. Derek Holmes, in a book about John Henry Cardinal Newman’s view of Scripture, summarizes this seminal thinker’s ideas on perspicuity and sola Scriptura:

In 1845 . . . Newman pointed out some other limitations of the Scriptures . . . The mere letter of the Bible could not contain the fulness of revelation; Scripture itself could not solve the questions of canonicity or inspiration; its style was indirect and its structure was unsystematic so that even definitions of the Church depended on obscure sentences . . . The inspiration of Scripture was as difficult to establish from the text of the Bible as the doctrine of apostolic succession . . .

The Bible did not contain a complete secular history, and there was no reason why it should contain a complete account of religious truth. It was unreasonable to demand an adequate scriptural foundation for Church doctrines, if the impression gained from the Bible was of writers who took solemn and sacred truths for granted and who did not give a complete or full treatment of the sense of revelation . . . Scripture did not interpret itself, often startling facts were narrated simply, needing the understanding of the Church, and even essential truths were not made clear . . .

Newman, it must be emphasized, held a ‘one-source theory’ of revelation. He believed that the Church and Tradition taught the truth, while Scripture verified, vindicated or proved that teaching. The Bible and Tradition made up the joint rule of faith, antiquity strengthened the faint but real intimations of doctrine given in Scripture, the Bible was interpreted by Tradition which was verified by Scripture . . . The Bible was never intended to teach doctrine to the majority of Christians, but was written for those already instructed in doctrine . . .

It might be possible for an individual Christian to gain the whole truth from the Bible, but the chances were ‘very seriously against a given individual’ doing so in practice. (in Holmes, J. Derek & Robert Murray, On the Inspiration of Scripture, Washington, D. C.: Corpus Books, 1967, 7-8, 10-11, 15-16)

Surely then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation . . . The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility. (Ibid., 111-112; Newman’s essay On the Inspiration of Scripture, 1884)

Newman, bristling with insight, as always, gets right to the core of the issue:

That Scripture is the Rule of Faith is in fact an assumption so congenial to the state of mind and course of thought usual among Protestants, that it seems to them rather a truism than a truth. If they are in controversy with Catholics on any point of faith, they at once ask, ‘Where do you find it in Scripture?’ and if Catholics reply, as they must do, that it is not necessarily in Scripture in order to be true, nothing can persuade them that such an answer is not an evasion, and a triumph to themselves. Yet it is by no means self-evident that all religious truth is to be found in a number of works, however sacred, which were written at different times, and did not always form one book; and in fact it is a doctrine very hard to prove . . . It [is] . . . an assumption so deeply sunk into the popular mind, that it is a work of great difficulty to obtain from its maintainers an acknowledgment that it is an assumption. (Grammar of Assent, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1955 [orig. 1870], 296)

For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life. . . . After this, when we have made ourselves to a certain extent familiar with the language of Scripture, we may proceed to open up and investigate the obscure passages, and in doing so draw examples from the plainer expressions to throw light upon the more obscure, and use the evidence of passages about which there is no doubt to remove all hesitation in regard to the doubtful passages.

This is absolutely true, as far as it goes. But St. Augustine did not intend it in the extreme anti-ecclesiastical Protestant sense, as will be shown later. Protestants anachronistically impose their innovative views back onto the Fathers. This is very common, and the present essay is no exception. I shall deal with that tendency at great length in the accompanying paper.

I understand that Protestants do not rule out the need for teachers and pastors. No argument there.

V. “Essentials” of the Faith and “Central, Primary” Doctrines, or Doctrinal Relativism and Indifferentism?

Some, in explaining the doctrine of perspicuity, have said that it applies only to the “essentials of the faith.” But this description leaves the doctrine more obscure than perspicuous. Just what are these essentials? Unfortunately for arguments defending perspicuity, Protestants do not agree on how to define the essentials of the faith.

And that is a major weakness (if not one of the fatal flaws) of this outlook, in my opinion.

David G. Armstrong, a Catholic lay apologist, responds to the idea of the essentials:

The usual Protestant reply to this critique [to the multiplicity of denominations] is that denominations differ mostly over secondary issues, not fundamental or central doctrines. This is often and casually stated, but when scrutinized, it collapses under its own weight. . . .
Protestants will often maintain that the Eucharist and baptism, for instance, are neither primary nor essential doctrines. This is curious, since these are the two sacraments that the majority of Protestants accept. . . .

Protestants also differ on other soteriological issues: most Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, pentecostals, some Baptists, and many non-denominationalists and other groups are Arminian and accept free will and the possibility of falling away from salvation (apostasy), while Presbyterians, Reformed and a few Baptist denominations and other groups are Calvinist and deny free will and the possibility of apostasy for the elect. In contrast to the former denominations, the latter groups have a stronger view of the nature of original sin, and deny that the Atonement is universal. . . .

Armstrong’s description is basically accurate. But does this description invalidate perspicuity as defined above? No,

Yes . . . :-)

for questions of free will, election, original sin and the host of other arguments in which Christians can become entangled have more to do with the how’s and the why’s of doctrine rather than the what’s of doctrine. Even the disputes over the Real Presence in the Eucharist, as significant as they may be towards a total understanding of what is taking place, pale in comparison to the issue of obedience. The clear teaching is that observing the Eucharist is a scriptural command and that those who ignore Christ’s command to observe this rite in a holy manner are in disobedience.

In the final judgment, the amount of understanding one has over the how’s and the why’s is not as critical as obedience to what is already known. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

This is an unbiblical espousal of doctrinal relativism and indifferentism. It can’t be sustained from the Bible for a second, especially not from the Apostle Paul (the passage she cites does not at all sanction theological and doctrinal relativism or minimalism). I have dealt with biblical indications of this elsewhere at length. But take note, undecided reader, what Carmen must forfeit, concede, and give up in order to sustain her position of perspicuity: “free will, election, original sin and the host of other arguments” (including the nature of the Eucharist, regarded by most Protestants as a very important, essential sacrament). This is unbiblical and absurd prima facie, as if whole areas of Christian theology can’t be determined or agreed-upon. So again, Carmen’s conclusion ironically leads to a far more obscure Scripture than mine. Protestants despairingly resign themselves to the fact that these doctrinal controversies cannot be resolved in the Protestant system, and so therefore they are simply relegated to irrelevance and unimportance and – no more problem! Such a disregard for true doctrine across the board is expressly, undeniably forbidden by Scripture itself, as I detailed elsewhere:

In John 17:22 Jesus prays that the disciples would be “one, as we are one.” And in John 17:23, He desires that they (and us) be “completely one” (NRSV). KJV, NKJV: “perfect in one.” RSV, NEB, REB: “perfectly one.” NIV: “complete unity.” NASB: “perfected in unity.” Now, it is pretty difficult to maintain that this entails no doctrinal agreement (and “perfect” agreement at that). And, reflecting on John 17:22, I don’t think the Father and the Son differ on how one is saved, on the true nature of the Eucharist or the Church, etc. So how can Protestants claim this “perfect” oneness, “as we [the Holy Trinity] are one”? Or even any remote approximation?Furthermore, if Paul and the other Apostles are to be trusted, the Catholic view of a unified, institutional, visible, apostolic Church (with a head: the pope) would seem to be far and away exegetically the best. Paul commands: “mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine ye have learned; and avoid them.” (Rom 16:17).

In 1 Corinthians 1:10, he desires “no divisions,” and that Christians should be “perfectly joined together “in the same mind.” No one can say this is simply a “warm fuzzy” love and mutual recognition. Paul goes on to condemn mere “contentions” in 1:11, and asks in 1:13: “Is Christ divided?” In 1 Cornithians 3:3, Paul says that whatever group has “strife and divisions” are “carnal, and walk as men.” In 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 he seems to equate “divisions” and “heresies.” He calls for “no schism” in 1 Corinthians 12:25, etc., etc. (cf. Rom 13:13; 2 Cor 12:20; Phil 2:2; Titus 3:9; Jas 3:16; 1 Tim 6:3-5; 2 Pet 2:1). What more evidence is needed to be convinced that denominationalism and sectarianism is a sin? Yet Protestants blithely go on in the teeth of these biblical warnings and injunctions, seemingly oblivious to the possible consequences (see, e.g., Gal 5:19-21).

When Jesus prayed His priestly prayer at the Last Supper, what was the subject? Unity; oneness. And why was that supremely important? Jesus explains that very clearly:

John 17: 20-23 (NRSV) I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . . that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 

I say “completely one” clearly includes doctrine. And being one as the three Divine Persons in the Trinity are one also must include uniformity of belief. It is as clear as the noon sun in a cloudless sky.

Again, you cannot escape the fact that there is no doctrinal diversity within the Triune God. How much clearer can anything get? Of course we will always fall short of that perfection as human beings, but at least we can maintain the concept to strive for. Evangelicals, however, simply chuck the concept and go to special pleading when it comes to “difficult” passages such as John 17, and try to pretend that doctrine is not at all in sight.

Jesus is concerned with the very heart of the gospel, and what will make it more presentable and believable to the pagan world. You want pluralism in doctrine; He wants us to be one as the Holy Trinity is one!!!!! There is no way out of this. Everyone knows that Protestantism has no such unity. I would say that it is literally impossible to achieve, given Protestant foundational premises. Your very premises force you to violate God’s express will for the unity of His Church. This is absolutely intolerable and unconscionable.

1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 . . . stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth, or by letter.

2 Thessalonians 3:6 . . . keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

Jude 3 . . . contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

1 Timothy 3:15 . . . the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me . . . guard the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 2:2 And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Galatians 1:9, 12 . . . If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed . . . For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

And this is assuredly not the truncated four-step evangelical “gospel” – it is the entire deposit of apostolic faith, as all the Pauline quotations above make clear. Jesus commanded His disciples to instruct new converts to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20; NRSV). Not the central doctrines, or TULIP, or the Creeds alone; no, EVERYTHING. God has to use division to teach us things, just as He uses any number of sins to teach a stubborn, prideful, rebellious human race. That doesn’t mean He countenances it in His perfect will. That will is expressed in John 17 and many other passages decrying disunity. In fact, Paul . . . states outright that because of abuses and divisions, he does not “commend” the Corinthians (11:17-18,22). He rebukes the same church in no uncertain terms for divisions in 1 Cor 1:10-13, 3:3 ff., 12:25, and 2 Cor 12:20. You have no case for such permissible doctrinal relativism, pure and simple.

VI. The Role of Conscience

This scandal of division — and it is a scandal in light of Christ’s desire for unity among his followers — is blamed on sola scriptura together with the doctrine of perspicuity. Instead of allowing the Church to be the authority using both Scripture and tradition, it is charged that perspicuity has elevated the individual conscience to a place of authority. “Protestant freedom of conscience is valued more than unity and the certainty of doctrinal truth in all matters (not just the core issues alone).” When this happens, there is no authority that can definitively decide what the proper interpretation of Scripture should be, and each seeker is left to his or her own devices to determine what the truth is. There is some truth to this allegation, but the fault is not with the doctrine of perspicuity in itself. In the first place, the phenomenon of multiple denominations cannot be attributed to only one cause after 2,000 years of Christian history in a world of over six billion people.

I don’t attribute it to one cause. There are indeed many causes: pride, contentiousness, stubbornness, nationalism, rebellion, inability to submit to authority, ignorance of the Bible and Christian history, exaggerated self-importance, rigorist, “puritanistic” impulses, pietism, alleged private revelations, delusions of grandeur (as in the case of many of the non-trinitarian “cults” founded by one person), anti-institutionalism, pragmatism, individualism (particularly American), the influence of foreign theological, philosophical, and cultural ideas, the influx of theological liberalism, the desire to follow a less stringent morality (especially in sexual and marital matters), etc. But it is foolish to deny that perspicuity itself is a cause, and a major one. It is the internal cause, the difference of formal principle which led to the split off of the main branch of Catholicism. Its very nature more or less makes inevitable that division will occur, even though it is not the sole cause of division.

Second, the doctrine of perspicuity is implicated only because of its misuse.

Hardly. It is certainly misused as well (i.e., by Protestant standards, as Carmen correctly points out). But one need only consistently apply it and it leads inexorably to further sectarianism, by its very nature (because it places final authority in the individual rather than in a corporate group).

Any Christian doctrine, when emphasized at the expense of other teachings of Scripture, can get out of balance and lead to excess.

Agreed, but I deny that we are talking about only “excesses.” The results flow consistently and inevitably as the logical outcome of the initial change of principle, basically introduced by Luther at Worms, but also to be found in many heretical and schismatic precedents throughout Church history.

Third, perspicuity does not enthrone the conscience to be the judge of truth. Conscience is designed by God to decide issues of morality, to know the difference between right and wrong behavior. The conscience does not judge Scripture. Scripture judges the conscience and brings it in line with the truth. It is because Scripture is clear that the conscience can be convicted of sin and brought to a state of repentance. A conscience guided by Scripture keeps the Christian walking on the path of holiness. Perspicuity and conscience are two separate issues.

This is a largely a distinction without a difference. Again, we are told that Scripture is clear, yet no unity can be found amongst Protestants. When all is said and done – despite all the high and noble rhetoric about Scripture as the ultimate judge and the nod to some sort of “Church” authority to which the Protestant is (in theory only) subjected -, it all breaks down in practice. The individual is supreme. He or she chooses, determines which denomination, which doctrine, which favorite expositor or radio preacher is best and wisest; and is the ultimate arbiter of true and false doctrine. This has been the case ever since Luther said “Here I stand,” in defiance of the Catholic Church, popes, Councils, and authoritative apostolic Tradition. He deigned himself free to reject whatever he deemed as corrupt, and he did so, and his followers and theological descendants (knowingly or otherwise) have been doing the same ever since. That fact cannot be overcome by abstractions and appeals to ideals which were never present from the beginning of the Protestant “experiment” and enterprise.

G. K. Chesterton, the great Catholic journalist and apologist, makes some interesting observations along these lines:

I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy . . . Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead . . . The two ideas of democracy and tradition . . . are the same idea. (Orthodoxy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1959 [orig. 1908], 47-48)

To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes . . . and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? . . .Nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution . . . But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion . . . This principle applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as to institutions, to convention as well as to conviction. (The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, 35-36)

VII. A Matter of Authority

The core of the disagreements over the doctrine of perspicuity lies with the issue of authority. Who is going to decide the correct interpretation of Scripture? The Catholic position is that the Church decides because of the authority given to the apostles and their successors. That authority is symbolized by one man, the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. In theory, there is a unified body of doctrine to which the faithful will ascribe.

I agree, and there is a unified body of doctrine which can be identified and historically traced back, as a consistent development for almost 2000 years.

The doctrine of perspicuity, together with the principle of sola scriptura, says that Scripture itself is the authority for the Church. Scripture judges the Church rather than the Church judging Scripture.

Scripture indeed does judge (and in a sense, help form) the Church; the Church does not judge the Scripture, it submits itself to it, and preserves the apostolic deposit of public revelation. Scripture and Tradition are of a piece: two sides of the same coin.

Christians have the ability to understand Scripture and discern whether the Church has been faithful to the Scriptures. The purpose is not for rebellion and lawless confusion but to keep the Church pure, both the individuals within and the body as a whole.

Here is the puritanistic, Donatist-like tendency I mentioned above. It has been the basis of all the rigorist sects throughout history. But schism (and usually an accompanying heresy) in the name of alleged “purity” is no worthy goal. The Church has always had sinners in it. There is always room for one more: the person who thinks he is morally superior and more pure – enough so that he must leave and form another “church.” Both sectarianism and the notion that believers can ever be corporately perfect are refuted in Scripture. This should come as no surprise to any Bible student. Protestants believe in original sin, just as Catholics do. 

In conclusion, I shall cite some penetrating observations by five Protestants who honestly admit that perspicuity is a highly flawed principle at best:


Perhaps the Reformers were somewhat naive in the way they isolated the apostolic witness, in their belief that they could determine this by simple reference to the Scriptures. They did not always realize how bound they were by their own past, their outlook on life, their schooling in philosophy, their personal predilections . . . History, liturgy, tradition, psychic make-up, the experiences of life color the interpretation of the Scripture. (Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity, New York: Meridian, 1959, 206)

Emphasis on ‘sola Scriptura’ has been the distinctive grandeur of Protestantism, but it has been the source of distinct misery as well. For it has often been based on the faulty assumption that it is possible to ‘leapfrog,’ as it were, over 1900 years of Christian history . . . The ‘leapfrog’ is doomed to failure on at least two counts: (a) it ignores the fact that people inevitably read the Bible in the light of a denominational or theological heritage, and (b) it ignores the fact that they read it in the light of their contemporary situation . . .

No one is trying to be dishonest. Everyone claims to be hearing the Word of God. But the indisputable fact of the matter is that . . . all read the same Scriptures and all hear different things.

Much of this may be due to faulty reading and faulty listening. But it cannot all be explained so simply. It can be explained only by recognizing honestly that Protestants do not rely on ‘sola Scriptura’ in quite the pure way that Reformation Sunday sermons would suggest. Recognition of this fact will be the beginning of its cure . . .

The mark of Protestant courage is . . . [the] willingness to subject not simply tradition, but our own tradition, to the destructive and healing power of Scripture . . . We can listen to the interpretations of Scripture that come from traditions other than our own . . . Denominational exegesis exists to be challenged. (Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, 215-216)

Evangelicals have long been at odds over the models they use in interpreting Scripture. Witness the differences between Calvinists and Wesleyans, pacifistic Mennonites and just-war Lutherans, or a Baptist and an Anglican such as Billy Graham and John Stott. In fact, all of us, in a way we often take for granted, view Scripture through a model, or pattern, that . . . governs our conclusions. (Robert Brow, “Evangelical Megashift,” Christianity Today, Feb. 19, 1990 [pp. 12-17], 12)

There is no one brand of ‘evangelical’ theology and there never has been, despite the myth generated by neofundamentalists in North America that there is a single orthodox type. There have always been Calvinist, Lutheran, and Wesleyan hermeneutics, to name but a few, with each group reading the Scriptures in the light of their traditional convictions. Evangelicals do not interpret the Bible with complete objectivity, whatever they may think. No one does. (Clark Pinnock, ibid., subtitle “The Arminian Option,” 15)

We evangelicals view the Bible through a particular model that organizes and expresses our view of the faith. That there are several, perhaps many, models of faith in the larger circle of Christianity, and in the various subcircles of evangelicalism, is obvious. (Robert Webber, ibid., subtitle “Out With the Old,” 16)

VIII. The Middle Ages: Catholicism as the Avowed Enemy of Scripture?


As long as allegorization remained the principle hermeneutic of the Church, Scripture could not be called “clear.” By the sixth century, the pattern was set for the Church to continue in that direction.

As Newman argued above, the orthodox Catholic viewpoint, in the patristic period and ever since, was to interpret Scripture both in a literal and mystical sense. Those who denied this tended towards heresy, as we saw in the sad case of the See of Antioch.

. . . Was it really fear of false doctrine that caused the Church to object to the Scriptures being in the hands of the laity? Undoubtedly there were some to whom this was a major consideration, for there were priests and bishops who were genuinely concerned for the spiritual welfare of their parishioners. For others, however, the nature of the objections suggests that there was also a fear of challenged authority. We must remember that at this time the Church’s power was not only religious but also political. Dissension within the ranks threatened stability. In the Church’s opposition to the population’s receiving and using Scripture, Church leaders revealed contempt for the populace and a guiding fear of challenged power . . .

The Council of Toulouse in 1229 explicitly forbade the laity from possessing the Scriptures in any language. Certain devotional books were permitted but only in Latin, not in translation.

We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or the New Testament; unless anyone from motives of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.

A church manual written in the 14th century by Jacopo Passavanti, a Dominican from Florence, explains another reason why Scripture is obscure. Simply stated, Scripture is not enough. Church tradition must be taught along with the basics of Scripture. The laity must receive their teaching from the Church in order to get the complete picture of what is necessary for salvation. Furthermore, there are limits regarding how deep their study of Scripture should go.

Each Christian is bound to have some knowledge of holy scripture, and each according to the state and condition and rank that he holds; for in one manner should the priest and guide of souls know it, and in another manner the master and doctor and preacher, those who ought to step down into the deep sea of scripture, and know and understand the hidden mysteries.And in yet another manner the laity and unlettered parish priests are bound to have it, to whom it is sufficient to know in general the ten commandments, the articles of the faith, the sacraments of the Church, the sins, and ecclesiastical ordinances, the doctrine of the holy gospel, as far as is necessary to their salvation, and as much as they hear from their rectors and the preachers of the scriptures and the faith, not searching them subtly, nor putting the foot down too deeply into the sea of scripture, which not all people can do, nor ought they to wish to scan it, because very
often one slips and drowns oneself in incautious and curious and vain researches. But each one ought to know, as much as befits his office, and the status which he holds.

In the Middle Ages, then, Scripture became obscure for several reasons, none of which had to do with its inherent nature:

1.The adoption of the allegorical method of interpretation by the Church to the near-exclusion of a literal hermeneutic.
2.The belief that the laity were unable and/or unworthy to comprehend the full meaning of Scripture, particularly without the aid of the Church and Tradition.
3.The Latin Vulgate’s remaining the official translation of the Scriptures long after Latin ceased to be the vernacular language.
4.The Church’s refusal in many instances to allow translations of the Scriptures into the vernacular. Translations that existed were not prepared with the blessing of the Church.

This is classic contra-Catholic rhetoric, repeated endlessly ever since the 16th century and very difficult to dislodge from the Protestant’s (or even secular person’s) mind. But it is an outrageously selective and thus ultimately deceiving (again, I don’t claim that this is deliberate, just misinformed) presentation. I have treated this whole subject of the Catholic Church’s reverence for, and attitude towards Scripture at some length, since it is supremely important and so vastly misunderstood, even by Protestant scholars, who ought to know better, to put it mildly.

IX. Postscript and Reiterations

[Additional observations in excerpts from personal correspondence with Carmen Bryant]

11 September 1999

I find that in this debate, Protestants and Catholics are often talking past each other (maybe you have observed that as well). E.g., we believe in the centrality of Scripture, as you do (being God’s inspired and infallible Revelation). We simply deny its exclusivity (i.e., its isolation from Church and Tradition – which we would argue that Scripture itself clearly includes within the parameters of Christian authority). There is no such thing as “Bible Alone” or even “Bible as the Ultimate and Exclusive Authority” because — we would say — Holy Scripture itself does not teach this (which makes it a self-defeating position).

I also believe that Scripture is — in the main — “clear”. My point (in my many website debates on this subject and related ones) has been that the Protestant belief of private judgment mitigates against this clarity, and leads to relativism and chaos, due to a faulty notion of authority and hermeneutics, excluding the Church and historical interpretation (I speak generally – I know you have done a good job of providing historical support for your views). Most Catholics I know also accept the material sufficiency of Scripture, just not its formal sufficiency.

So the two views are not as far apart as often supposed. But when Fathers are quoted with regard to Scripture, I doubt that you can find even one who will totally separate Scripture from Church authority and Tradition (in the sense of final authority, as in sola Scriptura proper). You will never find them teaching that the individual in his own conscience (a la Luther at Worms), with the help of the Holy Spirit, ultimately adjudicates biblical interpretation, over against apostolic succession and Tradition. That is, in my opinion, where they differ fundamentally from the Protestant approach, and support ours.

30 May 2000

It looks like you did an excellent job (as always). I commend you for your work and Christian commitment to your position. I can admire that even if I disagree with your overall point of view . . .

You have done excellent work and it deserves a response from someone who disagrees with it in part. Readers from both camps can benefit and learn from our exchange, I think. And I can certainly learn from you.

There are also more areas of agreement than you may suspect. In my own apologetic on this topic — as you probably know — I emphasize human sin and propensity to divide and disagree as contrary to a unified interpretation of Scripture, more so than the “unclearness” of Scripture itself. I have stated in my papers that I believe that the Bible is, by and large, clear, but that Church authority is needed to guarantee doctrinal unity.

So, in other words, I would move the discussion to the practical necessity of Church authority (as with, e.g., also the Canon), and the failure of Scripture Alone as a formal principle of authority. In a sense, then, I largely agree with you, but I immediately consider the practical consequences of such a view, given human fallibility and sin. But I think just saying “sin” does not adequately explain the Protestant situation and the (in my mind, apparent) failure of the principle of perspicuity. Scripture is unclear enough to require an authority (itself indicated and required in the same Scriptures) to maintain unified biblical teaching.

It’s almost as if the Protestant emphasis is on individual freedom and supremacy of conscience – even to the extent of “vetoing” ecumenical Councils and hundreds of years of doctrinal consensus, if needs be (Luther at Worms), while the Catholic is concerned with doctrinal unity and proper Church authority and the maintenance of passed-down apostolic Tradition.


Meta Description: In-depth discussion on how “perspicuous” or “clear” Holy Scripture is, and on factors of human bias in biblical interpretation.

Meta Keywords: Bible Only, perspicuity, Carmen Bryant, clearness of Scripture, biblical prooftexts, biblical theology, Christian Authority, exegesis, hermeneutics, Holy Bible, infallible authority, Rule of Faith, Sacred Scripture, Scripture Alone, Sola Scriptura  

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