What is the Perspicuity of Scripture-And is it Even Scriptural?

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Revisited some of my roots this morning at a local non-denominational church.  Praise and worship was a blast.  Even though I hadn’t sung these particular songs before, they were very easy to learn; and I felt a great peace praising God along with everyone.  What made it especially good was being able to pray alongside a good friend and his family – first time, after years of talking about our faith, that I had the chance to join him in prayer.

I had seen podcasts from the lead pastor and was looking forward to hearing him talk about how to read Scripture this morning.  I was curious – would he share elements of lectio divina?  Maybe talk about the four “senses” of Scripture?  Well, he didn’t really get into much of the how; but he did a tremendous job of stressing our need for God’s word in Scripture.  He made a great analogy, complete with the visual image of his hand in a crockpot, of how when a Christian who owns a Bible complains that God won’t speak to them, it is as humorous as a guy walking around with his hand stuck in a crockpot whining, “I’m starving!  Does anybody know where I can get some food?!” We were just chuggin’ along for a good half an hour when … the train suddenly veered  off the tracks – at least for me.  That was a couple of hours ago, and I’m still in a bit of a funk.  So what happened?

Ninety percent of what he shared was fantastic – Scripture is God-breathed (inspired), it is utterly trustworthy (inerrant), it dispels the darkness in our lives, speaks directly to the deepest needs of our hearts, and we shouldn’t stay away from it because we think it’s too difficult to understand.  But then he got to that final 10% where he said that what he was sharing went right back to the Reformation: the Catholic Church inserted itself between believers and the Bible, claiming that it couldn’t be understood unless she taught it to them.  Martin Luther put Scripture back where it belonged – in the hands of the people. (Quite a mis-characterization.)  He then expounded the “perspicuity” of Scripture, meaning that Scripture is clear in its meaning and a person does not need anything outside of Scripture – like a church – to understand it.

Now, this pastor was quick to offer qualifications:  Yes, there are very difficult passages, passages that made his “head hurt.”  He explained how we often need to consider this verse in relation to that verse in another book, etc.   And yes, there are denominational differences as to what various passages mean.  But, Scripture was perspicuous in the sense that “all orthodox Christians agree on the essentials.”  (With those qualifications, I would think that “perspicuity” has lost its meaning.)  Things aren’t exactly as smooth as he made it out to be in that last point either: yes we all believe in Jesus, but most denominations began precisely over disagreements as to what is, or is not, essential!  For instance:  What is Baptism?  Is it just a symbol, or does it actually wash away our sins and make us Christians?

It also seems to me that the work this gentleman engages in Sunday after Sunday argues against his claim:  What need would there be for him to lead people through different books of the Bible, drawing their attention to certain passages and explaining what it means? Not to put too fine of a point on it, but if Scripture really is perspicuous, then he should be out of a job.

There are other problems with the “perspicuity of Scripture” (like the fact that everyone I know reads the Bible not in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in which God inspired it, but in English – making us dependent upon other human beings [the Church?] to interpret it for us), but what is probably most disastrous for the pastor’s claim is how the Bible actually denies its perspicuity!  Where, you ask?  Lets start in the Book of Acts.

The Holy Spirit had Philip run up alongside the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch who had just been in Jerusalem worshiping:

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,

and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,

so he did not open his mouth.

In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.

Who can speak of his descendants?

For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”  Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.  (Acts 8:30-35)

It obviously wasn’t clear to this visitor to Jerusalem that Isaiah was referring to the recently executed rabbi, Jesus.  It was the Holy Spirit’s intention that Philip, ordained by the Apostles (Acts 6:5-7), explain it to him!

A person who holds to the perspicuity of Scripture would surely object, “But Shane, that Ethiopian eunuch had not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We have, and so when we read Scripture, the Holy Spirit gives us understanding.”  If that is true, then explain this passage written by St. Peter regarding other Christians’ misunderstanding of Scripture:

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.” (2 Peter 3:15-17)

Peter is talking about things in Paul’s “letters” – our New Testament – that Christians, people who have received the Holy Spirit, find hard to understand and can distort to their own destruction!  The “perspicuity” of Scripture doesn’t sound scriptural to me.  And to circle back around to this morning’s pastor and his mention of Luther and the Reformation:  Luther launched his “theological revolution” on his interpretation of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – the very part of the New Testament that Peter warned us can be “hard to understand” and open to distortion!  Eerie, no?

What this morning’s pastor also failed to mention was how the Reformers removed seven books from the Old Testament and how Luther considered the New Testament’s Hebrews, James, Jude, and The Book of Revelation inferior to the other books of the NT, and placed them in an appendix.  In Luther’s 1522 German translation he described The Epistle of James as “an epistle of straw.” “It is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works [2:24]…this epistle is not the work of any apostle.”[1] Of The Book of Revelation he wrote, “I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it…let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book…I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.”[2] Thanks be to God that the thought of the other Reformers prevailed and these books were retained on an equal footing with the rest of the New Testament.

Claims about the perspicuity of Scripture and the claim that the Holy Spirit has promised to guide each person’s private readings of the Bible do not stand up – not even in the day-to-day practice of those who make them.  Later in life, Luther lamented those who believed themselves to “understand the [Gospel] better than I or St. Paul; they are now wise and think themselves more learned than all the ministers … there is no smearer but whenever he has heard a sermon or can read a chapter in German, makes a doctor of himself … and convinces himself that he knows everything better than all who teach him.”[3]

How do we know if our interpretation is wrong?  If it contradicts the teaching of the Church, who the Bible calls the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15), then our interpretation is off the mark.There is no tension between the Bible and the Church.

  • Her popes and bishops were the ones who proclaimed which 27 books had to be recognized as forming the New Testament.
  • Up until Luther’s day, and far beyond, when the vast majority of the world was illiterate,people’s only way to learn God’s written word was through the Church’s preaching.
  • When the Reformers removed books from the Bible, the Church reaffirmed her faith in them.
  • The Catholic Church has four Scripture readings at every Mass.
  • Through her popes and councils, she has begged her children to read it privately.

But what the Church also proclaims is exactly what the Bible itself says (much more here): that it was written by members of the Church, is in complete agreement with the teachings of the Church, and will only be fully understood when read in full communion with the Church.  (Jesus set it up this way; He wants His word read within the Family.)  The perspicuity of Scripture? It is, ironically, unscriptural, and was not believed for the first 1500 years of Christianity.

It excites me when I hear a young, dynamic preacher, full of love for God’s written word; but saddens me to hear him mix truth with potentially damaging error.  (It’s like listening to a personal trainer psych people up to become runners, yet slip in a plug for smoking.  It will keep them from being the best runners they can be … and possibly seriously harm them.)

I am thrilled that God is making use of this gentleman to get people started in reading His word.  I know he is sincere.  Please join me in praying that God allows him and his church’s members to see all that He has placed in the pages of the Bible:

  • the Church’s role in explaining Scripture and safe-guarding against misunderstanding
  • the Sacraments – especially the Eucharist
  • Our Mother Mary and the Communion of Saints
  • the interior life

These are treasures that God wants to give all His children.  Pray that the Holy Spirit sows questions in their hearts:

  • How did God get this Book to me?
  • Who did He use to write its “Table of Contents” (the canon of Scripture)?
  • He wouldn’t have given us this Book without providing a way to guarantee that we understand it correctly – so what is that way?

Going back to my non-denominational days was good, and praying with my friend beyond excellent.  And, as sad as I may have been at the end of the pastor’s sermon, he reminded me of all the scriptural and historical truths and spiritual treasures the Lord allowed me to discover … and how those convinced me to hop the train back home to the Catholic Church.

 

This article originally appeared at <https://justacatholic.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-perspicuity-of-scripture-is-it.html>.  It is reprinted here with permission of the author.  Read more at https://justacatholic.blogspot.com/

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