Thursday, September 13, 2007

The perspicuity (clarity) of Sacred Scripture.

An interesting dialogue (at least to me) is currently taking place between James White, and three bloggers at . The opening salvos are found here:

These precipitated the following related threads:

I know, a lot of reading, but I hope a few readers will take the time to peruse through the material, for the ongoing discussion raises numerous unresolved issues within the Protestant paradigm. For now, I am going to explore but one of those issues: the perspicuity (clarity) of Sacred Scripture.

In the last thread I listed above, James states:

Meanwhile, so many of these same folks will inconsistently sow seeds of doubt as to the perspecuity of Scripture, the clarity of the gospel, and any number of other issues all in the name of “catholicity.” While I will never stop decrying the soul-crushing slavery of Roman religion, I have no interest at all in wasting any more time with those who think it enjoyable to sit in their comfy personal libraries while lobbing off literary artillery shells at those on the front lines. (James R. White - .)

Putting aside for the moment James’ caustic style of writing, I am truly wondering how he can seriously maintain “the perspecuity of Scripture” in light of the incredible divisions among those who espouse sola scriptura. A fellow Baptist had some very interesting observations on this issue:

The Reformation principle was not private judgment but the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Scripture was ‘sui ipsius interpres’ and the simple principle of interpreting individual passages by the whole was to lead to unanimity in understanding…It was this belief in the clarity of Scripture that made the early disputes between so fierce. This theory seemed plausible while the majority of Protestants held to Lutheran or Calvinist orthodoxy but the seventeenth century saw the beginning of the erosion of these monopolies…By the end of the seventeenth century many others saw that it was not possible on the basis of Scripture alone to build up a detailed orthodoxy commanding general consent…In the next century birth was given to a movement of evangelicalism which was fervently orthodox but which extended the field of non-essentials wider than the Reformers. This tendency has continued to the present day when the various evangelical confessions of faith are all note-worthy for their extreme brevity. Evangelicalism has retained a belief in the perspicuity of Scripture but confined it to a fairly narrow area of basic doctrine. (A.N.S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey”, Vox Evangelica, Volume IX – 1975, pp. 44, 45.)

IMHO, the doctrine of the “perspicuity of the Scriptures” has died the ‘death of a thousand qualifications.’

As for “the clarity of the gospel”, James seems to ignore the seemly insurmountable historical difficulties that such a position raises (see the following thread for some discussion on this: ).

Once again, it is a mystery to me as to how someone can maintain “the clarity” of any doctrine (in this case “the gospel”) which was essentially lost to the world for nearly 1500 years until “the Reformers discovered” it.

I am sincerely pondering in my mind the question: have I missed something?

Grace and peace,



Interlocutor said...

Are the magisterial and papal documents throughout the centuries perspicuous? Are there not many scholars and works devoted to explaining and clarifying and harmonizing these documents for Catholics? Can Catholics even agree on what is infallible (and therefore binding) teaching? Certain RC dogmas were not binding on the faithful for even more than 1500 years in RCism, but apparently that is not a problem from your end.
Yes, tu quoque is not a solid argument for the Protestant position, but the alternative you present must be investigated as well to see if it is found wanting on the same grounds.

Rory McKenzie said...

Hi Interlocutor,

If I understand correctly you acknowledge David's major contention, that the Scriptures alone do not clearly resolve doctrinal controversies, but you are concerned about whether becoming Catholic, one has the same problem once removed: "Are the magisterial and papal documents throughout the centuries perspicuous?"

Regarding the resolution of any particular doctrinal controversy, the Catholic Church can and has issued clear statements which address questions as they arise. For that matter, Protestants have issued clear statements in the same way such as the Westminster Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, or the Augsburg Confession which offer clear outlines of what is believed.

To argue that the Scriptures cannot do what creedal formulations by Protestants and Catholics can do is no criticism of Scripture. It is to acknowledge the lesson presented to Christianity at first through the lesson of the Ethiopian eunuch, and in the post-apostolic age as history repeatedly shows how the same words of Scripture can be rationally interpreted in different ways, making Scripture alone an inadequate arbiter of doctrinal controversy.

This view of the situation allows Christians who differ on the meaning of Scripture to recognize that the opposition side is in possession of full mental faculties and has good intent. This is important if steps are to be made toward unified resolution on a question. If Scripture alone is clear regarding most or all doctrinal controversies, what good reason could there be for dispute? The opposing party becomes either mentally impaired or worse, having an agenda founded in ill will toward God's truth. They become stupid, evil, or both.

Perceiving that Scripture alone can lead persons of sound mind and good will astray, one realizes that the Scripture cannot be the battle ground. Resolution of difficulties must be met some other way. Only if a non-Catholic/Orthodox Christian reaches this point, does the idea of learning about how the authority of apostolic tradition can be an aid seem reasonable.

Certainly we can still argue about what the Fathers wrote also. But even if not all of their writings are clear either, one can get strong clues as to practices and teachings in the early church. If a study of the Fathers leads someone to join the Baptist church so be it. I do not think such a step is likely, however, I would welcome any Protestant doing so because the biggest loggerhead we encounter with each other is over the question of the authority of Scripture alone. To become Baptist because of one's understanding of apostolic tradition is quite frankly, to be more a Catholic than a Baptist anyway!


David Waltz said...

Hi Interlocutor,

Thanks for responding. Rory has already addressed some key aspects your post, so my response shall be somewhat of a supplement. You wrote:

>>Can Catholics even agree on what is infallible (and therefore binding) teaching?>>

Me: All “true” Catholics agree that when the Ecumenical Councils define doctrines, which pertain to faith and morals, such definitions are infallible. But concerning exactly which Papal pronouncements were/are in fact ex cathedra, there does exist some differing opinions.

>>Certain RC dogmas were not binding on the faithful for even more than 1500 years in RCism, but apparently that is not a problem from your end.>>

Me: Since you already understand the importance of doctrinal development, I will not explain in detail how the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, Atonement, et al. arrived at their fully defined forms. The only point I would like to make at this time is simply that once they were officially defined, they needed to be accepted by the faithful.

>>Yes, tu quoque is not a solid argument for the Protestant position, but the alternative you present must be investigated as well to see if it is found wanting on the same grounds.>>

Me: Here is the most important difference between the Catholic and Protestant positions: Catholic development takes place within a clearly defined historical paradigm (i.e. Ecumenical Councils), whereas the developments of the Reformers took off on clearly separate trajectories; they rejected the formally defined doctrines of Trent, becoming in essence what the Arians were in the 4th century—heretics. Arius and his followers were just as convinced as Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli that Scripture was on their side, that the Catholic Church’s formally defined definitions at Nicea were in error.

As soon as one jettisons the historical underpinnings of Catholic Church, the door swings wide open for countless “Bible only” interpretations, with each respective interpreter fully convinced that is his/her interpretation is truly the “Biblical” one.

Grace and peace,


Albert said...

Can we not apply the same standard to Roman Catholic authority? There are divergent interpretations of Roman Catholic pronouncements. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church has historically held that there is no salvation outside the church. This is something that should be understood in context. It was proclaimed with other religions in mind. Yet, the people of post-Vatican Council II Roman Catholic church says that non-Roman Catholics can now be saved. Of course, not all Roman Catholics believe this. That's why we have Gerry Matatics and his sedevacantist army to oppose this novel and a-historical understanding of Roman Catholic salvation.

David Waltz said...

Hello Albert,

I certainly hope that I have not given the impression that ALL doctrine has been fully developed and clarified within the Catholic paradigm, for this is certainly not the case. Further, it is very important to point out that many “tares” exist among the “wheat” within the Catholic communion. On thses two important points, Catholicism does not differ from our separated Protestant brothers.

Yet with that said, an important distinction does exist: Catholics believe that many important doctrines have been clearly, and formally settled for the faithful via the gift of infallibility provided by the Holy Spirit. Our official creeds and decrees are not just ‘maybe(s)’; they contain many defined, clear, undeniable truths. A few of those clear/developed truths include: the Trinity, hypostatic union of God the Son in two complete natures, baptismal regeneration, real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist (both natures); threefold ministry; apostolic succession…

However, in theory, no doctrinal development within the Protestant is infallible; as such, even the doctrine of the Trinity could be in error—the very essence of the doctrine of sola scriptura demands such a view.

In ending, I do not wish to diminish the fact of current controversy within the Catholic Church concerning some doctrines; but I submit, that unlike our separated Protestant brothers, there exists within our paradigm a definitive vehicle by which the Holy Spirit can clearly settle any controversy (though, of course, within His time frame, not ours).

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Just moments ago, I came across three threads at Byron Cross’ Principium Unitatis (HERE; HERE; and HERE) that are must reads for anyone interested in some of the important issues concerning SOLA SCRIPTURA.

Grace and peace,