Dialogues on the Perspicuity (Clearness) of Scripture

This is a series of dialogues with several evangelical Protestants, from public online lists. Their words are in blue):

By 1577, the book 200 Interpretations of the Words, "This is My Body" was published at Ingolstadt, Germany. This is the fruit of perspicuity, and it was quick to appear.

The Protestant position didn't lead to more variety in interpretations so much as it led to people believing that they could trust their interpretations (to one degree or another) without restraint.

This is a distinction without a difference. If anything, the latter scenario is even worse, since it introduces the notion of no "restraint."

So what you are really talking about here is not so much the perspicuity of Scripture as the implications of the perspicuity of Scripture for ecclesiology.

Well, yes: the two are indeed inextricably linked, since your sola Scriptura and perspicuity principles are meant as a substitute for our Tradition/Church/papacy. The conclusion is inescapable: either biblical perspicuity is a falsehood or one or more of the doctrines of [a list] are not central.

The element in the argument you are missing is the wild card good will. (Or, as I like to call it, the "you've got a wicked heart" fallacy.) You see, if 10,000 people misinterpret the Bible, you can't automatically assume it's the Bible's fault. Maybe the 10,000 people are just plain ornery and wicked. [The 9th and 10th amendments to the U.S. Constitution are pretty clear, but the entire modern judicial system has completely trampled on them. Sometimes clarity is not enough to counteract preformed opinions!] You simply can't rule out that people misuse the Scriptures.

Ah, the "sin" card. Let's play this card out a bit and be pragmatic about the issue for a little while. OK: Luther & Wesley (and you?) believe in baptismal regeneration, but Calvin and Reformed and Baptists and most evangelicals today do not. Now, is this difference due to the wickedness of Luther or Wesley, or those on the other side? Why choose sides in the matter of personal wickedness in the first place? It's much easier and more reasonable to believe that the Scripture simply isn't clear enough for men to find the truth and agree with each other, whether on this doctrinal issue, or a host of others. The problem isn't that "the other guy is blinded by sin....", it is that we all are blinded by original sin and are thus incapable of establishing a real unity without a central organizing impetus in the Church.

There is a good reason why the chaos which was to prevail within Protestantism was already evident within its first generation, with Luther calling Zwingli and Oecolampadius "damned" and "out of the Church" for denying the Real Presence and Calvin calling Luther an idolater and "half-papist" for retaining it, along with the Adoration of the Host. Why is it so hard to see that "ideas have consequences?"

If this is so -- if the Scriptures are clear but wicked men distort them -you might ask what good that is. Indeed. Obviously there has to be some method to make sure the right people are interpreting the Scriptures according to the right methods, and once again that leads us to ecclesiology. The trouble is not the doctrine, whether sola scriptura or the perspicuity of Scripture, the trouble is how that doctrine is applied to Protestant ecclesiology.

Again, by their very nature, sola Scriptura and perspicuity were designed as a desperate counter to the Church, Councils, the pope, and binding, dogmatic tradition. Luther made this inevitable once he admitted (under fire) that popes and Councils could and did err (on serious doctrinal matters). All he had to fall back on was the Scripture, and the myth that any "plowboy" could understand it sufficiently without the necessary aid of an authoritative Church (later, of course, after the bitter experience of the Peasants' Revolt, Luther went the other route, and chose caesaro-papism over the primacy of individual conscience). The notion of perspicuity will always be applied wrongly because it is fundamentally flawed, as it is intrinsically opposed to ecclesiological authority. But sola Scriptura and perspicuity are Protestantism's authority principle, when all is said and done, its rule of faith and formal principle. So your separation of the abstract concepts of sola Scriptura/perspicuity and applied ecclesiology is again a distinction without a difference.

Abstract principles in isolation are simply philosophical constructs. As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, and its corollary, the Body of Christ, the Church. The Logos took on flesh. Protestants can play around with concepts and pipe-dreams about what the "ideal" church should be, etc., but in the meantime we have a dying world out there, with millions of individuals who long for certainty and truth in spiritual matters. Your argument reminds me of the Marxist polemic: a real Marxist, socialist society never existed, so it seems, from listening to them, but there is always one around the corner. In other words, the truth claim is never allowed to be tested by reality. Likewise, you want to have your cake and eat it, too. Nothing is admitted to be a disproof of perspicuity. What will it take? We now have 24,000 denominations, by official estimates. What if the number were ten times bigger: 240,000? Would you then consider questioning the root assumptions which produced such a tragic state of affairs?

If Protestants had maintained at least an appearance of unity, like the 17 or so competing, often feuding Orthodox churches, their case might have had a shred of plausibility, but as it is, how can anyone take seriously the extraordinary claim that Scripture is indeed clear, but sinful men distort it, and so we have the resultant chaos? So you have the problem of falsifiability and credibility.

I think the affirmations that Scripture is the only infallible rule and that the scriptures are clear enough are not the problem-- the problem is the way those ideas were applied, particularly on a personal rather than a corporate level. It was (and is) the emphasis on the individual as an authority unto himself, divorced from the church, that caused the trouble, not sola scriptura or the perspicuity of Scripture.

Again, you can't see how your principles and the behavior which they produced are intimately, causally related. Let's grant for a moment that you are right. Okay, now, if perspicuity is indeed true, then somebody has to come up with the true scriptural interpretation (which is already curious if only a few "get it"). Who, then, is this group which has correctly grasped this mythical "clear" meaning of the Bible? Is it your own Lutheran Church (but what Synod?)? Is it the Anglicans, who ordain women? If so, their views on baptismal regeneration, the Real Presence, and Arminianism are anathema to many evangelical folks. So, if the Lutherans figure this out, but the vast majority of Protestants do not, what becomes of your first premises?

And, even more importantly, what becomes of truth itself? How does one find it within Protestantism, and why should a newcomer accept it? A person can accept Catholicism, on the other hand, because we have an unbroken, consistent, apostolic Tradition going all the way back, and a visible means of authority, discipline, and the determination of true theology.

In conclusion, it seems to me that there is no way out of this dilemma for Protestants. Either sola Scriptura and perspicuity in fact don't work (in their application, as you put it, but I've argued that this amounts to the failure of the complete system), or else it "works" among those who are the elite, the initiate, the "real" Christians who have succeeded in grasping the fundamental truth of Scripture as every "plowboy" supposedly can, while the vast majority of the rest of Protestants have failed in their understanding and application of one of their two pillars. I don't see that either option is a viable one. I think your own impulses lead you logically and "ecclesiologically" to the Catholic Church. Many of us former evangelicals have taken that course for precisely this reason, because only in the Catholic Church could our highest spiritual aspirations be met, not in concept only, but tangibly, concretely, incarnationally; in reality.

I would say that ultimate epistemological justification for the Protestant is not attainable For people still can (and assuredly do) disagree on the basis of alternate scriptural interpretations. They use different hermeneutics, different supporting proof texts, argue variously from the Greek and Hebrew, see Church history from yet another angle, etc.

Critique of perspicuity among Protestants is not unheard-of. G.C. Berkouwer, e.g., raises many of these same points (Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975, pp.268-71,286) and discusses them freely and honestly. The problem remains in full force, since contradictory "Christianities" continue to be tolerated by Protestantism, under the guise of the primary/secondary distinction which I have also critiqued. That being the case, the following questions are still unanswered (and - as I contend - unanswerable, given the presuppositions):

I suppose here I have to fall back on "Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind." The individual does have an intellectual responsibility to choose between these positions sometimes (though I think this responsibility exists more rarely than most theologians would say). However, by the same token, as these are important decisions, it is irresponsible to take them lightly; we must exert the wisdom God has given us on the information God makes available to us (far more in this age than in any previous one), and make a considered judgement, not a whimsical one. Part of the information is clearly the sensus fidei, but I wouldn't consider this in itself authoritative - rightly or wrongly.

This is well and good as far as it goes (it is very similar to the way I thought as a Protestant), but the problem as I see it is that it cannot possibly achieve (as has been proven by history) the strict oneness which Paul talks about and for which Jesus prayed at the Last Supper (John 17). It will - broadly speaking - produce a "mere Christianity," but the problem is, "mere Christianity" is not the Christianity described in the Bible. Much as I admire Lewis (he is my favorite author), this is only the basis for a solid ecumenism, not apostolic, full-bodied Christianity as a set of doctrines, theological and ethical (see, e.g., Mt 28:20 {emphasis on "everything" or "all"}, 1 Cor 11:2, Gal 1:9,12, 1 Thess 2:13, 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6, 2 Tim 2:2, Jude 3). Therefore, Catholics feel that a fully authoritative apostolic Tradition (not just a respectful non-binding acceptance and consideration of precedent) is necessary in order to be faithful to the biblical witness, which itself points to such a regula fidei (in the above passages).

Most Protestants would say "yes" to apostolic, "no" to present throughout Church history.

I find that view utterly implausible, as well as contrary to verses such as Mt 16:18. And that is one reason among many why I consider the position of anti-Catholicism intrinsically absurd and self-defeating. I know you're not anti-Catholic; I'm just throwing that in at no extra charge, for others who are! :-)

I still find the idea that the Catholic Church has faithfully retained (and under God's guidance developed) the apostolic message at every point for the last two millenia (nearly) a tough one to swallow.

So did I (believe me), until I read Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I continue to maintain as a maxim that no Protestant can hope to ever understand Catholicism without understanding development, preferably Newman's classic treatment of it (at the very least a summary of same, such as I have produced).

God was apparently silent for 300 years between Malachi and John the Baptist. Why? I don't know. Why did it take him however long it was between Adam and Abraham to call the founder of a new nation which would be faithful to him?

But Adam to Abraham were the beginnings of revelation and salvation history. Surely that is not analogous to the situation in the post-Christ, "Church Age"?! Also, divine or prophetic silence is not the same thing as the loss of true doctrine and/or true followers of YHWH/Judaism/Christianity. There was always a remnant, and in the latter period, the knowledge of the Bible (Old Testament) and true Jewish doctrine was always preserved. Whereas, in the prevailing Protestant notion of Church history, there was a 1500-year virtual loss of both doctrine and practice for almost all of the Protestant distinctives (esp. sola Scriptura and sola fide). That this should or would be the case is to me utterly unfeasible and impausible and not credible. For that reason I never denied that Catholicism was fully Christian before I converted, because I knew these insuperable difficulties would follow. I held to a view similar to Schaff's, in which Protestantism was an organic debvelopment of Catholicism (it sort of "picked up the baton" at the "Reformation" and became the new orthodoxy, so to speak). Newman and my study of the "Reformation" blew this out of the water.

Why did it take so long from Abraham to Christ? He has his own timing,

Exactly. But you are talking about timing, not virtual loss of previous knowledge.

and his people have certainly been apostate for much more time than they've been faithful, whichever way you count the centuries up to the Reformation! :-}

Again, the OT idea of the "remnant" overcomes this objection. It seems the only "Protestant remnants" Protestants point to are Gnostics like the Albigensians, etc. The Church stood, and maintained orthodoxy, despite several very rocky periods. And it was the same Catholic Church to which I proudly belong today.

God acts in history; this is part of the distinctiveness of Christianity. And this doesn't in and of itself imply that he will always act to keep his people faithful, generation to generation.

He will preserve his Church, if not all people (due to free will): Mt 16:18, 1 Tim 3:15.

Why is true doctrine so rare today (anyone, regardless of what they regard as true doctrine, would be forced to admit this)?

Well, for one thing, because the Protestant enshrined principle of individualism and sola Scriptura has wreaked havoc on both Christian certainty and unity. This is my point: you guys can't achieve spiritual and theological certainty, by virtue of your very foundational premises, whereas at least we take a stand on that, agree or disagree. The difference in our case is that we can trace ourselves back through apostolic succession (and "doctrinal succession," i.e., development) to the Apostles and Jesus. This was the methodology of the Fathers in confronting heresy, and it is totally consonant with the Bible.

We blame it on human sinfulness. Of course, when we're leaving we say the ones staying are sinful, and vice versa! :-}

:-) Sinful it surely is. We all largely agree on that much, methinks!

I think many Protestants would, like me, consider some issues serious enough to "separate" over in the sense that we disagree profoundly enough not to have weekly close fellowship, while not denying salvation to the people we are separated from - as indeed seems to be your position, and seems to be what you have asked for from others. I left a charismatic church, not because I thought the people in it were condemned to hell, but because we had serious enough theological differences that we got on each other's nerves. We still accept each other as brothers in Christ. I have lots of friends (and, indeed, a brother of the flesh) who I wouldn't want to live with.

Yes, I can go to another church within Catholicism! :-) But the beliefs are the same and we all concur on those (liberals who deny Catholic dogmas are simply Protestant in principle and have forsaken the Catholic ethos). The problem here is that the Protestant solution for maintaining "orthodoxy" (which itself is a sham concept without authoritative Tradition) produces at the same time disunity and division. We are accused of giving up truth for the sake of unity, but then we could say that you give up unity for the sake of truth. The Bible commands us to maintain both, and I think the Catholic Church has.

"Unclear" in the sense that it doesn't unequivocally say "you must baptise only adults" or, on the other hand, "you may baptise infants". It leaves the question open.

I don't think so. I think that it takes a position, but that it is not sufficiently clear in human terms for a consensus to be reached (by the way, I believed in adult baptism myself as an evangelical, and thought it "clear" in Scripture). Thus, we appeal to Tradition which favors infant regenerative baptism. A case in point, since you are admitting in effect that this is a counter-example to the "perspicuity" principle. One of many, of course . . .

Different groups come to different conclusions based on indirect evidence in the Scriptures.

Hence the problem I address.

In my humble opinion, this dilemma is insuperable. I myself used to suggest a combination of the sin and denominational bias explanations, but this is clearly inadequate when one observes equally vigorous, reasoned (self-proclaimed "biblical") viewpoints which nevertheless contradict each other (e.g., Hodge vs. Strong on baptism, or Whitefield vs. Wesley on Predestination). Thus, I believe that the principle of perspicuity (at least as stated by Luther) is untrue. Some authoritative Tradition must be appealed to at some point of this process, and indeed, even sola Scriptura is wholly dependent on the prior assumption of the correct Canon of Scripture, which was of course necessarily verified (not determined in the full sense of the word) by Tradition and authoritative Church Councils.

I would say, by the sensus fidei - a difference of focus which is quite significant.

But what of the sensus fidei from 100-1500, which overwhelmingly and unarguably supports the Catholic viewpoint?

A great conversation! I appreciate you taking the time to answer my post very honestly, intelligently, and in-depth. We disagree, but I have the highest respect for your Christian integrity and charitable, ecumenical attitude, and the fact that you have obviously thoroughly thought this issue through.

The following exchanges with three different evangelical Protestants took place on R.C. Sproul's bulletin board in June 1998. My debate opponents (words in blue) were responding to my papers The Perspicuity (Clearness) of Scripture and Fictional Dialogue on Sola Scriptura. These are my counter-replies.

Straw Men? Give me a Real Man, Then!

Your imaginary conversation is nothing but a straw man. It does not address the best Evangelical arguments.

Very well, then, why don't you give these "best" arguments and play the other side in my fictional debate, and I will interact with you. I think it would be fun, and a learning experience for both of us, and for anyone who reads this stuff.

Perspicuity does not mean absolute precision.

I never said it did, to my knowledge. I have argued that the Protestant position of perspicuity is unworthy of belief, based on the self-description of this belief. E.g., Scripture is supposedly "clear" in its essentials, yet there are five Protestant camps on baptism, etc. The "sin argument" (for the "other guys" who differ) is trite and silly and desperate. This is a real problem, and I think any reflective Protestant knows it full well.

I, for one, do not claim that all my understandings are superior to all other Christians.

Sure; yet you believe your position is the true one (I assume). I want to know how a Protestant comes to that conclusion non-arbitrarily.

A healthy dose of humility should be prescribed on all sides of this debate. The ultimate theology class will be held in the New Jerusalem (not Rome).

I agree.

But beyond that, your argument does nothing to bolster the claims of Catholic authority. It merely laments reality.

Yes, because it is a critique of your position, not a presentation of mine. I have many more papers which do that! :-) But I can't seem to find a Protestant who will seriously interact with this critique of mine. Maybe someone here will.

In the end, Catholic claims of authority must rest on premises or presuppositions.

Yes, as all epistemological claims do, including religious claims. But there are good and bad presuppositions, of course.

These are, indeed, subject to some form of reality testing (internal consistency, etc.) but they are necessarily unprovable a priori.

You can't prove something which requires faith absolutely, by definition. You can much more easily disprove it by showing its contradictory or self-defeating nature. That's what I try to do with sola Scriptura and perspicuity.

These a prioris could be subject to the same kind of analysis, but that would not disprove them, either. With the measure ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

One must compare various Christian traditions and see which one has consistently and continuosly developed throughout Church history (i.e., assuming one values history and/or apostolic succession; the preservation of the apostolic deposit, etc.), and which is more consistent with the biblical text. I say Catholicism wins hands down - no contest.

"Non-Arbitrary" Tradition

Cyprian says that the church had received from the apostles the direction that bishops be ordained in the presence of, and with the consent of, the people over whom they were appointed.

This would be an example - I believe - of a discipline, as opposed to dogma. E.g., the way the pope was elected changed, but there was always a pope. Secondly, one can find Church Fathers who disagree with the received (Catholic) Tradition on any given subject. Fathers are not infallible. If the great majority of them agree on something, then that is synonymous with Catholic Tradition.

St. Basil said, among other odd things, that apostolic tradition called for facing east during prayer. Rome has not regarded either of these traditions as Tradition.

Ditto. This proves nothing one way or the other with regard to my post and the arguments therein.

So, by what non-arbitrary means did Rome decide that these particular traditions are not Tradition?

By the normal conciliar processes, as ultimately presided over and/or ratified by the pope. Councils were normative for deciding doctrinal controversies. We see this in the Bible itself, in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).

You want to make it sound as if Rome follows all the traditions,

No, just the apostolic ones. :-)

while we Protestants pick and choose. You know that's not true.

How does one account for the myriads of Protestant competing views, then? How is that not "picking and choosing?" What am I missing here?

You may try to fall back on the idea that an infallible church has culled Tradition out of the various traditions,

I would . . .

but that wouldn't be fair. The vast majority of traditions from the early church have not been ruled on by any allegedly infallible council.

Then obviously those traditions are neither binding nor infallible. Most beliefs were decided upon in Council, including many that Protestants hold dear (e.g., the Canon of Scripture, except for seven books which Protestants later threw out).

No matter how you slice it, Rome "picks and chooses" among its traditions too, and not all these selections fall neatly under the alleged charism of infallibility.

I agree. But - as I said in another board response today - we have the authority (passed down through apostolic succession, especially through the popes) and the consistent history. You guys don't. Any Protestant position requires a radical discontinuity with the Fathers, the early Church in general, and subsequent Church history up to 1517. This is a large reason why I became a Catholic. Once I learned that the early Church was not Protestant by any stretch of the imagination, and that the foundational "Reformation" doctrines were "theological nova" (as Alister McGrath described sola fide), I underwent a paradigm shift.

{see my detailed "theological conversion story" for details}

Both groups pick and choose in what you have characterized as an "arbitrary" fashion.

I agree that they choose, but that is beside the point. Our choosing is not arbitrary, nor is it in violation of what has come before (what Cardinal Newman would call a doctrinal "corruption" rather than a legitimate development) because it is continuous and can be traced back. Yours (any Protestant variety) cannot. Rome was always orthodox through history, whether it was concerning the Arians, Monophysites, iconoclasts - you name it. And, of course, I contend that our views are much more in line with Holy Scripture. That's what my website is about.

You are welcome to play the Protestant in my fictional dialogue and give better answers, too! :-) I would welcome that opportunity to reveal the ultimate bankruptcy of all Protestant attempts to establish apostolicity and binding authority (not to mention certainty and practical infallibility) apart from the God-given authority of the papacy and the Roman See.

Catholics Have the Apostolic Authority

I'd say Roman Catholics also pick and choose which traditions they prefer. They picked and chose the Roman Catholic tradition over all others. Where's the distinction?

See my replies above.

Protestants also accept Church authority.

You guys claim to follow the early Church. On what? Baptism? Many (probably most) Protestants reject baptismal regeneration, which was the well-nigh unanimous view of the Fathers. Most reject infused justification, which was also virtually unanimous in the early Church. Same thing for a symbolic Eucharist, where the Zwinglian view and the Calvinist to a somewhat lesser extent, were corruptions of, and radical discontinuities from continuous apostolic Catholic Tradition of Real Presence in the Eucharist. My point stands: you guys pick and choose, and it is arbitrary, because you have neither the authority nor the historical pedigree for your claims (where they differ from ours) to have any credibility or binding force.

Read any of the Reformation creeds and confessions. Check out what John Calvin says about the Church in Institutes.

They contradict each other. This is my point. I never denied that Protestants had authority in some limited, qualified fashion. I have simply said that it (whatever version one arbitrarily chooses) is arbitrary and unable to be substantiated from Church history or Scripture. Even within conservative Presbyterianism alone, you have R.C. Sproul extolling St. Thomas Aquinas and Francis Schaeffer excoriating him (as Sproul discussed on his excellent radio show yesterday). Luther had some choice words for Aquinas and the Scholastics, as well as many other Fathers, even Augustine.

As I have said many times, Protestants maintain several traditions which they have received lock, stock, and barrel from us (trinitarianism, the Bible, heaven and hell, etc.). But they also chuck many others. Now, in order to swallow the rejection of many traditional Christian doctrines, one must in fact place Luther, Calvin and other Protestant innovators above the early Councils and practically all the Church Fathers. On what basis do they deserve such exalted authority (far higher than any pope ever possessed)? From Scripture? Then that lands you right back into the "perspicuity" conundrum.

Luther probably beats Calvin in that respect.

On certain doctrines, such as Mariology and the Eucharist, certainly.

Come on Dave, don't give us that old "no authority in the Church" routine.

I haven't. Tell me plainly why I should choose one Protestant "tradition"/ "authority" over another?

And as for this "divinely-protected tradition," where do you get this concept of a post-revelational divinely-protected tradition?

It's not post-revelational, since it is described in Scripture itself (see my paper on Tradition). Scripture IS Tradition, and is part of the larger apostolic Tradition.

You'll only find the source of that within the group claiming the divine protection, which is circular. Divinely-protected tradition is "mere declaration."

This is the whole point of apostolic succession, which the Fathers appealed to in order to settle doctrinal controversies definitively. It was the heretics who appealed to Scripture Alone (e.g., Nestorians, Arians).

When these premises are set in proper context your dialog points fail to materialize, Dave.

Then I challenge you as I did [the other two]: write an alternate Protestant response to the one I offered in my fictional dialogue, and I will come back with another response. How else can I learn the truth? :-)

All three declined to do so . . .

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Written by Dave Armstrong (and anonymous Protestants) in 1996, 1997, and 1998.