Dialogue on the Clearness and Formal
Sufficiency of Holy Scripture

Counter-Reply to: The Perspicuity of Scripture: How did the Evangelical Church Come to Insist that the Message of the Bible is Clear?

Dave Armstrong vs. Carmen Bryant (carmenhills@earthlink.net)

The second part of this lengthy response is found on a separate page: Dialogue on Whether the Fathers Taught "Perspicuity" of Scripture and Denied the Necessity of Tradition and an Authoritative Church.

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.

 I urge readers to consult Carmen's entire essay (http://www.westernseminary.edu/cgi-bin/bin/new_classifieds/papers_index.html - type "Bryant" in the author box). It  is an excellent, educational presentation of 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). Readers can also consult my several previous papers on this subject and the closely-related larger category of sola Scriptura. I will not reiterate their many and in-depth arguments here. Carmen's words throughout shall be in blue and small print.

TABLE OF CONTENTS (Hyper-linked)

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. Postscript and Reiterations

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):

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

More on this below and in the second related reply.

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. I will also thoroughly document this in the related dialogue.

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,

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.

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). I refer readers to my papers on biblical evidences for the Church, as understood in Catholicism:

. . . 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.

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 everybeliever 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.

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:

{in Not by Scripture Alone, edited by Robert A. Sungenis, Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing Co., 1997, pp. 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 Holmes, J. Derek & Robert Murray, On the Inspiration of Scripture, Washington, D.C.: Corpus Books, 1967, pp.7-8,10-11,15-16} {Ibid., pp. 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:

{Grammar of Assent, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1955 (orig. 1870), p. 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.

"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 absolutely shocking, scandalous, 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:

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:

{Orthodoxy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1959 (orig. 1908), pp. 47-48} {The Thing, NY: Sheed & Ward, 1929, pp. 35-36}

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. See my paper: Sins and Sinners in the Catholic Church (with much biblical proof for the above contentions).

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

{Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity, NY: Meridian, 1959, p. 206} {Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, pp. 215-216} {Robert Brow, "Evangelical Megashift," Christianity Today, Feb. 19, 1990 (pp.12-17), p.12} {Clark Pinnock, ibid., subtitle "The Arminian Option," p.15} {Robert Webber, ibid., subtitle "Out With the Old," p.16}           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 attiude 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.

For a copiously-documented refutation of the above point of view, see my paper: Was the Catholic Church an Avowed Enemy of Scripture in the Middle Ages (or at any other time)?

See also the online articles:

{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.

The second part of this lengthy response is on a separate page: Dialogue on Whether the Fathers Taught "Perspicuity" of Scripture and Denied the Necessity of Tradition and an Authoritative Church.

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Completed by Dave Armstrong: 8 June 2000.