Near the root of what divides Protestantism from Catholicism is a question concerning the clarity (or, in technical parlance, the “perspicuity”) of Sacred Scripture. The Catholic view is that Scripture needs interpretation; the typical Protestant view is that Scripture is so clear that there are no ambiguities needing authoritative interpretation by the Church.
|Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)|
As classically articulated, this doctrine holds anyone guided by the Holy Spirit can come to understand everything in the Bible. In fact, Martin Luther argued that if you’re confused on the meaning of some part of the Bible, it’s because of your own sinfulness, since “if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth.” Here’s Luther’s summary of the doctrine:
The clearness of the Scripture is twofold; even as the obscurity is twofold also. The one is external, placed in the ministry of the word; the other internal, placed in the understanding of the heart. If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that hath the Spirit of God. All have a darkened heart; so that, even if they know how to speak of, and set forth, all things in the Scripture, yet, they cannot feel them nor know them: nor do they believe that they are the creatures of God, nor any thing else: according to that of Psalm xiv. 1. “The fool hath said in his heart, God is nothing.” For the Spirit is required to understand the whole of the Scripture and every part of it. If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.
I think that there are several things worth mentioning in response to this doctrine.
None of the passages Luther cites in his defense of this doctrine say anything remotely close to “the Scriptures are all so clear that they don’t need any interpretation.” The closest we get is Luke 24:45, where Christ explains the meanings of the Old Testament to the pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus. And when you think about that example, it’s striking that they’re in need of Old Testament exegesis, even after three years of Christ’s public ministry: that passage could just as easily be used to argue against the perspicuity of Scripture. Which brings me to the second point…
Scripture itself presents itself as something to be read with the Church, not in lieu of the Church. Perhaps the quickest way of demonstrating this is the interaction between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:29-31,
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”
Traditionally (dating back to the earliest days of the Church), the Church’s role has been to declare which doctrines are authentically Christian, and which aren’t. She may point to specific passages supporting this, but She doesn’t always. After all, the earliest Christians didn’t believe in sola Scriptura, so it’s not surprising that the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed look very different from, say, the “statement of beliefs” found in many Protestant denominations.
|Guercino, St Jerome in the Wilderness (1650)|
For one thing, unlike every Protestant statement of beliefs that I know of, there are no references to Scripture in the early Creeds. For another thing, the Creeds are a statement of faith binding upon the whole Church. In contrast, the Protestant denominations’ statement of beliefs are at most, in the words of the Southern Baptist Convention, a “statement of generally held convictions.” This is the difference between a Church governed by a visible authority, and a denomination governed by hoping everybody interprets a Book the same way.
Similarly, St. Jerome (one of the greatest Scripture scholars in the early Church) talks about his in his Dialogue Against the Luciferians:
We ought to remain in that Church which was founded by the Apostles and continues to this day. If ever you hear of any that are called Christians taking their name not from the Lord Jesus Christ, but from some other, for instance, Marcionites, Valentinians, Men of the mountain or the plain, you may be sure that you have there not the Church of Christ, but the synagogue of Antichrist. For the fact that they took their rise after the foundation of the Church is proof that they are those whose coming the Apostle foretold.
And let them not flatter themselves if they think they have Scripture authority for their assertions, since the devil himself quoted Scripture, and the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter, but the meaning. Otherwise, if we follow the letter, we too can concoct a new dogma and assert that such persons as wear shoes and have two coats must not be received into the Church.
Jerome is by no means the only Church Father to talk about the error of taking Scripture against the Church, but he is one of the clearest on this point.
Luther changed his mind on all sorts of doctrines (e.g., Purgatory) after he left the Church. Many of these reversals and changes occur after 1524, when he wrote On the Bondage of the Will, the text in which he advanced the idea of the perspicuity of Scripture.
This seems to show that Luther was wrong … or by his own argument, that he wasn’t guided by the Holy Spirit, since everything would have been crystal clear to him, if he had been.
The easiest way to see that Scripture needs an interpretative authority is to look at the anarchy that has invariably resulted where that authority is rejected. If the perspicuity of Scripture were true, we should expect to see one more-or-less unified Protestant church. Everyone of good will, guided by the Holy Spirit and the clarity of Scripture, would be able to come to the same conclusions. But of course, the history of Protestantism has been the expect opposite of this.
Doctrinal anarchy erupted almost immediately after Luther launched his “Reformation.” Within Luther’s own lifetime, Calvin, Zwingli, and a whole litany of other Reformers arose who accepted the principles of Protestantism, while rejecting other key parts of Lutheranism (which, if Luther was right about Scriptural perspicuity, shouldn’t have been possible, if both men were guided by the Holy Spirit). Writing at the close of the 16th century, St. Francis de Sales compared the rapid collapse of the Reformation to the Tower of Babel (Part II, Article III, Chapter IV):
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563)What contradictions has not Luther’s reformation produced! I should never end if I would put them all on this paper. [….]You have not one same canon of the Scriptures: Luther will not have the Epistle of S. James, which you receive. Calvin holds it to be contrary to the Scripture that there is a head in the Church; the English hold the reverse : the French Huguenots hold that according to the Word of God priests are not less than bishops ; the English have bishops who govern priests, and amongst them two archbishops, one of whom is called primate, a name which Calvin so greatly detests: the Puritans in England hold as an article of faith that it is not lawful to preach, baptize, pray, in the Churches which were formerly Catholic, but they are not so squeamish in these parts. And note my saying that they make it an article of faith, for they suffer both prison and banishment rather than give it up. Is it not well known that at Geneva they consider it a superstition to keep any saint’s day? — yet in Switzerland some are kept ; and you keep one of Our Lady. The point is not that some keep them and others do not, for this would be no contradiction in religious belief, but that what you and some of the Swiss observe the others condemn as contrary to the purity of religion.Are you not aware that one of your greatest ministers teaches that the body of our Lord is as far from the Lord’s Supper as heaven is from earth, and are you not likewise aware that this is held to be false by many others ? Has not one of your ministers lately confessed the reality of Christ’s body in the Supper, and do not the rest deny it ? Can you deny me that as regards Justification you are as much divided against one another as you are against us : — witness that anonymous controversialist. In a word, each man has his own language, and out of as many Huguenots as I have spoken to I have never found two of the same belief.
St. Francis explained that because the dispute is over the meaning of Scripture, Protestants are incapable of ever resolving these issues, if they refuse to submit to the authority of the Church:
But the worst is, you are not able to come to an agreement: — for where will you find a trusted arbitrator? You have no head upon earth to address yourselves to in your difficulties; you believe that the very Church can err herself and lead others into error: you would not put your soul into such unsafe hands; indeed, you hold her in small account. The Scripture cannot be your arbiter, for it is concerning the Scripture that you are in litigation, some of you being determined to have it understood in one way, some in another. Your discords and your disputes are interminable, unless you give in to the authority of the Church.
That prediction – that the disputes would prove interminable – was made over four hundred years ago. Would anyone today deny his point? Does Protestantism seem any closer to solving these exegetical disputes? Quite the contrary. Protestantism has spent five hundred years slowly imploding into an ever-greater number of warring denominations. We are as far away from having a unified “Protestant church” as we’ve ever been, and the situation is only getting worse, like a universe spiraling towards heat death.
I hesitated to include this one, for fear that it would seem like more of a potshot than an argument, but hear me out. Even ignoring all the disputes Protestantism has with historic Christianity (and with modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy), there are innumerable Protestant denominations feuding with one another over the proper interpretation of Scripture on a whole litany of doctrines. Are we really to believe that all but one of these denominations are arguing in bad faith?
|John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli (1874)|
If you really believe that the meaning of Scripture is just obvious to anyone guided by the Holy Spirit, you’re essentially left with three options:
- Option A: Your opponent is ignorant, and just needs to be shown the proper Scriptures. Once he sees those, he will convert.
- Option B: Your opponent is godless, and that is why he can’t understand Scripture.
- Option C: Your opponent is a liar, and that is why he pretends he can’t understand Scripture.
I would suggest that this is at least one factor in the ugliness of so much inter-Christian dialogue (although by no means the only factor), and the speed in which non-Protestants are accused of acting in bad faith. Again, we need look no further than Luther’s own life, to see how toxic this doctrine turns out to be in real life.
The logic is clear enough: if your opponents disagree with you (and in the case of the Protestants holding this position, this includes the entire Church prior to 1500 A.D.), they must be ignorant, godless or liars. Otherwise, they would “see the all-perfect clearness of the truth.” Just look at how Luther treated the Jews once they weren’t convinced by his version of the Gospel.