The Doctrine of Perspicuity, Part 1

This comes from an article I wrote in 2008, but I still see this objection raised time and time again.

***

Recently on the TheologyWeb forum, a (reputed) Christian made the following charge against me regarding my explanations of the use of riposte in the Bible:
Ordinary believers are unable to discern the true doctrine of Riposte (insult) which requires JP Holding's Hebrew and Greek language skills to discern. He said of one protagonist "his knowledge of the Bible is essentially zero -- save what he reads of it in English." This contradicts the doctrine of perspicuity, which says that ordinary believers can understand the teaching of the Bible without needing a superior to tell them what it means.
This critic is not alone in making such appeals. One website discusses the "doctrine of perspicuity" thusly:
The question is asked, "Do you really understand the Bible? How can you be sure that what you think the Scriptures say is in fact what they do say?" These questions are directed not at the learned in the Scriptures, at ministers, professors of theology, and the educated, but at the common people of God, who place their simple trust and faith in the Scriptures as the Word of God. Such questions not only raise doubts in the minds of God's faithful people, which is in itself wrong, since the Bible stresses that the life of the
Christian is not one of doubt, but of faith. But even worse, these questions are meant to lead the people of God to the conclusions that after all the Scriptures are not understandable, contrary to what the church has always taught and thought. What is required to understand them is a great deal of education and learning, as well as intimate knowledge of the methods of interpretation and the historical and cultural conditions under which men wrote the Scriptures. The result of this is the conclusion that only the clergy, the favored few, are able to understand the Word and interpret it, while the laity, the ignorant masses of common folk, are really in the dark. Thus the door is opened to all sorts of corruption, heresy, and error, which is rampant also today.
In contrast to this, we wish to emphasize the Bible as we have it, and that means the King James Version, is perspicuous. Even a little child can read and understand the Word of God, as anyone with children knows.
I have received charges like this before, though not specifically mentioning the word "perspicuity," from others such as Mormon apologist Edward Watson, who insisted that the Bible was written so that "ordinary people" could understand it. In the past, my answer has been threefold:
  1. That what was understood by "ordinary" people in the first century is not known to "ordinary" people today. The argument essentially shifts the goalposts to our "ordinary" knowledge without concern for what was "ordinary" knowledge of specific subjects for the authors of the Bible.
  2. There is no sign of this doctrine in Scripture, and if anything, the opposite is indicated; for example, Peter acknowledges that Paul's letters are hard to understand at times (2 Peter 3:15-16), and there are several indications that believers are to mature in study and discipleship -- which implies that they begin in a state where they lack fullest understanding.
  3. Related to 1), the Bible obviously requires a certain level of knowledge to understand; to start, we must be literate! We also must know the meanings of the words it uses. Once again, how we define "ordinary" can vary according to social circumstances.
I have now decided to look more deeply into this "doctrine of perspicuity" to determine answers to these questions:
  1. Is this a true "doctrine," one adhered to by leading denominations?
  2. Does it have a true Biblical basis?
  3. Is it being properly used as an accusation against myself and, theoretically, other apologists who make use of Biblical scholarship?
To answer these questions, I sought out arguments and claims regarding this doctrine. The below represents a collation and summary of results. My conclusion is that my critic thoroughly misunderstood and misrepresented this doctrine, and that my own threefold reply is essentially correct, and is not at all in disagreement with those who do maintain a belief in the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. Rather, the problem is one I have stated above: An inherent slipperiness in the defining of "ordinary" which has allowed it to be re-defined downwards by people like my critic. 

Perspicuity: The True Doctrine?

It is clear that perspicuity was indeed a teaching of many early Church representatives. However, the origins of the doctrine also make it clear (or perhaps I should say, "perspicuous"!) that it was never intended to be used, as by my critic, against those who engage in serious exegetical or scholarly study.
In the church's earliest days, statements concerning the perspicuity of Scripture were made as a reaction to Gnostic heretics who claimed that "secret knowledge" (gnosis) was required to understand the Scriptures as they (the Gnostics) interpreted them. The gnosis was mystically imparted to the Gnostic believer from outside; it was not received by study or via contextual exegesis. 

Later, statements about the perspicuity of Scripture were made again as reactions, but this time by the Reformers as a counter to the Roman Catholic idea of a Magisterium. It is clear here as well that this was not a response to claims that one needed to engage in serious study to understand the Scriptures more fully. A frequently-used quote by Martin Luther speaks to this, from Bondage of the Will:
But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e. lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth..." This indeed I confess, that there are many places in the Scriptures obscure and abstruse; not from the majesty of the things, but from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but which do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures . . .
All the things, therefore, contained in the Scriptures, are made manifest, although some places, from the words not being understood, are yet obscure . . .And, if the words are obscure in one place, yet they are clear in another . . . For Christ has opened our understanding to understand the Scriptures . . .
And this is also found from one of Luther's Table Talks:
Dr. Jonas Justus remarked at Luther's table: There is in the Holy Scripture a wisdom so profound, that no man may thoroughly study it or comprehend it. "Ay," said Luther, "we must ever remain scholars here; we cannot sound the depth of one single verse in Scripture; we get hold but of the A, B, C, and that imperfectly. Who can so exalt himself as to comprehend this one line of St Peter: 'Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings.' Here St Peter would have us rejoice in our deepest misery and trouble, like as a child kisses the rod.
In other words, statements about the perspicuity of the Scripture were made against claims that the meaning of the text was inaccessible to readers by any other means than revelational authority. This is quite sensible, for of course the means whereby scholars and students seek to better understand the Bible are not restricted to those are granted revelation. Anyone may go to a library, or go to Waldenbooks, and find the same resources I or anyone else has.

One commentator in particular put it well: "The main idea here is not that it is easy to understand, but that it is free of unnecessary complications." The same commentator put forth what I find to be an excellent analogy:
...[W]e can properly talk about someone giving a clear presentation of quantum electrodynamics, even though most people would not be able to understand a word of what was being said. Why wouldn't most people understand a wonderfully clear and precise presentation on quantum electrodynamics? Because they don't have the necessary prerequisites.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1647, offers what may be taken as a "doctrinal statement" concerning the perspicuity of Scripture:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Notice that the Confession places limits on what is said to be "plain" - just "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation." With this I have no dispute. My argument would be that the Bible is designed to be understood on multiple levels. There are plain truths concerning salvation that all may easily understand. However, there are also more complex background issues which must be understood to achieve a full-orbed understanding of the Bible's complete message and teachings. To use a Biblical metaphor, there is milk and there is meat. 

In summary: Perspicuity is nowhere that I have found taken to mean that the average reader will never have difficulty understanding a Biblical text. Nor is it ever claimed that it means that we cannot learn more deeply about it than a "plain reading" allows. Thus it is that in Point 1 alone, my critic has failed in his accusation.

Comments

Joe Hinman said…
One could do an amusing number on the heads of those who argue for Perspicuity in the way your critics were using it by clamming that you have the true Perspicuity of Perspicuity and they missed it. I agree with your take on it btw.

Somewhere along the way, as a Christian, I got the notion which I always assumed that the most basic things necessary for salvation are made plain, and that we are only held accountable for living up to the light we are given as individuals. So i wont be jugged the same level as Paul Tillich, but will be held to a higher standard than someone who never learned any Greek. And of course God looks upon the heart and knows our true motives.

One tie ages ago back too too long after I got saved when I took Greek as a undergraduate, the elder at my church preached a sermon on women reinforcing the conventional notions of women keep silent in the church and so on,The congregation was having a dispute over that topic. We had a segment called "body life":where anyone could get up and disuses some aspect of life that bothered him/her. Everything fro "I agree iwth the sermon: to "I lost my keys."

I commented on the point he made on 1 Cor 11:10 about a woman must have a sign o authority o course he assumed it means she must show her submission OT her husband by covering her head,I said the Greek actually says she should have power over her own head.

His wife comes up to me after with hate in the eye and says:"you ruined it!" I ruined the propagandizing for their view. I said "doesn't it even bother you that it might say something different in 'Greek than you read in English" She says: "I don't need that Greek garbage I have the bible!"

I fear that's the way most evangelicals are taught to think of it,

no I don't wt to argue about that passage my view is held by Sir William Ramsay.
R.C. said…
The problem is more straightforward than this.

The Bible is not perspicuous in the sense which was relevant to Luther and the Reformers. That is to say: As a stand-alone resource, the Bible cannot successfully be used by Christians, of any degree of scholarship and honest good will, to reliably derive the necessary doctrinal content of the Christian religion.

This is not to say that a group of Christian scholars, all of whom are excellent scholars and approaching questions with good will, cannot correctly determine a doctrine or two through exegesis, without falling into error.

But it is objectively observable that when one tries to derive all the doctrines this way (so as to wind up with systematic theology, sacramentology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and ethics), no one ever succeeds.

Or, to say it more accurately: Perhaps someone has gotten it right, at some point; but nobody has any well-grounded justification for claiming to know that HE has gotten it right, and that he KNOWS the content of the Christian religion (as opposed to just guessing at it).

There are those who, subjectively, have the feeling of knowing that they are right. But, objectively, their claim of certainty lacks plausibility: It is a sign of intellectual hubris, or at least of the cognitive bias called "illusory superiority": Those who are less-capable are more prone to overestimate their accomplishment.

A person with a more humble estimation of their own exigetical competence will simply observe the reality: He may be well-trained; he may have access to the best translations and tools; he may be an honest truth-seeker doing his utmost to avoid eisegesis...but there are other men who are at least as well-trained, well-equipped, and honest as he who have come to contradictory conclusions about soteriology or ecclesiology or some other subject. Not just one alternative view; mind you, but three or four or ten.

On the nature of the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist alone, there are...what? A dozen possible views? Which is right? If you claim to know which is right, how do you justify that claim given the equal certainty of men wiser and holier than yourself, who disagree with you?

Multiply this problem by a thousand other details of the Christian religion and you find the simple truth: Some parts of the Bible are perspicuous as individual passages. (We know what is meant by "Jesus wept.") But the canon as a whole is simply not sufficient to reliably provide, through exegesis, a reconstructed-from-whole-cloth knowledge of the true content of Christianity.

For the man who takes that approach, his confidence that he has correctly distinguished between error and truth in all important errors is a fraud...even if he himself is taken in. That man probably does not practice Christianity. He is probably practicing a religion of his own invention with many doctrines in common with Christianity: Something best labeled "BestGuessianity."
Joe Hinman said…
that problem can best be solved by redefining the importance and nature of doctrine. If you are not an inerentist it's not important that scripture be the sole basis of a doctrine. If one is a historian one knows it's not anyway.

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