Part 2 of a series on the perspicuity of scripture. Part 1 dealt with defining “perspicuity” and discussing what the Bible says about itself. Today’s post deals with church history and the results of this belief.
What does the church say?
Well, that depends on the church!
But really, just as the Bible was written in a time of few educated elites and many illiterate followers, so too did understanding the scriptures require centuries of mediation through educated church leaders.
Of course, those circumstances changed practically overnight with the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Bible in common vernacular, followed by Martin Luther’s revolution that fragmented the Western church.
Because Luther rightly objected to excesses and abuses perpetrated by a church that had grown secretive and corrupt, the notion that church leaders could be trusted to appropriately mediate the scriptures to their congregants took a severe blow. Why should we assume these greedy, mendacious priests are accurately synthesizing biblical precepts when they are using their positions to enrich themselves and maintain their temporal power?
Thus Luther, in On the Bondage of the Will, laid out for the first time an argument for the comprehensive perspicuity of the Bible:
But, 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. … With the same rashness any one may cover his own eyes, or go from the light into the dark and hide himself, and then blame the day and the sun for being obscure. Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God. … The Scripture simply confesses the Trinity of God, the humanity of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. There is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity.
That last sentence seems more than a touch unintentionally ironic; the Bible of course nowhere confesses the Trinity as such, and what Christian hasn’t spent a long time wondering what exactly is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (the one unpardonable sin, according to Jesus)? In a lengthy defense of the Bible’s clarity, Luther cites a case in which a key Christian doctrine must be inferred from the text and a notorious example of an unclear and troubling statement from Jesus himself.
So it took roughly 1,500 years and the Protestant Reformation for the church to include any prominent or official doctrine of scriptural perspicuity. Which doesn’t mean it’s not true – just that we should recognize this was a significant departure from the historical understanding of the church, one that we should therefore treat with caution.
What are the effects?
One way to test a relatively new doctrine is to assess how it changes the church itself. To “judge it by its fruit,” so to speak.
What is the fruit of this doctrine, this idea that the Bible is so clear that anyone, including children, can read it and understand the basics of the gospel?
Namely, massive division on a scale never previously seen in the church. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the doctrine of perspicuity is that it has led to the creation of literally thousands of schisms among people who felt the Bible was so clear on a certain point that they could no longer worship in good conscience with those who believed otherwise. There are easily more than 1,000 – perhaps as many as 2,000 – Protestant denominations worldwide. There are easily thousands more intracongregational and -denominational splits that have led to much heartache and bitterness.
It is no coincidence that these splits have become more common since Enlightenment modernism, with its democratic and egalitarian assumptions. There is obviously nothing wrong with those assumptions per se; they were and remain vital to the liberation of oppressed people around the globe. But when applied to the Bible, they have led to a largely unexamined embrace of the notion that anyone can and should open it without any guidance and understand the gospel – and, on the flip side, an unexamined hostility to the notion that ministers or scholars should play any significant role in mediating the text to others with less training.
Yet if we look at two traditions that have most radically adopted the democratic ethos of modernist egalitarianism (well, for men, anyway) – the Plymouth Brethren and the Stone-Campbell Movement – they are perhaps the two most schismatic groups in church history.
Both movements were born through the notion of unifying fractious denominations around the basis of just doing what the Bible says, following its plain teachings in the establishment and organization of congregations and worship, relying heavily on the “pattern” established in Acts.
Yet within 50 years of their establishment, both movements experienced massive splits – the Brethren between “exclusive” and “inclusive” camps, the Stone-Campbell Movement between the instrumental, largely northern Disciples of Christ and the a cappella, largely southern Churches of Christ. While the former eventually became a formal mainline denomination – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – the southern branch became increasingly fractious, with congregations dividing over increasingly trivial matters – down to how many cups to use in communion. Likewise, a chart of Plymouth Brethren splits and reunifications is like trying to trace strands of spaghetti cooked in a bowl.
What does it tell us about the alleged perspicuity of scripture that those who hold most strongly to it are the most likely to disagree so vehemently about what it says that they cannot remain in fellowship with each other?
Perhaps it tells us that the Bible is not so perspicuous, after all.
Part 3 will conclude with some potentially disconnected thoughts about scripture and how we should view it given the challenges it poses to the doctrine of perspicuity.
Beauty and the Beast is probably my all-time favorite Disney musical.
My aunt took me to see the theatrical version on Broadway for my 14th birthday, and that sort of experience tends to be pretty formative (my 13th birthday was Phantom of the Opera, and I can still basically recite that play by heart without needing the music). But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the story:
- It’s a call for open-mindedness and diversity that was pretty unusual for its day (1991) and remains relevant today.
- Its heroine, Belle, is a much stronger woman character than had been typical to that point (only Jasmine is comparable until we hit the Tangled/Frozen era)
- And its climactic song, unimaginatively titled “The Mob Song,” is a rousing and chilling exploration of how fear turns people into the beasts they so despise and war against.
I’ve been thinking more about this song lately, especially its 2017 live-action version, which makes the subtext more explicit when Gaston’s sidekick, Lefou (played by the wonderful Josh Gad), mutters to himself: “There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question/But I fear the wrong monster’s released.” Continue reading Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You
The numbers don’t look good for the movement that calls itself “pro-life.”
After years of stasis, the most recent surveys are noticing a shift that bodes ill for the future of the movement that exists to eliminate legal abortion in the United States:
In the survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to report that their views on abortion had changed in recent years — and when they moved, they tended to move in favor of abortion rights. Of those young people whose opinions had changed, 25 percent said they became more supportive of legalized abortion compared to 9 percent who became less supportive.
That poll was taken in March, and while it did not show a noticeable change in overall support for the notion that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases” from where it’s been for the past decade (43 percent, compared to 54 percent saying it should be “legal in all or most cases”), it’s not hard to see that the millennial generation is growing as a percentage of the public. If they continue shifting leftward on abortion, the overall numbers will follow.
A separate PRRI poll of even younger Americans, age 15-24, finds an even stronger shift: the cohort opposes making abortions more difficult to obtain by a 72-28 margin – and even 43 percent of Republicans in this group oppose abortion restrictions.
The Christian pollster George Barna is seeing the same thing: “In fact, when we compared the views of Millennials to those who are 30 or older, there were consistent differences showing that the younger generation is comparatively less supportive of life and more supportive of abortion.”
So, obviously, I’m a history nerd. Which is why the most meaningful thing about being confirmed today was the laying on of hands by David Reed, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. That’s not a super comfortable thing for me – touching was not a part of the religious tradition in which I was raised – but sometimes the best things are those that push us out of our comfort zones.
The principle of apostolic succession was a big deal in early Christianity, and it remains a big deal today, especially in liturgical traditions like the Episcopal Church. When a priest is ordained, the bishop lays hands on her or him. That bishop was ordained and received blessing from hands from a previous bishop, and so it goes back, hands upon shoulders or heads, all the way back to the earliest church leaders – apostles like Paul, Junia and other women and men who shepherded a small Jewish sect that insisted the savior of the world had come, and that his kingdom would set to right in a new heaven and a new earth all that had gone wrong.
I didn’t anticipate writing more about Marx beyond my comments last week about how despite being an avowed critic of religion, Marx has had profound impacts on Christianity, but here we are because I couldn’t help notice some parallels between the Europe of Marx’s time and the America of ours.
In honor of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, I’m reading Gareth Stedman Jones’ Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion.
As a philosophical biography, Stedman Jones’ work is focused beyond just the nuts-and-bolts info of Marx’s life; instead, he takes pains to paint the social and philosophical context into which Marx was born and raised. This is very helpful, as no one thinks in a vacuum, and if we are to understand Marx and what he believed, we should also understand the currents into which he was born.
Saturday was the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, occasioning a slew of think pieces and hot takes (he was a genius! he was a monster!) – but here’s one that rarely gets made: Marx, that notorious skeptic of religion, was arguably one of the most influential figures in shaping 20th century Christianity.
On the one hand, this is obvious – Marx’s influence on world history generally is hard to overstate, and to the extent that Christianity partakes in world history, it must also have been influenced by Marx. Likewise, because so much of American Christianity, especially the fundamentalist and evangelical strains, embraced anti-communism, Marx obviously exerted a significant, albeit negative influence in the development of those traditions.
But I mean something more specific, and more positive – that Marx’s critique of capitalism’s inherent depredations and his yearning for a better, more just society shaped at least two significant Christian movements in the 20th century.