How Clear Is the Bible Anyway?

Related image

To some, the Bible is a brook – a refreshing stream that flows gently through a meadow. Its waters are clear: Anyone can look into them and understand what they must do to get across safely to the other side.

Image result for flooding riverBut I wonder more and more whether the Bible is something else entirely – a swift river, dark and cloudy, its depths hiding potentially treacherous rocks that could unbalance the unwary traveler and send her tumbling downstream. Venturing into its waters is best done with someone who knows the path and can show the traveler where to step and how to avoid the deepest, darkest areas.

I wonder, in other words, whether the Bible should be treated much differently than we typically do in American Protestantism, where we assume anyone can crack it open and learn who God is and how to “get saved” in Jesus’ name. Maybe the Bible requires more care – and more community – when we read and interpret it.

What I’m talking about is the perspicuity of scripture. For something to be perspicuous is to be clear, like that gentle brook. (Why don’t we just say the clarity of scripture? Because obviously there’s no reason to use a 10-cent word when a five-dollar one will do.)

To explore this topic, we need to answer some questions:

  1. How do we define scriptural perspicuity?
  2. Does the Bible claim perspicuity for itself?
  3. Has the church historically affirmed its perspicuity?
  4. And what historically have been the results of belief in scripture’s perspicuity?

Today, I’ll look at the first two questions.

How do we define the perspicuity of scripture?

No one knows!

OK, that’s not entirely true, but a brief search of the internet finds a lot of people recognizing that the term itself is, ironically enough, unclear – and then spending a LOT of time and words trying to define it.

I don’t get the sense that anyone argues that all parts of the Bible are perspicuous; rather, perspicuity is a general sense that the Bible is clear in its primary teachings, particularly the gospel message of sin, salvation, and Jesus’ role in saving us from the one and facilitating the latter.

As usual, the best popular-level definition probably comes from Wikipedia (yes, I could use a theological dictionary, but the point is to have a definition as popularly understood today, not as scholars understand it). I’ll underline some key phrases:

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (often called the perspicuity of Scripture) is a Protestant Christian position teaching that [quoting the Westminster Confession] “…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.” …

Lutherans hold that the Bible presents all doctrines and commands of the Christian faith clearly. God’s Word is freely accessible to every reader or hearer of ordinary intelligence, without requiring any special education. Of course, one must understand the language God’s Word is presented in, and not be so preoccupied by contrary thoughts so as to prevent understanding. As a result of this, no one needs to wait for any clergy, and pope, scholar, or ecumenical council to explain the real meaning of any part of the Bible.

To boil that down, we might say the perspicuity of scripture is the doctrine that the Bible is clear enough about the basics of the gospel that any person of reasonable intelligence can understand them without mediation from an authority figure. 

But let’s be honest: That the phrase is so hard to define, and that its implications have to be cordoned off with multiple caveats and conditions, is a big red flag that this stream is far muddier than we might assume.

What does the Bible claim for itself?

Of course, “the Bible” does not claim anything for itself as such because the authors typically did not realize their texts would become canonized, but several of them did recognize other texts as bearing that kind of weight. Typically, this involved early Christians, including Jesus himself, quoting from the Hebrew scriptures with a sense of their authority, but it also includes later New Testament authors adding special weight to Paul’s letters.

So, for example, 2 Tim 3:14-17:

But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing. You know who taught you. Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.

In this most famous of passages about the nature and purpose of scripture, referring to what Christians now call the Old Testament, the author clearly sees the texts as being mediated through teachers – perhaps parents or synagogue rabbis (“since childhood”), perhaps even Paul (“you know who taught you”), to whom this letter is traditionally attributed.

Other New Testament verses commonly cited as referring to scripture paint a similar picture – or don’t actually refer to scripture at all despite how they’re frequently used. For example:

Heb 4:11-13:

Therefore, let’s make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following the same example of disobedience, because God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.

Although many cite Heb 4:12 (“sharper than any two-edged sword”) in a scriptural-authority context, it’s clearly talking about the actual word of God, or God’s voice; it comes after an extended riff on the power of that word in sparking the creation of the universe and establishing the Sabbath.

There are many passages like this. Google around for a list of verses talking about scripture, and you get a host of references, especially in the OT, to “the word of God” or “God’s judgments” that actually refer to God’s verbal commands. Of course, some of them were eventually recorded and became part of the Hebrew scriptures, but I don’t see these passages as being intended to describe the authority of the text itself.

Deut 6:6-9 does discuss what Israel should do with God’s commands – namely, write them down, “recite them to your children,” and talk about them constantly. Assuming these commands eventually became part of the Hebrew scriptures, this passage envisions a mediated relationship with them, where their meaning is initially delivered by parents and other members of the community.

Back in the NT, the author of 2 Pet 3:15-16 discusses the writings of Paul, which have rapidly gained authoritative weight among the early assemblies:

Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation, just as our dear friend and brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some of his remarks are hard to understand, and people who are ignorant and whose faith is weak twist them to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.

Paul’s letters are explicitly given the same weight as “the other scriptures” yet they are certainly not described as perspicuous! Rather, they are “hard to understand,” opening them to pernicious misinterpretation. Yet many Christians today consider Paul’s letters, especially Romans, to be quite clear in establishing a large number of doctrines, ranging from salvation by grace alone to the alleged sinfulness of gay sex.

Not surprisingly, Paul himself had something to say on this topic, in Rom 15:4: “Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures.”

This doesn’t really say anything about the perspicuity of scripture, but it’s worth pointing out that Paul frequently engaged in creative reinterpretation of his scriptures, engaging in exegesis that often turned the plain-text reading of certain passages on their heads (the moving rock in the wilderness in 1 Cor 10, the respective connection of Israel and the gentiles with Ishmael and Isaac). He did not act like, nor did he ever argue that, scripture was so abundantly clear anyone could understand it without help.

But of course why would he? The Bible was written in an oral culture; few people had the ability to read what was written, and those who could did so aloud so others could hear it. The scriptures we have were written with the assumption that they would be mediated through an educated elite to the illiterate masses.

Which is why Jesus and Paul themselves served as mediators of scripture to their audiences. For example, Luke 24, where Jesus meets two disciples on the Emmaus road and “interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.” Although Jesus calls them “foolish” for their inability to understand that the OT scriptures referred to his death and resurrection, it’s probably not a coincidence that this happens all the time in the Gospels.

Over and over again, the only person who seems aware that he is the fulfillment of various prophecies about the Jewish messiah is Jesus himself. And it’s up to him to mediate those scriptures to his audiences, which included intelligent, highly educated people who struggled to find the perspicuity Jesus claimed to find in them. The Gospel of John illustrates this well: “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me, yet you don’t want to come to me so that you can have life. (John 5:39-40)” On the one hand, yes, Jesus does tell his audience to “examine the scriptures.” On the other hand, his audience here was the religious leadership responsible for teaching the scriptures to their congregations and they were struggling to find in them what Jesus said was there.

Not only is Jesus frustrated that “Jewish leaders” can’t see him in their scriptures, but he also rejects the idea that “eternal life” can be found in those scriptures, as opposed to himself. This is a statement that does not receive as much attention, I don’t think. In our bibliolatrous times, scripture is often seen as providing if not eternal life itself, at least the key to eternal life. And it may very well do that, but Jesus explicitly says here the point of scripture is to point to him, and he, not it, will give eternal life. Again, this cuts against our traditional notions that scripture is perspicuous on matters pertaining to the gospel and salvation – that in order to be saved, you must do the work of reading and understanding the text well enough to find Jesus, believe the right things and pray the right prayer.

Now, of course, people who argue for the perspicuity of scripture have their texts, too, including some of these same ones! They argue that if it can be understood by children, as Deut 6 implies, it must be perspicuous. But I’d argue the scriptures give the responsibility of teaching children its precepts not to itself but to their parents and religious leaders. Likewise, there’s a lot of reliance on references to God’s laws or judgments in the Psalms, but relying on poetry for establishing doctrine is a fundamental category error.

Before we leave the texts, I’ll point out practically how we can be led astray by the idea of the self-evident clarity of the Bible. One article laying out the case for perspicuity argues, “The Bible is clear in all that is necessary for man to know in regard to his sinful state, his need for salvation, and the means of attaining that salvation, faith in Christ (Romans 3:22).” Ah. Except it’s not actually clear that Rom 3:22 says anything about having faith in Christ. Scholars argue – persuasively, in my view – that the correct translation of the Greek grammar there is that righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Christ. Not so perspicuous!

In Part 2, I’ll combine the next two questions into a brief, overly selective history of the church’s interaction with the notion of scriptural perspicuity.

Advertisements

The Pro-Life Movement Is Failing

Image result for pro life movement
A rapidly shrinking generation.

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.

Continue reading The Pro-Life Movement Is Failing

Quarterly Book Update: Tolstoy, Levine, du Bois, Etc.

Book listFor the past few years, I’ve been posting quarterly updates of what I’ve been reading on Facebook with little two- or three-sentence reviews of what I thought. And now I transliterate it here, so that the five people who read me on my Facebook page can see the same post on my blog! It’s called cross-promotion or something. Deal with it. (Links go to my typically more in-depth Goodreads reviews.)

1. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956) – This retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid is quite good. It gave me a whole new respect for Lewis as a writer of more than “just” children’s fantasy and Christian apologetics. If you liked Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, you should give this a read because it’s better. *ducks*

2. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017) – Easily one of the best novels of 2017, if not the entire decade, if not this generation. Everyone should read it. Everyone.

Continue reading Quarterly Book Update: Tolstoy, Levine, du Bois, Etc.

The Trouble with Unity

D&A.B.CoverChristian unity is a big deal. It was Jesus’ closing prayer before going to the cross, as recorded in John 17:

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

Yet unity has perhaps been the hardest thing for Christians to achieve.

I’m in Restoration History this semester, a class studying the history of the Restoration Movement, also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. Its beginnings are as remarkable as its story is tragically ironic.

Two separate movements on the American frontier – one founded by Barton W. Stone and the other by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander – spontaneously decided to unify in the 1830s. They had some similarities, specifically they both had seceded (or been kicked out) of other denominations because of their commitment to seeking unity around only the items found in the “plain text” of the New Testament. Hurt by the excesses of their former denominations and suspicious of councils, creeds and enforced doctrine from appointed human leaders, they sought to restore the simplicity of the apostolic church, and though they didn’t agree on everything, they saw as paramount the New Testament call for unity.

They called themselves by different names – Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches – but they considered themselves part of one movement, a movement not incidentally that would usher in Jesus’ millennial reign within the political borders of America.

Continue reading The Trouble with Unity

“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich

julian-of-norwich-and-her-cat“We know very little about her,” Robert Sweetman writes about Julian of Norwich in his entry, but we know quite a bit about the revelations she received – or, as she called them, her “showings.”

Julian of Norwich is not even the woman’s name – it’s the name of the church where she lived, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But in his essay – “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416),” Sweetman describes what we can discern from Julian’s thoughts about sin, soteriology and the nature of God. Although not ultimately a subscriber to universal salvation, Julian’s showings led her to get as close as she could to such a belief without crossing the consensus of the church she loved.

Continue reading “All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich

What If Julian of Eclanum Had Beaten Augustine?

safe_image.phpWe all know St. Augustine of Hippo, the theological genius of the fourth and fifth centuries who influenced the medieval church more than any other bishop and continues to have significant influence today – particularly thanks to what I would say is the toxic doctrine of original sin, which has warped our view of human nature and sexuality so that we think of these things negatively rather than positively.

We don’t know as much about the people who opposed Augustine’s beliefs, those ill-fated objectors who raised objections to the doctrines he formulated. One of those was Julian of Eclanum, a southern Italian bishop who was deposed and excommunicated because he refused to sign Pope Zosimus’ edict against Pelagius. Julian was a second-generation Pelagian, the group against whom Augustine fought often in his career. Pelagians held an exalted view of human nature and held strongly to the notion of free will, contra Augustine’s leanings toward predestination, but did so to such an extent that they thought humans capable of achieving perfection in this life.

So of course these battles, as they often do, came down to two sides advocating the extremes of an issue, the one with a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity and its sexual proclivities, the other a decidedly optimistic, if not naive, view of the same.

Yet when we look at what Julian wrote – such as we know it, mostly through Augustine’s rebuttals – it’s hard not to get the sense that he was quite well ahead of his time, by about 1,500 years or so.

Continue reading What If Julian of Eclanum Had Beaten Augustine?

That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?

0800637712hI’m reading through Eldon Jay Epp’s book Junia: The First Woman Apostle, which has succeeded in blowing my mind, and we haven’t even gotten to Junia yet.

Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:

31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.

(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)

37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.

The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.

But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:

This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)

So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).

But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.

Continue reading That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?