The Irony of Scriptural Perspicuity

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?

Image result for martin lutherWell, 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.

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