Friday, December 30, 2011

On the Doctrine of Perspicuity

Sick as I've been this week, my writing muse will be the last thing to heal; nice again to have back issues of the E-Block to use. This one's from December 2008.


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. [1] 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.[2]

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." [3] 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.

In order to make a distinction between the doctrine of perspicuity as expressed by my opponent, as it is referred to by such documents as the Westminster Confession, I will hereafter refer to the former as radical perspicuity.

Radical Perspicuity: A Biblical Basis?

In seeking Biblical justifications for radical perspicuity, I found very little that commended itself for the doctrine the way my critic understood it.

  • Deuteronomy 30:11 For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.At best, this could argue for the perspicuity of the Deuteronomic contract, and I daresay based on experience that the qualification of clarity for the people of the 14th century BC is implied. Questions about obscurity in the laws of the Old Testament are some of the most common in apologetics, because these laws address social conditions taken for granted in Scripture. However, it should be added that "too hard" most likely refers to the difficulty of performing the law as opposed to understanding its contents.
  • Our KJV Onlyist proponent of radical perspicuity, in addition to making an incorrect assessment of the meaning of faith, offered this reasoning:
    The Bible itself claims perspicuity. Perhaps the clearest passage in this connection is one such as Psalm 119:105: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." A lamp or a light is that which shows the way, illumines the path of life which the Christian is called to walk. Such words of the Bible are a far cry from the assertion that the Bible is not understandable and leaves the people of God in the dark spiritually.

    However, Ps. 119:105 certainly cannot be appealing to a canonical collection of Scriptures which, at the time of the Psalms, would be as yet mostly unwritten! Contextually, reference to the commandments in v. 104 indicate that the "word" in question is the Deuteronomic law. Beyond this, we cannot make any assumptions (since this Psalm has no authorial credit) about the level of discipleship and knowledge of Psalm 119's author. Light comes with understanding, and we do not know where this author's level of understanding rested.

    I also found appeal to a text from Paul:

    Phil. 3:15-16 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

    This passage is not being applied correctly by radical perspicuists. Paul says that God will make things "clear" and this is not directly applied to Biblical exegesis, but rather to views held by Paul's readers.

    Finally, there are a cluster of texts appealed to by radical perspicuosts that are much less specific, such as appeals from Hebrews to the Word of God as "living and active" or 2 Peter's "no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation." Texts like these neither affirm nor deny perspicuity in any sense. They affirm certain points about the characteristics of Scripture, but clarity is not one of the characteristics referred to.

    In contrast, other texts are quite clear that growth in knowledge and understanding is expected of the disciples of Christ. The very word "disciple" implies a follower who will grow in knowledge and performance. Other texts clearly indicate stratification in understanding and knowledge:

    Ephesians 4:11-12 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ .
    Hebrews 5:11-12 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

    And of course, 2 Peter 3:15-16 makes it clear that some Christians did not understand Paul's writings. The response to this by the KJV Onlyist radical pespicuist is instructive:

    Peter himself says in II Peter 3:15-16 that some writings, especially those of Paul, are hard to understand. But notice that they are understandable nevertheless, and that Peter does not deny, but rather sets forth the truth of the perspicuity of Scripture.

    This is obviously not an answer, but a mere denial of that to which 2 Peter 3:15-16 witnesses (clearly, Peter knew of some people to whom the letters' contents were not understandable), and it is only imagination that sees Peter "setting forth" a doctrine of "radical perspicuity" in a sentence that clearly denies it.

  • Summary: Clearly A Misuse It is apparent that my TheologyWeb opponent was incorrect. He did not understand the origins and use of the doctrine of perspicuity, and that it was never meant to be applied to situations in which scholarship and study enable a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Biblical text. The Bible itself indicates that disciples of Christ will have varying levels of maturity and understanding. Radical perspicuity, the position formulated by my TheologyWeb opponent and by the KJV Onlyist website, is false.

  • Notes

    [1] "Belief in the perspicuity of the Bible is ancient, going back to Jesus himself, who reproached the scribes and Pharisees, for not understanding the plain meaning of the text. As a doctrine, the perspicuity of Scripture was expressed by many of the Church Fathers, who contrasted it with the mystical writings of the Gnostics, which only the initiated could fathom." Gerald Bray, The Clarity of Scripture, available here. Bray goes on to address more directly what would be closer to my view, which concerns greater knowledge of contexts. He says:

    As always in such matters, there is some truth to what is being said here, though it has been greatly exaggerated. It is true that our knowledge has expanded enormously since the sixteenth century, and that we now know much more about matters of background detail, for example, than we once did. In many cases, we can also produce more accurate translations of the original texts. These are important gains, and we must recognise and accept them gladly.

    However, it is a very different matter if we are considering the underlying meaning of the text as a whole...

    Bray goes on to give an example of how knowledge of how Pharisees were "highly respected member[s] of the religious community" has led some to say that the Bible's portrait of them is inaccurate. He also gives the examples of "structuralism, deconstructionism and so on" as ideas foreign to the authors of Scripture. What Bray refers to, then, is the radical application of modern categories to the text. In the end, I say as Bray does: "Hardly ever does it make any real difference to the overall meaning."

    [2]It will not here be my purpose to discuss or evaluate the Catholic idea of a Magisterium, or Catholic views on perspicuity. For my purposes, it is sufficient to know that statements like Luther's were a reaction to what they perceived to be untrue Catholic claims. Nor will I discuss to what extent the doctrine is applied (whether just to fundamentals or to secondary issues as well, which seems to be a major issue for the "Catholic vs. Protestant" incarnation of the debate), though I may do so in future research. My sole concern here will be with the larger question raised by my opponent, which is whether someone like a Christian apologist or teacher violates the sense of this doctrine by indicating that individual Christians need to "do their homework" about the Bible.

    [3] Found here.


  1. Interestingly, I just had a recent discussion with a member of the so-called "Churches of Christ" (the predecessor of the International Churches of Christ; he's my lecturer for English Morphology and Syntax) on the issue of baptism as necessary for salvation (his argument) so when he brought up Mark 16:16 to argue his stand I mentioned that scholars have largely dismissed that portion of Mark 16 as genuine. Then he started on the doctrine of perspicuity (not that he called it that, but his argument is basically it).

    And gosh, you'd think that the mention of unicorns, satyrs and other legendary creatures of non-Jewish origin in the KJV would have sounded some warning bells in the heads of the KJV-Onlyists!

  2. Ironically, radical perspicuity in practice leads to exactly the kind of subjectivity that its proponents would likely oppose vigorously. When a passage with multiple possible interpretations presents itself, if there is no way of determining objectively what the author was really getting at, then we are left to just fight with each other over our own private interpretations. This is just as bad as post-modernism!

    I imagine that someone who buys into radical perspicuity might reason as follows:

    "Scriptural passage X is interpreted in inconsistent and conflicting ways by various commentators. The meaning of scriptural passage X seems clear TO ME. If Radical Perspicuity is true then the meaning of scriptural passage X ought to be as obvious to everyone else as it is TO ME). Radical Perspecuity is true. Therefore the meaning of scriptural passage X is as clear to those who ostensibly disagree with ME over its meaning as it is to ME. Those who disagree with ME over the meaning of scriptural passage X know better because it is as clear to them as it is to ME. Those who openly argue for a position, but secretly know the position to be false are liars. Therefore those who disagree with ME about the meaning of scriptural passage X (or about any other scriptural passage) are liars and are not to be trusted. Liars are people who need to be vigorously opposed."

    This puts the person pushing the radical perspicuity doctrine in a very self-centered position (i.e., they become the gravitational center of all theological truth, and anyone who opposes them is to be mercilessly defeated and cut down, etc.).

    (Combine this with someone who happens to have narcissistic or authoritarian tendencies, as well as skills in the art of oratory, writing, persuasion, etc., then you've got the genesis of a real ecclesiastical nightmare...)

  3. @Jared A good way to put it all. Personally I find that many who express this view are obnoxiously ignorant and also offended by the idea that they aren't actually qualified or informed enough to interpret the text. I have one such benighted soul writing me now -- he sent me a critique of one of my articles that was filled with spelling errors and errors in fact and logic that even Hector Avalos could have spotted, but he's confident he's "obliterated" my arguments.

    He might end up the subject of a Forge entry next week...