Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

If You Want to Understand the Bible, Listen to the Magisterium

02/16/2016 Comments (9)

(Photo Credit: markus 53, CC0, via Pixabay)

One key corol­lary to the Protes­tant doc­trine of sola scrip­tura is the belief in the “perspicuity”—or clarity—of scrip­ture. It has to be thus; if you claim that Scrip­ture and Scrip­ture alone is the infal­li­ble guide to faith and prac­tice, then you must also claim that Scrip­ture can be read and under­stood by any­one. Easy peasy. Else, what guards against dis­unity? What guards against two peo­ple pick­ing up the text of Scrip­ture and com­ing to wildly diver­gent doc­trines on bap­tism or the Eucharist or jus­ti­fi­ca­tion? That never hap­pens, except to igno­rant, unsta­ble folks. It cer­tainly does not hap­pen to sound-​thinking peo­ple such as myself. And yet, though there may not be quite so many as 33,000 divi­sions, there sure are a lot of them. Insta­bil­ity has run amok. How did that come to be, if the Bible is so clear? No one seems to have a sat­is­fac­tory answer.

Mar­tin Luther, who started all this non­sense as late as the six­teenth cen­tury, taught that there was noth­ing, not nowhere, not nohow, obscure in Scrip­ture. “Noth­ing what­ever,” he writes, in On the Bondage of the Will, “is left obscure or ambigu­ous; but all things that are in the Scrip­tures are by the word brought forth into the clear­est light, and pro­claimed to the whole world.” Easy peasy.

But is that really true? For against Luther stand the very words of Scrip­ture itself, as in 2 Peter 3:15–16:

And count the for­bear­ance of the Lord as sal­va­tion. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you accord­ing to the wis­dom given him, speak­ing of this as he does in all his let­ters. There are some things in them hard to under­stand, which the igno­rant and unsta­ble twist to their own destruc­tion, as they do the other scrip­tures.

At this point, a Protes­tant apol­o­gist will typ­i­cally inter­ject and say, “But wait! Peter says that the igno­rant and unsta­ble twist those verses. Those who are nei­ther igno­rant nor unstable—the learned and the sta­ble; you know, peo­ple like me—have no dif­fi­culty at all with Paul. See, he teaches sola fide, clear as glass.” Oh?

But that is not St. Peter’s mean­ing, and that is not what he says. If that were the mean­ing, we would have found him say­ing some­thing like, “Those who are igno­rant and unsta­ble think our brother Paul is dif­fi­cult to under­stand.” But no. Peter says: Paul is dif­fi­cult to under­stand, and there­fore the igno­rant and unsta­ble twist him to their own destruc­tion. “You, there­fore,” he goes on in verse 17, “know­ing this before­hand” (i.e., the dif­fi­culty of Paul’s let­ters), “beware lest you be car­ried away with the error of law­less men and lose your own sta­bil­ity.” Be on your guard, he cau­tions. Do not vainly imag­ine plain­ness where there is none, lest you too twist and knot pret­zels out of Scrip­ture.

If Paul’s epis­tles had per­spicu­ity, except to the igno­rant and unsta­ble (which by no means includes me), Peter should hardly have had to give this warn­ing. Even C.S. Lewis, no igno­rant or unsta­ble lout, and a trained lit­er­ary scholar to boot, mar­veled at the dif­fi­culty of Paul. “I can­not be the only reader,” he writes in Reflec­tions on the Psalms, “who has won­dered why God, hav­ing given him so many gifts, with­held from him (what would seem to us so nec­es­sary for the first Chris­t­ian the­olo­gian) that of lucid­ity and orderly expo­si­tion.” Indeed Paul often wan­ders off and gets lost in the thick­ets of his own syn­tax. Try to dia­gram one of his sen­tences some time, as a Lenten penance.

So the Bible speaks against its own per­spicu­ity. But we need not limit our­selves to St. Paul in order to make the point. The book of Acts tells how Philip, when trav­el­ing from Jerusalem to Gaza, met an Ethiopian eunuch read­ing the book of Isa­iah.

“Do you under­stand what you are read­ing?” Philip asked him.

“How can I,” the eunuch responded, “unless some one guides me?” (Acts 8:26–31).

When faced with a dif­fi­cult text in Isa­iah, the Ethiopian eunuch—I take him as nei­ther igno­rant nor unstable—did not twist it to his own destruc­tion, but instead sought answers from Philip, who spoke for the Church.

Protes­tant apol­o­gists never suf­fi­ciently deal with this prob­lem, or with texts like these. (Or Church Fathers like St. Jerome, who under­stood the Bible’s mud­di­ness: see Dia­logue Against the Lucife­ri­ans 28.) Instead, they sim­ply repeat the orig­i­nal claim of per­spicu­ity, often with syl­lo­gisms that are meant to prove that per­spicu­ity could not not be true. As recently as 2013, John Bugay—an ex-​Catholic, now Pres­by­ter­ian, who blogs at Tri­abloguewrote a post enti­tled “God is Not Some Kind of Loon.” His argu­ment there takes the fol­low­ing form:

1. Only a loon would make crea­tures that can’t under­stand his word;
2. God is not some kind of loon;
3. There­fore, Scrip­ture has per­spicu­ity.

Neat as a pin: Mr. Bugay’s solu­tion to the prob­lem is to deny the prob­lem. But the error of the syl­lo­gism is in #1. Mr. Bugay, who can not even begin with a cor­rect premise, sim­ply assumes—with no proof—that God’s word is lim­ited to the Bible. He pre­cludes the pos­si­bil­ity of a liv­ing teach­ing author­ity to guide Chris­tians in the right inter­pre­ta­tion of Scrip­ture. The effect of all this is that Mr. Bugay is pre­sump­tu­ous and dic­tates how God would or would not make his rev­e­la­tion clear for us. He tells us, not what God did do, but what he would have done if he were God.

One might very well ask: If God lim­its his word to Scrip­ture alone, and there­fore makes it crys­tal clear, how did the Book of Rev­e­la­tion make it into the Bible? That’s odd. Any­one who thinks the Book of Rev­e­la­tion has per­spicu­ity isn’t play­ing with a full 73-​book canon. Even Luther, who insisted that “noth­ing what­ever” is obscure in Scrip­ture, threw up his hands and said, “A Rev­e­la­tion ought to reveal.” Chester­ton famously said, “Though St. John the Evan­ge­list saw many strange mon­sters in his vision, he saw no crea­ture so wild as one of his own com­men­ta­tors.”

Or what is the clear mean­ing of Gen­e­sis 6:4? Or since when is Jesus easy to under­stand? The con­sis­tent response to him, both by his dis­ci­ples and by every­one else, is, “What was that he just said?” His dis­ci­ples time and again puz­zled over why Our Lord spoke so cryp­ti­cally. (And peo­ple say Pope Fran­cis is con­fus­ing. I mar­vel.)

The West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith tries to get out of this prob­lem by admit­ting—con­tra Luther—that there are dif­fi­cult pas­sages, but says we must inter­pret them in the light of clearer texts that speak of the same mat­ter (I.ix). That is not an entirely bad thing to rec­om­mend. But it is not a per­fect sys­tem either, such as when you com­pare Romans 3:28 with James 2:14. Which is the prob­lem verse here? A Catholic might say Romans, a Protes­tant James. Thus it is your own pre­dis­po­si­tion that deter­mines how you will apply the prin­ci­ple of Scripture-​interprets-​Scripture. Your own pre­dis­po­si­tion ends up val­i­dat­ing itself. Con­ve­nient, isn’t it?

No Catholic needs to argue, or believe, that Scrip­ture is an entirely dark and runic set of 73 books (Protes­tants falsely say 66) that read­ers are help­less to inter­pret. All we need to affirm is that Scrip­ture is insuf­fi­ciently clear, in all its texts, to serve as the sole rule of faith. And it is for that rea­son that God—because he is not a loon—gives us the teach­ing Church. Jesus after his Res­ur­rec­tion tells his apos­tles, “All author­ity is given to me in heaven and on earth. There­fore I send you”—not to write Scrip­ture, but to teach (Matthew 28:18–19). He does not say, Who­ever reads the Bible hears me; he says, Who­ever hears you hears me (Luke 10:16).

Here, a Protes­tant apol­o­gist is likely to object in one of two ways.

He might say that even the Mag­is­terium must be inter­preted, and there­fore to set it up as the solu­tion to an insuf­fi­ciently clear Bible only kicks the can down the road. The Mag­is­terium is not always so easy to under­stand either. Who will inter­pret the inter­preter?

The dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is that the Mag­is­terium is a liv­ing author­ity, so that if some mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion creeps into the Church, it can inter­vene and clar­ify. The pon­tif­i­cates of John Paul II and Bene­dict XVI, to take just one exam­ple, were largely devoted to set­ting forth the cor­rect inter­pre­ta­tion of the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, against those who would—and did—misread it. God, how­ever, does not speak from the clouds to say, “I am sorry, Mr. Luther, but you have mis­in­ter­preted Romans 3:28.”

Or a Protes­tant might say, If it is true that the Mag­is­terium is needed for you to prop­erly inter­pret the Scrip­tures, then why has it not given an infal­li­ble inter­pre­ta­tion of every verse?

Such a ques­tion in fact begs the ques­tion, in that it assumes sola scrip­tura with­out prov­ing it. The per­son who asks seems to think the only pur­pose of an infal­li­ble Mag­is­terium, if such a thing exists, is to give the defin­i­tive inter­pre­ta­tion of Scrip­ture. Once it has done that, it has no fur­ther pur­pose and may recede and leave Chris­tians to the Bible alone.

But that is not the pur­pose of the Mag­is­terium. Its pur­pose is to main­tain the integrity and unity of the faith, and to keep Chris­tians united in one body. That does not require it to inter­pret all 31,000-plus verses of Scrip­ture. In a few cases it does do so, as with Matthew 16:18. Or it tells us that the woman clothed with the sun (Rev­e­la­tion 12:1) is Mary. But its real pur­pose is to define faith and morals such that the unity of the Church is pre­served. To that end, it need not bind scrip­tural exe­ge­sis in tight chains; it need only keep it within cer­tain bounds. It tells us not how Scrip­ture must be inter­preted so much as how it may not be inter­preted. You may not inter­pret Romans 3:28 to deny the neces­sity of works in sal­va­tion. That is the dif­fer­ence: A Catholic dri­ves within the lanes; a Protes­tant is on a road with­out lanes, get­ting into wrecks.

The other pur­pose of a Mag­is­terium is to address new ques­tions that could not pos­si­bly have been antic­i­pated by the writ­ers of Scrip­ture, how­ever clearly they wrote. One obvi­ous exam­ple is embry­onic stem cell research. Cloning is another. Only a liv­ing author­ity can answer such ques­tions; a closed canon can not.

What we are left with in Protes­tantism (and other Chris­t­ian groups out­side of Protes­tantism) is a wide vari­ety of sects and denom­i­na­tions that read the Bible and, hav­ing no infal­li­ble inter­pre­tive author­ity given by God, come to very dif­fer­ent views on such ques­tions as whether you should bap­tize infants, or in what sense Christ is present in the Eucharist, or whether you should speak in tongues, or whether Christ died to redeem all or only a select few. These ques­tions have not been answered in a suf­fi­ciently clear and con­sis­tent way sim­ply by the Bible alone. If the Bible has per­spicu­ity, then this is a prob­lem Protes­tants need to address. The only answer they seem to have is, “Well, all this is to be expected.” Why? That’s no answer.

Filed under

About Scott Eric Alt

Scott Eric Alt
  • Get the RSS feed
Scott Eric Alt is a freelance writer and blogger, and managing editor at Catholic Stand, living in Cincinnati. He has an M.A. in English literature (1998) from Southern Illinois University, and in a past life taught introductory college composition and literature. Scott converted to the Catholic Church in 2011, after many years of Protestant church-hopping. He is a Third Degree Knight of Columbus and Benedictine Oblate of St. Meinrad Archabbey. You can find his blog at http://www.scottericalt.org.