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

(photo: 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.