If You Want to Understand the Bible, Listen to the Magisterium
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 Triablogue—wrote 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.