Have you heard this argument before?
“Sure, the Bible may be infallible, but are you infallible? If you’re not infallible, how do you know your interpretation of the Bible is correct? An infallible Bible isn’t helpful without an infallible interpreter, and therefore we need the infallible interpretation of [insert authority here]!”
In most cases, the preferred “infallible interpreter” is the magisterium of the Catholic Church, but it could also be the Patristics, the Watch Tower Society, the teachings of the LDS prophets, etc. But regardless of the proposed solution, the problem raised against Bible-believers is the same: “how can you have certainty without an infallible interpreter?” Many Catholic apologists view this as their trump card, and boast it as the insurmountable epistemological weakness of Protestantism. How would you answer it?
The key to answering this so-called “dilemma” lies in what’s tacitly conceded even by the challenger: words have meaning. They must concede this, because if words didn’t have objective, discernible meaning, then their remedy (and the conversation altogether) would be as pointless as enforcing a 10-person-or-less quarantine policy at an Episcopalian church. If language was so utterly opaque and uncertain, then having an infallible interpreter would do nothing to solve the problem, because we would be in the same danger of fallibly interpreting the infallible interpreter as we would the infallible Bible. How can little ol’ fallible me have any certainty in correctly interpreting the infallible interpreter? I suppose I’d need an infallible interpreter to interpret the infallible interpreter, and then an interpreter for that interpreter, and so on ad infinitum.
But if that’s absurd, the obvious reason is because words have meaning. When someone says, “water is wet,” my confidence in understanding that doesn’t in the least bit hinge on having access to an infallible magisterium. I don’t have to be infallible to know the meaning of “water is wet” anymore than I have to be infallible to know that grass is green. Both of these I simply receive as facts of the world – facts that are self-evident independent of any subjective interpretation. Understanding the meaning of words doesn’t depend on the infallibility of the one who hears them; they can be grasped with confidence by anyone who has a minimal understanding of the English language.
So, if our interlocutor confesses that words have discernible meaning (as they ultimately must), what is it they’re asserting? Really, they’re not asserting that language in general is always unclear, but that the Bible is. And so, since the Bible is unclear, we need to consult an authority that is clear. Cutting through their epistemological sophistry, we now see the meat of their argument, and what it takes to answer it. The answer to Rome’s challenge is that the Bible is clear, and that – while we appreciate the gesture – we are not in need of their assistance. We have no need for man to add to what God made perfectly clear in the first place.
The technical name for the doctrine expressed above is the Perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity is a word that’s ironically not very perspicuous, but it simply means “clarity.” When we say Scripture is perspicuous, we mean that it’s not dark or mysterious, and that it’s easy to understand for anyone who puts in the time and effort to understand it. This doesn’t mean that every doctrine is equally clear, but that all doctrines can become apparent through diligent consultation of the Word, and that the essential doctrines are especially clear to all. Concerning the latter, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith puts it as follows:
“…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 ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.”1689 LBCF 1.7
No advanced degree, ordination by a bishop, or time in a monastery is necessary to understand what God says plainly; even “the unlearned” are perfectly able to see that the way of salvation is by Grace Alone through Faith Alone according to the merits of Christ Alone. The Bible says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7), and “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Psalm 119:130). If God’s words can give understanding to the simple and make them wise, how can you say they aren’t clear? The Bible also says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105). Could something dark and obscure be a light to us? And if that’s not enough, it says, “I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” (Psalm 119:99-100). How could someone have more understanding than his teachers by studying the Word if he can only understand the Word through his teachers? When could a papist affirm these words of the psalmist, and say that a believer may know more than the ancients and his teachers through studying Scripture? In light of these clear, perspicuous statements in the Word of God, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would deny this doctrine without a motive to put themselves in the place of the Bible.
The “30,000” Argument
“But,” interjects the Romanist, “if the Bible is so clear, why are there 30,000TM Protestant denominations?” For starters, those numbers are wildly inflated, as even the more honest Catholics will concede. Secondly, not being under the ecclesiastical authority of another denomination doesn’t necessarily imply disfellowship or lack of a spirit of unity, and the reverse is also true. A Reformed Baptist and an Orthodox Presbyterian usually get along much better than a CCR participant would with a typical Augustinian monk. I’d wager that the range of beliefs among those who uphold the three pillars of Biblical epistemology (inerrancy, sufficiency, and perspicuity) is much smaller than the range of beliefs under the jurisdiction of the Pope.
But regardless of how much doctrinal unity there is among those with a Biblical worldview, we cannot deny the differences between us altogether. Do we disagree on secondary issues because the Bible is only clear about the essentials? While some doctrines may not be as immediately clear as others, and some things may take more effort to understand than others, we should not rashly say that this means the Bible’s not clear on those subjects, too. God forbid that we imply His Word is somehow at fault for our divisions! As Herr Luther so strongly says:
“…the notion that in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain was spread by the godless Sophists … who have never yet cited a single item to prove their crazy view; nor can they. And Satan has used these unsubstantial spectres to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of it’s value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church …. the entire content of the Scriptures has now been brought to light, even though some passages which contain unknown words remain obscure. Thus it is unintelligent, and ungodly, too when you know that the contents of Scripture are as clear as can be, to pronounce them obscure on account of those few obscure words. If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another.”Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. II.ii
God has given us the perfect Book to lead us into all truth. So perfect is it that – while it’s a great help to consult others who have spent more time in it than we have – we don’t need any help to understand it if we are willing to immerse ourselves in it.
“But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him”1 John 2:27
The Holy Spirit is the infallible interpreter for the believer, and the primary means He teaches us is through His Word, which He opens our eyes to receive. Through His Word, He is perfectly able to teach us “all things.” If there’s anything that was at one time dark and uncertain, all is illuminated through Jesus Christ, the light of the world, whom we receive by His Spirit. So, again, why do godly Christians so often disagree? The answer isn’t God’s Word; the blame lies solely with us – 1) on our ignorance, and 2) on our flesh.
- Ignorance: Some doctrines are complex and require much study. There’s a difference between complexity and clarity; the Bible is perfectly clear on all its subjects, but the doctrine itself may be inherently complicated, and the Holy Spirit’s explication of it may span multiple books of Scripture. After putting all the pieces together, the doctrine will indeed be clear. But because most of us haven’t memorized the entirety of the Bible, and because most of us aren’t so attentive that we always recognize the relevancy of a passage to a doctrine, disagreement inevitably emerges among ourselves.
- The flesh: Oftentimes, even believers will resist a truth of Scripture. The Holy Spirit can lead you to water, and He can make you drink it, too, but in God’s wisdom He’s chosen to make sanctification a process rather than an event. And so, the Holy Spirit will always point the believer the right way, but our unsanctified flesh will resist until He subdues it. There are cases where we might not like the implications of the doctrine, where it might wound our pride to admit we were previously wrong about it, where the doctrine might go against the views of one of our favorite theologians – there are many possible reasons for resisting that none of us are exempt from this side of glory. As such, we must always remain vigilant.
No Christian is immune to either of these weaknesses, and this is why there can be doctrinal disagreement even among believers. But in neither case is the fault attributable to God’s Word or its clarity, and so the doctrine of perspicuity isn’t threatened by them. On the contrary, the doctrine of perspicuity gives hope that resolution is available, and that we can obtain certainty even on secondary issues, regardless of the many good, educated believers who disagree; it just takes work and humility. Because the Word of God does teach all of its doctrines clearly, whoever is willing to be humble, receive instruction by the Holy Spirit, and become devoted to thoroughly studying His Word is guaranteed to find the answers he or she is looking for. Our problem is that we seldom ever do this, and rely on the speculations of others and/or ourselves rather than properly consulting Him with a believing heart. But when our problem is a heart problem, none of the authorities our opponents proffer are of any help. Even if they had an infallible authority, there’s nothing they could add to the one God already gave us.
To Him be honor and glory for giving us a perfect authority for all matters of faith and practice!
Andrew, thanks for the good article. It should be noted that despite having been around for 1500 years, the Roman magisterium has interpreted only seven Bible verses/passages definitively. What good is having an authoritative magisterium if it never exercises its prerogatives? Also, we currently see some conservative and traditionalist Catholics calling pope Francis a heretic for guilefully removing the ban on communion for remarried divorcees and allowing individual bishops to decide on communion for Protestant spouses of members. Conservative Catholic leaders are advising their followers to ignore Francis’ “reforms,” which casts a bad light on the claims of the magisterium.
Glad you liked it, Tom. Very good point about the magisterium! It shows you what they think about the Bible that they don’t even bother to tell us what it means, even though they claim to have the ability to. What a mess that “church” is, happy to hear that God drew you out of it
Thanks, Andrew! I thank the Lord daily for drawing me out of Roman Catholicism forty years ago and saving me by His grace though faith in Jesus Christ alone.