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Why Catholics Reject Sola Scriptura

The idea that Scripture is the sole rule of faith is central to the thinking of man Protestants, who see Tradition as a watering down of scriptural purity. But Catholics have good reason to reject this view. Author Casey J. Chalk explains.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I am Cy Kellett, your host. And one of the things you have to be able to defend as a Catholic is the Catholic understanding of the Bible, of what the Bible is and how the Bible is to be used. And even in some cases, how passages, for example, of the Bible are to be understood. This view of the Bible, the Catholic view of the Bible, differs from the post reformation view of the Bible, which has kind of become dominant in many places, even among many Catholics. So what’s wrong with the post reformation view of the Bible and what is a truly Catholic view of how we are to use the Bible and to understand what the Bible has to say? That’s all part of the new book from Author Casey Chalk. The book is called The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity. Casey Chalk, you’ll see his writing all over the place, writing on both political and religious matters. Casey, thanks very much for being here with us.

Casey Chalk:

Cy, it’s a real pleasure to be on Catholic Answers Focus with you. Thanks so much for having me on.

Cy Kellett:

So I’ll start with what is perspicuity? This is an idea that’s a post reformation idea. What does it mean?

Casey Chalk:

So perspicuity is a doctrine that has been with Protestantism more or less since the beginning. I know it’s a fairly technical term that probably most Protestants aren’t even familiar with. It’s more common name is the doctrine of clarity, but I think even a lot of Protestants probably were not explicitly taught that when they were in Sunday school or any kind of Protestant education that they received. But as I argue in the book, I really do believe that clarity is the most fundamental of Protestant doctrines. It’s more or less in the air that Protestants breathe. And what it is is I think once I explain it, I think most Protestants and Catholics will immediately understand and appreciate why it’s so important and recognize it, which is namely that the Bible is so clear that any Christian, regardless of intellectual ability, academic background, theological training, should be able to understand the fundamentals or essentials of the Christian faith.

Sometimes it’s tailored a little bit more exclusively to just focus on what’s necessary for salvation. That’s how a lot of the early reformers, including the writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the early Protestant confessional document, that’s how they understood it. So there’s a lot of different flavors of the doctrine of clarity or perspicuity, but that’s more or less the fundamental understanding of it. It’s an understanding of how clear is the Bible? It must be clear enough for any Christian to be able to understand the most essential important doctrines.

Cy Kellett:

So if you’re going to hold the modern idea of sola scriptura, then do you have to hold the view that the scripture has clarity or perspicuity? That is to say that, as you just described it, anyone, any normal person can pick up the Bible and understand the message. If the Bible’s going to be your only authority, isn’t a biblical theory of perspicuity required?

Casey Chalk:

Yeah, and I more or less argue that in the book. I think it is, because if you don’t have a doctrine of clarity and you believe in sola scriptura, then the Bible was kind of like this treasure box full of all these amazing gifts from God and truths that we need access to, but there’s no key to unlock it. So the doctrine of clarity, more or less, serves as that key to get inside the Bible and understand what it means. Otherwise, you’re going to need some kind of interpretive authority, a Catholic magisterium or something like that, in order to make sense of what the Bible teaches.

Cy Kellett:

I’m sure … that makes sense to me, but I’ve spoken to some folks who are Catholic now and were Protestant ministers and whatnot, and I ask them about this and they say, “Well, I don’t know if I ever really believed in sola scriptura. I always believed you needed a community. You needed a kind of small “t” tradition.” So maybe even among Protestants, there’s a perceived failure of sola scriptura, because … well, let me put it this way. So obviously the Bible is being completely differently interpreted by various sects of Protestantism.

Casey Chalk:

So you definitely see that there’s been a big movement certainly in the reformed community, which is the one I come out of, thinking Presbyterians, Dutch reformed, Calvinists, et cetera over the last, I don’t know, about 20 years, to talk about how they believe in sola scriptura rather than solo scriptura.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, I see.

Casey Chalk:

So they’re trying to differentiate between those Protestants who have the Bible and then tradition, which should inform it. So church councils, other confessional documents, and then me and my Bible alone, it’s just me, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit, and we’re the ones figuring things out. So certainly there’s a movement within Protestantism to want to emphasize the importance and validity of tradition, but the problem, and again, what I argue in the book, is that it’s still the individual Christian who is the one identifying which traditions, which councils, which confessional documents are the legitimate ones. And how does an individual Protestant do that? Recourse to individual biblical interpretation. So it’s more or less impossible to avoid this problem of the interpretation being thrust back upon the individual Christian, even when an individual Protestant may want to affirm the importance and value of church tradition.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Okay. Now what about the objection that you will sometimes hear, which is, look, of course there’s a thousand different ways to interpret much of what the Bible says, but the things that are needed for salvation, those are clear, that Jesus is the Lord and that His death on the cross is salvific, and the teachings on the sermon on the mount, or the things that are essential, those are clear enough and there’s no reason to obsess about disagreements on the other things.

Casey Chalk:

Well, certainly the earliest generation of reformers would disagree in the sense that they disagreed even amongst themselves over some of those essentials. So within just a decade or two, after Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, were seeing various Protestant movements which disagree with him on just about every essential teaching that there is in Christianity, from baptism to the Eucharist to anything else. Certainly justification as well, which was kind of the basis for Luther’s original protest against the Catholic Church. But even more fundamentally, I would argue that we’ve been arguing about what constitutes the essentials of the Christian faith since the very first church council in Jerusalem described in Acts 15, wondering whether or not Gentiles basically have to become Jews in order to become part of the church. And then from there, Nicaea, [inaudible], Ephesus, you name a church council, were more or less trying to decide what the essentials of the Christian faith are, and then who’s in and who’s out, who’s orthodox, who’s heterodox, who’s radical.

Cy Kellett:

So let’s say I had said to you when you were a Protestant, I said, “Look, the vast majority of Christians today, and certainly the vast majority of Christians all down through history read the sixth chapter of John’s gospel as a eucharistic discourse, but this divides churches now, whether or not this is a eucharistic discourse.” So I said to your Protestant self, Casey, “How can you believe in sola scriptura when something as basic as how do you have eternal life, because that’s what Jesus is talking about in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, is disputed by the very reformers that you follow?”

Casey Chalk:

I think when I was reformed, I probably would’ve … I, like a lot of the other Calvinists in Calvinist traditions of which I was a part, had a very high view of tradition. I would’ve just appealed to Calvin and other early reformers and their interpretations of scripture. And then like Calvin and Luther and a lot of the other ones, they wanted to find justification for their revisions of doctrines like the Eucharist in the early church. So they would kind of pick and choose various verses from certain church fathers, [inaudible], Augustine, and others, in order to try and validate their opinion. So I think I would probably just more or less … I don’t know, it’s sidestepping the question, but it’s almost trying to create a new Protestant tradition, which oftentimes sort of serves as having the same sort of authority that a tradition does in the Catholic paradigm or worldview. Yeah, and I would just more or less regurgitate whatever Calvin had taught about the Eucharist in his institutes of the Christian religion.

Cy Kellett:

Well, okay. So we’ve spoken about the Protestant side of this because we are disputing a key doctrine of Protestantism, this idea that scripture is clear enough that it can be relied on as the sole rule of faith, as the sole authority of faith, but your title is The Obscurity of Scripture. And here’s what I want to challenge you with. Somebody comes into, I don’t know, we have the Calvary Chapel churches all over here in Southern California, and they say, “Do you believe in Bible clarity or Bible obscurity?” And the preacher says, “We believe in Bible clarity.” Just for a person coming off the street, I would think Bible clarity is much more attractive doctrine than obscurity. So that would seem to put us Catholics at a disadvantage, that we’re saying the word of God is actually obscure.

Casey Chalk:

Yeah. Well, I chose the title of the book certainly because I wanted to be direct and aggressive in my criticism of Protestant Christianity, but I also think it’s easy to misinterpret what I’m trying to do with that title and the arguments in The Obscurity of Scripture. What I’m not claiming, and certainly what the Catholic Church has never claimed, is that scripture is so obscure that people can’t intuit various truths about God and about themselves and the world and reality from that. Because even we as Catholics, we recognize that Protestants have gotten a lot of things right. Many Protestants are Trinitarian, many Protestants have a very high Christology, many Protestants recognize the value of the church fathers and some of those teachings. So there’s a lot of common ground there, but what I would argue is that all of those Protestant traditions have no means of confirming any of those teachings.

It all comes back to the individual Christian or individual interpretation, whereas we as Catholics have an extra biblical means of confirming these interpretations of scripture so that we can have trust, not just in our own personal interpretation, us on our own individual islands, but recognizing this religious institution, which has plenty of historical, logical, rational credibility to it that can confirm it. So yeah, I don’t want readers and listeners to come away from this thinking that I or the Catholic Church believe that holy scripture is this impenetrably obscure book that nobody can understand anything from. Obviously that’s not the case. Even when I was an evangelical and a Calvinist, I still benefited dramatically from the Bible. And this holy scripture more or less pointed me towards the Catholic Church, but I needed more than just scripture in order to make that ascent of faith to recognize that the Catholic Church was who she said she was, and that was reference to the motives of credibility, another topic that I get into in the book.

Cy Kellett:

Okay, we’ll talk about that. So then the motives of credibility, so the idea of obscurity then is that okay, if Jesus says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood,” that’s … okay, just that start, just that phrase, I don’t even need to finish that. “Okay, I’m going to need to know the end of this, Jesus. What’s the end of this? Because this is a very serious stuff you’re talking about, and it has to do with you won’t get eternal life.” Okay, so this is very, very important. So the question becomes, how do I know that I’m doing the thing that Jesus said to do? And you’re saying I need a church to confirm that when I go to mass and I receive the Eucharist, I am doing the thing that Jesus instructed me to do, and that I can trust that church’s interpretation because that’s why He created it. That’s why He created the church, was to be able to affirm me that I’m doing what indeed He has asked me to do or told me to do.

Casey Chalk:

Yeah, that’s exactly right. And certainly you can find Protestants that have a very high view of the Eucharist. Many of them are located in the Anglican communion, for example.

Cy Kellett:

Sure.

Casey Chalk:

So in certain respects, there’s a lot of intersection between Catholics and other Christian traditions on the Eucharist, but even there … well, of course we get into issues regarding the validity of their sacraments, if they end up being the same thing as they would be by a priest who has valid orders in the Catholic Church. But even for a Protestant who recognizes perhaps a high view of the Eucharist is necessary, they’re going to need some sort of external authority to affirm their interpretation, but also to make sure that they guide them and direct them in the right way so that they have a proper perfect understanding of the Holy Eucharist.

Cy Kellett:

Right. And probably a very obvious case of this is the identity of Jesus, that from scripture, you could end up an Arian, an [inaudible], you could end up a million different things, but it’s the church that makes clear this is what the scripture means when it presents Jesus as the Son of God, as the Messiah, as the Lord, and all that.

Casey Chalk:

Oh, a hundred percent. And I think that the degree to which the early church argued over these things and the fact that even some church fathers had a difficult time understanding the exact nature of Christ’s identity, the fact that he was both fully God, fully man. Did He have two wills? Did He have one will? Right? All of these debates that define the early councils, this took a lot of time to work out, and it wasn’t clear at the time necessarily how these things were going to work out. Sometimes Athanasius, for example, the great defender of what we now understand as Orthodox Christology, he was sometimes the minority, having to fight against other bishops who disagreed with him. So yeah, we obviously need some sort of external authority that has the chops to be able to weigh in on these things and give us that sense of certitude regarding these doctrines.

Cy Kellett:

And it’s interesting that what Athanasius defended and the church fully adopted is actually accepted by almost every … not every Protestant, but almost every Protestant on earth. Protestantism has a high Christology because of those debates, not just because scripture asserts a high Christology.

Casey Chalk:

Yeah, that’s a hundred percent accurate. Right. I mean, it was these church councils, oftentimes informed by arguments made by Athanasius, [inaudible], and other early church fathers. They certainly gave them some of the theological and argumentative ammunition when they penned these documents, these church documents that we have now. But yeah, of course, ultimately it was the councils themselves that serve that role.

Cy Kellett:

So what about the … I mean, when you talk in this way, I think there’s something that is disturbed in the conscience of the everyday Christian, which is how can men claim to have authority over the word of God when the word of God is the thing that must have authority over men? So aren’t you taking the word of God and subjecting it to humanity in a way that actually reverses the order those things are supposed to go in?

Casey Chalk:

For Protestants who make that kind of argument, first I would try to appeal to some of their own biblical knowledge and see if we can find some common ground. So for example, I would talk about the need for a mediatory role between God and the people of God, which I think a lot of Protestants can naturally intuit from examples like Moses, David, the prophets, even Christ himself. They’re all serving in a mediatory role. Just because Moses is the one that is helping the people of God, the Israelites coming out of Egypt to understand the word of God, what it means, how it has to be practiced, that doesn’t mean that Moses is the divinely approved authority and interpreter of what God is trying to communicate to His people.

And I think what I would also press upon that person is that you’re either going to have an institutional authority like the Catholic Church doing this work and making these kinds of interpretive decrees about what scripture means, or you’re ultimately going to be thrust back upon yourself, and you’re going to be more or less bestowing that role, that magisterial authority upon yourself and acting as your own individual pope, which is exactly what, for example, St. John Henry Newman argued in the 19th century in his own battle with Protestants in England.

Cy Kellett:

So does the church then, in its own understanding of the Bible and of interpreting the Bible, does it say that tradition then is higher than the scripture? That is to say scripture … in the way that you’re describing it, it sounds like scripture is subject to tradition in a way that makes tradition a higher authority than scripture. Is that the Catholic view?

Casey Chalk:

No, not that tradition would be. Tradition and scripture are both part of the infallible divine revelation, but scripture … I think the church has been, I think, pretty emphatic in a number of different documents that scripture is more or less the highest authority, even higher than divine revelation, than a tradition, even though they both are from the same source. They’re both a part of divine revelation, but scripture would be the highest. But the magisterium itself is not tradition. The magisterium is kind of like the third leg of this interpretive stool upon which we sit.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. Okay. Fair enough. Fair enough. So if scripture has a kind of obscurity, maybe I should ask you this, why does it? Do you have any theory as to why would God do it that way? I mean, you would think that God could, if He wanted to, be entirely didactic and just explain it to us. Why do we have an obscure scripture rather than an opaque, self-explaining scripture?

Casey Chalk:

Who am I, I guess, to sort of make judgements –

Cy Kellett:

Where were you when the foundations of the world were laid? Is that what you were about to say?

Casey Chalk:

Yeah. Yes. Yeah, I guess I could quote Job here, but I think maybe what I could say is that probably it has something to do with human nature and the way that God created us and desired for us to be in community. And in the same way that we could ask, why didn’t God just create the church right after the fall? Why did we have to have thousands of years of pre-Israel and then this covenant with Abraham? Why did we have to go through all of that? Well, because it was all part of God’s beautiful, perfect plan to save humanity. So I suppose in some ways that He created this wave to relate to us because He wanted us to be in community, He wanted us to have an authority figure that would help us make sense of this.

Perhaps in some way, because He wanted that to serve as some sort of imperfect way for us to understand how the divine economy works, perhaps in the same way that the Trinity is this very beautiful, mysterious communication of God begetting his Son, and [inaudible] the Spirit. And they’re all communicating, they’re all authorities, but one is derivative from another. The Son’s authority is derivative of the Father. So I suppose probably in some ways it’s related to the beautiful, mysterious, divine economy, which is the Trinity itself. And obviously we’ll have a much better understanding of this in heaven.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, the reformers who posited the idea of solo scriptura are not just jerks. There’s a way in which, if I’m looking at the world in the year 1517, then the Bible has maintained a kind of purity and beauty that church authority has almost totally lost. Not totally lost, but you could see how someone could get themselves to the point of saying, “I don’t want that authority. I want an authority that isn’t corrupted by the world in the way the Roman authority is.”

Casey Chalk:

Oh, yeah. I think in that sense, especially speaking as a former Protestant, I have a little bit of an admiration for Luther that he had such a high view of scripture that he thought it could, on its own, solve all of these problems. And certainly Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, all of the early reformers, they were horrified by the [inaudible] nature of disagreements over scripture’s interpretation in the decades that followed the initial reformation. I mean, they were surprised and they were terrified that there were so many divergent disagreements.

Of course, and I talk about this a lot in the book, you get a flavor for what clarity does though to the church and to the people of God with how Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of them responded to these different opinions of scripture and divergent church communities. They condemned them as heretics, sometimes, as Luther did, called upon German political authorities to violently quell these different movements as he did with the radical reformers in Germany, Calvin more or less endorsing the burning of an Arian at the stake in his Geneva. So it’s a common theme that when Protestants, perhaps with a misguided high view of scripture, wanting to affirm its clarity, it accessibility to all people, but ultimately once recognizing that not everyone agreed with them and their personal interpretation, using the coercive powers of the state to more or less squash all of their enemies.

Cy Kellett:

That description you gave about why God might give us an obscure scripture rather than a purely crystalline scripture and having to do with our communal nature, this really is a distinguishing point between Catholicism and Protestantism, and why Protestantism is really the religion of the modern world and Catholicism has always been a guest in the modern world, so to speak, that even what you’re describing about the reformers is there’s an individualism about Protestantism that would suggest that I can sit here with the Bible and read it. And reading my Bible every day, I will come to the depths of what God wants me to come to. And probably Calvin and Zwingli and Luther and the others were of the view that we’ll reason it all out together, because this individual capacity to reason, we will work it out. They didn’t think that it would become as violent as it became and whatnot.

And the Catholic view is really anti-individualist. That is to say, look, you’re part of a community from the moment of your conception. You can never escape the communal aspect of your nature. You shouldn’t try to escape it. It’s a beautiful gift from God. So we’re going to receive this book as a community. So this is, I guess, where I’m going with all of this. Would it be fair to describe the way this has all worked out, whether anyone intended it or not, that the Protestant advocates an individualist reception of the book, of the scripture, and the Catholic remains with the no, this is a work for a community and it is irreducibly a book for a community, not for an individual?

Casey Chalk:

I think that’s a fair representation of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. I would say that certainly lots of Protestants emphasize the role of community and reading the text in community, in part, I think because of 500 years history of how the doctrine of clarity has played out creating all this massive number of different interpretations, theological traditions, different denominations and churches. So there is a desire, even amongst a lot of Protestants, to want to read scripture within a particular tradition, but as I realized, the individual Protestant Christian is still the one that gets to define or determine which theological tradition, which church or denomination I’m going to align myself with and be a part of that. And how do I make that determination? Of course it has to be based on my personal interpretation of holy scripture. So I think Protestants, even the ones who really want to retain that strong sense of community, have to fight against this natural individualizing tendency within the Protestant paradigm.

Cy Kellett:

But the other thing that seems to be happening is since the Second World War, a growing sense that we Christians are aliens, even the most modern Protestant is increasingly an alien in the modern world. So being alienated from the world, we actually do seem to be reasoning together. I think about the new perspectives on Paul, which is essentially a Protestant movement for reading St. Paul, and its tremendous effect on Catholic theology, that you can’t do Catholic theology without Protestant theology anymore, and you can’t do Protestant theology without Catholic theology anymore. It seems to have returned to a conversation rather than a dispute.

Casey Chalk:

Well, I think there’s a lot of very hopeful signs in ecumenical conversations between Protestants and Catholics. Certainly I was very excited in reading some of those when I was still a Protestant, what was happening with First Things, the journal First Things.

Cy Kellett:

Sure.

Casey Chalk:

And the broader organization, Evangelical and Catholics Together, which came out of that I think is one sign of that, but even my favorite Protestant writer and thinker is Carl Truman, who is a Presbyterian thinker who’s at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. And I met with him earlier this year when he gave a talk in DC and I was very surprised to learn that he views Thomas Winandy, a very prominent Catholic theologian and writer on Christology, as a good friend. And he told me, I didn’t realize this because I’ve been out of Protestantism now for more than 10 years, that Winandy has had a massive influence on Protestant understandings of Christology. I was kind of blown away by that, –

Cy Kellett:

Wow.

Casey Chalk:

– that Protestants were open to reading Catholic thinkers, yeah.

Cy Kellett:

And First Things has been a great service in that regard. But lots of things, lots of places are … Catholic University and Protestant University theology and biblical studies departments are often ecumenical now. They don’t look … I’m thinking of the very, very fine Catholic biblical scholar, Michael Barber, who’s trained, I think at Biola University, or maybe I have that wrong, but certainly at a Protestant university here in California. So let me ask you just to make the pitch then, the sales pitch to our Protestant brothers and sisters. Why should I submit to the Catholic Church as the authority in regard to scriptural interpretation now in the 21st century? Why should I do that?

Casey Chalk:

Well, I think Protestantism is still hemorrhaging quite a bit because of the decision that Protestant reformers made 500 years ago to embrace this doctrine of clarity. I mean, we saw it earlier this year with the Methodists and their decision to split and go their separate ways. But even in a lot of other Protestant traditions, even strong ones, Evangelical, conservative Protestant communities are constantly having these battles over scriptural interpretation and addressing each new quaking of the zeitgeist, the Southern Baptist convention, fighting with Rick Warren.

So Protestants are going to continue to have this problem of what are our doctrines? What are our essentials? And there’s no mechanism within Protestantism to actually say, “Here are the essential doctrines which we can never compromise on.” It just doesn’t exist. It can’t exist, because whereas in Catholicism, because of the nature of its authority structure, its interpretive power, its magisterial authority, we possess that and it gives us a sense of confidence, a sense of comfort, and an ability to direct ourselves in our theological energies in a much more productive and powerful form than Protestantism will ever have, because of its natural limitations.

Cy Kellett:

I’m so delighted we got to talk about this. First of all, thank you for the book, because it is a book that is very … it’s right at the center of the target of where we Catholics can enter into this conversation about scripture with our Protestant brothers and sisters. So I’m very grateful for it. The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity. It’s from Emmaus Road Publishing. The forward is by Dr. Scott Hahn, and you can get it wherever good Catholic books are sold. Do get it, The Obscurity of Scripture, a very, very fine book from our guest, Casey Chalk. Casey, thanks. I appreciate it. While your kids we’re playing a vigorous game of hide and seek behind you, you gave us a very fine interview. Thanks.

Casey Chalk:

Thank you so much. Pleasure to be on here.

Cy Kellett:

And that does it for us. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. If you want to support us, you can go to givecatholic.com. That’s where you can give us a few bucks to keep the lights on around here if you’ve got them and if you’d like to do that. If you want to support us as far as sharing the word, wherever you’re listening to this podcast, if you’d give us the five stars and write a review, that’s very helpful in growing the podcast. And if you want to respond to this podcast or any others that we’ve done, you can send an email to focus@catholic.com, focus@catholic.com. That’ll do it for us. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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