Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

The Problem with Interpreting Your Own Bible

When the Protestant claims that Scripture is clear, how does he do it?

The Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, or clarity, presents quite a dilemma for Protestants. Even if we narrow the definition of perspicuity to mean just that Scripture is clear with regards to what is necessary for salvation—as many Reformed, or Calvinist, Christians do—there are a multitude of problems. Those problems span the philosophical, ecclesiological, sociological, and historical. Let me briefly give an example of each before I move on to discuss an alternative to perspicuity.

One philosophical problem with the doctrine of perspicuity is that it is a form of question-begging, or presuming something that has not been proved, and is thus itself up for debate. When the Protestant claims that Scripture is clear, how does he do it? By appealing to Scripture, with verses such as Psalm 119:130: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (ESV). But citing such a text presumes that those with whom the Protestant is debating, be they fellow Protestants or something else—Catholic, Orthodox, even Mormon—agree as to the meaning of that biblical proof-text.

An ecclesiological problem with clarity is that it promotes a radical individualism that facilitates the splintering of the Christian community. If I believe that Scripture clearly teaches X, and the particular denomination, church, or theological system of which I call myself a member disagrees with X, I’ve got a problem. I can certainly try to persuade all the other members of the congregation that they are wrong and I’m right. Or I can find a different denomination, church, or theology that better aligns with my interpretation . . . or just establish my own! And that, as scholar Brad S. Gregory argues in his excellent book The Unintended Reformation, is exactly what happens.

Sociologically, perspicuity demands we think the worst of others and the best of ourselves. Anyone who disagrees over what the Bible plainly teaches must have a pretty serious problem, which is why Protestants since Luther and Calvin have accused their interpretive opponents of being sinners, deceived by the devil, or just downright stupid. Scripture is supposed to be clear, remember? Alternatively, perspicuity leads us to think ourselves righteous and wise, uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit to declare what the Bible really and truly means.

There are also historical problems. It didn’t take long once Luther publicly rejected the Catholic Church for other European Christians to do the same, often in ways Luther found repellent and heretical. Thus began five centuries of Protestant debates over Scripture’s clear meaning, over not only what is necessary for salvation, but also just about everything else. Of self-identifying Protestants today, a minority hold to Luther’s teachings on salvation, let alone the rest of his theological system. Even within Calvinism there is intense debate over the essentials.

Hopefully, all of that should leave at least a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth. But is there a Christian interpretive system that avoids these problems—one that is both credible and internally consistent? As a former Calvinist seminarian who recognized the problems with clarity and eventually studied my way into the Catholic Church, I’d like to argue yes, there is!

The Catholic Church does not teach that Scripture is so clear that every person will be able to interpret it in order to understand what is necessary for salvation, or even the “essentials” of the Faith. That doesn’t mean the Church disdains the Bible—indeed, Dei Verbum, a document of the Second Vatican Council, declares, “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted to put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” The words of Scripture, the Catholic Church declares, contain teaching on what is necessary for salvation. The question, however, is who is able to authoritatively, definitively determine what that teaching is.

In the Catholic tradition, or what many would call the Catholic paradigm, it is not individual Christians who possess the ability (or authority) to intuit the Bible’s meaning on salvation, but the magisterial authority of the Church. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains,

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome (85).

This authority, the Church teaches, was granted by Christ to the apostles and their successors, and, most prominently, to the chief of the apostles, St. Peter and his successors.

It is this magisterial interpretive authority that has been exercised in ecumenical councils across Church history, from Nicaea and Chalcedon, which settled debates over Christ’s personhood and his relationship with God the Father; to the counter-Reformation Council of Trent, which rejected various Protestant misinterpretations of the Bible. It is this same magisterial interpretive authority that has over the centuries sought to unite and consolidate the various biblical interpretations and theological reflections of Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Augustine, or great medieval theologians such as Aquinas and Bonaventure.

“Okay,” you may be asking, “but why should a person trust the magisterial authority of the Catholic Church over and against the individual self-identifying Christian?” The answer, you might be surprised to hear, is not to cite biblical proof-texts for the primacy of Peter or the reality of the episcopal authority of the Church (though the Church does indeed offer biblical support for such doctrines). Rather, it is to cite extra-biblical evidence, of which there is plenty.

We can examine, for example, the historical data related to the early Church and its self-understanding when it comes to biblical interpretation. The early Church Fathers, for example, consistently argued that an interpretive authority is necessary to resolve disputes over the teaching of Scripture and various theological propositions (and that was exactly the purpose that early ecumenical councils served). We can also cite the historical evidence for the episcopacy (and the Roman See) as an authoritative biblical and theological interpreter. And we can cite the history of the biblical canon, which was approved by several fourth- and fifth-century local synods and, eventually, an ecumenical council, Florence, in 1442.

We can also examine the motives of credibility, which are rational grounds for accepting the divine establishment of the Catholic Church. They include, among other things, “Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability” (CCC 156).

In other words, the testimony of the Church’s saints, and the Church’s continued existence, growth, and holiness, among other data, lend credence to its legitimate authority.

To learn more about the doctrine of perspicuity and its problems for Protestantism, you can order Casey’s new book here.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!