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The Protestant’s Biggest Bible Problem

It's not sola scriptura. It's not sola fide. It's a doctrine most people don't even know by name.

I’d like to make a controversial claim. The most important Protestant doctrine is not sola scriptura, that the Bible alone is the sole infallible rule of Christian faith. It’s not sola fide, that faith alone, apart from any works, is what saves the Christian. It’s not even sola gratia, that God’s grace alone, and not any merits of individual Christians, brings about salvation.

No, the most foundational of Protestant doctrines is one whose more formal name isn’t known even to most Protestants. I’m talking about the doctrine of perspicuity, or what is more frequently now called the doctrine of clarity.

The earliest Protestant Reformers all subscribed to some form of perspicuity. Martin Luther, for example, declared, “The meaning of Scripture is, in and of itself, so certain, accessible and clear that Scripture interprets itself and tests, judges, and illuminates everything else.” One can find similar declarations in the writings of Calvin, Zwingli, and other early Reformers.

Perhaps the most famous affirmation of perspicuity is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, a creedal document of English Presbyterians published in 1647. There we read the following:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet 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 the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The above is typically understood as the classic definition of perspicuity: what we need to know to be saved is clearly taught in the Bible, so much so that any person, regardless of intellectual ability or educational background, should be able to understand it. Many Protestants will offer a caveat that the Holy Spirit is required, or that one may need guidance from commentaries or biblically faithful preaching, the latter being what the above quotation calls “ordinary means.”

To understand why perspicuity is so important, think about the definition of sola scriptura, that doctrine often touted as the most essential of all Protestant teachings. The Bible, Protestants believe, is the only infallible source of truth about the divine. If that’s the case, then we’re going to need some way to interpret it on our own that doesn’t require an intermediary authority. Otherwise, Protestants would be thrust back into the paradigm they had sought to cast off in repudiating Rome. Without perspicuity, the Bible is akin to a treasure chest containing wonders of inestimable value but no way to retrieve them. Perspicuity serves as the key that unlocks the Bible so that we can access God’s message for humanity.

Now try this experiment: pick up any Protestant theological book, or tune in to a Protestant radio program for a while, and pay attention to how often the author or speaker talks about what the Bible “clearly teaches.” You may be surprised how often Protestants talk about clarity, even if they’ve never heard of the doctrine of perspicuity. They’ll talk about how the Bible “clearly teaches” something peculiar to Protestantism and no other Christian tradition; they’ll talk about how the Bible “clearly teaches” that a Catholic doctrine is erroneous; they’ll even talk about how the Bible “clearly teaches” some particular lifestyle or parenting program.

Protestants can’t help but do this, because, even if no pastor or Sunday school teacher has explicitly communicated Luther’s, Calvin’s, or the Westminster divines’ definition of perspicuity, it’s in the air Protestants breathe. Clarity is Protestantism, and without it, the entire religious system collapses. Someone has to do the interpreting of the Bible. In the Catholic tradition, it is the Magisterium, who has been given this privilege by Christ himself. In Protestantism, it is ultimately every . . . single . . . Christian. Each Protestant is his own magisterium.

Wording it that way will likely upset not a few Protestants. They’ll talk about the necessity of the Holy Spirit, the requirement of humility, the duty to consider those “ordinary means.” But, to get to the heart of the matter, whose Holy Spirit, whose humility, whose ordinary means? As Fox News used to say, “you decide!” And that explains the fissiparous five-century history of Protestantism, making every self-identifying Christian into his own pope.

Consider two well-meaning Protestants who sit down and read their Bibles and come to contradictory opinions on its meaning regarding some core principle. Perhaps they get hung up over salvation, baptism, the Eucharist, female pastors, or proscribed sexual behaviors. They debate, they argue, they appeal to various proof-texts to support their interpretation. They bring in other authorities such as Patristic sources, their favorite Protestant theologians, or modern scholars who are experts in the ancient languages, history, and archaeology.

But here’s the problem: Protestants don’t agree on the veracity or authority of any of those secondary sources, either. They disagree over which early Church Fathers to trust (and how much to trust them); they disagree over the authority of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli; and they disagree over how best to interpret the historical record or the Hebrew and the Greek. Once again, individual Protestants remain in the driver’s seat, even if they don’t want to be.

I spent a couple years of my life as a Protestant trying to identify what the Bible really teaches about justification and baptism. What I discovered is a proliferation of divergent Protestant opinions that grows—and becomes all the more esoteric (and by extension, unclear)—with each generation. I realized that in the end, it was up to me to decide which Protestant camp to which I would align myself. Even if I cited trusted pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars, I was the one deciding who those trusted authorities would be.

For those Protestants who still subscribe to sola scriptura (many don’t—another obvious problem), perspicuity has proved incapable of determining the Bible’s supposed “plain meaning.” Because they can’t agree on that “plain meaning,” they’re forced to make recourse to secondary authorities, but they disagree over which of those authorities are trustworthy. This is the reason Protestantism is so thoroughly individualist and subjective: every single Protestant can’t help but be his own authority when it comes to divine revelation and its meaning.

Granted, the earliest Reformers did not intend this. They believed that a corrupted and wicked Catholic Church had obscured what was clear. The Reformers’ self-defined mission was simply to get the Bible into the hands of individual people so that all persons of faith could divine its clear teachings. It didn’t play out that way—not even in their lifetime, as the debate between Luther and Zwingli over the Eucharist at the Marburg Colloquy demonstrated.

The Bible isn’t clear—at least not in the sense that Protestants claim. More than five hundred years of Protestant history should make that obvious. Christians require a different paradigm for interpreting the Bible, one that is coherent, that is historically and intellectually defensible, and that drives us to Christ rather than into ourselves. And that model exists in the Catholic Church.

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

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