Sin and Understanding

A Reformed Protestant gentleman writes:

Why can’t the answer simply be that the Bible, if read perfectly, provides a system of doctrine, but due to our sin and hardness of heart no one reads it perfectly. Thus it is not the Bible’s fault that its readers misinterpret it, any more than it is God’s fault that agnostics don’t see him.

If this is the case, then we Reformed should have a measure of hermeneutical humility as we acknowledge that the “T” in TULIP still affects us. In a word, we might be wrong about some things. But given both our imperfections as well as the sincere desire to hear God’s voice in Scripture, we believe that the Reformed system of doctrine is correct. But we don’t consign to hell those who don’t see it.

With regard to the answer proposed in the first paragraph, I can think of three problems. First, St Peter says that there are passages that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). He doesn’t say that the difficulty is in us; he says that difficulty is an attribute of portions of the Bible. So it won’t do to say that sin is the sole cause of misunderstanding the Bible. St Peter has effectively ruled out that possibility. He goes on to say that the “unlearned wrest” the hard parts “to their own destruction.” So unless the gentleman wants to say that in St Peter’s view to be unlearned is just to be wicked, it isn’t reasonable to say that sin is the only obstacle we must overcome when we attempt to understand the Bible.

Secondly, it seems to me that this proposal does not eliminate the epistemological problem the Protestant faces. I take it that “to read the Bible perfectly” means “to understand it perfectly and completely.” If that is correct, then it seems the gentleman would have to be willing to accept the idea that we are unable to identify what God has revealed in the Bible, because we are unable to distinguish revealed truth from human error.

Following upon this, the third problem I see is that it is a self-refuting proposal. It seems pretty clear that the gentleman draws his views on the noetic effects of sin from the Bible. If sin prevents all of us (including him) from understanding the Bible perfectly, then there is no reason for us to grant that his view of the noetic effects of sin is correct because (like everyone else) he may be wrong about that (due to sin). So the claim “the Bible teaches that sin prevents understanding the Bible perfectly” undermines itself.

The only way that one could conceivably escape that noose is to have a privileged means for ascertaining what the Bible says, and our author seems to understand this. He goes on to say in the second paragraph: But given both our imperfections as well as the sincere desire to hear God’s voice in Scripture, we believe that the Reformed system of doctrine is correct. But given the noetic effects of sin which he has proposed, this is nothing more than sheer fideism, because he has no basis for supposing that he and his Reformed comrades have escaped the noetic effects of sin when it comes to Reformed theology. If the justification for that claim is to be found in their “sincere desire to hear God’s voice in Scripture” (something I absolutely do not question), then I’m afraid that he has given away the whole store. Because Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and everyone else (including Catholics!) is no less sincere in holding that same desire. Heck, so are Mormons. So a mere sincere desire to hear God simply isn’t sufficient to justify the claim that one’s views are true. But the same is likewise true about any other means he might propose by which to escape the noetic effects of sin, since within Protestantism there are always groups who disagree about basically every point of doctrine. The only way to escape that problem is to say that one has a privileged means for doing so that others do not.

So it seems pretty clear that the gentleman’s proposal does not resolve the problem of uncertainty associated with Protestantism.

[Update] Another Reformed gentleman asserts, by way of attempting to get around the problem associated with claiming that sin prevents us from understanding God’s word perfectly:

Nope, the Bible defines the church and it defines Reformed doctrines clearly, especially justification by faith alone. God is simply pleased to illuminate some more than others on the ins-and-outs of doctrine.

If this is true, then it would certainly provide a privileged means by which to to escape the noose of the noetic effects of sin. The rather obvious problem is that the gentleman has no means for substantiating the claim apart from an appeal to the Bible. But of course if he does so he immediately slams into the brick wall of sin’s noetic effects: why should we believe that he has escaped those effects when he says that God illuminates “some more than others”? The answer is that no one should believe him when he says that. Granted the first (the noetic effects of sin impairing man’s ability to rightly understand the Bible) it is flatly impossible to know with certainty that the second is clearly taught in the Bible. So he cannot justify the claim that God illumines some more than others by an appeal to the Bible while at the same time saying that sin prevents men from properly understanding everything the Bible teaches. The upshot is that the claim he has made amounts to fideism.

Posted in Epistemology, Fides et Ratio, Protestantism, Solo Scriptura
4 comments on “Sin and Understanding
  1. Just found your blog. I like it. Aquinas, etc. Great title. Many times (on my blog) I end up just posting summaries of Aquinas’s thoughts in the Summa. I will put a link to your blog on mine.

    I like your argument here. You are touching on the Reformed doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. I have never believed in this doctrine (even as a Reformed Protestant). It always struck me as dishonest. Really? Are we going to say after all our erudite learning about the principles of hermeneutics and learning the difficulties in translating particular passages of Greek and Hebrew that all passages in the Bible are “clear”? I just could never hold that and be honest with myself. But as you point out, Peter “clearly” didn’t hold that either (pardon the pun … hehe).


    T h e o • p h i l o g u e

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hi Theo,

    Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your kind words. I appreciate it.

    I’m not sure that perspicuity per se was on the table in the conversation from which I provided quotations, although I agree that there is certainly a connection. The emphasis was less upon the character of Scripure and its clarity, and more upon our apprehension of what it teaches. The Reformed folks attributed Protestant differences of opinion to the noetic effects of sin. One absurd thing (in my opinion anyway) was the suggestion that was made elsewhere in that thread that literally every such difference is ultimately a consequence of sin. But as I point out in my post, that is just not what St Peter says.


  3. Fred,

    I once asked a professor of mine, as he was waxing eloquent on the doctrine of Perspicuity, whether the doctrine taught that the Bible itself was clear, or whether he was saying the Bible was clear to the humans who read it. He hesitated in answering my question, but basically said “The Bible itself” (for obvious reasons).

    I thought about that answer, however, and the doctrine no longer made sense to me, since the Word of God was written to sinful man as its intended audience, and if it wasn’t clear to the audience to which it was written, then the doctrine of Perspicuity seemed quite inconsequential or irrelevant (i.e. has no practical import).

    This is why I perceived your comments to “touch” on this doctrine, because for me it was the question that raised the question of subjectivity. If he had answered my question differently and said he thought the Bible was clear to the humans for whom it was written, then he would have a hard time explaining why there is so much disagreement among Protestants. Given his answer, however, it makes the doctrine of Perspicuity inconsequential, since “clearness” seems to intend to have some object (Clear to Whom?). If the Bible is only clear to God himself, what is the point of this doctrine of the “perspicuity” of Scripture? All books are “clear” to God, so if “clearness” only has God as it’s intended object (clear to Whom? clear to God, but not to the humans he wrote it for), it would seem we could apply the doctrine to any written book whatsoever.

    Hope that makes more sense.

    T h e o • p h i l o g u e

    P.S. – I just finished reading your article on Called to Communion (“The Accidental Catholic”); Great article!

  4. aquinasetc says:

    Interesting comments, Theo. I think I understand your point better now. Thanks! And thanks for your kind remarks about my Called to Communion post too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 146 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: