The problems are perspicuous

A large hunk (but by no means all) of Protestantism’s appeal comes from its doctrine of the so-called perspicuity of Scripture, according to which (as the Westminster Confession of Faith, for one, puts it)

VII. 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. (WCF I.VII)

At first glance, I will grant you, that seems to be pretty straightforward stuff. But there are multiple problems with it. First: are they talking about the Greek and Hebrew originals? If so, then there is obviously zero clarity for the “unlearned” man who doesn’t know those languages. If the writers of the WCF aren’t talking about the texts in the original languages (as seems likely), then the clarity depends upon the translators, not upon the text. Quite obviously a bad translation can obscure an otherwise clear passage beyond the “unlearned” man’s comprehension. Or does God protect the translators from adding obscurity? (That is a rhetorical question: Of course He doesn’t, and no Protestant says otherwise.) So we see that perspicuity is crumbling under its own weight already.

But wait. There is more. What are the “ordinary means” and what constitutes “due use” of them? Presumably it includes literacy (perspicuity does not do the blind man much good, nor the man who cannot read), but do the ordinary means include knowledge of Greek and Hebrew? Or skill in exegesis, maybe? Exactly how many of the “unlearned” possess these skills?

As if that is not enough: what constitutes a “sufficient understanding” of these clear doctrines? Being able to name them, or explain them, or teach them, or something else? Well, we aren’t told.

At the risk of piling on there is one more serious problem: there is no universally agreed-upon catalog of these essential and clear doctrines. One would think that if they are so clear, then anyone with a college degree (being, presumably, unlearned at the very least) would be able to produce this list, and it would agree with everyone else’s list. I have asked Reformed people to provide such a list of these “clear” essentials. One fellow flatly refused! Another fellow couldn’t stop adding to his list, which contained things that other Protestants would not accept anyway.

So basically one is lucky if he can get a list. But if he does, it probably won’t be the same as some other person’s list, which pretty much demolishes the so-called perspicuity claim of the WCF.

This should not surprise us. St. Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:16):

[St. Paul] makes this point too in his letters as a whole wherever he touches on these things. In all his letters there are of course some passages which are hard to understand, and these are the ones that uneducated and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture—to their own destruction. (emphasis added)

Contrary to what the WCF says about the unlearned, Peter says the uneducated “distort” both Paul’s epistles and the rest of the Scriptures. So which is it? Are the uneducated up to the task of interpreting the Bible (says the WCF) or not (says the Bible itself)? Or is the doctrine of perspicuity not perspicuous?

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Posted in Apologetics, Scripture

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