Protestant Infallible Interpretation

In my last post, I said that the Protestant has made himself the measure of all things when it comes to the Bible: he will decide for himself what the Bible teaches. This amounts to a sort of “baptized Renaissance humanism:” man as the measure of all things, because the individual Protestant determines for himself what truths are said to be taught in the Bible (which is at least formally the only source of religious truth that they consider to be valid).

As I conceded, that was a coarse way of putting things: because in many cases, this is not precisely how Protestants view the matter themselves. At least some of them might explicitly deny such a representation of their position. In this post I will be addressing the Presbyterian position on the subject. I’m selecting this one for two reasons: first, I think that it is at least representative of the better sort of Protestant viewpoint with respect to the question (I don’t necessarily mean to say that it is the best; Lutherans might say otherwise, for example, and some other groups might quibble as well, and I don’t mean to belittle the others. In fact, though, I think that for the most part their perspectives will be at least similar to the Presbyterian one). Secondly, as a former member (for 20 years) of the Presbyterian Church in America, it’s the Protestant perspective that is most familiar to me!

The Westminster Confession of Faith is the confessional standard for Presbyterians. What they mean by “confessional standard” is that they believe the WCF faithfully and accurately represents the system of doctrine to be found in the Bible. If there is an authoritative document among Presbyterians (other than the Bible itself), this is it. What does the WCF have to say about this subject? Who decides what the Bible teaches?

The answer, according to the WCF, is twofold. From Chapter I:

IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

So the WCF says that Scripture is its own infallible interpreter, and that the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the “supreme judge.”

First of all, we should give credit where credit is due: the writers of the WCF clearly intended to avoid setting up man as the measure of what the Bible teaches. But do they succeed? I submit that the answer is an emphatic No.

In the first place, to make a book its own infallible interpreter is a circular argument: Why is the Bible infallible? Because it says so. Well, we might concede that an infallible book might make such a claim for itself, but that is hardly sufficient grounds for accepting the claim. Secondly, however, this claim by the WCF does nothing to settle any hermeneutical questions for us. How are we to know which are the “other places that speak more clearly?” How are we to know which clearer places (among all the clearer ones) are the ones to help us interpret this or that specific difficult one? Who is to say what is difficult and what is clear? The WCF has no answer for these questions, and I submit that Presbyterians have none that really work.

It might be asserted that the “assured results” of exegesis by competent scholars has established what are clear passages and what are not. The only problem with this is: Protestant scholars don’t agree either. More specifically, not even the Presbyterian ones agree! There are postmillennial Presbyterians, and premillennial Presbyterians, and sabbatarians, and non-sabbatarians, and New Perspective on Paul/Federal Vision Presbyterians, and so forth. It may be conceded that Presbyterians (at least in any specific Presbyterian denomination) agree about most things, but they most assuredly do not agree about everything. How then has the Bible as an “infallible interpreter” of itself enabled them to come to agreement about what the Bible says? Can it reasonably be said — even if this thesis be granted — that it has worked for them? No. It can’t. An “infallible interpreter” which produces such varied results is clearly not reliable, and cannot reasonably be said to be an “infallible interpreter.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the Bible contains errors. It does not. What I am saying is that it cannot function as an “infallible interpreter.” It’s an object. Objects do not interpret themselves. Interpretation must be done by a person. But the Bible is not a person. Therefore it cannot be an interpreter. Therefore it cannot be an infallible interpreter.

This demonstrates, as far as I can tell, that at least one standard of Protestant interpretation is fallacious. When someone announces that “XYZ is true because the Bible says so!”, we have to recognize that what has really happened is that he (or someone) has interpreted the Bible, and it is his understanding that the Bible says XYZ. The Bible does not speak for itself. It is an object. It is the Holy Word of God, but that fact does not grant it powers to interpret itself anymore than any other book. A book must be interpreted by a person. Claims that “the Bible says so” demand that we ask: Who says that the Bible says so? And why should we believe what he says about the subject?

[Republished, with a few minor edits, from the original article]

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Posted in Apologetics, Calvinism, Epistemology, Fides et Ratio, Protestantism, Solo Scriptura

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