Protestant Infallible Interpretation, Part 2

In our last episode, I examined the Reformed/Presbyterian notion that Scripture is the “infallible interpreter” of Scripture. This model of exegesis does not work, I argued, because the Bible is an object and objects do not interpret themselves. Interpretation is the work of a person. Consequently to expect a document — even the Word of God — to “tell us” what it means is to expect the impossible. It’s not going to happen. Hence it is even more absurd to expect it do so infallibly.

Now it might be said by some Reformed folks that I have misrepresented what the WCF means by this expression. They might say that persons must use Scripture to interpret Scripture: having determined the meaning of “clear” passages, they can then use those sections as a key for interpreting the “less clear” portions of the Bible. This is a fair response (and I might have made this very reply when I was a Presbyterian).

Unfortunately this response in no way solves the problem of interpretation. It simply changes its locus to the human interpreter, who decides for himself what the Bible says. As I have already argued it amounts to making man the measure of all things. Because it is the human interpreter who will decide what is “clear.” It is the human interpreter who will decide what is “not clear.” And it is the human interpreter who will decide how the clear passages are used in interpreting the unclear ones. We’ve discussed this problem somewhat already, and perhaps we’ll return to it again later. For now it is sufficient to point out that there doesn’t seem to be any construction of WCF I:IX wherein we have an objective, infallible rule for knowing what the Bible teaches. It is not going to do the job for us itself, because objects don’t interpret themselves, and that means that humans are going to be involved in this allegedly “infallible” work of interpretation.

Now I’d like to look briefly at WCF I:X, where it says:

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.

This sounds very fine on the surface, but let’s consider what it says for a moment. The WCF tells us here that the Holy Spirit “speaking in the Scripture” is the “supreme judge” in religious matters. Well, how do we know what He is telling us in the Scripture? Are we going to hear a voice? Are we going to receive an internal prompting of some sort? Clearly not: for we would be unable to distinguish such a voice or prompting from diabolic influence (and we would be unable to distinguish it from, for example, a very similar Mormon appeal to a “burning in the bosom”). On the other hand if that’s not what we may reasonably expect, then we find ourselves in the same position as we did with regard to WCF I:IX: that is, we are forced to conclude that humans must do the job of interpreting the Bible to determine what it is that the Holy Spirit is saying in the Bible. And that, once again, means that we are back in the position of man being the measure of all things (baptized version). He will decide for himself what God is telling him, which is the great unexamined presupposition of the Reformation, rooted in Renaissance humanism, and contrary to the whole history of the Church during her first 15 centuries.

We ought to point out two other things about where we find ourselves. First, this is the exact circumstance in which all Protestants find themselves, Presbyterian or not. They may not adhere to the WCF formulations, but it boils down to the same, whether they are similarly confessional (like the Lutherans) or not (like the Baptists). They have taken it upon themselves to decide independently what it is that God says.

Secondly: at least some Protestants will object that there is another way that they might escape from these circumstances (if they even consider themselves “trapped” by them in the first place). They might say that the Holy Spirit will individually enable them to understand the Bible correctly, appealing to a verse like, for example, John. 16:13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” But is it reasonable to suppose that this verse may be applied individualistically, so that Joe or Bob can simply rely upon the Spirit to guide them into all the truth? I don’t see how.

Let’s set the stage first. Here is what Roland Bainton, the great Lutheran historian and biographer of Martin Luther, had to say about Luther’s view on how one might arrive at the truth:

Luther believed that if Scripture were studied with the aid of all linguistic and critical tools, its sense would become absolutely plain, and no honest and competent inquirer would fail to miss the meaning, because the Holy Spirit would guide him to the true sense. If there were actually divergent interpretations, one would have to be wrong, and the Spirit lacking in the case of him who erred. (The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, p. 215)


Luther came to feel that the Holy Spirit was responsible not only for the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed but even for the Augsburg Confession. If the dissenter appealed to his conscience the reply was that conscience as such has no claims but only a right conscience. … Only the correct conscience therefore is to be respected. (ibid.; emphasis in original)

So Bainton tells us Luther would say that the Holy Spirit will guide a man to the “true sense” of the Bible, and if two men disagree…well, one of them is wrong, and the Holy Spirit has not led him at all. The obvious question then is: Who is right and who is wrong? Luther had his own personal answer to that, as we see above (and perhaps we may be forgiven for suspecting that it is a most convenient answer, if not entirely self-serving): The one who agrees with the Augsburg Confession is right!

But why should we believe him? It’s rather disingenuous of Luther to suppose that we ought to just take him at his word that the Augsburg Confession has God’s stamp of approval on it. Given his own measure (see above), how are we to know that the Lutherans have interpreted the Bible correctly rather than the Calvinists? Rather than the Catholics? Sure, Luther might be perfectly willing to say that the Catholics lack the Holy Spirit, but is he really going to insist that the Calvinists are similarly lacking? Apparently he would.

Okay, so there are some who are willing to play that game. But must we do so? Given that there are godly men on both sides of almost any theological debate, are we really going to insist – despite all evidence to the contrary – that one of them is lacking the witness of the Spirit? But if we are going to say that, then we must ask another question: Which one?

[This post is a re-publication (with some amendments) of an earlier article of mine on an old blog]

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

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