by Art Sippo
The Protestant notion of Scripture as perspicuous specifically means that the Bible is sufficiently clear in meaning that no 'official' interpreter is necessary. Allegedly, persons of average intelligence ought to be able to read the Bible and discern all relevant doctrines necessary for salvation, even to the establishment of order and discipline in the Church.
This perspicuity is nonchalantly extended from the original language autographs to vernacular translations without qualm. Unfortunately, this naively assumes that the process of "translation" is actually possible. It is not. The best you can ever hope for is a paraphrase. The character of such paraphrases varies between the two extremes of crass literalism and idiomatic hyperbole. The claim that such paraphrases can be 100% faithful to the meaning of the original text is absurd. All vernacular paraphrases require interpretation in their composition. None of them is a perfect rendition of the original Biblical text into the vernacular. Such things as colloquial idioms, meter, rhyme, and alliteration can be lost in the process. As such if there is any perspicuity to the text of the Bible, it must reside in the original autographs which were written in dead languages thousands of years ago. It is entirely possible that we have lost the literary knowledge to fully understand these texts in their original 'sitz im leben'.
The concept of biblical perspicuity is not taught anywhere in the Bible. Instead it is asserted by Protestants in order to deny traditional Christian exegesis and create an alternative method for discerning doctrine. In doing so, they contradict the principle of "sola scriptura" (which also is not found in the Bible). More importantly, they naively assume that among "true Christians" any disagreements about Biblical interpretation will either not occur or will not involve the central issues of the faith. In point of fact, all the major branches of Protestantism do disagree on such central issues and there never has been a Protestant consensus on doctrine. Even the vaunted notion of 'justification by faith alone' means different things to different Protestant groups.
Some parts of the Bible are clearer than others. While the average person can understand most biblical texts with the help of a good expositor, there is no uniform perspicuity from one text to another. Even the experts agree that some texts are obscure in their meaning and that different opinions held about them may be equally probable. One also needs to take into account the larger context of the Biblical material including the implications on interpretation of the total contents of the Canon. A Bible which contains both the letter to the Romans and the epistle of St. James has a very different overall meaning than one which contained only one or the other.
Furthermore, when the Bible clearly teaches something opposed to the reader's own Protestant presuppositions (e.g., Matt 16:16-18, James 2:24, or John 6:53) instead of submitting to the obvious literal meaning of the text, the Protestant tries to explain away that meaning in favor of one which conforms to his confessional prejudices.
Exegetical disputes arise which can not be settled methodologically and new denominations are formed as a result. In short, the principle of perspicuity doesn't work in practice.
The alleged perspicuity in the Bible is a superstition and nothing more. If the Bible were as perspicuous as a bus schedule, everyone would be "on board" with the correct interpretation. Instead, we have numerous interpretations that contradict each other. This can only be seen as a methodological failure falsifying the alleged principle in question.
Furthermore, some Protestants
claim that the Scriptures are at least as perspicuous as the
Catholic Magisterium. I am stupefied that anyone would be foolish
enough to make such a ridiculous claim. Whether or not you accept
Magisterial authority, it should be obvious to anyone of average
intelligence that a contemporary teacher who can respond to
modern questions in modern languages is a superior source of
information than a book written several thousand years ago in
dead languages using foreign cultural idioms, while the
interpreting of such a book requires some authoritative expertise
such as that of a translator or an exegete. As such there is
still a layer of interpretive authority between the text and the
average reader even in the Protestant system. You cannot escape
from it. Why settle for a fallible exegete when you can have an
2) Infallible Student?
Some controversialists claim a need for an infallible interpreter for an infallible Bible therefore requires an infallible student. This shows a serious misunderstanding of the concept of infallibility. The human mind is designed to be able to discern the truth and it usually does. It is not necessary for it to be infallible to do so. The method of trial and error is sufficient. Unfortunately, there are limits to the ability of the human mind to learn the truth. In particular, the mind is strongly influenced by prejudices and presuppositions that may make some conclusions unacceptable. It is also possible to draw incorrect conclusions from fallacious use of the reasoning faculty. One may also draw improper conclusions from partial data. Furthermore, the mind may have problems comprehending those matters the content of which is beyond our immediate experience. Nevertheless, with proper guidance, preparation, and a good source of correct comprehensive information, the human mind is capable of coming to true knowledge without needing to be formally infallible itself.
Infallibility is not a guarantee that one will arrive at the full truth. Instead, it is a guarantee that the individual so endowed will not make any errors in what he says. Students learn from their mistakes. While it would be nice if they got everything right all the time, it is not necessary for them to do so in order to learn the truth. An infallible teacher merely guarantees that the student will not be presented with any erroneous information. The student can then use his intellectual powers to learn correctly what he has been taught. He may make mistakes, but with recourse to an infallible teacher and his natural intelligence, the average person can sort this out to arrive at true knowledge.
We must also draw a distinction between the different types of infallibility. The Bible is a static product. It is a text, not an authority. It cannot interpret itself. It is infallible in content but only when interpreted correctly. It cannot stand on its own. As the old saying goes, "A text without a context is a pretext." Biblical infallibility is therefore contextual and not self-evident. As such the Bible is only materially infallible.
The Magisterium. on the other hand, is not a static text but a living authority under the direct superintendence of the Holy Spirit. It is dynamic and self-aware. It can respond to questions and because of the special privilege granted to it by God, it cannot err. God is the one who is both the formal and efficient cause of infallibility. This means that when the Magisterium operates in the proper context with the proper power acting on it (i.e., under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit) its statements are always infallible. The Magisterium is therefore the instrumental cause of infallible teaching.
Material infallibility is not sufficient to finally guarantee infallible teaching. You need to apply the proper context (formal cause: the plan of God) with the proper power (efficient cause: superintendence of the Holy Spirit) applied by the proper authority (the instrumental cause: the Magisterium) to obtain the desired end (final cause: true teaching). Once you have that, then the human mind can use its proper powers of discernment to learn the truth.
Some Protestant controversialists claim that the decision of the Catholic to believe in an infallible Magisterium is the equivalent of the individual claiming infallibility for himself. This is not true. If you go to the doctor and he tells you what must be done for your ailment, when you submit to his treatment, you are not declaring your own medical competence. You are recognizing his authority in medical matters and trusting in his judgment. In submitting to the Magisterium, we are deferring to the will of God as he has revealed it to his Church. We are not asserting our infallibility, but rather our faith in God's promises.
When the Protestant reads his
Bible and decides for himself what to believe, he is the one who
is asserting his own infallibility because he is not submitting
to any authority other than his own interpretation. If some
Protestant group wishes to defer authority to its ministers or
its confessional statements, it is asserting the infallibility of
its ministers or founders over and against that of the historic
Church. They often allege that they merely are asserting the
infallibility of the Bible, but then we have the problem of
settling disputes over discordant interpretations. It is the
interpretation whose correctness is being questioned, not the
correctness of the text it was based upon. As such, it must be
the interpreter who needs to be infallible not the source which
he interprets. As we noted in the previous section on
perspicuity, it is not always possible to completely understand
the biblical text even by the experts. Ultimately, the Protestant
system is unworkable.
3) The Unity of Truth
The word truth is often bandied about by people who do not use it properly. They use the word "truth" while actually meaning "highly probable opinion." They will often use modifiers with the word like "partial truth," "whole truth," or "absolute truth." Some people will even go so far as to say that truth is relative and what may be true for me may not be true for you. Let's get a few things straight.
The truth is that which is true to the exclusion of all contrary or contradictory possibilities. It has no need of modifiers to make it any more or less true. In fact, if you add a modifier to describe something as 'less than true,' you are no longer talking about the truth in any way. A very likely opinion - no matter how probable - is not the same as the truth.
Therefore, there can only be only one true answer to any particular question. By definition, truth is unitary. Any methodology of discernment that cannot eliminate all possible answers to arrive at a single solution cannot possibly find the truth. When you deny the unitary nature of the truth, you are implicitly claiming that there can be more than one true answer to a specific question. This is a denial of the Law of Non-Contradiction. If a specific question can have more than one true answer, then formal contradiction is possible and all meaningful discourse is impossible.
Some Protestants then claim that the Law of Non-Contradiction cannot be proven since you have to assume it in order to prove it. Therefore they do not feel bound by it. They will even use this to prove that nothing can be proven infallibly. I fail to understand why they make this assertion. It is pure skepticism and is as damaging to "sola scriptura" as it is to sound reasoning. I think this is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
The Law of Non-Contradiction in truth cannot be proven true, but in fact it is known to be true because without it, you cannot have meaningful discourse. It is a 'transcendental' concept: one that must be true in any conceivable universe. We have to assume it to be true in the natural order just to live from day to day. (Immanuel Kant pioneered this type of transcendental reasoning but it was perfected in apologetic arguments by the Reformed thinkers Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen.) Another transcendental concept is the Christian God. We must assume His existence (i.e., necessary being, "I AM Who AM") in order to explain our own existence. Any one attacking transcendental concepts is in very dangerous territory for a theist.
Some Protestant controversialists have a misunderstanding about the relationship of "consensus of opinion" and the truth. A consensus of opinion among many people in a community does not necessarily establish the truth. But a diversity of opinions that includes formal contradictions clearly means that the truth is not discernible within that community. In Protestantism, doctrinal and disciplinary pandemonium reigns and there is no mechanism by which disputes can be definitively settled. There is no single standard of beliefs that all Protestants affirm without qualification. They themselves admit that they have no one who is the arbiter of truth. In some cases, they contradict previous beliefs with every new generation. Thus they cannot establish truth in their religious opinions. The evidence indicates that their methodologies for establishing doctrine and discipline do not tend towards consensus but to dissension, conflict, and schism. The Protestant community, therefore, does not give a unified witness to the truth of God's Word but rather to the perversity of men who all do and believe "whatever is right in their own eyes." The Protestant world does not and cannot speak with one voice. It does not give the outward appearance of a community founded on truth, but rather a haphazard mob hopelessly disorganized because of contradictory personal opinions.
Conversely, Catholicism has an inner cohesion in doctrine and discipline in which disputes are settled and community is maintained even when there are diverse opinions on peripheral matters. The central doctrines of the faith are defined and are not changed with the passage of time. When the time comes we speak with one voice, that of the Magisterium. While this does not prove that we possess the truth, the Catholic Church looks the way a community centered on the truth ought to look.
Some Protestant controversialists
misunderstand this. They claim that we Catholics have the same
diversity of opinions in our community as they have in theirs.
This is not true. Disagreements among Catholics who follow the
teachings of the Church are limited to peripheral issues and not
to the central tenets of the faith. All Catholics can confess the
same creed and hold to the same doctrinal standards. We have a
central teaching authority and a body of beliefs that is not
negotiable. We all share communion together, yet we maintain
distinctive local customs and traditions. We have an
international fellowship centered on the hierarchy with the Pope
as its head. In short, the Catholic Church is a single community
of local churches with historical roots leading back to the
Apostles themselves and which is united in professing the same
faith in diverse but complimentary ways. Protestantism is a loose
collection of different communities having no historical
continuity before the 16th Century all of which profess different
faiths that contradict each other and are constantly splitting
away from communion with each other. The Catholic Church looks
like a living body. Protestantism looks like a cancer.
4) Consensus of the Fathers
Some Protestants misunderstand the concept of the "Consensus of the Fathers" as a basis for establishing doctrine. Despite repeated attempt on my part to dispel the myths, they persist. In particular, some Protestants claim that consensus of any kind cannot establish the truth and that an attempt to do so is a logical fallacy.
I would agree that in human terms a consensus of opinion is at best circumstantial evidence for the truth of a particular idea. But when we are talking about the "Consensus of the Fathers" in matters of doctrine, we are not using their consensus as a basis for establishing the truth of the doctrine. We are establishing rather the universal belief of the Church in that doctrine. As St. Vincent of Lerins stated "that which is believed always, everywhere, and by everyone" can legitimately be considered part of Sacred Tradition handed down from the Apostles. Heresies are local aberrations that are not found in the faith of the Church as a whole.
For it to be a consensus, it does not have to be unanimous. When there are several dozen Fathers in agreement on a point with only a few rare dissenters, that is still considered a consensus. It must not be merely a quorum, or a simple majority. It has to be an overwhelming majority in numbers close to unanimity.
When the Fathers as a group held to the same opinion in a matter of theology, they were acting as the spokesmen and expositors for the Church in their day. They were the historic witnesses to the faith of their age. This was not a straw poll, but a living witness to the contents of the faith.
This places the burden of proof on those who would change the deposit of faith. If they deny the doctrines of Apostolic Succession in the episcopate, baptismal regeneration, the substantial presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist, Petrine Primacy, or the necessity of water baptism, they are introducing theological innovations and denying the universal beliefs of the Early Church. The Holy Spirit has superintended the Church from the very beginning, and Jesus promised that He would keep us from falling into error. Innovations that contradict major teachings that have always been held by the Church would thereby be judged to be inauthentic.
Some Protestants have claimed that there was a "Consensus of the Fathers" against orthodoxy during the Arian Crisis after the Council of Nicea. Actually, this was not true. The problem after the Council of Nicea was that the term "homoousias" which had been used to mean that the Son was of the same (divine) substance as the Father. This same word had been used as by the Sabean heretics in referring to relationship of Christ and the Father as the creedal symbol of their modalistic heresy. This was the reason why many Bishops later withdrew their acceptance of "homoousias."
Of the 318 Bishops gathered at Nicea, only 3 refused to sign the creedal statement. That was less than one percent. Within 5 years after the Council ~80% of the Catholic Bishops were unhappy with the Nicene Creed for fear that it smacked of Sabeanism. They then withdrew their support of it. This was not because they believed that Jesus was a mere creature. Only the radical Anomian party believed that and they represented less than 10% of the Episcopate. Most of the dissenting Bishops were orthodox by the standards of their day. Christology was still in its formative phase and many disputes concerning the relationship between the two natures in Christ would not be settled until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Numerous attempts were made to develop a new creedal symbol to replace "homoousias" but they were all too ambiguous. The wrangling over the Nicene symbol continued for decades. After all the dust settled, it became obvious that the numerous alternatives were unacceptable and the dissenting Bishops as a group withdrew their objections to "homousias" and accepted it. After all the trouble they had caused, the dissenters found that they could not improve on the teaching of the Magisterium.
St. Jerome made the comment that the Church "woke up one morning" to find itself Arian. This was his exaggerated way of showing how quickly the dissent to the Nicene symbol spread among the Bishops. It should be noted that the return to Nicene orthodoxy occurred just as quickly throughout the whole Church. This rapid flip-flop was only possible because there was no real dissent on the dogmatic issues. It was primarily the external Nicene symbol that was in question.
Since 99% percent of the Fathers at Nicea voted for "homoousias", this represented a true consensus. At the very worst later on, 20% of the Episcopate held openly to the Nicene Creed while the majority of the dissenters (~70% of the total Episcopate) believed that Jesus was truly God. Consequently, there was really a reasonable consensus among the Bishops that Jesus was truly God and not just an exalted creature. Conversely, there never was a consensus among the Catholic Bishops in favor of Anomian Arianism at any time.
These are the most significant issues that I thought needed to be addressed. There are actually several more serious errors held by Protestant controversialists but I wanted to keep this critique to a reasonable size.
I am often disappointed at how narrow-minded Protestant controversialists are. They will deny to us Catholics the right to hold our opinions yet they will defend the rights of other Protestants to hold to opinions that contradict their own. There is clearly a double standard. If the Protestants believe that no one is infallible and that everyone is entitled to private interpretation of a perspicuous Scripture, then we Catholics are as entitled to our opinions as they are to theirs. In the Protestant system, they have a right to disagree with us but not to tell us that we are wrong. Yet in their debates with Catholics, they act as if the opinions of Luther, Calvin, and the other heresiarchs of Protestantism are more correct and worthy of belief than those of the Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Councils of the Catholic Church. You can't have it both ways. By denying to us the right to disagree with their own FALLIBLE opinions, they are implicitly asserting their own infallibility in direct contradiction to their system's own explicit claims. Caveat emptor!
The Catholic Legate
May 14, 2004