In response to a posting on Bryan Berghoef’s excellent “Tomorrow’s Theology, Today’s Task” (http://tinyurl.com/q5vptko) at his blog www.PubTheologian.com.
Language is a slippery thing. Where once we spoke (or more often wrote) about the perspicuity of scripture (of which more later), we now speak of the clear teaching of scripture. The historical link between these two concepts is relatively easy to trace. "The clear teaching of scripture," is a phrase that sounds, well . . . more perspicuous than perspicuity!
I fear, however, that the phrase has no settled, agreed upon meaning that can serve as the basis for a discussion. In part it is because the phrase "the clear teaching of scripture," is most often a polemical one, used in arguments (say about Adam and Eve, or about homosexuality) to strongly suggest that the person who doesn't agree with you is rejecting some essential teaching of Christianity. And for most Christians (unfortunately) when you start talking about rejecting those teachings, you’re intimating things about heaven and hell.
The phrase is also difficult to pin down because of the influence that Fundamentalist ideas about the literal meaning of scripture have had on the Evangelical psyche. That is, Fundamentalists speak as if Biblical interpretation is easy, because all you have to do is read the Bible for its propositions, as if it was a textbook or science report or newspaper. Many scholars have pointed out that Fundamentalism, probably in reaction to the rationality and linearity of the scientific method that was wreaking havoc on traditional Christian belief in the nineteenth century, adopted the same sort of methodology for themselves when it came to theology--turning it into a science so they could examine its propositions. So Hank Hart (with many others) writes, "To counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, Christians responded with the (equally rational) infallibility of revealed propositions. But a focus on [rationalistic] propositions was common to both sides." Hart is pointing out that the whole Fundamentalist/Evangelical hermeneutic is based on a synthetic theological framework that has less to do the two-thousand-year-long discussion in the church about Biblical interpretation than it has to do with the unconscious and unhelpful adoption of Enlightenment rationalism as the lens through which scripture is understood.
Third, another aspect of this Enlightenment thinking, following especially after Thomas Reid and the Common Sense school of thought is the presupposition (not very Calvinist, actually, in that it doesn't give much play to human’s depraved natures) that "all humans possessed, by nature, a common set of capacities--both epistemological and ethical--through which they could grasp the basic realities of nature and morality." Which gets back to where I started—anybody with a little common sense can figure it out. It adds up to a joyless, narrow, literalistic hermeneutic that is all about facts and truths that one is supposed to get if only one would read the Bible as if it were a junior high primer on matters of faith.
So I just don't like the phrase "The clear teaching of scripture." It has too much baggage that isn't rooted in deep-church tradition.
Is the word perspicuity any better? I'm not sure. Historically, the phrase is used in our tradition to mean that the heart of the gospel's message (note—not everything by a long shot) can be understood by anyone--with the help of the Holy Spirit. The trouble is, for practical purposes, the heart of that message in the Christian Reformed Church (for example) turns out to be three creeds and three more confessions covering things as obtuse as the ubiquity of Jesus at the Lord's Supper (which, though it is found in the Heidelberg Catechism isn't something that even Calvinists can agree on) the nature of the atonement (using Anselm's late substitutionary model as its main peg), reprobation and so on. So much for a generous orthodoxy!
Perspicuity--the notion that regular folk don't need the (Roman) church to interpret the scripture for them because they can do it for themselves--has ironically become imprisoned by the church's insistance on wide and deep confessional subscription. The confessions are long laundry lists of what people in certain denomination must believe, whether or not it seems obvious to those people based on their own study of scripture. Ironically, most Protestants can't agree on much of what is in the Confessions--baptism, election, the role of the Spirit, the nature of Jesus' presence at the Lord's Table, and so on.
The problem, then, is that in a Christian world where most people can't agree on very much, we nevertheless try to multiply what adherents of particular denominations must believe to be in good standing. And this is doubly difficult when the real reasons most people belong to churches has nothing to do with their teachings, but with their tribalism or community (two sides of a single coin). My own view is that we ought to go light on confessional demands, and focus on community—on loving each other as Christ loved us. Rather than being collections of people who speak as if we know what God means, we ought to mean to follow Jesus in community. Even when we're not sure about much else.
Of course, institutions need rules. They are voluntary associations, so if you can't agree with their teachings you can leave (I did).
My bottom line on perpspicuity? Honestly, I think scripture is a lot more obscure and difficult than most people give it credit for. And I wish we could own up to that. From translation to the presuppositions of the interpreter, from the strangeness of antiquity to our own radically different worldviews, from the variety of theologies and points of view one finds in scripture itself to the rich resource that modern science has become—there are a hundred and one reasons for finding scripture hard to understand. It takes a lot of study of scripture (which very few people do anymore), a lot of wide reading of all the various opinions out there and in the history of the living Catholic Church, and a lot of humility to come to "best guesses," about the meaning and import of even the most commonly written about themes in scripture. That's why there are huge tomes on hermeneutics, or "The Kingdom," or "Paul," out there. Huge tomes that often come to radically different conclusions. Do we go with Augustine’s allegorical method, borrowed from Tychonius the Donatist, as described in his "Christian Doctrine?" I doubt it--though I do like one thing he says (earlier) there. “Whoever finds a lesson [in scripture] useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way."
To me, Augustine was right. The heart of scripture is about the building of charity in gratitude for God’s charity. But you may disagree!