Monday, June 24, 2013

What Is the Clear Teaching of Scripture?

         In response to a posting on Bryan Berghoef’s excellent “Tomorrow’s Theology, Today’s Task” ( at his blog

         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!


  1. Great stuff, John! Thanks for this, ahem, clear post.

  2. Echoing Bryan. Thanks John!

  3. John,
    Thanks for your post and for letting me know you posted it. Much of it I agree with.
    I agree that the phrase “the clear teaching of scripture” can be used as an attempted conversation stopper. However, on such occasions, the relevant question remains, “Well, is that, or is that not ‘the clear teaching of scripture’?” And presumably, if it’s not, then a case can be made against it. Although you articulate well the difficulties and challenges associated with biblical interpretation, you don’t give a very direct answer on the question of whether there is anything—anything at all that we can say is clearly taught in scripture. I’d still be interested to hear you engage that question head on.
    You might be interested to know that I’m passionately confessional, not because I think reading scripture is easy, but precisely because I think it’s difficult. And so I’m passionate that we recognize that we are not the best readers of scripture on our own; we are not the brightest and smartest to ever come to the text, and therefore there is great wisdom in standing on shoulders of those who’ve gone before us--whose articulations have both arisen from and have withstood the test of time. Theologians, interpreters, and scholars throughout the centuries have done far more work with the scriptures than I; and as I have tested and compared the claims of the confessions against scripture, I have found them to be faithful reflections. I certainly don’t contest that every detail in the confessions is clearly taught in scripture, nor equally important (I confess rather strong indifference about the details of Christ's presence in the L.S.; although, ironically, I’m thankful for the debate because without it, the Heidelberg would probably not have been written). But I object strongly to the suggestion that there is nothing at all that can be said to be clearly taught in scripture. As is, you don’t really make that claim; but (correctly or incorrectly), I sense it strongly implied.
    Thanks for the exchange John,

  4. Craig. I think that if God had wanted to be clear, I'm guessing that in his omnipotent power, he could have been clear. God, for example, could have (as Buechner once imagined in a nice sermon) rearranged the stars to say that "I exist," or "Jesus saves." Or used a writing style more akin to Berkof or Plantinga than Isaiah or Paul. But if scripture is the best God can do when it comes to being clear, or perspicuous, I'm disappointed. Which gets me to thinking that being clear was never God's intention. It was, rather, to inspire humans to use their own spiritual gifts to seek him out. Scripture serves as an inspiration and template for that search, and scripture gives us a lot of encouragement to love along the way. But that isn't a clear teaching. It is poetry. It is parable. It is doxology. It is Proverbs. Myth. A couple of pretty poorly written sermons. But again, never really intended, as a whole, to be clear so much as evocative.

    1. Thanks for the reply John.

      I suppose there's a lot I could ask by way of clarification, but I guess the question that most stands out in my mind is in relation to your comment that the "encouragement to love" isn't a clear teaching.

      Passages like Lev. 19:18 and Matthew 22:39 are neither poetry, parable, doxology, proverb, or myth. From a purely grammatical and literary stand point, I'm left wondering how God could have said it so that you would conclude that it's a "clear teaching". If I spoke that clearly to my children and they concluded I was merely being evocative, I'd tell them they've misunderstood me.

      (And as should be clear from my previous response, one need not insist that all of scripture is clear in order to insist that many of its teachings are clear...which is my contention.)

    2. I guess the bottom line, for me, Craig, is that I don't want to use the language of clarity. It is too deeply implicated by the whole rational enlightenment project and the ongoing Fundamentalist/American project of trying to foist all sorts of dubious truths on us as the clear teaching of scripture to be useful.

      Do I think that key scriptural themes are hard to miss? Of course. But they are not the "clear teaching of scripture" in the sense that that phrase is usually used, polemically and historically. I just cringe when that language is used because it is so typical of the moral/theological battles we've been having in xty over the past 100 years. It assumes things about scripture being a grab-bag of propositions or truths that would have been impenetrable to its original authors and audiences.

      So, let's just put them fighting words aside. Let's put aside the temptation to what my Dordt professors used to call "synthesis theology/philosophy"--the unwitting importation of secular presuppositions into our thinking. Let's not talk about the clear teaching of scripture. Let's talk about scripture itself.

    3. John, that's very helpful for understanding where you're coming from. Thank you.

      I guess I don't import the same hostility or agenda into the phrase "clear teaching" that you tend to hear. In part because, as I mentioned, anyone who attempts to foist dubious truths with a label is still subject to cross examination that I both assume will take place and welcome. I in no way intend the phrase to be manipulative nor as a conversation stopper. For me, the semantic input of "clear teaching" and "scriptural theme that is hard to miss" is nearly identical. I don't say that to disagree with you; just to explain where I'm coming from. And so you can go back, if you wish, and re-read my posts on Bryan's blog and replace all reference to "clear teaching" with "scriptural theme that is hard to miss," and perhaps then it will sound to your ears the way it felt coming out of my finger tips.

      That doesn't remove all disagreement between your and my perspectives, but hopefully it's helpful in understanding each other.

      With regard to your historical sketch, I'd protest that drawing out propositional truths from scripture, and then passionately insisting on them, is not unique to nor a product of the Enlightenment. The practice is as old as the church itself. Far from being impenetrable to the original authors, it's something the original authors did themselves (for example, that's what the writer of Hebrews is in the process of doing when he scolds his readers for not being able to understand him; for needing milk and not solid food; and he scolds them over a doctrine many might argue is terribly obscure--Jesus as a high priest in the order of Melchizedek). So I don't think passionate confessionalism is the modern-day distortion you seem to suggest it is.

    4. Interesting discussions, indeed. Thanks to all.
      Yet there is something a bit hollow and famishing in this discussion. I find myself feeling like John in the Giant's Enlightenment Castle (C.S. Lewis, "The Pilgrim's Regress"), dissecting the components of the Bible until they are mere objects which are unfortunately stuck in their dissociated contexts, and may minimally provide background for understanding some (certainly not all) of Jesus' cryptic teachings, that are themselves highly distanced from us temporally and culturally. When "scripture" has vanished from the mechanical components of the Bible, we are left with some vague hope that there might be a god (since Jesus, at least, believed there was), and that the better (certainly not best, since that would be exclusionary) value by which to get through this uncertain human journey is a kind of nebulous "charity" which makes us easier to live with.
      Nice religion, but who needs the Bible (in any dissection) or Jesus (in any of the myriad of competing views) for that?

  5. I'm going to wonder about this "clarity" business -- I think you may be going a bit off track. After all, there's a long-standing tradition (back to Benedict) of reading/listening to Scripture to meet God. At its basic theological sense, clarity needs to be connected to kerygma (ooh, I like using seminary terms): the text is validated by the encounter, by the message. That seems to be a continuing process, time-tested, if you will.

    From this perspective, the plain teaching of Scripture is closely associated with the dis-itnermediation of Bible reading: it does an end-run on authority. In doing so, it creates a space for a counter reading of the Tradition; from the individual side, the plain meaning of the Scriptures is subversive -- one reason why the Belgic calls out the Anabaptists.

    This aspect of the notion poses an ironic counterpoint to the theological rhetoric of the "plain meaning of Scripture". In present-day North America the term is used generally to privilege some position, silencing debate, or otherwise asserting the authority of the speaker (who can be a bigger source than God, right?). This claim to "plain meaning" has a further traction within the Anglo-American traditions of plain speech v latinate speech; and esp the popular icons of the plain spoken western hero as a truth teller. We give a lot of credence to those plain speakers.

    Meanwhile, the plain meaning, spoken by the Spirit to the faithful believer's heart continues to do its subversive work, educating that reader to such goods as love, hospitality, mercy and justice.

    William Harris

  6. Bill, what an interesting post. I like bringing in the Benedictines and through them recalling that scripture has been read in many more ways that for its plain teaching.

    Now why would Bill like using seminary terms?


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