Perspicuity and Presuppositions

The authority of Scripture is an issue of massive importance for Christians, whether we realize it or not. As culture has continued to flirt with the notion that objective truth is unknowable (unless it’s the truth that truth is unknowable), we find ourselves in a really weird place:

Can we really know with any certainty what the Bible says or are we just dealing with questions of personal interpretation?

There are a number of people who would argue that we cannot know with any degree of certainty what the Bible teaches. This group would include Barth Ehrman (author of numerous critical popular level works including Jesus, Interrupted and Forged), as well as authors such as Brian McLaren. McLaren, incidentally, recently wrote that “no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed.”

Those who would say that we cannot know with certainty what the Bible teaches suggest that we’re dealing with—at best—personal interpretation, and to say that one view is correct over another would be arrogant.

In contrast to this view, Protestants have historically held a very high view of the Bible which is best explained by the doctrine of sola scriptura—that is, Scripture alone is our sole authority for doctrine and life. Other authorities, such as tradition and church leadership are not invalid according to this doctrine, but must always be subordinate to and corrected by the Word of God.

Recently I’ve read in a number of places statements similar to the following:

Sola scriptura is a nice idea, but it doesn’t work in reality—we all come to the Bible with our own baggage and presuppositions.

I can definitely understand this critique. I agree, we all approach everything with our own baggage and presuppositions. We all have implicit assumptions that are shaped by our experiences and worldview.

But this doesn’t mean that we have to fall into the error of relativism. We don’t do it at the bank, and we shouldn’t when dealing with the Bible.

Sola scriptura presupposes that the Bible is basically clear in what it teaches, although some passages are certainly less clear than others. This is what is known as the perspicuity of Scripture. Again, Christians have historically held that the God we worship has a desire to make Himself known. And because He wants to make Himself known, He is not going to shroud Himself in mystery.

In other words, God is not a beat poet.

But this doctrine isn’t simply about communication; it’s also about submission. When a Christian says that he holds to the doctrine of sola scriptura, he’s saying that, regardless of his own baggage, he is submitting Himself to the authority of Scripture and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through the Bible to transform him into the image of Christ.

Seems like a presupposition every Christian would want to have, doesn’t it?

Do you believe that the truth of the Bible can be known with reasonable certainty? If so, how has the Holy Spirit been working to conform you to that truth? If not, what determines your knowledge of Christ, salvation, and your purpose for being?

  • http://mrben.jedimoose.org/ mrben

    @Emily – Universalism is the belief that, ultimately/in the end, everybody gets saved and goes to heaven. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universalism

    Great post – I think it’s easy to make God too small, and to overplay our role in the reading of scripture. Yes, we come with baggage and presuppositions, but we should also come with the Spirit. We have the mind of Christ. You’re right – God doesn’t want to be misunderstood, and He provides us with Word and Spirit in order for us to be able to know Him better.

  • http://mrben.jedimoose.org/ mrben

    (oops – misread the link to Emily’s post as a question in a comment)

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      No worries, would you like me to edit your previous comment to correct?

  • Brad Young

    What a vicious God some of these men have created, so God designed things to work a certain way, but then tells us to figure it out, and I’ll give you some heavily veiled ideas, just to confuse the heck out of you. It would be like locking your toddler in the kitchen and telling them that if they don’t pee in the potty there’s going to be trouble. A dad like that is setting up his children to fail. I am very thankful that the one true God does not think or even operate like that. He created us not because he needed us, but to need him, and he clearly instructs us both with conscience and with the revealed word. There’s a reason why God has protected his revelation from every force that has every tried to destroy it, and from history re-writing it, though many have and are trying. God is good, even in how He had the word recorded, passed down, and protected, so that we may clearly know him.

  • http://cleverphrasehere.blogspot.com Amber

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. 1. Because “perspecuity” is such a nice and underused word. 2. Because Mike and I were sitting in bed this morning saying how it all really comes back to sola Scriptura.

    I agree with Brad, the idea that we can’t really understand what the Bible has to say belies a kind of clockmaker/Deistic view of God – that he ordained the Scriptures but then left us alone to figure them out.

    I’m sure we’ve each experienced times when certain passages seemed to be interpreted based on our preferences or cultures. However, the main tenets of Scripture are perspicuous. The Bible was not written by philosophers (thankfully), it was written by ordinary people for ordinary people. On top of that, we don’t have a clockmaker God, who leaves us alone to figure it out, we have a God who is still involved in our hearts and minds.

    Without the concept of sola Scriptura, we are left quite adrift in this world.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Without the concept of sola Scriptura, we are left quite adrift in this world.

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • Brad Young

    Sorry Secondary thought….

    But If god is mean and vicious but not revealing himself clearly. Is this a god that wants to be known, is this even a god you would want to know? Seriously, if heaven is eternity with god, and god is a jerk and doesn’t really want what is best, and won’t show you things clearly, then why would you want to spend an eternity with him, what would heaven be like? These men that question the bible because they don’t like the way the one true God sounds and loves, have created this horrible god that is despicable in his “love” and offers nothing for eternity. I really wish these people would think before they put out some of this garbage.

  • http://disciplernetwork.blogspot.com Adam

    If we say at all that God is a personal God, then God by virtue of this is able to communicate. The relativists want to parrot the Devil’s question in the garden, “Did God really say”? Sound familiar? This is the exact same question being asked today by Ehrman, McLaren, etal. If God spoke and the universe came into being (Hebrews 11:3). God put man here on this earth and gave him the ability to both speak and hear. The fact that God commands implies that we can understand those commands and carry them out (albeit imperfectly). So, the communication process between God and man (primarily through the scriptures), while not perfect (because of our sin), is nevertheless real. And there are very real consequences for ignoring or rebelling against what God has said to man. Notice this passage from Hebrews:

    Heb 10:28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
    Heb 10:29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

    What was in the law of Moses? God’s Word. They were words written down. God expected his people to hear and obey. Remember too what Jesus said: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear…”

  • http://disciplernetwork.blogspot.com Adam

    If we say at all that God is a personal God, then God by virtue of this is able to communicate. The relativists want to parrot the Devil’s question in the garden, “Did God really say”? Sound familiar? This is the exact same question being asked today by Ehrman, McLaren, etal. If God spoke and the universe came into being (Hebrews 11:3). God put man here on this earth and gave him the ability to both speak and hear. The fact that God commands implies that we can understand those commands and carry them out (albeit imperfectly). So, the communication process between God and man (primarily through the scriptures), while not perfect (because of our sin), is nevertheless real. And there are very real consequences for ignoring or rebelling against what God has said to man. Notice this passage from Hebrews:

    Heb 10:28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
    Heb 10:29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

    What was in the law of Moses? God’s Word. They were words written down. God expected his people to hear and obey. Remember too what Jesus said: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear…”

  • PoMoMe

    “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

  • Anonymous

    I believe that the truth of the Bible can be known with “reasonable certainty,” as you say. But I also bristle greatly when people pass off their opinions and interpretations of God’s Word as the truth – “The Bible says …” In my opinion a great many people share the “absolute truth” of the Bible on faith – not faith in God, but faith in what someone else has told them, a parent, a friend, a pastor. No critical thinking has occurred. No questions have been asked. True ownership and understanding of the message hasn’t occurred; a shallow grasp is held. The message is delivered with a “right vs. wrong” attitude. Then when challenged or confronted with a different perspective, they don’t have the patience, confidence or love to truly “teach” the truth they know.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Good points here, Chris. I suspect there is a great deal of truth in saying that too many people just assume that what is said about what the Bible says is true without actually looking into the matters for themselves. We all definitely need to be carefully studying the Scriptures individually and within community.

  • Whitefrozen

    Sola Scriptura is a tricky doctrine. The Eastern Orthodoc and RCC reject it, simply because there’s no definition of the Bible in the Bible, which is an interesting thought, and explains why Sacred Tradition is so important to them. The Scriptures themselves could be argued to be a product of tradition.

    We mustn’t also forget that up until Luther, the Scriptures included a LOT of other stuff (Apocrypha, etc) until Luther decided to axe it all…which begs the question, was everyone up until that time wrong? Luther was trying to distance himself from Roman Catholicism, obviously, but it is an interesting point.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/bob.hay.sim Bob Hay

    Great post! I appreciate the encouragement and the reminder of the supremacy of Scripture.

    I recently spoke with a twentysomething young lady from a Bible study my wife and I lead about Bell’s “Love Wins” and Gulley and Mullholland’s “If Grace is True.” She is much more comfortable with the concept of the omnibenevolence of God trumping His justice, than with the idea that each of God’s attributes hangs in perfect, symmetrical balance with the others… Surely, if He is love, then He wouldn’t torture His creation, would He?

    What underlies her openness is a weakened view of Scripture. Your McLaren quote above identifies one of the foundation stones of her conclusion, that since we live in a different context, we can’t know with certainty what was meant in the original context. I recognize that as a male I can’t understand experientially what it means to give birth to a baby, but it doesn’t logically follow that I am incapable of understanding it intellectually. The only logical conclusion is to agree that I can’t experience giving birth. In a similar way, I didn’t physically hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but it doesn’t doesn’t logically follow that I am now incapable of understanding what He meant.

    Without a solid and clear understanding of the authority and perspicuity of Scripture, we have nothing on which to stand.