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?

The Stupidity of the Intelligent

Statue on top of an ancient building next to St. Nicholas' church in Ghent, Belgium. Photo by Ulrik De Wachter

Recently I was listening to a lecture by Dr. D.A. Carson on Romans 3:21-26, “The Center of the Whole Bible.” In his background to the text, he reminded his hearers that for the previous two and a half chapters, Paul had been building an argument that there is no excuse for a denial of God—culminating in a series of references to the Old Testament in Romans 3:10-18:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

The beginning of this argument, though, is found in Romans 1:18-23 which reads:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

“Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” That’s a powerful statement, isn’t it?

My old pastor would often lament the reality that people today are educated beyond their intelligence. We have access to more information than any culture in the history of man, but little wisdom.

Dr. J. Budziszewski is the author of several books including Written on the Heart, The Resurrection of Nature, The Nearest Coast of Darkness, True Tolerance and What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and a professor of Philosophy and Government at the University of Texas at Austin.

He knows this reality all too well.

In fact, he wrote his dissertation on it—opposing the idea that we had any inherent sense of morality at all. [Read more...]