The Faithful Reading of Scripture
Dr. Ryan Tafilowski, assistant professor of Theology
Originally published in Engage Magazine, Fall 2022
When I was young, I was an obsessive baseball fan. I followed my favorite team, but I was also a student of the game’s history. I came of age during the steroid era, so you can imagine my delight as baseball’s biggest stars smashed record after record: “I’m watching history in the making!” I thought to myself.
And you can also imagine my disappointment when I learned that they had done it by artificial means. Perhaps the most absurd chapter of the ordeal was the congressional hearings, which ensued after a federal investigation into the scandal. The accused players made a farce of the proceedings above all through their suspiciously spotty memories. Suddenly, these otherwise healthy and normal adults “couldn’t remember” if they had ever discussed steroids with teammates and “had no recollection” of whether they or anyone they knew had doped. Selective amnesia, let’s call it.
These self-serving evasions infuriated baseball fans because they betrayed a glaring lack of integrity. There is a parable here for us. Like those players, Protestants—and perhaps especially evangelicals—have a bad habit of applying our doctrines selectively as suits our needs and preferences when debating controversial ethical or societal topics. The doctrine applied most inconsistently is arguably perspicuity—roughly, the notion that Scripture is clear. We distort this concept in many ways, but supremely through a common interpretive fallacy: appeals to the clarity of Scripture made in bad faith, which often offer theological conclusions with unwarranted certainty. Selective perspicuity, let’s call it.
An Explosive (and Non-Negotiable) Evangelical Doctrine
What do we mean when we refer to the perspicuity of Scripture? Perspicuity is the conviction that the Bible, although it originates in an ancient culture and is written in ancient languages, is in some meaningful sense accessible to those who read it today, even without formal training. The concept was central to the theology of the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century, who believed that the simple, arresting truths of Scripture had been overgrown by a thicket of hermeneutical principles deriving from medieval scholastic theology. Martin Luther aimed to show ordinary Germans that they could read the Bible for themselves, precisely on account of its perspicuity. “The Holy Scripture,” he wrote, “itself on its own, to the greatest extent possible, is easy to understand, clearly and plainly, being its own interpreter, in that it puts all statements of human beings to the test, judging and enlightening.”1
Here we can see many of the hallmarks of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture: the Bible is clear, approachable for laypeople, and authoritative on all matters to which it speaks. But, as the German Peasants’ War of 1524–25, in which farmers and serfs used the teachings of the early Reformation to justify violent attacks on lords and clergymen, revealed, this doctrine has a shadow side. Explosive things can happen when Christians start reading the Bible for themselves, as Luther learned the hard way. As Alister McGrath has pointed out, perspicuity has always been a double-edged sword; unfiltered access to the Bible is one of the crowning achievements of the Reformation, yet it has caused no end of trouble, chiefly in the form of denominational fragmentation. Perspicuity, in the final analysis, is a “radical, liberating, yet dangerous idea.”2
We might well ask whether this liberating-yet-dangerous democratization of Scripture was a pyrrhic victory. When my reading of Scripture doesn’t line up with your reading of Scripture, we’re left in a precarious position, with no higher authority to which to appeal. All of this means that, from its inception and by virtue of its hermeneutical method, Protestantism by nature should be prepared to tolerate a high degree of theological diversity, which is both a strength and a weakness. But the doctrine of perspicuity really is dangerous, and it can be difficult to handle it judiciously. The solution is not to jettison it. It is a non-negotiable evangelical doctrine. The solution is to exercise it with integrity. However, that, as it turns out, is easier said than done.
The Abuse of Perspicuity: Bad Faith and Unwarranted Certainty
When we appeal to the clarity of Scripture in bad faith, we abuse the doctrine of perspicuity. Appeals made in bad faith usually look something like this: “The Bible doesn’t say anything explicitly, so we can make no comment on it.” I will give you two examples, each remark made in the context of a debate over a hotly-contested societal issue. For example, here is James Henley Thornwell, arguably the most influential Presbyterian in the American South in the nineteenth century, summing up his findings on slavery in a report prepared for the Synod of South Carolina in 1852:
The Bible, and the Bible alone, is [the Church’s] rule of faith and practice. Beyond the Bible she can never go, and apart from the Bible she can never speak . . . . In conformity with this principle, has the Church any authority to declare slavery to be sinful? Or, in other words, has the Bible, anywhere, either directly or indirectly, condemned the relation of master and servant as incompatible with the will of God?3
This is both a self-serving (Thornwell owned slaves) and a uniquely sinister application of a dubiously-formulated understanding of sola scriptura, and a willfully unsophisticated appeal to perspective.
Chattel slavery is now universally condemned in the Western world, obviously, so what if we took another example from closer to home and from the other side of the political spectrum? In a media interview given in the aftermath of the recent Roe v. Wade decision, Laura Ellis, a progressive Baptist, justified her pro-choice position like this: “The Bible is an incredibly complicated book written by multiple people over different historical and social contexts. It could be irresponsible to just pull out a sentence or two and relate them to twenty-first-century America. The Bible does not talk explicitly about abortion, pro or con, in any kind of way. It’s just not there.”4
These comments reflect two radically different ideologies, but they share the same flawed logic. In the first place, is it really the case that these vital issues—slavery and abortion—are “just not there” in the Bible? Only with a spectacularly thin account of perspicuity could one make that argument with a straight face. To Thornwell, we might point out that there is an entire book of the Bible, Philemon, whose central argument undermines the whole notion that one man should own another. Similarly, if we were to apply Ellis’s same hermeneutical logic to other issues, the Bible doesn’t say anything about illegal immigration or nuclear disarmament or social media, either, although I’m sure she would offer strong, biblically-informed opinions on those topics.
Both Thornwell and Ellis fail to engage the intent of perspicuity, which is to express that the Bible’s authority must somehow entail the ability to speak to issues not addressed explicitly by its human authors. The result of such a failure is an unwarranted certainty regarding their own respective positions. Ironically, it is clear to Thornwell that slavery is acceptable because the Bible isn’t clear on it, just as it is clear to Ellis that abortion should be legal because the Bible doesn’t use the word “abortion.” These examples illustrate just how easy it is to use the (alleged) silence of Scripture to confirm our already-formed convictions.
What we need here is a broader and more robust understanding of perspicuity, rooted in a strong account of the authority of God as mediated through the Bible. As Jaroslav Pelikan has argued so powerfully, to say that the Bible is normative means that “it can be applied to any and all of the radically changed situations of later times, many of which the writers who originally framed it could not themselves conceivably have foreseen.”5 To acknowledge the limited scope of its human authors’ knowledge and historical perspective does not in any regard call the authority of Scripture into question. On the contrary, it is to affirm the inspiration of Scripture in the strongest possible terms. Unless this text can speak with authority and power to every new situation and context, it is not meaningfully “living and active.” No, in that case it would be something else—a dead letter. In what sense is Scripture authoritative if it can only be taken to speak to topics that are literally listed in a concordance?
A Plea for Hermeneutical Integrity
Where might we look for a more workable understanding of perspicuity? Simple as it sounds, how about the Reformation? When Luther or Calvin or Zwingli talked about perspicuity, as Timothy George explains, they had in mind a willingness to be interrogated by Scripture: “The Bible is its own interpreter in the sense that it does its own interpreting: it interprets its readers.”6 In other words, if we are serious about being evangelical in the best sense of that word, then we must be prepared to, as Luther put it, let Scripture put all our opinions to the test—and this takes integrity.
Integrity, understood as coherence or consistency, has long been considered an intellectual virtue. But for our purposes, we also ought to adopt it as one of the criteria we use in the faithful reading and application of Scripture. If the Bible speaks to an issue, whether explicitly or in its overall trajectory of argument, integrity demands that we try to discover what the text would have us do, even if its teaching is not in our interests or will complicate our beliefs. And if the Bible genuinely does not speak unequivocally to an issue, integrity demands that we conduct ourselves with a posture of openness to challenge, intellectual humility, and epistemic honesty. To be truly “evangelical”—to be gospel people—we must resist the temptation to apply perspicuity, a prized Protestant doctrine, selectively.
1Martin Luther, Assertio omnium articulorum M. Lutheri per bullam Leonis X. novissimam damnatorum (1520), WA 7:97.
2Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 208.
3James Henley Thornwell, “Report on Slavery,” Southern Presbyterian Review V (1852), 382–83. 4John Blake, “They cite the same Bible and evoke the same Jesus. But these two Christians are on opposite sides of the abortion debate,” CNN.com, June 25, 2022, accessed July 22, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/25/us/abortion-christian-debate-blake-cec/index.html?utm_ medium=social&utm_source=twCNN&utm_content=2022-06-26T20%3A00%3A08&utm_term=link.
5Jaroslav Pelikan, Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 5.
6Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 127.