The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity
By Casey J. Chalk.
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2023.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $24.95.
Reviewed by Tyler Curtis.
In 1925, when John T. Scopes was on trial for teaching evolution in a Tennessee high school, William Jennings Bryan rose before the court to defend his belief that the theory of evolution was obviously at odds with the Biblical account of creation. Scorning those who wanted to bring in theologians and Bible scholars to offer their interpretations of the book of Genesis, Bryan confidently declared, “The one beauty of the Word of God is, it does not take an expert to understand it.”
Though Bryan said many controversial things during the trial, this was not one of them—at least not in the eyes of his contemporaries. The man known as “The Great Commoner” was merely echoing the familiar Protestant conceit that the common people could properly understand Scripture on their own, without the aid of intellectuals or religious authorities. As the Westminster Confession, the most famous expression of the doctrine, states, “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
In the minds of Protestants, the Bible is a perspicuous (“clear”) text and so all faithful Christians, regardless of their education or vocation, are capable of discerning its meaning. Most Protestants from the Reformation up through the present day have affirmed the Bible’s perspicuity.
But as former Protestant and now-Catholic revert Casey J. Chalk argues in his new book, The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity, the belief that essential Christian doctrines are clearly expressed in Scripture is not just one of many doctrines that Protestants happen to believe; it is in fact foundational to Protestantism itself. If the Bible is not perspicuous, writes Chalk, then Protestantism as a system must be wrong.
It is a bold thesis, one that Chalk defends with a focused and cold precision. In what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive treatment of the topic to date, Chalk’s book meticulously breaks down the history and philosophy behind perspicuity, arguing that the doctrine has ultimately failed to achieve both spiritual truth and Christian unity. It is well-trod ground; and while he does survey the debate as it has been happening since the sixteenth century, Chalk is not content to merely re-fight the battles of the Reformation. He updates the traditional Catholic responses to Protestant arguments for Biblical perspicuity, and manages to come up with novel rebuttals of his own.
Chalk begins his story with the Reformation. When Martin Luther made his dramatic stand against the Catholic Church, he steadfastly asserted that Christians could have no infallible authority but the Bible. Known as sola scriptura (Scripture alone), Luther’s doctrine became the driving force behind the Reformation. Christians did not have to rely on councils and popes to tell them what to believe, the Reformers asserted. After all, if everyone had direct access to God’s Word, there was no need for anyone else to interpret it for them.
But for sola scriptura to work in practice, the Bible had to be clear enough for the reader to understand it. It does the Protestant no good for Scripture to be the sole infallible authority if its meaning is obscure. Otherwise, how could the reader have any confidence that his or her interpretation of Scripture is correct? Most Protestant theologians, from the Reformation up through the present day, take perspicuity for granted.
It is easy to see why perspicuity is so important: to deny it would be to tacitly admit that ordinary Christians may not be capable of arriving at the right conclusions on their own. This in turn would open the door to the Catholic Church’s claim as the only divinely-ordained interpretative authority.
To deny perspicuity, then, would undermine the entire Reformation’s theological program. A major Protestant doctrine like “salvation by faith alone” (sola fide) might be taught in the Bible, but unless the Bible is absolutely clear on this issue, the reader cannot have any real certainty that it is actually there. Sola fide would just be another debatable topic; and if that is the case, a Protestant could not have confidence that he is saved. Thus, as Chalk argues, the true foundation of Protestantism is not sola scriptura, but perspicuity. Without it, everything else falls apart.
Who is the Holy Spirit Guiding?
Chalk notes that the Reformers initially believed that once the Bible was unshackled from the grips of the Catholic Church, Christians would unite behind the authentic doctrines that were plainly laid out in Scripture. But they quickly discovered that, despite agreeing that the Bible was clear, they vehemently disagreed about what it “clearly” teaches. Everything from the nature of Christ’s atonement to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was open to debate. So how to reconcile the seemingly plain meaning of the Bible with the diversity of interpretations that sprang up?
In one of the most interesting sections in the book, Chalk writes that in order to solve this dilemma, Protestants were forced to assume the worst about each other. Realizing that one could not just read the words on the page and imbibe its meaning, the Reformers asserted that the reader needed the assistance of the Holy Spirit. “The truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures,” wrote Luther. Thus, the Bible is clear, but only to those to whom God makes it clear.
Naturally, then, those who disagreed with Luther about what was taught in the Scriptures must not be guided by the Holy Spirit. In fact, Luther asserted that his interlocutors had been seduced by the “malice of Satan.” This was also John Calvin’s conclusion, who wrote that his theological opponents had fallen prey to the “mere delusions of Satan.” Some later Protestants were a bit more charitable to each other, ascribing differences of opinion to sin and ignorance, rather than the direct interference of the Devil.
Needless to say, this kind of discourse was not conducive to uniting the Reformers, and it has not helped to unite modern Protestants either. And yet, by holding to the doctrine of perspicuity, Protestants backed themselves into a corner, leaving them essentially no choice but to ascribe ill intent to those with opposing views.
The clarity problem is not just an issue for the Bible though; it is also an issue for the Catholic Church. Even the most ardent Catholic must admit that, over the course of 2,000 years, the Church has taught some complicated and perhaps even contradictory ideas. One might say that some of the Church’s pronouncements are obscure.
Chalk recognizes this problem, but writes that while Magisterial teachings are sometimes hard to understand, it, unlike the Bible, is made up of living persons who can engage in conversation with us. That is not to say that God’s Word is defective, Chalk hastens to add; books just have natural limitations. “A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader,” he writes, “but a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot.”
And so Chalk’s humblest argument turns out to be his most effective. Even if the Bible testified to its own perspicuity, it cannot be denied that as a practical matter, disputes cannot usually be settled by simply appealing to the Bible. Only an authoritative teaching office can settle disputes definitively.
Chalk has done a great service in compiling the best arguments for and against the doctrine of perspicuity. Anyone looking for a deep-dive into the issue should start with The Obscurity of Scripture. Encyclopedic in its breadth, fair in its presentation, intellectually ruthless in its conclusions, Chalk’s book is an excellent source for those trying to discern where they stand on this topic.
Tyler Curtis is a freelance writer from Missouri. He has written for National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Examiner.
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