The Bible Liberated

E. J. Hutchinson argues that sola scriptura follows directly from capacity of language to communicate and worries what a reliance on infallible interpreters does to God’s design in communicating by holy writ:

if we wish to affirm the full humanity of Scripture, we need to have a doctrine that does something like the work of sola scriptura. Why? Because, at a certain level, human communication is perspicuous, even if not exhaustively so. Every interaction we have throughout each day presumes this–and that not only for oral communication, but for written communication as well (which are only two modes of the genus “communication”). The entire edifice of contractual law, for instance, is built upon this presumption, and, if one violates his contract, he is accountable to the law for it, for he should have known–and did know–better.

The same is true of written literature. Take Homer’s Odyssey as an example. If one wishes to know what the Odyssey is about–what it means–one reads the Odyssey. In neither instance, that of contractual law or that of ancient literature, is there a need for an infallible umpire to secure understanding. If such were the case–which is to say, if human communication were deeply opaque by nature–we would need such an umpire for everything (though he could still only use human communication to grant us understanding, and so still and all we would be likewise befettered). 1 In other words, the assumption that we cannot understand each other, even in writing, requires a nihilistic and despairing view of an animal that is social by nature, and neither nihilism nor despair are Christian virtues.

Indeed, it is in principle possible to understand something of a text with no help at all from others, though it is also possible (and perhaps likely) to misunderstand a great deal more. For that reason, it is profoundly unwise to ignore all of the assistance that is available. With respect to the example of contract law, that is why we have lawyers (I knew I would find a reason eventually). With respect to the example of the Odyssey, that is why we have people who specialize in Homer and the reading of archaic Greek poetry. As Solomon says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Eric Parker helpfully explicated this principle yesterday via Zanchi. Expertise in exegesis is a great good, whether it is the exegesis of a contract, a poem, or the Bible, and in the case of the latter it is perhaps an even greater good, because the stakes are so much higher. None of this, however, requires infallibility, as we see if we are being honest and reasonable: these are, rather, questions of prudence. All three kinds of texts are instances of human communication, and in that respect there is no reason in principle why their reading should be generically different–and, again, the understanding of an interpretation, or of an interpretation of an interpretation, presumes the basic communicativeness of human language in any case. Perhaps paradoxically, then, Scripture’s humanity requires perspicuity (in the sense used above), which is ingredient in and fundamental to any construal of sola scriptura. If perspicuity exists, then sola scriptura is perfectly reasonable.

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6 thoughts on “The Bible Liberated

  1. And just think of the greater hope we would have of understanding the Odyssey if Homer had also written the laws of nature and created the human faculties…

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  2. “Because, at a certain level, human communication is perspicuous, even if not exhaustively so. ”

    Well, yeah. Non-SS’ists agree Scripture is not hopelessly opaque. How many atheists or non-believers are saying the Bible doesn’t talk about a person named Jesus or mentions Mickey Mouse? That doesn’t get you SS.

    “Take Homer’s Odyssey as an example. If one wishes to know what the Odyssey is about–what it means–one reads the Odyssey.”

    Yes one reads Scripture. But just a brief reflection should show one’s self how many interpretive layers are at play in “simply” reading it – http://douglasbeaumont.com/2011/07/03/sola-scriptura-death-by-a-thousand-or-ten-qualifications/

    “Indeed, it is in principle possible to understand something of a text with no help at all from others, though it is also possible (and perhaps likely) to misunderstand a great deal more. ”

    Yup. Replace his example of the Odyssey with something like Finnegan’s Wake. Now consider you’re dealing with a collection of various books spanning different centuries, cultures, authors and genres.

    “With respect to the example of the Odyssey, that is why we have people who specialize in Homer and the reading of archaic Greek poetry.”

    And what happens when erudite well-intentioned scholars disagree on meaning or analysis of a particular work? Does that have any impact at all on the alleged perspicuity of the work?

    “Expertise in exegesis is a great good, whether it is the exegesis of a contract, a poem, or the Bible, and in the case of the latter it is perhaps an even greater good, because the stakes are so much higher.”

    And experts disagree on the exegetical methods and tools to be applied to Scripture. The Bible doesn’t state GHM-exegesis is sufficient for yielding divine truths, let alone the proper way to to apply it.

    “None of this, however, requires infallibility”

    If one equates Scripture to just another mundane human work, then of course – Scripture is to be treated no different than a newspaper. Divine revelation does require infallibility by definition.

    “All three kinds of texts are instances of human communication, and in that respect there is no reason in principle why their reading should be generically different”

    Again, disregards the supernatural and divine character of Scripture.

    “If perspicuity exists, then sola scriptura is perfectly reasonable.”

    Let’s assume Scripture is perspicuous. How would Protestantism and Christianity look different if hypothetically it was not actually perspicuous?

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  3. Cletus,

    Well, yeah. Non-SS’ists agree Scripture is not hopelessly opaque. How many atheists or non-believers are saying the Bible doesn’t talk about a person named Jesus or mentions Mickey Mouse? That doesn’t get you SS.

    You are overestimating what non-SSists say. Remember, Rome was once a lot more clear that reading the Bible apart from her own tradition can lead only to error.

    It’s also a lot harder to get sola Ecclesia if the Bible is perspicuous.

    Yes one reads Scripture. But just a brief reflection should show one’s self how many interpretive layers are at play in “simply” reading it – http://douglasbeaumont.com/2011/07/03/sola-scriptura-death-by-a-thousand-or-ten-qualifications/

    And of course many if not all of these interpretive layers are there no matter what is being read, including the magisterium. Point?

    And what happens when erudite well-intentioned scholars disagree on meaning or analysis of a particular work? Does that have any impact at all on the alleged perspicuity of the work?

    No more than when erudite, well-intentioned scholars disagree on meaning or analysis of the Magisterium and those erudite scholars are fully welcome at the Eucharist. Remember, no one can tell us everything Rome has declared as infallible, and there is not universal agreement on the few main things that “everyone” is supposed to agree on except perhaps outside of the first 7 or so councils.

    And experts disagree on the exegetical methods and tools to be applied to Scripture. The Bible doesn’t state GHM-exegesis is sufficient for yielding divine truths, let alone the proper way to to apply it.

    Well, experts pretty much disagree that fanciful allegorizing is off the table. Remember, Rome’s scholars are far more wedded to “modernist” biblical interpretation than any evangelical.

    If one equates Scripture to just another mundane human work, then of course – Scripture is to be treated no different than a newspaper. Divine revelation does require infallibility by definition.

    Divine revelation requires infallibility on part of the revelatory, not on the part of the reader. It’s revelation that is subjected to the adjective “divine.” But while Scripture is not a mundane human work, it also isn’t one in which God decided to speak in code.

    Again, disregards the supernatural and divine character of Scripture.

    If God speaks in code available only to the bishops, the essence of the RC position, then it is hard to impute any humanity to Scripture. Normally human beings write because they want to communicate and they use average language and forms.

    Let’s assume Scripture is perspicuous. How would Protestantism and Christianity look different if hypothetically it was not actually perspicuous?

    For starters, no two denominations or individuals could agree on anything.

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  4. Robert,

    “You are overestimating what non-SSists say.”

    Okay so non-SS’ists hold that, and Rome was “once a lot more clear” that Scripture is so opaque that it cannot be determined whether it talks about Jesus or Mickey Mouse? There’s a spectrum of clarity to Scripture – a denial of perspicuity does not entail an affirmation that Scripture is a set of alien hieroglyphics.

    “And of course many if not all of these interpretive layers are there no matter what is being read, including the magisterium. Point?”

    No matter what is being read? Can you tell me when I need to and how exactly I apply all 10 layers mentioned in the article to something like Clifford the Big Red Dog or Finnegan’s Wake? And who said magisterial documents were automatically perspicuous? They clarify some things, but other things might be left open, hence development and/or new heresies arising that need to be dealt with.

    “No more than when erudite, well-intentioned scholars disagree on meaning or analysis of the Magisterium”

    Right. And the Magisterium can offer further clarification and subsequent definitions and normative judgments when things are unclear as its history bears out. Scripture cannot. But you’re holding Scripture is perspicuous, so please explain how that works when erudite well-intentioned scholars disagree on its meaning or analysis.

    “Let’s assume Scripture is perspicuous. How would Protestantism and Christianity look different if hypothetically it was not actually perspicuous?
    – For starters, no two denominations or individuals could agree on anything.”

    Hmm this is an odd definition of perspicuity. By this definition, no document could ever be called non-perspicuous, unless you’d like to offer an example of a document that never had 2 people agreeing to any aspect or part of its meaning.

    Protestant perspicuity states that “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”. Protestantism and Christian scholars disagree on what Scripture consists of, let alone the essentials and what is necessary for salvation, let alone granting hypothetical agreement on essentials what the proper understanding/interpretation of those essentials entails. So I’m still wondering, assuming Scripture is perspicuous, how Protestantism and Christianity would look any different if hypothetically perspicuity was not true.

    Further, was the OT perspicuous before and during Christ? Did Jews of that time or afterwards hold it to be perspicuous? If it was perspicuous, why the need for Christ and the Apostles and NT church’s interpretation and judgment?

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