Who Determines Scripture’s “Plain Meaning”?

July-August 2018By Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk is a graduate student in theology at Christendom College and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion (www.calledtocommunion.com).

Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation.  By Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls. Baker Academic. 432 pages. $34.99.

In the end, it was all about perspicuity. I was a Calvinist seminary student and the word kept me awake at night. Many Protestants are unfamiliar with perspicuity, also referred to as “the clarity of Scripture,” though it is one of the most important Reformation-era doctrines. Perspicuity has been articulated differently within various Protestant traditions, though perhaps the most famous definition is that found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, a Protestant creedal document: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet 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.”

As a Calvinist, I wholeheartedly embraced this teaching. Yet I encountered a perspicuity problem. People within my own theological tradition were disagreeing over precisely those things I thought were plainly taught in the Bible and necessary for salvation. A prominent pastor within my denomination was on trial for heresy for teaching things contrary to Scripture’s supposedly plain meaning. As I peered over the walls of my fairly small theological community, I had to admit that those across a wide swath of Christian traditions were debating — indeed, had debated for centuries — just about every verse in Holy Scripture, often with the adjacent claim that opposing interpretations were misguided, wrong, or heretical.

I was reminded of this “prob­lem with perspicuity” as I read Roman but Not Catholic. Authors Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls, two distinguished and well-respected Protestant scholars, presume perspicuity. Before they even provide a definition of its meaning, they manifest their presumption of the doctrine, claiming in an early chapter that the deuterocanonical Tobit 12:9 “contradicts the clear teaching of the apostolic testimony of Paul found in Romans 4-5.”

For Collins and Walls, much hangs on perspicuity. They employ it to claim that “it is clear that Christ established not the ‘sacrament of the Mass,’” and that transubstantiation is “clearly an aberration” from biblical teaching. They use it to argue against Catholic teachings on baptism (“as the apostle Paul so clearly explained in Romans 11:17-21…”) and the priesthood (“the clear biblical teaching of the general priesthood of all Christians…”; “the clear teaching of Hebrews…”). They censure notorious Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong for departing from “clear, consensual biblical doctrine.” They believe the Nicene Fathers correctly interpreted Scripture’s teaching on Christology precisely because of “the clarity and perspicuity of Scripture.” This is a problematic claim, given that (1) a majority of fourth-century bishops maintained Arian interpretations of Scripture, and (2) prominent contemporary Reformed thinkers like John Piper and Robert Reymond have rejected certain language in the Nicene Creed as unbiblical.

More pervasive problems with perspicuity are found in Roman but Not Catholic. In several chapters, including those on the papacy and justification, the authors make recourse to Koine Greek vocabulary and grammar to substantiate their arguments. Perhaps this is because the biblical legitimacy (or illegitimacy, in this case) of the papacy does not fall within the normal boundaries of perspicuity. Justification, the doctrinal spark that ignited the Reformation, certainly does fall within clarity’s parameters, as the authors seem to acknowledge. They claim that Romans 1:17 (as well as “the whole Pauline concept of faith”) refutes the Catholic understanding of justification. They then proceed to discuss the Greek vocabulary and grammar related to justification, which they admit “may seem to be a technical, exegetical issue.” Yet, Collins and Walls explain, this is necessary because “what is at stake is nothing less than the graciousness and beauty of the gospel that faith in Jesus Christ is reckoned to the sinner as righteousness.” To paraphrase: Proficiency in the nuances of the vernacular language behind English translations of the Bible is important because the Gospel itself — something presumably “clear” — is threatened if Bible readers err in reference to justification. This, suffice it to say, works against perspicuity.

Again the problem arises when Collins and Walls get to the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), a scholarly movement begun in the 1970s predominantly by Protestant scholars. NPP has questioned, if not largely undermined, historic Protestant conceptions of justification. The authors attack NPP because, they claim, it contradicts Pauline teaching. They then acknowledge that some NPP adherents, including Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, have articulated certain ideas regarding justification that sound hauntingly similar to Catholicism. What their view amounts to, in effect, is that Scripture is clear on justification, except when either Catholics or Protestants other than Collins and Walls interpret it differently, in which case we need the latter’s help — or, at least, the help of theologians or scholars who agree with them — to make sense of the biblical text.

Perspicuity also comes up short in the debate over what should be included in what is “necessary for salvation.” Any student of global Christianity (and its many heresies) knows that what comprises essential salvific doctrine differs significantly from one branch to another. Some consider baptism essential, others a profession of faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, still others communion with the visible, Christ-established Church. Within Protestantism, no authority exists to determine what counts as being “necessary for salvation.” Moreover, the history of Protestantism is a test case in perspicuity gone wrong. New denominations and congregations are routine byproducts of debates over Scripture’s “plain” meaning. My own previous denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), formed in 1973 out of debates over Scripture; PCA was still squabbling over conflicting opinions on Scripture when I departed for Catholicism in 2010.

Perspicuity, by its very nature, leaves Christians with no recourse in the event of disagreement. Who can arbitrate when the debate is over something supposedly clear? The Bible, Protestantism’s fallback authority, is incapable of standing up amid such a debate to declare, “I know you think this chapter and verse means x, but it actually means y.” Perspicuity also makes us assume the worst about others. If Scripture is perspicuous, our interlocutors must be either intentionally rejecting the Bible’s clear meaning or so stupid they can’t get what’s supposedly clear, or they are influenced by demons. None of these are particularly charitable options for ecumenical dialogue. Tellingly, these are exactly the kinds of charges Luther and Calvin threw at both Catholics and Protestants who disagreed with them on the Bible’s meaning.

Collins and Walls’s book is also colored by frustration with Catholics — especially Catholic converts from Protestantism — who, they say, either attack simplistic Protestant strawmen or offer unfair comparisons between the two Christian traditions. In this the authors are sometimes justified. In one chapter, Walls recounts how a Catholic friend asserted that Catholics have Dante while Protestants have the Left Behind series. Certainly this is unfair. What of Bach or Milton, among others? The cure for this unhelpful approach, Walls says, is “honesty, as well as charity…. Fixating on the weakness of either tradition while ignoring the strengths, in order to justify conversion, serves neither clarity nor charity.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I admit that I have at times played into this exact paradigm. The problem is that Collins and Walls have difficulty avoiding it themselves.

For example, they attack a popular article on Called to Communion (CtC), an ecumenical website with which I am affiliated, that defends the historicity of the Roman episcopacy. First off, they inaccurately attribute the article solely to Mount Mercy University philosophy professor Bryan Cross, when it was co-authored by Barrett Turner, a Mount Saint Mary’s theology professor, and Ray Stamper, a graduate of Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Far worse, the authors accuse Cross of “dogmatic sophistry” and using neither “historical reasoning” nor a “suitable methodology.” This is simply not true. The CtC authors devote a thousand words at the beginning of the article to explaining their historical methodology. Moreover, Collins and Walls accuse Cross of proceeding in a “dogmatic” fashion and supposedly asserting that “whatever Rome teaches is correct.” They give no substance to this attack, and they engage none of the arguments in the CtC article.

Nor are Collins and Walls lacking their own problematic historical methodologies. They frequently attack Catholic historical claims by promoting the evaluations of other scholars — Peter Lampe, Eamon Duffy, and Garry Wills, to name a few. Often, simply repeating the assertions of these scholars is enough for the authors to declare victory. For instance, they refer to a scholarly debate regarding the historical accuracy of the Roman episcopal list provided by St. Irenaeus in Against Heresies, one of the most important pieces of evidence confirming apostolic succession in Rome going back to St. Peter. The authors cite with approval Lampe’s evaluation of that list as “with highest probability a historical construction from the 180s.” Why is this so? They never explain; Lampe’s credentials are apparently enough. Yet history, like other sciences, is fickle and malleable; what a consensus of historians declares with certitude in one generation is often contradicted by another. Historians, even ones of pre-eminent scholarly abilities, make mistakes. For example, Rodney Stark — a well-respected scholar, bestselling author, and practicing Lutheran — wrote Bearing False Witness (2016) to debunk “centuries of anti-Catholic history.” Stark previously believed that anti-Catholic history, until he more closely examined the historical data. In the case of the historicity of Irenaeus’s list of Roman bishops, many of the names offered by the second-century saint are independently verified by other historical sources.

Collins and Walls also fail to communicate an explicit or consistent methodology regarding what historical documentation counts as “early enough” to be considered normative for Christian belief. At some points, they seem to believe that only those doctrines or practices found in the New Testament era are normative; at other times it’s the first century. Yet others times it’s up to the end of the Apostolic Fathers (ca. A.D. 200) or up to the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). This is not only ad hoc and arbitrary, it’s self-defeating. Why draw the line at the end of the New Testament era? The Gospel of John was written anywhere from 30 to 60 years after the events it describes. Maybe we should apply a similarly skeptical eye toward the later books of the New Testament. Many scholars certainly do.

Finally, Collins and Walls are frequently guilty of historical misrepresentations and inaccuracies. They accuse the papacy of engaging in feckless power struggles with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, whom Pope Honorius III excommunicated “just as the emperor set out to regain Jerusalem from the Muslims.” In truth, Frederick delayed embarking on his promised crusade for six years and failed to reinforce the fifth crusade in Egypt, resulting in its defeat. The authors also attack the Inquisition, an institution unfairly maligned in popular literature, though it took prosecution of heretics out of the hands of lynch mobs who were far more eager to use violence than the inquisitorial tribunals. The goal was to win souls for Heaven, not torture people for sadistic pleasure. The authors condemn the Church for prosecuting witches, when historical evidence demonstrates that this was a far greater problem in Protestant-controlled areas. Indeed, the Inquisition didn’t even recognize witches as real, and thus didn’t prosecute them.

Collins and Walls praise French King Philip IV for attempting to limit the power of the medieval papacy, but a couple pages later they deride the Avignon papacy, a 68-year period when French kings allegedly dominated the popes (though, in truth, the Avignon popes were quite free and highly competent). They accuse Pope Innocent III of anti-Semitism for mandating distinctive dress for Jews, though many Jewish leaders had petitioned him to do exactly this to prevent Jewish miscegenation with Gentiles. The authors attack the Church for obstructing vernacular translations of Scripture, but they neglect to note that the Church allowed many vernacular translations across Europe prior to the Reformation. They falsely claim that the papacy’s censorship of certain books “put Roman Catholics at a distinct intellectual disadvantage, in terms of the early phases of the scientific revolution.” In truth, many of the greatest contributors to the scientific revolution were Catholics, including a number of clergymen.

Collins and Walls note a common tendency of Protestant converts to Catholicism to cite a quotation from Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” The authors obviously find this statement grating — they refer to it multiple times and attack Catholic apologists who employ it. Whatever the merits (or demerits) of Newman’s statement, the authors undermine their attempts to refute it with their misleading, erroneous, and often polemical presentation of history.

Collins and Walls, in turn, consistently promote their own aphorism, one particularly popular in contemporary Protestant apologetics, that Rome is not sufficiently “catholic” (lowercase c, as in universal) because of its failures to affirm and incorporate other branches of Christianity, specifically Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. For example, Protestant scholar Kevin J. Vanhoozer, in his praise of Roman but Not Catholic, quips, “Roman centricity deconstructs true catholicity by suggesting that Orthodox and Protestant churches are deficient.” Such a claim, however, begs the question by presuming exactly what is up for debate — namely, that the Catholic Church isn’t who she says she is: the true inheritor of the fullness of divine truth communicated by Christ, transmitted to the Apostles, and preserved through apostolic succession and the principle of unity, the bishop of Rome. Yet if Rome is who she claims to be, then of course she would have to claim that Christians who refuse to submit to her authority would be in some way deficient.

Moreover, the “I’m too catholic to be Catholic” line of argumentation falls into the same kind of subjectivity critiqued above in reference to perspicuity. This is because what constitutes an acceptable “lowest common denominator” or “mere Christianity” (à la C.S. Lewis) is itself a subjective, arbitrary criterion debated by various Christian traditions. It also devolves into what Bryan Cross has labeled “ecclesial consumerism” because it reduces religious belief to a consumerist paradigm in which the goal is to find whatever church or denomination is deemed by the individual to be the most “catholic” (lowercase c). This is in contrast to a paradigm in which one seeks to find the Church Christ founded, whether or not it is as “catholic” as one would like.

Despite these flaws (and many others not mentioned here), Roman but Not Catholic should be read by those interested in ecumenical dialogue. Many Protestant scholars and apologists are promoting it as one of the best contemporary refutations of Catholicism. One of the puffs on the back cover, for example, declares, “This is a book every Protestant who feels some pull toward Rome must read before converting. It should also be read by every Protestant who knows a fellow Protestant moving toward Rome.” I too recommend this book, but to Catholics and those interested in Catholicism because they should understand — and know how to answer — the types of arguments employed by some of Protestantism’s most well-respected representatives. The entire ecumenical project demands this kind of hard work. That much, at least, is clear.

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