Monday, February 1, 2010

Tom Brown on Nehemiah and Perspicuity

Over at Called to Communion, Tom Brown reflects on his personal reading of Nehemiah -- and on how Nehemiah 8, in particular, seems to contradict the Protestant notion of Scriptural perspicuity:

"The people in Nehemiah 8 were competent, capable of hearing with understanding. The people were listening carefully; the ears of all were attentive. They listened with worshipful hearts, crying 'Amen!' and falling on their faces upon seeing the Scripture. In short, we have an ideal setting for an audience to be able to understand the Scripture that was read to them. And yet Ezra and the teachers were needed to give the meaning of the text 'so that the people understood the reading.' These faithful listeners’ qualities of being competent, attentive, and worshipful were not independently adequate to understand Scripture."

It's a short reflection, to be sure, but one that, when taken with other Scriptures (such as Acts 8, wherein the Ethiopian eunuch tells St. Philip: "And how can I [understand the Scriptures], unless some man shew me?"), with a basic application of reason, and with the empirical data of Protestant history (with its ever-expanding multifariousness of contradictory notions regarding what the Scriptures mean) establishes an overwhelming case that God gave us a Church to authoritatively guide us in our understanding of the Scriptures.

Why authoritatively?  Because unless the guidance is authoritative, it could be wrong.  In fact, the law of averages tells us that, more times than not, it will be wrong!  An experience from my own life may be instructive.  I was reared in the Presbyterian Church in America, a vibrant, godly Protestant denomination that was founded a few short years prior to my birth.  As good Presbyterians are wont to do, my folks had me baptized, by sprinkling, when I was an infant.  To their minds (and later to mine), my baptism was a sign and seal of the covenant, but the sacrament itself did not regenerate my soul in any way.  Fast forward to my late teens, when I first met my future wife. 

She, being reared in one of the offshoots of the Campbellite movement, had been taught that the waters of baptism actually effect in the soul of the baptized the regeneration that they symbolize.  Additionally, she was taught that baptism must be offered only to mature believers -- and that it must be administered only by full bodily immersion.  Rarely having been exposed to the doctrines of non-Presbyterian Protestants, I was dumbfounded by her seemingly strange beliefs regarding baptism, but I was prepared to observe a "different strokes" approach.  Her unique set of beliefs, however, would not allow her to take such a laissez faire approach with me.  You see, her faith taught that the baptism-by-sprinkling that I received as an infant was not a true baptism -- and not being truly baptized, I was not truly saved.

Hours and hours of Bible study, reflection, consultation, prayer, and discussion followed.  I thought my Presbyterian teachings on baptism were well-supported by Scripture, but I was distressed to find myself concluding that her sect's teachings seemed to have even greater biblical support!  How could the Scriptures support mutually-exclusive conclusions on such a vital issue?  Is sprinkling okay -- or not?  Is infant baptism acceptable -- or isn't it?  Is baptism necessary for salvation -- or is it something less?  Never being able to reach a firm, satisfying conclusion, I decided to cover my bases and reluctantly agreed to be "re-baptized" at her church.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I was in the position of the Ethiopian eunuch -- I had an authority gap.  It would take me almost ten years to realize that I, too, needed a successor of St. Philip to authoritatively "shew me" the meaning of the Scriptures and the fullness of the faith that can only be found in the Catholic Church.        


  1. Zach, I count you as a friend and brother in Christ, but reading some of your posts prove too painful for me. Hence, I'll take the bait this last time and I'm out...

    On this perspicuity point, as usual, it comes back to authority. You think the Pope has it. You trust in him for your salvation. I simply do not. With good reason. But that's another discussion. You're cool with the Pope and his Magesterium, even if his exegesis stinks. The rest of your efforts are directed at trying to pick apart various protestant efforts to "rightly divide the word of truth" as God bids us to do. Of course we don't always get it right...but good grief, that's not unique to protestant interpreters.

    The Reformers taught and I personally believe and teach that the Holy Spirit alone is the true interpreter of the Word. Matt. 7:15; 16:17; John 6:44; 10:3; Heb. 5:14; 1 John 4:1

    The Holy Spirit indwells the heart of every believer, and illuminates every child of God with the ability and desire to know the truth. The clarity is in light of the source, as I have heard it well put. Scripture possesses the “power to interpret itself” and is the supreme judge of all controversies.

    I know you balk at that, especially with all the different interpretations there are. But if your honest, RC interpreters disagree all over the place too. I saw it in my own Parish growing up between two priests, etc.

    The Reformers did well to explain the interpretive concept of “analogia Scriptura” Scripture interprets Scripture. Simply put, as Bavinck defined it- “The obscure texts are explained by the plain ones, and the fundamental ideas of Scripture as a whole serve to clarify the parts.”

    Perspicuity is an attribute of Holy Scripture that Scripture claims for itself. Pointing to a section of Scripture you or I can't immediately understand in no way negates the concept of perspicuity. We go to clearer passages while continuing to do our exegetical work.

    As I started an exposition of Philippians this past Lord's Day, I was struck again how God penned Scripture through the Apostle so the "saints in Jesus Christ" could plainly understand. In fact, the Apostles wrote to ALL those called saints with the intention of being understood by all to bring hope, endurance, comfort and edification. Rom. 1:7; 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16; 1 John 1:1. No need for a Pope to give the final word (which is good, since 50 - 100 of the blessed Pontiffs barely knew Scripture themselves..the Reformation was the best thing that ever happened to Papal scholarship)

    Scripture is meant to be understood by all and it is intended to be proclaimed just as clearly in the Church to all that have ears to hear (indwelt by the Holy Spirit). The Holy Spirit has been faithful to direct the Church on how to teach, preach and apply the ministry of the Word to the saints. According to God's plan and by His wisdom, this has never been done perfectly. Hopefully we can agree on that. But it has been done sufficiently for the calling, building, and preserving of His Church. Indeed, not one of the Elect will be lost.

    The authority and power of the church lies in how they handle apply and expound Scripture not in itself. The role of the Church is to teach and proclaim these truths with equal clarity by employing literal, historical, grammatical hermeneutics based on this principle.

    I've said my piece...but I know I have not brought peace.

  2. Tony, it's always good to hear from my most loyal reader. :)

    I couldn't agree more that "the Holy Spirit alone is the true interpreter of the Word", but the question is: what is the means by which we know what the Holy Spirit's interpretation is? Both my wife and I were biblically-fluent, Spirit-filled believers, but we came to radically mutually-exclusive conclusions on the fundamental issue of baptism.

    Mind you, this was no small difference. Her conclusions caused her to question my very salvation. My conclusions caused me think her a proponent of works-salvation.

    So how does your epistemology provide a solution? We followed all the steps you mention above (as had generations of our spiritual forefathers in our respective denominations), but we were still hearing contradictory messages from the Holy Spirit.

    I concluded that I had an authority gap. You say, "Not so. You had all the authority you needed." So help me out--how could I have reached certain truth in this matter of baptism?

  3. I like the guy's Narnian name, but he exaggerates the role of the Pope in order to defend the Protestant error concerning the so-called perspicuity of Scripture. The Pope doesn't take the place of the Holy Spirit . . .

    I'm personally drawn to the episode of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts who's kinda stuck because he has no one to explain Scripture to him until Philip shows up. We all need pastors, teachers, etc. The Pope just happens to be the supreme pastor over the universal Church, a role not assumed (perhaps because somebody didn't think his exegesis stinks) but given by Christ Himself to the leader of the apostles and his successors.

    Not much time comment at length, but this forum will shed some light on this topic: