Treating Scripture as Perspicuous/Formally Sufficient

I’ve been reading through the 3 vol. set, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith by William Webster and David King.  Several evangelicals have “swam the Tiber” in recent years, but what is more scandalous is that some Reformed Christians seem to be following suit.  In reading their “testimonies,” whether online at websites devoted to promoting apostasy, or in print venues calling people to “return home,” I’m finding how many ex-Reformed people first stumbled over the Biblical doctrine of sola scriptura.  In light of this, I’ve been doing more reading on this topic.

In vol. 1, A Biblical Defense of the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura, David King does an outstanding job exegeting scripture relevant to the debate, in additional to tracking the history of exegesis.  Noting how several of the church fathers interpret texts in ways vastly different than modern day Roman apologists, King is able to demonstrate that the so-called “consent of the fathers” is grossly overstated.  Indeed the vast and substantial disagreements that exist even among present day Roman theologians should disabuse anyone of the claim that sola scriptura is to blame for all theological disagreements.

I could (and eventually hope to) interact more with these (and other) compelling volumes in defense of this important doctrine.  But I thought I’d post a quote noting how believers should treat scripture, in light of its formal sufficiency and its perspicuity.  King writes:

Scripture itself gives very clear instruction as to the responsibility of believers with respect to the word of God:

1.) We are to desire the word of God.  The scriptures are to be the daily nourishment of the people of God.  It is necessary to read and study them daily to receive spiritual sustenance.  Peter commanded his readers to ‘desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby’ (1 Pet 2:2).

2.) We are to meditate in the Law of God day and night.  See Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1, cited above.  The Psalmist says, ‘I will meditate on Your precepts’ (Ps. 119:15, 78) and ‘Oh, how I love Your Law!  It is my meditation all the day’ (Ps. 119:97).  The Psalmist shares the reason for his wisdom, ‘You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me.  I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation.  I understand more than the ancients, Because I keep your precepts’ (Ps. 119:98-100).  ‘Through Your precepts I get understanding’ (Ps. 119:104).

3.) We are to tremble at God’s word, i.e., reverence it.  ‘But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word’ (Is. 66:2).

4.) We are to memorize God’s word. ‘Your Word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against you’ (Ps. 119:11).  ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly …’ (Col 3:16).  The word cannot dwell in us richly unless it is memorized, so the implication of the text is clear.

5.) We are to obey God’s word.  ‘How shall a young man cleanse his way?  By taking heed according to Your word’ (Ps. 119:9).

6.) We are to pray to God for understanding of his word. ‘Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law’ (Ps. 119:18).  ‘Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to covetousness’ (Ps. 119:36).  ‘Give me understanding, that I may learn Your commandments’ (Ps. 119:73).

Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, Vol. 1, pgs. 210-211.

Thankfully Romanism does not consistently adhere to its “infallible” councils, and now not only permits the average lay-person to read scripture, but “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful … to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,’ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.  ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 133 – King sketches this progression on pgs. 211-218).  We can only hope that renewed study of the Bible by Romanists will lead many to embrace the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.

As for we who already find the sufficiency and perspicuity of scripture self-evident, would that we might continually flee to God’s word and drink up the life giving words contained therein unto the nourishment of our souls!

Andrew Compton
Lakewood, CA

6 thoughts on “Treating Scripture as Perspicuous/Formally Sufficient”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    I think the move to swim the Tiber often has to do with the realization that language requires a communal context for interpretation (i.e., Derrida, etc.). Worried at the loss of pure authorial presence as the means for anchoring textual meaning, Protestants can look at sloppy construals of scriptural perspicuity and jettison them for an “assured” communal anchor founded on the Magisterium. The odd thing is that Derrida and the better post-moderns are not really arguing that texts are meaningless or free floating (see James KA Smith’s work on Derrida). Rather they are simply pointing out that knowledge of texts is “ectypal” rather than “archetypal” (to use Protestant Scholastic categories)–i.e., one can still use texts to find meaning; however, one must humbly realize that there is always the possibility of misinterpretation given that language always requires abstraction from the author’s original context to communicate.

    All of that is to say that I think it would be helpful for us Protestants to offer more nuanced descriptions of perspicuity that take into account human finity without denying “that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in [Scripture].” (Belgic, Art. 7) Too often, perspicuity (mishandled) can become an unhelpful shibboleth that misses the point and ignores the ways in which “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (Westminster, Chap. 1:7).

    Keeping this hermeneutical/epistemological problem in mind, we could also better work with brothers and sisters who are tempted by Rome’s apparent “solution” to the problem of meaning. In a sense, Rome’s answer is simply too easy and does not account for other problems. Again, I think that there are plenty of people who swim the Tiber out of fear and out of a desire for stability (one could rephrase it: they head to Rome out of a desire for a textual theologia gloriae rather than a textual theologia crucis–the former tending towards an immediate authorial presence and the latter content with faith and living with a real, mediated authorial presence).

    Just some thoughts…


  2. Good thoughts, Nevada. I’ve been wondering if the desire for a magisterium is almost a form of idolatry … it almost seems to recognize that knowledge of God’s word is ectypal, but still wants to point to something visible and tangible and be able to say, “Aha! *here* is where the archtypal knowledge can be found.” Of course, that still assumes that ecypal knowledge is sinful per se and brings a whole host of other problems into the interpretive situation … but the differences between Rome and the Reformation tie into those very matters.

    I too can sympathize the fear of uncertainty, but it’s unfortunate that the Roman apologists have been able to convince people that certainty can be found at the Vatican. Of course, I’ve met others who know full well that this is completely wrong-headed and have converted anyway, but most of the apologetic rhetoric seems to be aimed at people looking for doctrinal stability in the midst of (what is declared or assumed to be) sinful instability (read: plurality).

    But as I mentioned at the end of the post, I am fascinated that Rome has really thrown the shackles off of biblical interpretation for the most part. That scholars like Raymond Brown, Patrick Skehan and Roland Murphy (to pick just three more famous scholars at random) can do the historical-critical work they do, and still remain within the Roman communion, says something for the interpretive freedom being allowed these days. This encourages me that others can exercise similar interpretive freedom/private judgment and will hopefully come to see the thoroughly biblical system that is Reformed Christianity!

    Anyway … I always appreciate hearing your thoughts on these kinds of issues!


  3. Hi Andrew,
    I had to laugh today when I was reading through the preface of Graham Ward’s “Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology” and found this:

    “Différance installs a theological question and it does so necessarily according to Derrida. That is the important point. Negative theology, in its many guises, most clearly exemplarises the economy of différance. Barth’s own self-critical, dialectical discourse constitutes a form of negative theology–a form which develops out of the theologia crucis tradition of the Reformation. This form of negative theology, like deconstruction, is also affirmative. So, for Barth, a theologia crucis promises also a theologia resurrectionis.” (xviii)

    I realize that Ward’s discussion is slightly different; however, apparently I am not the first to recognize something of a relationship between Derrida and a theologia crucis. And here I thought I was simply pulling a Horton-like move! :)

    Regarding Rome: I sometimes think that confessional Protestants can be a bit unaware of the major changes within the RCC since Vatican II. While the RCC’s stance on justification is still problematic, there have been and are many good things happening within that tradition (one being the fact that Ratzinger is pope–seriously, he’s amazing. His image of the Christian faith as a life fastened to the cross drifting over an abyss of doubt still haunts me.). Frankly, I find that I have much more in common with orthodox Roman Catholic scholars than classic liberal scholars in the mold of Bultmann, etc. I sometimes wonder how the various reformers would have responded had something like Vatican II happened in their lifetimes instead of Trent. My guess is that the responses would have been as varied as the reformers themselves. However, I do think that there would have been more dialogue and maybe (through divine grace) a “re-formation” of the RCC.

    Here’s hoping for such in our own lifetimes…


    1. I’m struck by how interesting Vatican II was for a church like the RCC. On the one hand, it really seems to have pulled the rug out from under some of the Catholic apologetics type groups. Pars. 836-847 of the Catechism of the RCC are pretty interesting in that regard. (Though the Catechism does still retain a pretty robust stance toward missions.)

      But on the other hand, it still seems to retain everything from before, albeit with vastly different wording. Papal and conciliar infallibility is still there (pars. 889-891), the scripture and tradition language is still pretty consistent (pars. 74-100), in fact, the idea of implicit faith, standing in an interesting tension with par. 133 mentioned above, still seems to be retained with par. 87: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: ‘He who hears you hears me,’ the faithful receive with docility the teaching and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” Maybe I’m reacting to “with docility” to strongly – after all we do want to discourage argumentalism even in our own churches.

      But yes … there is certainly some interesting changes afoot. I even read a fascinating discussion between Michael Horton and Fr. John Neuhaus in Modern Reformation where Neuhaus made some REALLY mind boggling comments about things like Trent and about whether the RCC can actually apologize for it. (He noted that to ask them to rescind Trent is very protestant, but the kinds of apologies Pope John Paul II was making through his tenure was about as close as it was possible to do just that.)

      Anyway … even before Vatican II, Jaroslav Pelikan was able to write a book called “The Riddle of Roman Catholicism.” It is definitely a mysterious place. Always the same, yet always changing, yet always claiming to remain the same…. the one and the many question is relevant to a whole host of matters concerning the RCC.


    1. I’ve been reading a lot of material from apologists on both sides of the debate lately so it’s definitely some polemical terminology that has sort of bubbled to the surface…. the polemics on each side are pretty sharp. I find it easy to get caught up in it a bit … While I do struggle with just how “Catholic” the Roman Catholic Church actually is, it’s perhaps better to hash that out with people face to face …


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