Is the Bible Crystal-Clear Enough to Bring About Doctrinal Orthodoxy By Itself?
[ source ]
From my book: 501 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura: Is the Bible the Only Infallible Authority?
* * * * *
1. The Bible is only clear to the extent that various Protestant factions agree on any one of its teachings.
2. Catholics have every confidence in Scripture. What we lack confidence in, is the ability of men to "rightly divide the word of truth." [PRO, 11]
3. If Protestants discount the Church's binding authority because men are sinners, then they obviously have to discount every individual's interpretation, as each person is a sinner, too!
4. I think Scripture is pretty clear (I've always found it to be so in my many biblical studies), but I also know from simple observation and knowledge of Church history that it isn't clear enough to bring men to agreement.
5. Since Protestants can't agree in their interpretation of Scripture, of what practical use is an infallible Bible? If the interpretation is fallible and contradictory, then -- practically speaking -- the Bible in effect is no more infallible than its differing interpretations.
6. Is every Christian in the world able to find enough time, and become educated enough and familiar enough with Scripture to be his own theologian? And if he consults other ones, wise enough to always get it right when he chooses? [MBE, 102]
7. The U.S. Constitution might be regarded as true and wonderful and sufficient, etc. But the fact remains that this abstract belief only lasts undisturbed as long as the first instance of case law in which two parties claim divergent interpretations of the Constitution. It's the same with Protestants. [MBE, 103-104]
8. Catholics don't think Scripture is nearly as unclear and obscure as we are often caricatured to supposedly believe. But we do know that heretics throughout the centuries have distorted the Scripture, for whatever reason, so that an authoritative statement of orthodoxy becomes practically necessary in order to preserve unity as well as orthodoxy.
9. Protestants often erroneously define "private judgment" as "the faculty of choosing itself." But it does not mean simply a choice or an individual making up his mind. It refers to a formal rule of faith and is intimately connected with sola Scriptura. For this reason it is nonsensical to apply the term to Catholics as any sort of description of their system.
10. In effect, Protestant scholars, pastors, theologians, even radio preachers, serve as de facto "final authorities" (albeit not infallible ones) on a practical day-to-day level, because no book can do that by itself (especially not one as exceedingly lengthy and multi-faceted as the Bible). It always has to be interpreted. And one can, therefore, have an authoritative, infallible authority or a completely fallible one, contradicted by other ones within the same overall principle.
11. Private judgment tends to lead individuals and groups down the primrose path of separatism and an undue influence of the traditions of men (oftentimes that of the founder of the group) -- despite the obligatory warnings of the more sophisticated and nuanced expounders that such division is evil, etc. The principle (like so many heretical ideas, in their incoherence and ultimate falsity) has its own inner dynamic and logic, and people consistently follow it.
12. Radical individualism is much more so a product of deistic and atheistic Enlightenment thought and the "rugged individual," pragmatic American ideal, than it is the fruit of classic Protestant thought. Nevertheless, when Luther put the individual conscience above all of Church Tradition and apostolic succession, a dangerous precedent was established, and we have seen the undesirable consequences of it. Cafeteria, "pick and choose" Christianity began in a major way then. [PRO, 43]
13. Some Protestants argue that Psalms 19:7 and 119:130 inform us that the Word of God can be grasped by the simple. There is a significant sense in which this is indeed true. But then, if it is true in a formal sense, why such doctrinal confusion in Protestantism? One of Protestantism’s insuperable problems is that in the endeavor to show that Scripture is perspicuous, it merely heightens and magnifies the folly and wrongfulness of denominationalism and competing truth claims. It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul. [BCO, 30; modified]
14. Who determines what is a "sound hermeneutic" -- and by what authority? How does someone determine that another Christian with a divergent interpretation on any given doctrine does not "desire" to understand Scripture? How are these differences resolved? They cannot be resolved by recourse to this abstract sort of criterion. They certainly can be resolved by appealing and submitting to a demonstrable apostolic and historical Tradition, consistent with Scripture; that is, the biblical, apostolic, patristic and Catholic method.
15. If God really does believe in sola Scriptura, then would it not be His will to have made Scripture plain enough for evangelicals to come to agreement on that basis? If that's how God designed things in His Providence, then the result must be good and desirable, no? I am saying that these very notions run contrary to Scripture itself, and that obviously something beyond Scripture (as an authority, not as additional revelation) is needed in order for Christianity to be unified and compelling to the unbeliever. [BCO, 40]
16. If the argument is that the Law was self-evident simply upon being read, per sola Scriptura, this is untrue to the Old Testament, for, again, we are informed that priests and Levites "taught in Judah, having the book of the law of the LORD with them; they went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people" (2 Chron 17:9), and that the Levites "taught all Israel" (2 Chron 35:3). They didn't just read, they taught, and that involved interpretation. And the people had no right of private judgment, to dissent from what was taught. [TCV, 51; modified]
17. But why can’t we turn Luther’s rhetoric about conciliar and traditional “error” back on him and say that he can err as well? What's more likely?: a council of several hundred bishops consulting together, promulgating a falsehood, or one mere man doing so? His reasoning redounds back upon himself. Yet we see how Luther acted whenever anyone dared to disagree with him. He was insulting and autocratic and haughty and vulgar. If one deigned to disagree with Luther on a serious matter, he usually stated that they were damned and no Christian at all, as he did, for example, with Erasmus, on the free will issue.
18. Each Protestant can theoretically come up with a radically new brand of Christianity if he so chooses. He can start a new denomination. He can declare that historical precedents for doctrines x, y, and z are meaningless and hopelessly corrupt and "unbiblical" and discard them at will (even in extreme cases, doing so with full knowledge that virtually all the Fathers or the entire history of Christianity between Jesus and 1517 held something quite otherwise). No one can deny this is possible because it is precisely what Luther and Calvin, the founders of the very system, themselves did.
19. It is often stated that Scripture is “perspicuous” (clear) and able to be understood in the main by the committed, regenerate layman, and that by comparing Bible passage with Bible passage, the truth can always be found. But the rub is that there are different ways of harmonizing the Scripture. There is the Calvinist way and the Arminian way and the Baptist way, the Lutheran, Anglican, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Methodist, Plymouth Brethren, 7th-Day Adventist, Mennonite, Church of God, Church of Christ ways, etc., etc. ad infinitum. Simply invoking the principle does not solve the problem in the least. [MBE, 102-103]
20. The fact that the Law as a whole needed interpretation doesn’t rule out the possibility that certain parts of it were clear and apparent without the need for much interpretation (just as with the Bible as a whole). Catholicism does not require a totally obscure Bible at all. This is a myth. But could the entire Law and Bible be understood without the need of authoritative teachers? No. And that is rather obvious to this day. Protestants continue to absurdly claim that the Bible is perspicuous, yet fail to agree amongst themselves. And their reasons for why this is (stupidity or sin on the other guy's part) are as absurd and silly as the original false premise.
21. The Protestant Westminster Confession states: "Those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, . . . ". For many Christians, including Luther and Lutherans, traditional Anglicans, and Methodists, and even later Protestant schools of thought such as the Churches of Christ, one of the things which is necessary for salvation is baptism. Therefore, it would be clearly taught in Scripture (per the Westminster Confession). And so all these groups, and Catholics and Orthodox, believe it indeed is clearly taught in the Bible. Yet Protestants cannot agree on the correct teaching on baptism, and are split into five major camps.
22. If a Protestant appeals to himself as the final court of appeal of Bible interpretation, that is obviously a fallacious way to arrive at theological certainty. If they appeal to men like Luther and Calvin, inevitably, they will be "wrong" (i.e., according to “Pope Joe Protestant”) at some point and he will arbitrarily decide who is right or wrong, thus assuming to himself the super-papal role again. If we challenge them to tell us how they know that Luther was wrong and Calvin right on Issue A (or vice versa) then it again becomes arbitrary: the one who is right is right because he agrees with Pope Joe Protestant. It always comes back to the individual, and arbitrariness and irrationality and inevitable self-contradiction.
23. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus marveled at how Jesus "opened to us the Scriptures" (Luke 24:32). In other words, those prophecies were not understood until Jesus explained them, and in fact, most of the Jews did not see that they were fulfilled. Thus, Old Testament Scripture was insufficient for these messianic truths to be grasped simply by reading them. One could retort that the Jews were hard-hearted and thus could not understand since they had not the Holy Spirit and God's grace to illumine their understanding. But that proves too much because it would also have to apply to these two disciples, and indeed all of the disciples, who did not understand what was happening, even after Jesus repeatedly told them that He was to suffer and to die, and that this was all foretold. They didn't "get it" till after He was crucified.
24. It is contended that those who study the Bible in greater depth will tend to agree on its central teaching. But that's simply not true. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons know their Bibles quite well (of course they have horrendous hermeneutical principles) and they can’t even arrive at trinitarianism. Calvin and Luther both knew the Bible inside out, yet they disagreed on a host of things (baptismal regeneration, Eucharist, etc.). The argument doesn't fly. We have to deal with history and the ugly reality of unbiblical sectarianism. I don't think the disagreements are primarily due to a mere lack of knowledge, but rather, due to a lack of a biblical authority structure (Church, Bible, Tradition: the “three-legged stool”), and flawed premises (sola Scriptura, private judgment, supremacy of the individual conscience, competing ecclesiologies, etc.). [BCO, 47; modified]
25. One can arrive at any number of true doctrines by reading Scripture alone. I pretty much did that in a number of cases, when I was a Protestant. By the time I became Catholic, I had arrived at maybe 70% of the Catholic doctrines on the authority (ultimately) of Scripture alone. Most other Catholic doctrines did not strike me as utterly unbiblical, either, once they were adequately explained to me. And the more I did Catholic apologetics (which I started in late 1990 and have constantly done ever since), the more I saw this. The problem, however, comes with the Jehovah's Witness (an Arian) on the next block, who reads the same Scripture that we do and concludes that Jesus was created. It's with the Mormon two blocks over who believes that God was once a man and that men can become gods. It's with the Christian Scientist and the Sabellian (Jesus Only) and the Unitarian and Moonie and Scientologist and snake handlers and Name-it-Claim-it heretics, etc., etc., etc. They're all operating on the principle of Scripture Alone, just as the ancient Arians and virtually all heresies did, too.
Armstrong, Dave, Bible Conversations: Catholic-Protestant Dialogues on the Bible, Tradition, and Salvation [BCO], Lulu, 2007.
Armstrong, Dave, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants [TCV], New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2004.
Armstrong, Dave, More Biblical Evidence for Catholicism [MBE], Lulu, 2007.
Armstrong, Dave, Protestantism: Critical Reflections of an Ecumenical Catholic [PRO], Lulu, 2007.