February 24, 2010

Biblical Literalism as Hyper-Perspicuity

Last night I was at a lecture on science and religion at USC's Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. (Evidently, we have an Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. Who knew?) In the course of a lecture with which I otherwise mostly agreed, Fr. Paul Heft connected radical Biblical literalism with the Reformers. This is, of course, strictly false: the Reformers were not literalists in anything like the sense in which twentieth century fundamentalists were. However, it got me thinking about what connection the doctrine of perspicuity, which I was recently discussing on Called to Communion, might have to radical literalism, and it seems to me that this is another example of what I have before called hyper-Reformation theology. That is, it seems to me that there is a real link between the Reformers and radical literalism; namely, that radical literalism is an exaggerated caricature of the doctrine of perspicuity. Let me explain.

The doctrine of perspicuity is formulated by the Westminster Confession as follows:

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 (sect. 1.7).

The Confession is reacting against an extreme view of the Roman Catholic hierarchy which held that it was not beneficial to bring the Scripture to the people in the vernacular, because they couldn't understand it properly anyway and, in even more extreme cases, that translating the Scripture into the vernacular could be destructive because of the false interpretations that would be given. Against these extreme views, the Reformers held that "not only the learned, but the unlearned" could benefit from reading the Scripture for themselves. This much is really not so controversial; the opposition to it was a transient artifact of that period. Encouragement of private Bible reading by the laity can be found as far back as St. Chrysostom, and of course today the Roman Catholic Church encourages private Scripture reading and endorses the translation of the Scripture into the vernacular. So the Reformers' modest claim that everyone can benefit from reading the Scripture is actually relatively uncontroversial in the Christian tradition.

This is, however, not to say that the doctrine of perspicuity is uncontroversial, for the doctrine of perspicuity says that everyone can benefit in a particular way from reading the Scripture: specifically, that they can "attain unto a sufficient understanding" of "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation." I won't go into the question of what doctrines are included here (see my CTC comments). The point is that the Reformers made the controversial claim that an individual believer could gain doctrinal knowledge by reading the Scripture apart from the mediation of the Church. This claim, in turn, served a further polemical purpose which was to argue (and here the dispute really becomes heated) that individual believers could judge the faithfulness of Church leaders by comparing their teaching and actions against the Scripture.

Early Protestants (and by 'early' I mean prior to the 19th century) were aware of the danger here: if the interpretation of Scripture lies in the hands of each individual, and individuals are in a position to judge the faithfulness of Church leaders on the basis of their interpretation, how can there be any Church leadership at all? Won't we just degenerate into chaos? Furthermore, isn't it just crazy to think that every individual is equally good at interpretation?

The quote from the WCF above shows that Protestant theologians were concerned to prevent this sort of chaos. This is why they begin by explicitly recognizing that (1) some parts of Scripture are clearer than others, and (2) the Scripture is clearer to some people than to others. The proper doctrine of perspicuity is narrow: it refers only to a very small portion of Biblical teaching, and leaves room for expert interpretation.

As for the chaos caused by individuals judging the faithfulness of Church leaders, let me note that this is actually fairly explicit in the New Testament: "[in a Church meeting] two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate" (1 Cor. 14:29). Second, although it is unconventional to cite Berkeley in a theological discussion, I cite Berkeley in every context, so I will refer readers to Berkeley's letter to James. Berkeley writes:

I grant it is meet the Law of Christ shou'd like other laws have magistrates to explain and apply it. But then as in the civil State a private man may know the law enough to avoid transgressing it, and also to see whether the magistrates deviate into tyranny: Even so, in the other case a private Christian may know and ought to know the written law of God and not give himself up blindly to the dictates of the Pope and his assessors.

Many people (including myself) consider it essential to the justice or legitimacy of a state that there be public laws, and that the government act according to them. For the government to depart from these laws is, as Berkeley says, to "deviate into tyranny". Yet, every state must have authoritative interpreters of the law. The idea of public law does not render attorneys and judges obsolete. The real world is so complicated that there is a necessity for specialists who interpret the law and apply it to real situations. This, in the traditional Protestant view, is what Church leaders are supposed to do with the Scripture. In the legal case, the principle of public law is not violated even in common law systems where the fact that a judge interprets the law a certain way can sometimes have the power to make that interpretation correct. Nevertheless, the ideal of public law requires that citizens have enough knowledge of the law to know how to obey it and to be able to judge whether the government is staying within its bounds. Classifying a government as a tyranny and/or resisting that government are extreme measures which are justified only in cases where the abuse is unambiguous, but there are such cases and the ideal of public law is that ordinary citizens should be able to detect those cases by reading the law.

This position recommends great deference for Church authority, just as great deference for civil authority is justified. However, the Reformers believed that in their day the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church had overstepped its bounds in an extreme way, like a civil magistrate "deviating into tyranny;" they claimed that it was unambiguous that the Church leaders were in contradiction with Scripture.

Note that the doctrine of perspicuity has nothing to do with whether the Reformers were right about this. For one thing, perspicuity doesn't guarantee freedom from error, even on those doctrines to which it applies. Second, it doesn't say anything about the ability of individuals to correctly identify the doctrines to which it applies. Third, it obviously says nothing about the historical facts about what the Church leadership was really doing at that time.

Now let me connect this back to literalism. We have seen that the proper doctrine of perspicuity is very narrowly confined and does not conflict with the idea that we should ordinarily listen to Church leadership. It also doesn't conflict with the idea that some people are better at interpreting Scripture than others. A large part of the motivation for this doctrine, however, is the claim that the Scripture is supposed to be God's revelation to all mankind; if this is so, then all mankind must be able to get something out of it. The Scripture is a public revelation, designed to impose some degree of objectivity, as opposed to private religious experience which can go any which way, and leaves no public method of adjudicating doctrinal disagreements. The doctrine of perspicuity was supposed to help safeguard this objectivity by insisting that the meaning of the Scripture was not a matter of the private interpretation of the Church leadership; the meaning is public and objective.

What literalism amounts to is an absurd amplification of these insights. According to literalism, all you really need to interpret the Bible is basic linguistic competence. If you speak the language and know what the subject, the verb, and the object of the sentence are, and you know the meanings of each of those words, you've got your hands on the infallible Word of God. But there is a problem: the ordinary believer doesn't have this sort of linguistic confidence, since the languages in which the Bible was written are long since dead! Enter KJV-Onlyism. KJV-Only fundamentalists argue that since the Bible is God's revelation to all mankind, he must have made it available (full strength) to all mankind - i.e., in every language. According to this line of thought, God wouldn't have allowed English speakers to be stuck with an inaccurate Bible translation for 400 years, so the KJV must have been inerrantly inspired. (Never mind all the disagreements between various translations that have been dominant in English and other languages at various times.) Now all you need is basic linguistic competence in (archaic) English and you can read these sentences and get your hands on the infallible Word of God. Hyper-perspicuity.

The Reformers knew that interpreting Scripture was hard, and anyone who has ever tried to read the Bible should know that too. The irony is that radical literalists are blinded by theological assumptions that could never be found in the Bible, which is supposed to be their sole theological authority; as a result, they can't see the Bible as it is. Proper interpretation, as the Reformers knew, is greatly aided by knowledge of languages, history, culture, literary conventions, and so forth, not to mention the contributions of the great interpreters who have come before us. They were especially aware that interpretation is aided by the Holy Spirit, who may choose to gift some people that they may teach others. The claim that a few things in Scripture should be clear to all should not be confused for the claim that everything is clear to all, but this is in large part the assumption that motivates excessive literalism.

None of this should be thought to prejudice inerrancy, properly understood. The doctrine of inerrancy says that the Bible does not contain any errors. Literalism is a (false) doctrine about the proper way to interpret the Bible. The question of whether a text contains errors only arises after the text has already been interpreted.

Perspicuity is a core Protestant doctrine, and inerrancy is a core Christian doctrine. Radical literalism is a form of hyper-perspicuity which distorts both of these doctrines. It is only when it has been properly interpreted that the Bible can be affirmed to be without error, and the Bible cannot be properly interpreted until it is seen as a collection of literature, of diverse genres, written in ancient languages in ancient cultures.

Posted by Kenny at February 24, 2010 11:47 AM
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