9 Books I Read While Discerning Catholicism: #4 The Obscurity of Scripture by Casey J. Chalk
Two Protestant “principles” I have disagreed with for some time — some call them doctrines — are the perspicuity of Scripture and sola Scriptura. Various definitions have been proposed, as we will see in a minute, but in short they are:
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Perspicuity: What is essential for Salvation is clear in the text.
Sola Scriptura: All doctrine and practice for the Christian is contained within scripture.
But if scripture is perspicuous, meaning clear, why spend all that time studying it? Why not just go out and hand out Bibles and tell people, “if you read this and believe it, you can go to Heaven”? Heck, why have Bible colleges and seminaries at all if we have the essentials of the Christian faith wrapped up nicely in genuine leather and inscribed with gold-leaf letters?
I think Chalk does a good job responding to the modern claims of perspicuity of scripture. I don’t agree with all of his arguments though. As I said before, you can take a Christian out of the denomination but you can’t take the denomination (personality speaking) out of the Christian. There is definitely an underlying “total depravity” in my opinion, that leads to a leap of faith at the end. But I think he does an excellent job proving that you have to have a teaching authority to understand the meaning and essentials of the text.
Chalk is Right
For sake of ease, I’m going to use the citations that Chalk used to support these definitions. Many of his sources I have as well so if you want a fuller quote, let me know in the comments. Here a few protestant definitions as cited in Obscurity of Scripture:
Wayne Grudem…argues: ‘All things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth are very clearly set forth in Scripture.’
John MacArthur…asserts: ‘Scripture is clear on many doctrines, in fact, on all doctrines.’
Westminster Confession of Faith…explained that perspicuity deals with ‘things necessary for salvation, and indeed as to them, only so far as they are necessary to be known and cannot be unknown without criminality. For instance, the mystery of the Trinity is plainly delivered as to the fact.’
Presbyterian pastor and theologian Burk Parsons [I don’t have this author] more recently explains: ‘Not everything in Scripture is easy to understand, but what we must understand in order to be saved is clear.’
— Chalk, Obscurity of Scripture, Ch. 1: “Making ‘Clarity’ Opaque”.
Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie similarly explain: ‘By sola Scriptura Protestants mean that Scripture alone is the primary and absolute source for all doctrine and practice (faith and morals).’
— Chalk, Obscurity of Scripture, Ch. 2: “Perspicuity as Protestant Bedrock?”
Now as this book pertains to my conversion, it is important to note that I had wanted to write a book like this for a long time. Not as a Catholic, but as a Protestant. For years now, I have not believed that protestants had good rationale for these principles. For many years, I had told my wife, “Wife, I really want to write a book on obscurity of scripture. No one has done it!” Fast forward to March of 2023, we had just started Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), and wouldn’t you know it, some Catholic already wrote the book. That said, let’s discuss the main reasons perspicuity is false.
If the Bible is clear on matters of salvation, why do protestants have denominations that differ on the essentials required for salvation?
Every Christian that went to seminary did so precisely because they felt they needed more training so that they didn’t make a mistake on things like doctrine and morals.
Christian cults that have formed in African countries who received Bibles without teachers demonstrate that the claims of perspicuity are false.
Translations: The reason why everyone asks professors in seminary “What’s the best translation?” is because they want the most perspicuous one.
There are plenty of passages where the subject in question is salvation and are opaque in their meaning.
It’s this last point that is the most important. As one friend of mine said, “It’s not what I know that worries me, it’s what I think I know but I’m wrong about that concerns me.” If you were to talk to any serious Christian about what passages trouble him, it’s precisely the passages that have eternal consequences. Here are a list of passages that have caused many to question what exactly are the “essentials” of the faith:
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” — Acts 2:38
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience…” — 1 Peter 3:22
“You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.” — James 2:19
“Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” — John 3:3-8
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” — Matt. 5:17-20
“For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.” — 1 Cor. 11:29
“Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…so whoever eats me will live because of me…the one who eats this bread will live forever.” — John 6:52-59
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” — James 2:24
“For this reason I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven…” —Matt. 12:31-32
“And after [Jesus] said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” — John 20:22
I am not saying that the various denominations do not have explanations for these. I am saying the reason that they don’t agree is because the meaning of these passages are not perspicuous. Furthermore, people’s intelligence levels are not all the same. Christians who hold to perspicuity end up saying that people don’t have the “means” to understand, i.e. intelligence/education, or they don’t have the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, for most of human history people couldn’t read anything, let alone the Bible. So the idea that scripture is perspicuous only benefits those that can read it.
But a harsher blow to perspicuity is that its own definition is not clear enough to garner universal agreement. Protestants who hold to perspicuity have differing views on the perspicuity of perspicuity. In other words, it is self-defeating, because perspicuity itself is not clear.
If there is a lack of clarity regarding the definition or extent of the doctrine of clarity, how persuasive can its proponents be in arguing that it should be normative for all Christians? How clear can Scripture be if perspicuity’s advocates cannot agree on how clear it is, and in what manner?
— Chalk, Obscurity of Scripture, Ch. 1: “Making ‘Clarity’ Opaque”
In summary, Chalk being a Catholic made me realize the same thing I realized reading books by Scott Hahn: that the Catholic Church can provide a Christian protestant with the things his own tradition was lacking.
I enjoyed the book a lot, and I think every protestant should read it. I don’t think that it will get you to Rome, but it’s important for all Christians to be as sound as they can be, and in the era of the internet sola Scriptura and perspicuity of scripture are demonstrably untenable.
America’s Philosopher and Religion in America
Agreement and unity are not the same thing. America has always had disagreement while retaining unity. It’s been one of our greatest strengths, but they were able to do that, not merely because of the Constitution, but because of the Constitution and their authority to enforce it. These days Christians just stream whatever church they want, they can find whatever translation makes their heart flutter, and many only go to Church because they want something to ground them during this time in life that is so chaotic and uncertain. The free market is watering down religion in the United States, and its watering down people’s confidence in their faith. Is it any wonder, that we are seeing a decline in Christianity in the U.S.?
Christianity is on the decline in the West. Everyone knows this, but I’ve only read one author from history that predicted it. Alexis De Tocqueville. It is never lost on me that “America’s Philosopher” is a French Catholic, and that he predicted so much about our nation and culture. He predicts in Democracy in America that America and Russia will one day hold the fate of half the world in their hands. He also predicted that when the West discovered China’s administrative state that they would attempt to imitate it themselves. But the one that is most relevant to today is his prediction on the religious decline in America.
One of the commonest weaknesses of human intelligence is the wish to reconcile opposing principles and to purchase harmony at the expense of logic. Therefore, there have always been and there always will be men who, after submitting a certain number of their religious beliefs to a single authority, will seek to exempt several others and will let their minds hover at random between obedience and freedom. But I am drawn to the belief that the number of those people will be smaller in democratic times than in others and that our descendants will tend increasingly to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and the others embracing the Church of Rome.
— Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol 1. Pt 1. Ch 6., (1840). [emphasis mine]
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