Jason Stellman is an acquaintance. He was a serious Calvinist minister who recently converted to Catholicism. He now blogs at CreedCodeCult.
In a recent posting he recounts some Late Unpleasantness regarding a heresy trial he took part in within the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), a conservative denomination (the PCUSA would be the mainline Presbyterian church in the US). In a nutshell, Peter Leithart held a theological position (“federal vision“) that seemed to run afoul of the Westminster Standards, which are definitive for the PCA. A PCA court ruled Leithart was not in fact heretical in holding this opinion, disappointing many in the PCA who feel that the “federal vision” is so obviously contrary to Westminster and Scripture.
Stellman points out this sets the PCA as a body against Scripture in their minds:
…church authority within Protestantism, even if spoken of with humbly submissive rhetoric, is a mirage. My suspicion that I raised a few weeks ago has been confirmed (as I knew it would): the side that won in this dispute is saying, “The church has spoken, we are orthodox,” while the side that lost says, “Yes, but in this instance the church got it wrong, so you’re still heretical.”
Stellman believes the Leithart episode illustrates a real difficulty with Protestants who try to hold to some sort of ecclesial authority (“sola scriptura”) over and against those who don’t (“solo scriptura”):
…the Reformed [=Calvinist here] distinguish themselves from evangelicals on the issue of the relationship between Scripture and the church by highlighting the all-importance of a single vowel. “We are not like those Bible-only, no-creed-but-Christ evangelicals,” we hear. “On the contrary, we believe in the genuine authority of the church — but that authority is derivative and penultimate, always secondary to our only infallible source of revelation, namely Scripture.” In other words, the difference between the evangelical and Reformed position comes down to the difference between Solo and Sola Scriptura: the former disregards ecclesiastical authority while the latter greatly respects it.
The objection that the Catholic raises at this point goes like this: “Sure, the Reformed position claims to respect church authority, but the minute those so-called authorities say something that departs from your interpretation of the Bible, you reject it. Therefore your eccleiastical authority is only a farce, a thin veneer of submission masking the exact same individualism you fault the evangelicals for.”
Stellman sees this happening precisely in the Leithart case. And indeed he sees it as a fundamental problem with Protestantism. Indeed, this is why many of us convert: We find it theologically and existentially intolerable that Protestants all share the same Bible and yet evince such radical diversity on questions that would seem to matter, whether that be something as fundamentally crucial as baptism (do we baptize infants or not) or ministry (should women be ordained?), to say nothing of the raging issues of the day concerning sexual politics.
Some think the early Protestants were very much naive about the difficulties involved in interpreting the Bible, thinking that they could simply substitute written Scripture for the voice of the Pope, the printing press having made such a mindset possible. I don’t think that’s quite the case. The Reformers were generally deeply trained in the rhetorical arts and would have known all the ways words can be used and how words can be used rightly and wrongly. They also knew deeply the theological divisions that existed within the pre-Reformation Church: Dominicans and Franciscans did not get along, and Augustinians looked at the world a certain way not always shared by non-Augustinians, and that is again to say nothing of the already longstanding schism between east and west.
That said, often the first-generation Protestant Reformers did speak as if it was a matter of letting the clear voice of Scripture speak through the corrupt voices of the papacy and clergy of their day, evincing a high degree of confidence in the plain sense of Scripture.
That’s the theory. In practice, it wasn’t so simple, even in Luther’s own day. Famously, he and Zwingli could come to no agreement on the nature of the Lord’s Supper at the Marburg Colloquy, even though both were brilliant, faithful men reading the exact same Scriptures. And early Protestant Bibles included prefaces and notes to interpret the text, such as Luther’s Bible of 1534 or the Geneva Bible of 1560. It is as if Protestant magisteria replaced the Roman Magisterium.
In any event, whence this confidence in the plain sense, even if betrayed by Protestant practice? It’s not a Protestant novum, but a longstanding claim of the Christian tradition, especially the Western, going back as all things do to St. Augustine. The doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture is found, well, clearly in Augustine, especially in De doctrina Christiana. In short, Scripture is clear because God speaks clearly. Deeply influenced by Augustine, the Reformers run with this idea. Having done away with the contemporary, living authority of a longstanding tradition, they can do no other.
But in Augustine, Scriptural clarity functions hand-in-hand with good rules of interpretation including reliance on the rule of faith and the tradition of the Church. Indeed, Augustine’s vision is one in which all of reality holds together, and Scripture, Christ, and Church are fixed relationally therein. More simply, Augustine’s vision doesn’t work piecemeal; it won’t do to take from him the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture without also assuming his ontology, semiology, Christology, and ecclesiology. While Scripture is clear, our vision often is not, and so we need the tradition before us and the community contemporary with us as well as authority serving us if we are to read Scripture rightly. In short, like Newman centuries later, Augustine would say that authoritative revelation necessitates an authoritative interpreter.