Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The perspicuity of Scripture

I'd like to comment on a neglected consideration in debates over the clarity of Scripture. The perspicuity of Scripture is a favorite target of Catholic apologists. If Scripture were all that clear, why so many competing interpretations? Sometimes atheists get in on the game. 

Many commentators and theologians operate from the unquestioned assumption that every statement of Scripture is supposed to have a singular meaning. Hence, the goal of exegesis is to ascertain that singular meaning. If it's hard to choose between two well-argued interpretations, then the aim of exegesis is frustrated. 

On this view, if you have two well-matched interpretations, then Scripture was either unclear, or it may have been clear to the original audience, but there's a missing piece of information which modern readers lack.

Now, in many cases, I'm sure Bible writers only intended a singular meaning. But I think it's dubious to make that a general or universal operating principle. My point is not to replace one presumption with the opposite presumption.

In some cases, or perhaps in many cases, we may have studied ambiguity. By that I mean, a Bible writer may deliberately make a statement that can be taken in two different ways. If you think about it, that's an efficient mode of communication. Rather than having to make two different statements to convey two different ideas, one statement can convey two different ideas.

Notice I said "different", not "divergent". Like a double entendre. For instance, that's a common feature in John's Gospel.

Or it may not so much be that they were intentionally ambiguous. Rather, if, in his own mind, a Bible writer thinks both senses are true, there's no overriding reason to word his statement to specify one meaning to the exclusion of another. 

But the ambiguity wouldn't be unclear in the sense that a writer failed to express what he really meant. To the contrary, in these cases he meant to leave it somewhat open-textured because both interpretations are true to what he intended to convey. He didn't word his statement to rule out an alternative interpretation so long as that's theologically true.

On this view, to accuse the text of lacking clarity reflects a gratuitously reductionist assumption on the part of the reader. An insistence that the text is supposed to be univalent rather than polyvalent. But in some instances, the reader may be guiltt of imposing that assumption on the text, despite the author's intention.

i) I think it's good for commentators to first see if there's one clearly superior interpretation. If, however, they can't narrow it down to that degree, they should be open to the possibility that both interpretation options may be original and equally valid. 

ii) That won't work for mutually exclusive interpretations. Both interpretations must be mutually consistent.

iii) Moreover, consistency is an insufficient criterion. There must be evidence in the text and context that the author may well have had that idea in mind. 


  1. Thanks so very much for bringing this up. I've been thinking about Matt. 16:18a for a long time, wondering if the words written were deliberately "less than clear." When Jesus said "upon this rock" I wonder if he used his hands or eyes to indicate something that we don't know. There seems to be a little bit of ambiguity there, but was it intentional? Matthew could easily have written "... and upon Myself the church will be built..." but he didn't write that. Just thinking out loud! Thanks, as always, Steve.

  2. RCs and Orthodox make atheists look like they're moving in slow-mo when it comes to disparaging Scripture.