Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The clarity of Scripture



  1. Steve, could you comment on how the need for background material relates to the perspicuity of Scripture? Do you ever need background material to understand a passage of Scripture? How does that relate to perspicuity? And does that mean that Christians with the requisite information are a privileged generation, in that they can understand parts of the Bible their forebears simply couldn't because they lacked essential background information?

    1. i) I don't think the clarity of Scripture is static. To some degree it varies in time and place, situation and audience.

      ii) I think Protestant apologists and theologians are too defensive on this point. They sometimes exaggerate the clarity of Scripture for fear that any concessions will play into the hands of Rome. But that's misplaced.

      If you read contemporary Catholic commentaries, they confront the same quandaries and ambiguities. The magisterium is not a shortcut to exegetical certainty.

      One problem is that most Catholic bloggers are evangelical converts to Rome. They never studied for the priesthood. They didn't attend a Catholic seminary. They are out of touch with mainstream Catholic scholarship.

      iii) I suspect the original audience for Genesis or Jude (to take two examples) understood some things that a modern reader or scholar does not and cannot. That's lost. That's irretrievable.

      iv) Conversely, the more of Paul's letters you have, the better you can understand any one of his letters. The fact that we have the complete canon at our fingertips means that in some respects we can grasp the Bible better than the original audience–whose understanding was more piecemeal.

      Likewise, wheen we know how the story ends, we have a better understanding of fulfilled prophecies than the original audience–which lived and died before their realization.

      v) Background information can be a double-edged sword. If a scholar, or scholarly consensus, misidentifies the relevant background information, that can systematically skew the interpretation. An interpretation that's tied to a faulty historical reconstruction of the life-setting will go awry.

      A reader without that misleading filter will make fewer interpretive mistakes than a scholar.

      vi) For Third-World Christians or Christians living in preindustrial times, their lifestyle is much closer to the lifestyle of the original author and audience than a modern Western scholar. In that respect they may be more in synch with much of Scripture than a scholar who knows the original languages and ancient comparative literature, but is how of touch with the daily experience of how people back then had to live.

      vii) Biblical teaching is generally redundant. For instance, even though Job's Hebrew is notoriously obscure, and sometimes unintelligible, we can still get the gist of the message.

      viii) There's more to understanding than head knowledge. There's emotional and intellectual sympathy.

      For instance, Christians who suffer persecution or tragedy are more attuned to what the Bible has to say on those topics than a well-trained scholar who lacks that personal frame of reference. Experiencing the kind of thing Scripture talks about to can contribute to understanding what Scripture talks about.

      In the providence of God, there are compensations and tradeoffs, depending on when and where you were born.