The Instructive Obscurity of Scripture

When people learn that I used to be a Calvinist seminary student, the typical response is to ask why I decided to become Catholic. My answer involves a Protestant doctrine most Catholics – and even most Protestants – have never heard of: perspicuity, otherwise known as clarity.

Perspicuity is not one of the five “solas” – sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli deo gloria – that serve as the core doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. But it was affirmed by all the leading thinkers of the Reformation: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer. And, even if not regularly preached from the Protestant pulpit, it is the key that unlocks all the rest of Protestant doctrines, as I argue in my new book, The Obscurity of Scripture. Let me explain why.

Perspicuity, generally speaking, means that the Bible is clear, though there is not a single, agreed-upon Protestant definition of the doctrine. Some believe the Bible is clear as regards the “essential truths of the Christian faith:” others say it is clear in reference to the Gospel; and still others will say it is clear on just about everything.

Nevertheless, the most common definition of perspicuity is that offered by the Westminster Confession of Faith, a creedal document of English Presbyterians published in 1647. It reads:

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.

In other words, the Bible is at least clear regarding what is necessary for salvation.

I first encountered this doctrine in college while reading the works of the prolific Reformed thinker R.C. Sproul. It made immediate sense to me: if we Protestants believe that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith, then of course there must be some principle that makes it accessible to the individual Christian. Otherwise, we would be thrust back into a paradigm in which we would require recourse to some alternative, exterior authority. And wasn’t that exactly what the first generation of Reformers was repudiating in their rebellion against Rome?

Yet there was a dilemma: Protestants disagreed over just about everything, including what is necessary for salvation. Granted, this sometimes seemed like an easy problem to resolve. But some Protestant interpretations seemed contrary not only to the thinking of the early Reformers, but even natural law itself. My undergraduate course on St. Paul’s letters, for example, featured a book that featured pro-LGBTQ interpretations of St. Paul. That seemed highly implausible.

Other inter-Protestant debates, however, were a bit thornier. In my undergraduate religious studies course at the University of Virginia and then at my Calvinist seminary, I learned about something called the “New Perspective on Paul,” whose proponents questioned (if not openly attacked) the doctrine of sola fide as un-Biblical. As an ardent defender of sola fide, I didn’t particularly like NPP, but this was not some amateur, obviously politicized scholarly movement I could casually dismiss. Even N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and bastion of orthodox scholarship on such issues as the historical veracity of the resurrection, was in the NPP camp.

I tried to get to the bottom of the debate over the New Perspective on Paul. I read books representing both sides. I tried to learn Koine Greek in order to interpret Paul’s letters for myself. I spent quite literally years trying to acquire complete confidence that NPP scholars were wrong.

By the summer of 2010, I had reached an impasse. I was no closer to determining whether or not the NPP scholars were right or wrong about St. Paul (and, by extension, sola fide and the entire Protestant Reformation project). Scholars on both sides were better educated than I am, smarter than I am, and had thought much more deeply about St. Paul than I ever would.

Then, it dawned upon me. Wasn’t the whole point of Protestantism that the essential Biblical truths, those having to do with salvation, were clear, even to the uneducated Christian, as long as he or she approached the Scriptures in humility, and beseeched the Holy Spirit for aid? And yet here I was, knee-deep in sophisticated cultural, historical, and archaeological scholarship, not to mention muddling through the vernacular, in order to understand the supposedly “clear” Bible.

And I was just touching the surface. Calvinists disagree over whether or not babies should be baptized (Presbyterians say yes; Reformed Baptists say no). Luther and Zwingli had a very public (and very ugly) spat over the meaning of the Eucharist at the Marburg Colloquy. Weren’t baptism and the Eucharist also essential doctrines?  Indeed, according to some Christian traditions (ahem), they were doctrines essential to salvation.

For me, it was then that Protestantism collapsed upon itself as a coherent, intellectually defensible system. The Bible obviously wasn’t clear about what is necessary for salvation. Protestants didn’t just disagree with Catholics over this – they disagreed with each other.

But without perspicuity, the doctrine that enabled the individual Christian to make sense of the Bible, that same Christian would require recourse to some interpretive authority. I realized then that Protestantism was at its core individualistic. I was all on my own regarding the Bible’s meaning, free to decide what it meant, and what constituted authentic Christianity. And no longer could I pretend that I felt confident in doing so. What charge had Christ given me, Casey Chalk of Virginia, to exercise infallible authority over the interpretation of the Bible?

I knew one institution, however, that had at least a plausible claim to such an authority. It was the religious institution I had been originally raised in. That institution, the Catholic Church, had an extra-biblical, historical claim to interpretive authority, one I could evaluate without claiming to be the ultimate judge of the Bible’s meaning.

That same year, I studied its claims. By September 2010, I had made up my mind and returned to the Church of my youth. Clarity, I determined, wasn’t clear. But the Catholic Church, possessing divine approbation – something we can trust through what the Catechism calls “motives of credibility” – could tell me what the Bible truly meant. In faith, I trusted her motives of credibility. And I’ve never looked back.

*Image: Pentecost by Jan Joest, c. 1505-08 [St. Nicholas Church, Kalkar, Germany]

Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture and The Persecuted. He is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.