Mr. Mark Shea (link) seems to think that Dr. White’s post (link) is so much “huff-puffery.” Thankfully, the flim-flam from which Mr. Shea’s argument is constructed is so flimsy that it is flattened by even fairly rudimentary analysis.
Mr. Shea seems to have forgotten the important lesson of the story of the three little pigs. The lesson wasn’t so much that one needs to label the bad guy as a wolf or call his arguments huffing and puffing, but that one needs to have a house built out of something more substantial than straw and/or sticks. In this case, Mr. Shea’s arguments are the argumentative equivalent of the straw house. Why? Because they lack the solid foundation of Scripture. As Cyril of Jerusalem (about A.D. 315 — 386) put it:
Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.
– Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture IV, Section 17
Mr. Shea is clearly not fond of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. He writes: “The whole ‘Scripture is perspicuous’ thing is a classic case of elevating human tradition to the level of equality with the word of God.” We chuckle to ourselves wondering whether Mr. Shea, adhering to papal traditions as he does, means that as a criticism or a compliment.
After all, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture goes back to the earliest Christian writers. For example, Justin Martyr (about A.D. 100 — 165) suggests that at least some of the Scriptures have a clear meaning that requires no interpretation:
Pay attention, therefore, to what I shall record out of the holy Scriptures, which do not need to be expounded, but only listened to.
– Justin Martyr, Dialog With Trypho, Chapter 55
Mr. Shea’s straw (over twigs) construction choice is revealed in his straw man argument:
It works like this: the enthusiast for the doctrine of the “perspicuity of Scripure” [sic] reasons “God always does what is best. Having a Bible that is perspicuous is best. Therefore, God has done that.”
Of course, neither Dr. White nor any serious proponent for Scripture’s perspicuity argues that way.
We have many arguments at our disposal, we might, as Irenaeus (about A.D. 130 – 200) did and take the position that the perspicuity of Scripture is self-evident, hidden only from the blind:
Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them; and since they proclaim that one only God, to the exclusion of all others, formed all things by His word, whether visible or invisible, heavenly or earthly, in the water or under the earth, as I have shown from the very words of Scripture; and since the very system of creation to which we belong testifies, by what falls under our notice, that one Being made and governs it,—those persons will seem truly foolish who blind their eyes to such a clear demonstration, and will not behold the light of the announcement [made to them]; but they put fetters upon themselves, and every one of them imagines, by means of their obscure interpretations of the parables, that he has found out a God of his own.
– Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 27, Section 2
But alas, while some of Mr. Shea’s colorful rhetoric (which we have striven, by way of flattery through imitation, to duplicate) may be fresh, some of the strawy arguments he uses are quite moldy by now. For example, he argues:
You can always find some sort of biblical justification for your pet idea. And with sufficient will power or ego, you can trumpet your pet idea as the Revealed Will of God Almighty, denouncing anybody who questions your pet theory, not as somebody who questions your pet theory, but as an enemy of God who “rails away” at God Almighty, while “The child of God knows better.” It’s a very cozy way to congratulate yourself.
This characterization of Scripture (in addition to leading one to make a note to oneself: “remember not to trust Mr. Shea’s biblical self-justifications”) is contrary to that of the founder of Latin Christianity, Tertullian (about A.D. 160 -220) who stated:
Then, if even the heretic seek refuge in the depraved thoughts of the vulgar, or the imaginations of the world, I must say to him: Part company with the heathen, O heretic! for although you are all agreed in imagining a God, yet while you do so in the name of Christ, so long as you deem yourself a Christian, you are a different man from a heathen: give him back his own views of things, since he does not himself learn from yours. Why lean upon a blind guide, if you have eyes of your own? Why be clothed by one who is naked, if you have put on Christ? Why use the shield of another, when the apostle gives you armour of your own? It would be better for him to learn from you to acknowledge the resurrection of the flesh, than for you from him to deny it; because if Christians must needs deny it, it would be sufficient if they did so from their own knowledge, without any instruction from the ignorant multitude. He, therefore, will not be a Christian who shall deny this doctrine which is confessed by Christians; denying it, moreover, on grounds which are adopted by a man who is not a Christian. Take away, indeed, from the heretics the wisdom which they share with the heathen, and let them support their inquiries from the Scriptures alone: they will then be unable to keep their ground. For that which commends men’s common sense is its very simplicity, and its participation in the same feelings, and its community of opinions; and it is deemed to be all the more trustworthy, inasmuch as its definitive statements are naked and open, and known to all. Divine reason, on the contrary, lies in the very pith and marrow of things, not on the surface, and very often is at variance with appearances.
– Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 3
Mr. Shea doesn’t limit himself to suggesting that Scripture is ambiguous, he also argues that experience tells us that this is so:
The thing is, the perspicuity of Scripture is one of those ideas, like Marxism, that is the result of theory run amuck and removed entirely from the laboratory of real life … people who assert things like the Perspicuity of Scripture as Revealed Truth have to face the fact that the Laboratory of Experience is simply against them. The one thing Scripture is not is perspicuous.
I wonder if this is where Mr. Shea hopes to gain an edge on folks with less experience in the laboratory than he. I refer to folks like Athanasius (about A.D. 297 – 373) who wrote:
And this is usual with Scriptures, to express itself in inartificial and simple phrases.
– Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 3
These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.
– Athanasius, Letter 39, Section 6
Perhaps, as I say, Mr. Shea believes himself a better Christian scientist or laboratory technician in the laboratory of life than Athanasius. If so, then no doubt he will not be shy to proclaim his experimental superiority over Hilary of Poitiers (about A.D. 315 – 367) who declared:
The Lord enunciated the faith of the Gospel in the simplest words that could be found, and fitted His discourses to our understanding, so far as the weakness of our nature allowed Him, without saying anything unworthy of the majesty of His own nature.
– Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book 9, Section 40
Mr. Shea assures us (attempting to justify his pet idea from Scripture – see above) that:
That’s not me talking, that’s 2 Peter:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
One wonders if Mr. Shea is aware of how this verse was understood by the early Christians. Augustine (about A.D. 354 – 430) explains:
For it is none other than the question of God’s grace which has caused persons of no understanding to think that the Apostle Paul prescribes it to us as a rule, “Let us do evil that good may come.” It is in reference to these that the Apostle Peter writes in his second Epistle; “Wherefore, beloved, seeing that you look for such things, be diligent, that you may be found of Him in peace, without spot and blameless and account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, has written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things: in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction.” Take good heed, then, to these fearful words of the great apostle; and when you feel that you do not understand, put your faith in the meanwhile in the inspired word of God, and believe both that man’s will is free, and that there is also God’s grace, without whose help man’s free will can neither be turned towards God, nor make any progress in God. And what you piously believe, that pray that you may have a wise understanding of.
– Augustine, Letter 214, Sections 6-7
Augustine understood Peter to be saying that it may be very hard to reconcile Paul’s teaching of Grace and of Free Will, but we should simply accept the plain teaching both that men have wills and that God gives grace. I won’t derail this with a further discussion of Augustine’s compatibilism, but suffice that this passage demonstrates that Augustine at least viewed Peter as suggesting that the error is not in thinking that Paul speaks in riddles, but simply that he speaks about things that are hard fully to understand.
Shea throws another straw man into the pile by asserting that the rebuttal to citation of 2 Peter 3:15-16 is as follows:
Standard boilerplate replies generally run toward saying things like “Paul’s writing is perspicuous, it’s just the ignorant and unstable who screw things up.”
Of course, that’s not the primary response although it does sound a bit like what Augustine and other fathers have said.
The primary response is that the doctrine of perspicuity doesn’t claim that every text of Scripture is equally clear. Just that the necessary things are clear. And the second is like it: “some things hard to understand” suggests what should be blindingly obvious to all, namely that Paul’s letters also contain some things not hard to understand (not by logical necessity, of course, but simply common inference).
After chopping the straw man into little bits with reference to Revelation and Job, Mr. Shea decides to present a view of perspicuity that is a little closer to accurate mixed in with more straw:
What doctrines like the “perspicuity of Scripture” *really* mean is “Scripture means what I take it to mean, no more, no less. The easy to understand parts are the parts that agree with what I think. The hard to understand parts are the parts that a) talk about unimportant stuff or b) must be subordinated to what I understand.”
Most of that, the part about perspicuity meaning that “Scripture means what I take it to mean,” is just another straw man, but you’ll recognize hiding behind the bulky straw man the actual position lurking as a sub-point.
One wonders whether Mr. Shea is even aware of what John Chrysostom (A.D. 347 – 407) spoke about the perspicuity of Scripture:
What do I come in for, you say, if I do not hear some one discoursing? This is the ruin and destruction of all. For what need of a person to discourse? This necessity arises from our sloth. Wherefore any necessity for a homily? All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain. But because ye are hearers for pleasure’s sake, for that reason also you seek these things. For tell me, with what pomp of words did Paul speak? and yet he converted the world. Or with what the unlettered Peter? But I know not, you say, the things that are contained in the Scriptures. Why? For are they spoken in Hebrew? Are they in Latin, or in foreign tongues? Are they not in Greek? But they are expressed obscurely, you say: What is it that is obscure? Tell me. Are there not histories? For (of course) you know the plain parts, in that you enquire about the obscure. There are numberless histories in the Scriptures. Tell me one of these. But you cannot. These things are an excuse, and mere words. Every day, you say, one hears the same things. Tell me, then, do you not hear the same things in the theaters? Do you not see the same things in the race-course? Are not all things the same? Is it not always the same sun that rises? Is it not the same food that we use? I should like to ask you, since you say that you every day hear the same things; tell me, from what Prophet was the passage that was read? from what Apostle, or what Epistle? But you cannot tell me—you seem to hear strange things. When therefore you wish to be slothful, you say that they are the same things. But when you are questioned, you are in the case of one who never heard them. If they are the same, you ought to know them. But you are ignorant of them.
– John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on 2 Thessalonians
I realize that this may sound to Mr. Shea like John Chrysostom is saying:
“Ignorant and unstable people may twist Scripture, but I am safe from all that so I understand perfectly what Scripture means. And when the Church disagrees with me, that’s because the ignorant and unstable are disagreeing with me, who am not ignorant or unstable.”[the argument he puts in the mouth of perspicuity advocates]
But I wonder if he’d be so bold as to claim that Athanasius was saying almost exactly that when Athanasius (against the vast majority of the church of his day) contended:
“But,” says the Arian, “is it not written?” Yes, it is written! And it is necessary that it should be said. But what is well written is ill understood by heretics. If they had understood and grasped the terms in which Christianity is expressed, they would not have called the Lord of glory [1 Corinthians 2:8; cf. James 2:1] a creature nor stumbled over what is well written.
– Athanasius, Epistle to Serapion
But perhaps he just means that the church fathers were unaware of the practical consequences of their doctrines. After all, Mr. Shea points out the large number of denominations of Protestants relying on the false 33,000 number (previously shown to be false). The early church fathers, after all, were not around to see this consequence that Mr. Shea attributes to the doctrine of perspicuity. But Mr. Shea downplays the issue of divisions because he recognizes that there are many divisions within his own church.
Instead, Mr. Shea plays up what he thinks are major differences, for example: “you are still faced,” he says, “with colossal and mutually contradictory differences between say, Oneness Pentecostals (who deny the Trinity) and Trinitarian Protestant.” One wonders if Mr. Shea really thinks the core Trinitarian and especially Christological doctrines are not clear from Scripture. On such a point he would seem to be at odds with men like Theodoret (about A.D. 393 – 457) who stated:
Although you have not yet met me, I think that your excellency is aware of the open calumnies that have been published against me, for you have often heard me preaching in church, when I have proclaimed the Lord Jesus, and have pointed out the properties alike of the Godhead and of the manhood; for we do not divide one Son into two, but, worshipping the Only-begotten, point out the distinction between flesh and Godhead. This, indeed, is I think confessed even by the Arians, who do not call the flesh Godhead, nor address the Godhead as flesh. Holy Scripture clearly teaches us both natures.
– Theordoret, Letter 99
In order, therefore, that the human mind might be purged from falsities of this kind, Holy Scripture, which suits itself to babes has not avoided words drawn from any class of things really existing, through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent.
– Augustine, On the Trinity, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 2
Or Novation (about A.D. 200 – 251) who proves the Trinity from Scripture:
Unless, therefore, we hold all this with fitting veneration and lawful argument, we shall reasonably be thought to have furnished a scandal to the heretics, not assuredly by the fault of the heavenly Scriptures, which never deceive; but by the presumption of human error, whereby they have chosen to be heretics.
– Novation, On the Trinity, Chapter 30
If so, if Mr. Shea really thinks that the Scripture is not clear on the important topic of the Trinity, we are puzzled why he thinks the Bible is clear on other things. For example, Mr. Shea himself confessed the perspicuity of Scripture with respect to the at least occasional permissibility of the death penalty:
Some Catholics are fine with this. The reasons for this vary. Some already oppose the death penalty on other grounds and, in fact, go further than the Church by trying to say the Church errs in permitting it at all. I think they are wrong both for theological reasons (i.e. Scripture clearly permits it at times) and for practical reasons (sometimes people just need killing for the common good). Some agree with the Church’s teaching as it is laid out in Evangelium Vitae.
Likewise, Mr. Shea thinks that Scripture teaches clearly that we will get our wish:
Ask yourself: is Islam or the West more likely to produce such a person? Personally, I have a lot of trouble seeing such a figure arising in Islam, with it rock hard insistence on the distinction between creature and Creator. The West, on the other hand, is chockablock with philosophies, religious movements, pop psych, technology, literary movements, art, music, and politics which are all, in their own ways, laboring to summon just such a one from our midst. Scripture says pretty clearly that we will get our wish.
So strange that God would, in his Word, make such relatively trivial things clear while leaving more important things mired in ambiguity.
But Mr. Shea’s straw house will collapse. It collapses in the face of a few small puffs from Scripture:
John 20:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
The purpose of John’s gospel is to write so that people would believe and be saved. Implicitly, this shows that the necessary things for salvation may be understood from John’s gospel.
1 John 5:13 These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
Same for John’s catholic epistle as for his gospel. He wrote so that we would believe.
2 Timothy 3:15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
The Scriptures are able to make one wise to salvation. This, again, implies that they teach with sufficient clarity the things necessary to be known for salvation.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
Again, the very purpose of Scripture is not just to furnish the believer but to do so “throughly.”
John 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.
Scripture reveals Christ, and the command to “search” at least suggests that Christ can be found by those who search.
1 Corinthians 10:11 Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
Scripture is written for our admonition, which implies that we can read it and be admonished.
Rom 15:4 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
The Scriptures were written for our learning, which likewise implies that we can read it and learn. (See also Romans 4:23-25)
But what about those folks who claim that Scripture is ambiguous and cannot be understood without tradition? We give them the following answer from tradition:
When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” [1 Cor. ii. 6]. And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.
2. But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.
3. Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. Where-fore they must be opposed at all points, if per-chance, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth. For, though it is not an easy thing for a soul under the influence of error to repent, yet, on the other hand, it is not altogether impossible to escape from error when the truth is brought alongside it.
– Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 2, Section 1
Yes, we face the same straw houses today that Irenaeus did then. We have shown that Scripture claims perspicuity for itself at least implicitly. Perhaps, in Mr. Shea’s metaphor, that’s our “huff.” Furthermore, we have shown that the tradition of the early church acknowledged that perspicuity as well – our “puff” I suppose. But we see that Mr. Shea accepts neither Scripture nor Tradition, just as the heretics did not with whom Irenaeus dealt. And so Mr. Shea’s house of flim-flam straw-men arguments falls, flattened by the weight of Scripture and Tradition with our meager “huff-puffery” serving only to present the truths as they are and not to add any weight of our own authority to the mix.