January 22, 2021

Damaris Zehner: The Perspicuity of Scripture? Hmm.


The Perspicuity of Scripture?  Hmm.
By Damaris Zehner

I teach English at a community college campus in rural Indiana.  This semester I have a remedial reading and writing class, required for those students who did not score high enough to take freshman composition.  At one extreme are the students who are competent but bad at tests; at the other extreme are two groups:  the most abject victims of educational malpractice and those whose gifts lie in areas for which college is inappropriate.  I like them all and have respect for their determination and good humor.

Recently, as part of my lesson plan to expose the students to different genres of writing, we read a short story by Rudyard Kipling.  It’s called “A Bank Fraud,” and it shows the relationship between two men, one a playboy and party-goer who humbly hides his good deeds, the other a self-righteous incompetent who despises the playboy.  My students read and discussed the story; they understood it pretty well by the time we were done.  For a writing assignment, I asked them to read Luke 18:9-14 and find similarities between the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and “A Bank Fraud.”  I defined terms, then I let them at it.

Seventy percent of the class had no understanding of the meaning of the parable.  They thought the Pharisee was the good person, while the tax collector was hated – well, yes, but what was the purpose of a parable involving those people?  They didn’t know.  They did not understand the concept of being “justified” (it was not one of the words I defined for them, but they were free to look it up if they felt they needed to).  They ignored or didn’t understand the explanatory introduction in verse 9.  They could not extract from the parable what goodness and wickedness were.  They were not aware of the challenge Jesus was offering to conventional definitions of goodness and wickedness.

Well, but they are in a remedial reading class, you may object, and they were dealing with the Bible strictly as literature and not as revealed truth.  I acknowledge that; but all of these students were raised in a nominally Christian environment, and most of them would say they were Christians themselves.  All of them have been exposed to Christian ideas through church and various media.  Although they are not highly literate, nonetheless they are more literate than the huge majority of human beings throughout history have been.  And the passage they were asked to understand was a story, an oral folk tale in effect, not doctrine.

You would think that this would be the ideal test case for the perspicuity of Scripture.  It failed.  Miserably.  How then can we put a (perhaps badly translated) Bible in the hands of newly literate people who have had no exposure to Christian ideas and expect them to understand what they’ve been given?  How can we ask any “average Joe or Jane” to do the same even in our own culture?

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the concept of the perspicuity of Scripture this way:  that “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.”  Assumed in the phrase “a due use of the ordinary means” is that the Holy Spirit helps in the reading of Scripture and lays clear its meaning for those reading it.  I believe heartily that the Holy Spirit guides individuals and his church into all truth – but by what means does he do that?  Many adherents of the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture seem to believe that the means are opening a book.  Here’s a Bible.  Read it, and you’ll have what you need to be saved.  “BIBLE” equals “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” we’re told.  If you want to learn Excel, buy the manual and follow the basic instructions.  If you want to be saved, buy the manual and follow the basic instructions.

But is that really how things work?  I am, if I may eschew false modesty, in the top one percent of literate people, but I’d rather perform my own appendectomy than teach myself a computer program through a manual.  I want a person guiding me and interpreting it for me, helping me to apply it to my needs, in my time and place.  And that’s just Excel.  What about learning the great questions of life and death, time and eternity, good and evil?  Surely mentors, teachers, and guides are even more important then.

bible-study_724_482_80The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is one more example of philosophy running head-on into reality.

The reality is that printed words, much as I love them, have no power in themselves to act.  Our society has a written code of law, for example, but it takes policemen, judges, and jury to enforce the laws.

The reality is that we human beings, damaged as we are by the Fall (however we interpret that event and that damage), can’t really get what we need for salvation by reading a book, even a divinely inspired one.  In many cases we can barely interpret the vocabulary and the information it conveys.

The reality is that “understanding” is a strait gate (strait means narrow, for those who don’t read the King James); very few of Jesus’ listeners appeared to “understand” what he was telling them.  It wasn’t their understanding that saved Jesus’s listeners or that saves us; it was and is our embrace of the Crucifixion and Resurrection – great mysteries that will always defeat our attempts to “understand.”

The reality is that interpreting the Scriptures by means of reading them in isolation has led to a seemingly endless proliferation of nuttiness and division that do not bring God glory.

The reality is that the Gospel comes into the world in flesh, not in paper.  The Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible.  I believe, with those who accept the doctrine of perspicuity, that the Holy Spirit does open people’s eyes to the truth of the Gospel.  I differ from the perspicuity people by believing that the Holy Spirit works most commonly through the actions of people, not through the written word in isolation.  I am not advocating a gnostic plan of initiation for the highly educated, nor do I think that people should be kept from reading the Scriptures; I do believe, however, that we are designed to be formed in and by community, and we run into danger when we try to form ourselves in isolation.  I also believe that the attempt to find truth in isolation from others is both the cause and the effect of the most deadly of sins, spiritual pride.

That leads to the final reality.  If we want to bring the Gospel to those who need it, our first and greatest investment should not be in teaching people to read.  It must be in acts of mercy, in kindness and sacrifice, and in the humility of the tax collector, who knew himself to be a sinner and asked simply for mercy.


  1. “If we want to bring the Gospel to those who need it, our first and greatest investment should not be in teaching people to read. It must be in acts of mercy, in kindness and sacrifice, and in the humility of the tax collector, who knew himself to be a sinner and asked simply for mercy.”


    • Christiane says

      “God descends to the humble as waters flow down from the hills into the valleys.” (St. John of Kronstadt)

      One of my sons lives in group home on the grounds of Eastern Christian Children’s Retreat in Wyckoff, NJ where many of the eight residents in the house cannot walk and some are stretcher-bound.
      My boy has Down Syndrome, multiple health problems and no speech.
      But he is able to walk. 🙂
      One day, I saw him get up and go to a shelf and choose a musical toy, carry it over to a stretcher-bound resident and very gently lay the toy into his hands . . .

      the staff tell me that he will frequently show kindness to others in this way . . .

      • Wonderful story and real-life illustration.

      • I have a younger brother with Down Syndrome. He’ll be 31 this month. He’s had a huge effect on how I see God and life. I’ve seen things similar to your story above. He plays special Olympics basketball. Often, if someone falls down, they stop the game and everyone runs over to help them up. The ref doesn’t stop the game and make them do it – the kids just do it. Many of us get frustrated at them squandering the fast break opportunity, but what are you gonna do?

        Contrast this with a theology that caused my mom, out of sheer terror (I don’t think she’d feel the same way now in all fairness), to lead my brother in the sinners prayer (the concept is easy enough to understand right?) when he was roughly maybe somewhere around the “age of accountability” so that he wouldn’t go to hell when he died.

  2. I believe that I have sympathy for what you have written here (and for your students)…but the Holy Spirit isn’t limited in what He can do with a person. If He wants a person who us reading the Book of Romans, and maybe not in the path of preaching or teaching regarding those scriptures…He will get them.

    Acts of mercy and kindness are terrific. But the power of God unto salvation is not at all limited to our abilities or desire to be merciful and kind. He saves people in spite of our lackluster efforts at mercy and kindness…and He saves them in the midst of our best efforts, as well.


    • The power of God is not in question. It is whether or not God expects us to make use of means to fulfill His desires. We berate those who refuse medicine and doctors in order to rely solely on prayer and “faith”, and rightly so. How is this different?

    • George Christiansen says

      The argument is not whether or not one can come to the truth outside of reading the scriptures. Obviously one can or there would be no scriptures written.

      The argument is whether you ALWAYS can come to it via reading the scriptures.

  3. For thousands of years the majority of the earth’s population has been illiterate, and although there seemed to be a larger literate populace amongst the Jews in Jesus’ day Jesus still spoke in stories and parables. Why? Because people respond better to the spoken voice, especially when the message is one tailored to the audience.

    Modern day Christians have fallen into more of a bible worshiping group, thinking that Jesus is the living Word and, therefor, the bible, being the Word, is Jesus. We don’t have a relationship with a book, we have a relationship with a Savior. So, in this sense, we lose some of what Jesus is and represents when we conflate a book into a living Savior.

    The orally transmitted Word has worked for generations because it reaches peoples’ hearts in a way that the mere printed word is less capable. Damaris’ example 70% of her students NOT understanding the printed word just bears witness to the need for a personal touch with people rather than a “read the manual” method. We still need preachers, even the most humble and unseemly vessels.

    • George Christiansen says

      I don’t think that literacy is the issue though. Those students would not have understood the scripture even if it had been read to them. The same is not necessarily true of the original audience, although there is a good argument to be made that parables were as often used to be deliberately obscure as to be more clear. Jesus himself made it.

      • For so many of Jesus’ parables, the context of the first-century Hebrew is essential to a full understanding. Missing cultural context is a bug-a-boo for just about all of us in our time and place. Likewise, the culture of first century Rome is a prerequisite to a proper understanding many of the allegories that Paul uses in his letters. The Bible in isolation is scant help in ferreting out the details of the faith.

        Damaris …another wonderful piece. Thanks so much!

  4. Good stuff here, Damaris. Thanks for writing it and sharing it.

    -> “I also believe that the attempt to find truth in isolation from others is both the cause and the effect of the most deadly of sins, spiritual pride.”

    We often talk about this at our church in our men’s fellowship group and the adult Sunday school class I lead. It’s often in fellowship and sharing of the Word that we become rooted in God’s grace and truth, rather than some flawed version of grace and truth that we come up with on our own.

  5. perspicuity

    late 15c., of things; 1540s, of expressions, from Latin perspicuitas “transparency, clearness,” from perspicuus, from perspicere “look through, look closely at”

    So, perspicuity comes from the Latin with a meaning of “transparency, clearness”.

    It struck me that the alternative to our translations in our own language was a translation in Latin. We need to remind ourselves that the act of translating into our own languages was an act of perspicuity.

    Second thought, I wonder is certain translations (i.e. The Message) might have helped with understanding.

    Final thought. I spent a week writing a thirty page paper on Ephesians 4:1-6. I had translated and fully dissected the original Greek, I had read every single commentary and paper that I could get my hands on that dealt with the topic. I thought I understood this passage as well as anyone could. My prof handed back the paper with comment “Like most of the other members of the class, you have missed the main point of the passage.” So, it is not only the illiterate, or the less advanced English speakers, who can fail to miss the meaning of a passage.

    • George Christiansen says

      What made you so sure that the professor was not the one missing the point and that the majority of your classmates were not correct?

    • So Michael, did your prof ever tell you exactly WHAT the main point was? Was he correct, or was it a case of the learned obfuscating the obvious?

      Was Paul writing for the intelligentsia of the believers so that the average reader (or HEARER) was unable to comprehend, or is the obvious meaning irreparably lost in translation?

      What good is scripture if it is hidden from the average believer?

    • I believe you did a very good job of making the point Damaris was highlighting. George’s question is also a good one. How do you (or even the professor for that matter) know his interpretation is the “correct” one? Assuming that the passage was written to have only one right interpretation/application.

      Apparently, perspecuity isn’t as plain as a plain reading would have you believe? LOL.

    • Paul opens by saying “live according to your calling”. As future pastors, missionaries, etc., we had this idea of calling related to “calling into ministry”, a sort of “I am called to preach the word of God” mentality. Or we think of the calling that Paul received directly from Jesus. Or we think of the Macedonian call. But this is not how Paul used the word calling.

      In Ephesians 4:4 and 1:18 he talks about the “hope of your calling” which is “the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people”.

      The calling that Paul is refering to is the call to follow Christ and participate in his Kingdom. While this Kingdom is fully realized in the future, Paul encourages us to act now in a way that will reflect that future reality. That is the part that all of us missed.

      • Correction: Almost all of us missed.

      • Ahaa …the context of Rome is what’s missing here. Paul’s sense of “a calling” here is a reference to the Roman slave market. It would have been quickly understood by Paul’s contemporaries as a reference to the sign worn around the neck of a slave standing for sale in the market which would have displayed that slave’s experience, talent or trade to inform potential buyers of his proper utilization. It may have read “teacher” or “accountant” or “merchant”, for example (many of the slaves in Rome were educated people from the conquered territories). Paul’s invitation was to all believers to recognize that their “calling” now read “child and disciple of the Living Lord” and that they should, therefore, “live a life worthy of the calling [they] have received. Such a reference is right at home in Ephesians as I believe it had one of the highest volume slave markets in the empire.

        I suppose, Mike, it’s now too late to resubmit your paper? 🙂

  6. Well written and straight to the heart and head at the same time…..pretty much typically awesome Damaris writing!!!

    Thank you for sharing some real-world reasons why Bible-worship and individual Popes of the “Church of Me” almost always miss the target by a country mile. I have said before, as a fellow avid reader of 50+ years, that the more I know, the more I know how clueless I am about the affairs of God and men.

    I am currently reading the second book by an author who I am blanking out on for a name, but who sets the Eucharist and the concept of Christ as the Bridegroom against 1st century Jewish scripture and tradition (Torah and commentary). I am learning so much about how words and actions of Christ, John the Baptist, and the Apostles would have been understood by Jews of the time. The “head learning” only helps my “heart-learning” about the Lord, and His plans for humankind and me. I could never get to this point…..and points to come….without tradition, community, and smarter and holier people than myself lighting the correct Path!

    • Pattie, you’re talking about Brant Pitre’s “Jesus The Bridegroom” or “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” right?

      If so, great books, both of them.

      • Yes, Brandon, thank you! I was three floors away from my Kindle and didn’t want to wake the hubby at 5:37 to look for it, and the author’s name. They are INCREDIBLE books…

    • Very good. The key to understanding, and applying (so it can change us, and others) is understanding what God was saying to the original hearers (that is the interpretation part). Then we can understand what he is saying to us (the application part).

    • You’re very kind, Pattie. Jeff Dunn and I are hoping within the next year or so to publish a book of my essays. I’ll write more about it on iMonk when it is available.

  7. Damaris: Amen, amen, amen!

  8. Excellent post. I have long doubted this doctrine. If the meaning of Scripture is so clear (even with regard to the basics of salvation) why are there so many different denominations, much less groups like Mormons or JW? Surely SOME of those people (Mormons or JW) are genuinely seeking truth, and surely God loves them enough to reveal that truth through Scripture to them. If it is so clear, why are they still believing those things?

    Your illustration points out what I think is the heart of the problem – it is our expectations about the Bible, and how we read it. Too many people treat it either like a magic book (a Holy Spirit-powered ouija board) or else like the daily newspaper. But it is neither. It is a book that (as Peter Enns noted in yesterday’s post) bears witness to (records) the acts of God, and I might add, in a particular historical setting – to a particular people at a particular time. We must try to understand that people and those times, so we can understand that message. That is ‘interpretation’. How this applies to us is the ‘application’ part. We must start with interpretation – a correct (or as nearly as possible at any given time) understanding – before we can do the ‘application’ part. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is more involved in the latter process than the former (though he certainly is involved in both – however, I have learned much about Scripture from those who affirm they are not believers, or nominally so at best).

    So does this take us back to the time when only a few elite interpreters can rightly understand this book. Well, yes and no. No in the sense that anyone CAN learn to interpret the Bible and access the study aids to correctly understand it. We live in a day when research by scholars has opened up a vast array of helps, admittedly, with various, and often conflicting viewpoints. But the resources are there to let any literate (and motivated) person understand Scripture, at least much more accurately than those who take the magic book approach (though identifying reliable resources is a challenge for most).

    But, in another sense ‘yes’. It has always been that way, and it seems to be by design. Paul says in Eph 4:11-16 that God has given leaders (including teachers) to guide his church into truth and maturity. It is really the teachers who bear the responsibility (and it is a serious one) to study and teach God’s truth to the church. As Damaris points out – it is a church thing, and the church then lives out that truth in its life – acts of mercy, love, and worship.

    • Too many people treat it either like a magic book (a Holy Spirit-powered ouija board) or else like the daily newspaper.

      Going to borrow this phrase, it’s excellent!

  9. Excellent, Damaris! I never took remedial reading and writing, but I would love to be a student in your classroom.

    A few years back, I came up with the following (and I’m still trying to decide whether it is true):

    In life, as well as in the dictionary, perspicacity precedes perspicuity.

    • “In life, as well as in the dictionary, perspicacity precedes perspicuity.” I like it!

      In a sad way, though, this seems one more affirmation of the principle expressed by Jesus, that to those who have, more will be given, and to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. I have always wondered if that statement wasn’t just a reflection of reality rather than an overt judgment — but hey, who am I to try to interpret the Scriptures all on my own? 🙂

  10. George Christiansen says

    I agree with the initial point and am always amused that when intelligent skeptics point to flaws or contradictions in the Bible that they are immediately met with cries of how one must learn how to read the scriptures, which i agree to be true, but it contradicts the initial assumption.

    I disagree with the idea that it has been the fact that everyone thinks they can interpret the scriptures that has led to nuttiness though. You’d be hard pressed to find a nutty doctrine that doesn’t have some “professional” who agrees with it…unless of course we disqualify them as professionals because of their nutty doctrines, which has a whole bunch of problems attached to it.

    • Very true, George. Professionals as well as lay people are equally in danger of nuttiness — professionals more so, perhaps. I don’t claimi that more training makes one more capable of rightly dividing the word of truth, although to some degree that’s true; I want to challenge the belief that an individual in isolation needs nothing more than the Book to understand the faith and to grow into the likeness of Christ

      • George Christiansen says

        Who actually holds this belief that “an individual in isolation needs nothing more than the Book to understand the faith and to grow into the likeness of Christ”?

        It comes across as a strawman. One that is typically used to justify some particular council’s understanding of scripture.

        • George — It’s hard to come up with a phrasing that covers the variety of people who hold this position, but one example would be the Christian/Church of Christ members, whose creed is “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” Obviously individual members of Christian churches are formed by the preaching and culture of their churches, but they will tell you — have told me — that they believe what they do strictly because of what they read in the Bible, not what any denomination or school has taught them.

          one of the biggest reasons my husband and I began moving toward Catholicism was the inconsistency of that point of view. He and I were asked by the elders of the Christian church we attended at the time to help write a document describing spiritual maturity and how to reach it. We participated gladly, but we grew more and more uncomfortable as we realized that we were just writing a catechism, and who were we to redo what many other, greater Christians had already done so well? Especially for a denomination that refused to call itself a denomination (“we’re just Biblical Christians”) and for people who denied the necessity for a catechism (“We just read the Bible.”).

          • Preach, sister.

            Raised in a (surprisingly mainline, in retrospect) Campbellite church, that was kind of the tenor of my childhood. Not a whole lot of teaching of anything besides the basic facts of the Bible stories themselves. We were basically left otherwise to be formed by the Evangelical subculture, and so until I was told that we were of the “Churches of Christ” orientation, I didn’t know how to describe my own church. I’d said “we’re basically Baptists,” until I realized that Baptists don’t usually have Communion every week, don’t call it Communion, don’t mark Advent, Palm Sunday, or Good Friday, and generally believe in eternal security much more uniformly than we did.

            That being said, while it was thought a bit weird for a kid to always want the KJV out of the stack of Bibles on the Sunday school table, I was never criticized for it, nor for having high-church leanings, or any of that.

  11. I get a lot of what is trying to be said here, but it starts with a discussion about the misusing the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, yet ends more or less discussing misusing the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the problem of individualism.

    It sounds to me like what you really want to discuss is how does the Trinity want us to use Scripture (since it is inspired by the Holy Spirit), how do we interpret Scripture (in community and on the shoulders of those in the past), and how do we apply what we learn (loving God, loving others).

  12. The vast majority of people in the world are either illiterate,, reading impaired, or unable to read critically. So what this sounds like is that the Catholic Church of the middle ages was correct, that the average person cannot understand the bible and that they NEED someone, or some organization, to interpret for them.

    • As usual, basing doctrines on distilled ancient rhetoric is not helpful. The Reformers were reacting to the byzantine schools of biblical symbolism and interpretation of the Medieval church. They never intended for people to just “pickup the Bible” without any instruction – the many catechisms produced by the Reformation are proof of that.

    • well, the ‘average’ (is there such a being?) person . . .
      having understood the Bible for himself, can then choose which of the 32,000 Christian denominations that is closest to his own understanding, I suppose . . .

      but how often is it that a family will simply go to the neighborhood Church or the big Church in town that has a gym and a good social network going for it, rather than drive the thirty miles or so to the closest town that has their own denomination ?

      convenience . . . choice . . . all so American, but something is not as it should be unless it were true that the sacred Scriptures themselves hold enough information to lead someone towards salvation . . . unless of course, they ARE illiterate, or of another faith with no access to the OT and the NT . . . and these are the reasons I like what my own Church teachings that takes into consideration the many closed doors that result in people who are left out of, shall we say, a more ‘convenient’ salvation:

      “For those too who through no fault of their own do not know Christ and are not recognized as Christians, the divine plan has provided a way of salvation. As we read in the Council’s Decree Ad Gentes, we believe that “God in ways known to himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel” to the faith necessary for salvation (AG 7). Certainly, the condition “inculpably ignorant” cannot be verified nor weighed by human evaluation, but must be left to the divine judgment alone. For this reason, the Council states in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes that in the heart of every man of good will, “Grace works in an unseen way…. The Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (GS 22).

      • Faulty O-Ring says


        • Christiane says

          as in ‘basketball courts’ 🙂

          my son played basketball with friends who belonged to such a Church . . . their facility was multi-purpose, and on certain nights of the week, was open to local youth as a place to gather under some decent supervision and play basketball

          I was actually grateful for this Church’s consideration for young people in the neighborhood . . . and my son’s friends were well-brought up and respectful teens . . . it was a good situation for the young people for sure, and I was always impressed that the people of that Church did not attempt to convert my son to their denomination. Good people.

  13. Damaris said:
    The reality is that interpreting the Scriptures by means of reading them in isolation has led to a seemingly endless proliferation of nuttiness and division that do not bring God glory.

    I come from a KJV-Onlyist tradition and one of the arguments was that all these new translations will only serve to confuse everyone and cause the church to splinter. Historically, it seems just the opposite has taken place. In the 19th Century, when there was, for the most part, only one English version in use, we saw a surge in the number of denominations in the English-speaking world. Denominations were splitting, forming, and coming out of the woodwork at a prodigious rate, all based on a “plain reading” of Scripture.

    In the years following the proliferation of English versions, I believe we are seeing denominational consolidation as never before. I come out of the Baptist tradition where there used to be dozens of different flavors. Now, there seem to be far fewer and of those remaining, they are in such decline as to be heading toward extinction. I have watched formerly independent churches merge back into the SBC while many SBC churches have gone, for all practical purposes, functionally nondenominational. This trend seems to be echoed in Churches of Christ, Assemblies of God, and various other evangelical denominations.

    Makes me think the arguments for KJV-Onlysim and its supporting doctrine of perspecuity are exactly backwards from reality.

    • Patrick Kyle says

      ” Denominations were splitting, forming, and coming out of the woodwork at a prodigious rate, all based on a “plain reading” of Scripture.

      In the years following the proliferation of English versions, I believe we are seeing denominational consolidation as never before. ”

      Never thought about this before, but what if the massive multiplication of sects and denominations was an effect of the culture and ethos of the times, not necessarily the result of the Bible and attendant ‘problems’ with interpretation. it would be interesting to note if there was a corresponding increase in the number of civic organizations or trade guilds during the time.

      • That’s a fair point, Patrick, and would reward some research. I expect we’d find that numbers of divorces, bank branches, and brands of breakfast cereal have increased parallel with denominations. The challenge is always how to understand correlation or causation.

      • Patrick, I believe you are on to something. The 19th Century was a time of vibrant expansionism in the Americas. This is also during the heyday of Colonialism worldwide and commercial expansion. I would not be surprised if the explosion of denominations reflected the broader cultural trends. I agree that it bears examination and study. Good point.

  14. I could easily score in the top 5% of literacy, perhaps higher, as could, I’m guessing, the great majority of those who hang out here . I could read before I started kindergarten and I’m guessing at age 13 that I could have run rings around Damaris’ class. I have a vague memory of having undergone “confirmation” at around that age in a Presbyterian church of unknown flavor. I think the confirmation class must have studied something like Luther’s teaching on the commandments and creed, maybe a shorter catechism, probably with a Westminster label.

    I passed the test but I had no idea what was being taught or what I was “confirming”. I doubt if I could pass that test today. My mother gave me the newly published RSV for the occasion which I looked thru briefly before setting it on a shelf. The only clear memory I have of that church is maybe three years later being seated in the middle of the congregation and looking around at all these dour and super-respectable people, and thinking, if these are Christians, I want no part of this.

    Maybe twenty years later I came back to Jesus, in part due to radio preachers of the wilder sort who got me to reading the Bible in the spirit of the Bereans. In the subsequent forty or so years I have mostly learned and grown from reading books, or now also online, and seeing how what I’m reading stacks up next to Scripture and Spirit. For the most part, writers have been my teachers. I can remember almost no teaching or “aha” moments from in person sermons that moved me along as writing has done. Perhaps I have a lot of company with that here.

    So I think I stand in contrast to the people Damaris is talking about, and probably in contrast to most people outside the Monastery, who even if able to read adequately, have no desire to or pleasure in so doing. That’s just how people are. We need to remember that. I think someone like Damaris is rare, who is comfortable with a foot in each camp, able to read and write with the best, able to effectively reach those who aren’t the best. I wonder how I might be different today if by time warp she had taught my confirmation class. Probably wouldn’t have been allowed. Life happens like it happens.

    • We have a lot in common, Charles. Despite being a teacher, I’m not much of a people person, and most (though not all) of my epiphanies have come through reading. Even in reading, though, I think it’s wise to belong to the Great Conversation and read widely in order to avoid the dangers of isolated interpretation. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ advice to read more old books than new ones. (I wrote about that here: https://internetmonk.com/archive/old-books-and-new.)

      I also remind myself, though, that while Christian understanding and inspiration come to me through books, I can only live out the Christian life in the physical world.

    • Charles: “got me to reading the Bible in the spirit of the Bereans”

      This is a great example of the problems with “perspicuity”.

      Think about what Scriptures the Bereans were using and how those Scriptures were used to accept the kind of message Paul was teaching them: That God is now three persons in one, Jesus is some kind of a human form of God, that the eternal covenants of circumcision and maybe Sabbath are no longer binding, that unclean foods are OK to eat, and on.

      So the Hebrew Scriptures were clear on this? I don’t think so. For the noble Bereans, their reading of scripture had to have been molded and morphed into a very different shape through the preaching of Paul and the Holy Spirit – Not their reading skills or powers of deduction. Jews who might be well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures that accept Jesus and the New Testament Scriptures require a huge leap Faith which IMO requires giving up the “perspicuity” of the Hebrew Scriptures.

      • Joe, I’m having trouble hearing the same message from Paul as you seem to. As in Thessasonica just before, I would assume Paul’s basic message to Berea was that Jesus was and is the Messiah. He no doubt backed this up with Scripture just as Jesus himself did on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. That would be something that could easily be looked up and studied as to whether or not it made sense and resonated with Spirit. I don’t seem to remember Paul teaching on the Trinity anywhere, and I doubt very much whether in his short time with the Bereans he had much if anything to say about Sabbath keeping, kosher, or circumcision. These seem like matters that might come up in an extended stay. First things first. Is Jesus Messiah or not. That’s still the basic question to be answered today.

        To me one of the main reasons for reading the whole Bible at least once front to back, every last word, is as protection against getting bamboozled by folks telling you such and so is in the Bible. Otherwise you are defenseless unless depending on someone else you trust, and this is of such importance that I just don’t trust anyone else to make those final assessments for me. I’ll take someone’s word as a starting point, but not the final word. And I learned to read above and below any kind of “proof” text to get context and the bigger picture.

        Paul told the Thessalonians to test everything and hold fast to what was good. That to me is the spirit of the Bereans, and is something I have held fast to as good for forty years. And I am not just talking about an intellectual parsing of Scripture like a lawyer poring over a contract. I’m talking about spiritual discernment with the help of God’s Spirit. That’s what I believe the Bereans were doing.

  15. Our roads are no doubt very, very different, yet we’ve come to the same place. Words have their place, but I need to see them incarnate, or why bother. Great post.

  16. David Cornwell says

    “The Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible.”

    This very Barthian, and is also a position accepted by many postliberal narrative theologians. Walter Brueggemann’s approach to scripture and interpretation seem to be similar to this.

    In fact Brueggemann’s approach would make for an interesting discussion here someday.

    Thanks for laying this out Damaris. You’ve said so much which should open some doors to consideration and discussion. Some of us want our beliefs about the bible to be kept locked up in a dark closet, protected and undisturbed, and the sound of a door creaking open is scary.

    • David, that is the view of the Orthodox Church.

      An interesting thing I read in Wright somewhere was that the Jewish understanding of the phrase “word of God” was basically the action of God within what we would call “history.” So Jesus as The Word of God would be God’s Ultimate Action within “history.” Makes sense to me, especially in view of the meanings of the word “logos.”


      • David Cornwell says

        I think we are beginning to see a convergence of viewpoints around this idea. What I’ve heard expressed here on this blog, read in other places in the past year or so, and hear when I listen closely, points in this direction. I think the Holy Spirit is moving with many people in the Church these days in ways that can only be good. It takes a period of time for certainty to come, and we aren’t very patient people.

  17. our first and greatest investment should not be in teaching people to read. It must be in acts of mercy

    A rather odd dichotomy to be seen coming from an English prof. How is literacy education not an act of mercy? Even churches who don’t hold to the perspicuity of Scripture have invested very heavily in this, and nobody has taught more people to read than the Christian church.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

      I had a similar thought. I think the point is that just reading or hearing the Bible without seeing its teaching acted out is of little or no consequence to the hearer. I’m not at all sure I agree with that point, but I do agree with the following: the perspicuity of Scripture is essentially hogwash, being even contradicted by Jesus himself. It was invented post hoc to justify the Reformation.

    • I realize the irony, Miguel. I wrote that sentence as a challenge to myself, that spreading the Gospel is not just providing people with information but is being Christ to them. Interestingly, the same challenge exists in teaching: I can’t just provide information, I have to love both the subject and the students in order to teach anything at all. I find that easier in the classroom than in messy everyday life.

      • David Cornwell says

        This is the horizontal aspect of being an incarnational Christian.

      • I’m glad Miguel brought up the “irony” and that you see it, too, Damaris. As I was reflecting further upon your essay, I realized that it’s not necessarily an either/or thing (“all Bible or all living it out”), but it’s a BOTH. We need to read the Bible and discuss it, AND also put it into practice. Or if you prefer, you can flip the order of the phrasing (“put it into practice AND read and discuss”).

        • Catholic tradition includes the phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi” — translated loosely as “As we pray, so we believe.” That seems backward to us, but the expression serves to emphasize the connection of practice and understanding; some later versions continue “lex vivendi,” adding life to the equation.

          • Ooh, I really like that!!! I must admit, even as a full-blown participant in two prayer groups, I still struggle with the “reason” for prayer (the what, why, how). “As we pray, so we believe”…that is a cool way to view it!

          • “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (also very popular in Anglicanism and Lutheranism) is a “chicken and egg” sort of idea.

          • Christiane says

            ‘as we pray, so we believe’ . . . brings to mind what is known as the ‘kneeling theology’ 🙂

      • A related thought: I’m working my way through Eugene Peterson’s “Eat This Book,” which I acquired because I liked the title so much. He points out that it is difficult (impossible?) understand the a text that one is not simultaneously attempting to live. He’s basically arguing that study, contemplation, and living are interrelated. This makes perfect sense to me.

  18. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch, by it self, is a perfectly clear example, from the Scriptures, of why the Scriptures are not perspicuous.

    SWIDT? 😛

  19. Demaris, your example feels a bit dismal so long as we’re talking about some people struggling to understand a parable, and other people possibly being better equipped to dissect it. But then, I think, isn’t this exactly why people belong in communities? Not everyone is good or can be good at the same things. But that is exactly why people need one another. To the degree that someone excels at the kind of reading you are discussing, or at teaching, they have something to offer others. The same goes with innumerable other gifts. This goes to a factor of 2 if one believes, as I think most adherents to democracy do, that to some extent these gifts should be spread around as far as possible.

    In the church, I think, this is all the more the case. Our individual lives and perceptions are important, but people are not alone. There exists a common life in which God is known as well.

  20. The reality is that interpreting the Scriptures by means of reading them in isolation has led to a seemingly endless proliferation of nuttiness and division that do not bring God glory.


    • Double amen! Being out in the wilderness is how you suffer isolation. There is a reason that there are over 30,000 denominations and religious sects. My theory is that small groups of people, feeling disenfranchised and isolated found others of like feeling and a new group is born. And of course, there common bond is them , and them alone. This isn’t always a bad thing, many times its a good thing But, when every group thinks its microcosm is the macrocosm then we have religion today. I know I’m going to get smoked for this, but even on this blog that attitude is displayed. Not frequently in anger, but still occurs.

  21. Randy Thompson says

    I agree that the “perspicuity of Scripture” is over sold. So, what does that mean for Protestant Christianity and its “Sola Scriptura”? I am a Protestant, but I find that the theological foundations of Protestantism (or much of it) make less and less sense to me as time goes on. I sometimes wonder, thinking long-term, if Protestantism might not go the same way as the Donatists or Montanists.

    Protestantism has put all its eggs in one basket, literacy. What happens to the eggs when the basket rots away?

    A question: If “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” then what happens to the Gospel that comes to us embedded in Scripture?

    • Richard Hershberger says

      ‘So, what does that mean for Protestant Christianity and its “Sola Scriptura”?’

      Coming from the Lutheran tradition, I have no expectation of Scriptural perspicuity. My expectation is that understanding Scripture is a lifelong undertaking, and that I need all the help I can get.

      On the other hand, the Westminster Confession speaks of perspicuity not with regard to understanding Scripture in a comprehensive sense, but of “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation”. Perhaps we can take this as a sly commentary on what is and is not necessary for salvation.

      • For a not so sly commentary, we have the Athanasian Creed, so called, which I might well go to the lions before reciting. I am coming more and more to regard the Nicene Creed as an example of non-perspicuity in its inner parts. Apostles Creed to me seems forthright and plain speaking with no hidden or negative agenda.

    • David Cornwell says

      So many people read, but without understanding. The context of the reading makes a lot of difference. Scripture read in Church in the context of Church season, the liturgy of the day, sacrament, and the preached Word can make a difference however.

  22. Brianthedad says

    Lots of deep and interesting thoughts being thrown into the mix. And then this shows up in my Facebook feed. Today’s bible gateway blog agrees we all need some help. http://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2014/12/what-help-can-we-get-so-we-understand-the-bible-better/

    • Brian, the titles recommended in your blog link are good ones but they are Evangelical. I spent 30 years of my Christian education with Christian Book Distributors as my main source of books. They are Evangelical, and after all, this latest ongoing spate of Evangelicalism was based much on a reaction against the studied ignorance and anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism. They were determined to be as academically and intellectually respectable and knowledgeable as the mainline liberals they opposed.

      And for the most part I think they succeeded. I would much rather read an Evangelical commentary than one out of Harvard or Princeton or Yale. I’m sure there are exceptions on both sides. The Evangelicals carried the flag of Truth for fifty years or more, and I gained most of my basic education from them. However they have been unable to cope with the twenty-first century and its young people. They are not alone.

      I would have pointed to D.A. Carson as a prime example of what Evangelicalism was capable of producing in a top notch scholar and expositor until he fell afoul of the post-modern shift of thinking and demonstrated that he was totally incapable of making that leap or even understanding it. I would have pointed to Christian Book Distributors as the primary source of cheap good Christian books until they ran a pre-publication sale of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and then pulled it when the Evangelical uproar started. A business decision that lost me as a customer after 30 some faithful years. And I just checked, they are now offering it again. Too late.

      The problem with Evangelical resources for Bible Study and Christian Education is the Evangelical baggage that comes along with it, baggage that you aren’t aware of while you are immersed in it. Baggage like focussing on the afterlife at the expense of loving your needy neighbor here and now. Baggage like concentrating on me and my salvation at the expense of service to other. Baggage like the hubris of thinking you have the only correct interpretation of life and scripture, and all others are either deluded or hellbound and need to be corrected.

      I just can’t do that Evangelical trip any more, even in passing. I understand that it serves the needs of many and God bless them, I just can’t stomach it any longer. I have come to think of it as Sunday School pap. It’s okay and maybe suitable for children, but we are supposed to be grown ups here and moving along. I’ve got a late start on that but I’m catching up as fast as I can.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Baggage like concentrating on me and my salvation at the expense of service to other.

        An obvious result of a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation, which is what Altar Call Evangelicalism built itself around.

  23. Charles, this is your opinion bashing Evangelicalism. Just the normal crap from no evangelicals. But I’m used to it. I wonder why all the mainline churches are dying?

    • OP, I would say mainline churches are dying for the same reason churches in general are in trouble. They have put themselves into a box and shut the lid while Spirit is moving on. Certainly not true of all. This place is as open and cutting edge as I can find while still keeping roots in the ground. Most of my reading now comes from recommendations and reviews given here. I’m not going to toss my Evangelical resource library, which is considerable and still quite useful, but I’m probably not going to add to it either. N.T. Wright in an appendix to one of his books gives a list of resources and helps that I would point to for someone wanting that kind of information. Can’t remember which book and it’s still packed away somewhere in a box.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Some years ago, there was an IMonk posting and comment thread on Christianese Knockoffs in the creative arts. And one of the comments in that thread struck me.

        Belonging to a church whose favored way to flake out is “Mary Channeling”, I am normally skeptical of claims of Private Revelations and Visions. But this Private Revelation felt different.

        The message was that since Christian Artists and Media had dropped the ball so bad, God was withdrawing “His Mantle” from them. Henceforth “Secular(TM)” artists and writers and moviemakers would begin to say what God wanted to be said. And afterwards with the rise of Bronydom, I have noticed various echoes and hints of “what God would want said” in the flood of creative output in that fandom.

  24. “Baggage like focusing on the afterlife at the expense of loving your needy neighbor here and now. Baggage like concentrating on me and my salvation at the expense of service to other. Baggage like the hubris of thinking you have the only correct interpretation of life and scripture, and all others are either deluded or hellbound and need to be corrected.” Absolutely! As I’ve grown up in life, I less and less understand the Christian focus on the afterlife to the expense of so much else. Many of my Christian friends are so afraid of everything because another viewpoint on life, another interpretation of who God is, or the beliefs of another faith system might cause them to fall in to disbelief and HELL! So, they stay hunkered down in their fur-lined fox holes afraid to come out and face a broader life.

    I’ve been reading Richard Rohr a lot lately, and yes, he’s got definite New Age overtones, but his description of what it means to live in God is eye opening for me. It’s not all about what happens next, (belief as a “get out of hell free card”) but about what has already happened and what is happening now. It’s liberating to know life is a journey we undertake together with each other and our God, not a competitive race to the finish to see who won the prize and who gets thrown out of the stadium .

  25. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Many of my Christian friends are so afraid of everything because another viewpoint on life, another interpretation of who God is, or the beliefs of another faith system might cause them to fall in to disbelief and HELL! So, they stay hunkered down in their fur-lined fox holes afraid to come out and face a broader life.

    Like Kirk Cameron on the set of Left Behind, hiding in his dressing room/trailer afraid of HEATHEN contamination jeopardizing his Salvation. Slacktivist theorized this was the result of being catechized with “holiness” defined in primarily NEGATIVE terms — “Thou Shalt Nots” — plus coming in with pre-conversion baggage (which tends to accumulate in the movie/TV branch of theater arts). So afraid of losing their ticket to the Hereafter they run away and hide from the Here and Now. So tunnel-visioned on the Afterlife they cannot Live their Life.

  26. I have learned quite a bit “in person” and “by example.” Usually what *not* to believe or practice.

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