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 due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. –WCF 1.7
The Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture (DOTPOS) in many ways resides at the core of the origins of Protestant and Reformed identity. The above excerpt from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) represents an articulation of DOTPOS directly relevant for many of us in the Reformed world.
For several years I have pondered the implications of DOTPOS for the place of the historical study of the Bible in the church and as part of how the church engages its Bible. My thought has tracked down several related paths, a couple of them stemming from particular parts of the WCF articulation of DOTPOS. I plan to do several posts on DOTPOS, especially its articulation in the WCF, and the historical study of the Bible. In this post I would like to share one of my particular ponderings that remains in an insipient stage. What do you all think of this?
I think a POSITIVE use of DOTPOS is helpful and edifying for the church while a NEGATIVE use of DOTPOS is unhelpful and Spiritually stiffling.
By POSITIVE use I mean, basically, what the DOTPOS teaches positively about how anyone in the church can read the Bible and encounter Christ in a saving way “in due use of the ordinary means” (something I will touch on in a subsequent post). In this way DOTPOS is very helpful. All people in the church should have the confidence that they can approach the Bible—together in community and in private devotional readings—and savingly encounter our Lord. To unpack this further, they do not need (1) to know Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic), (2) to have a seminary or ancient history degree, (3) or to be a ‘priest’ or go through a ‘priest,’ etc.
By NEGATIVE use I mean a use of DOTPOS to rule out readings of the Bible that are not available to all as individuals, especially the ‘unlearned’ (theological, historically, etc). Examples of this abound. I have lost count of how many times I have encountered something along the following lines in Reformed responses to historical readings of the Bible that challenge or would require further nuancing of something in Reformed Theology: “Allowing such historical reading of the Bible as acceptable would mean that only a priest-hood of scholars can interpret the Bible. This would make us like Rome, saying that the regular Christian in the pews does not have a perspicuous Bible that he or she can read. As such, he or she needs a ‘priest-hood’ of scholars to read the Bible for him or her. Thus, clearly, such a way of reading is wrong because it does not square with the [negative use of] DOTPOS.” I find such a NEGATIVE use of DOTPOS to be unhelpful for the church. I have many more thoughts about such negative uses of DOTPOS I frequently encounter in the Reformed world—especially their naiveté and how those who propound such negative-uses-of-DOTPOS logic also functionally advocate a priest-hood of scholars in the church. I will save these further thoughts for either the comments or a later post.
So, I would like to think that this approach—the helpfulness of the positive use of DOTPOS but not its negative use—is ultimately edifying for the church. On the one hand, it preserves the understanding of every Christian being able to encounter our Lord savingly through His Word. On the other hand, this approach still allows historical engagement with God’s Word (in the historical contexts in which God inspired it) to be a part of the church’s reading of the Bible and encounter with her Lord.
Either in the comments bellow, if any materialize : ), and/or in a subsequent post I hope we can explore DOTPOS further. I do not think it was ever intended to mean that every Christian can and should regularly and only read the Bible individually and apart from the church. Also, I want to recognize that to many my distinction between the positive and negative uses of DOTPOS may appear to be splitting hairs. I desire to guard a place for the historical study of the Bible—and church tradition (the WCF, anyone?!)—in the church’s engagement with Scripture. I thus find negative uses of DOTPOS unhelpful–negative uses that, consistently pursued, would rule out the place of historical-academic study of the Bible (and church tradition) being a part of the church’s reading of it.
Stephen (the Foolish Tar Heel)