Some Remarks on the “Obscurity of Scripture”

Full disclosure: I’m not trying to support the Protestant use of the “perspicuity” of Scripture here. I’ve written books, given talks, hosted podcasts, given interviews, and authored many blog articles that explain why I don’t think Protestantism is persuasive to me. However, I think some additional things need to be said and/or recognized by us Catholics who are of the mindset that Protestants are just simply in a debilitating situation, epistemically speaking, because of the dreaded thing we consistently call “private judgment” and all their divisions.

Often enough, and this interview between Trent Horn and Casey Chalk is one instance, Catholics will try to say that the Catholic “paradigm” of authority has the remedy for this debilitating epistemic paradigm in the Catholic magisterium. When I get this impression, I get the urge to say something that doesn’t always get said in this discussion on our side of the line.

Some of my readers will remember a slightly controversial post that I made back in 12/20/22 (it will be linked in the first comment), and if you have not read it, I recommend checking it out. In that post, I explain with a basic mock Q&A why it is that Catholics can sometimes overplay the authority card as if it is something to severely contrast ourselves from everyone else. There is, of course, truth to this, but it can often be presented in a way that obscures the unwanted (by the Catholic) similarities between Catholics and Protestants at a basic epistemological level. Too often this gets missed in the self-congratulatory presence of the online Catholic echo chamber, until you get a knowledgeable Orthodox or Protestant who has specialized in historical theology comes into the room (cough, Dr. Gary Jenkins, cough, Dr. Gavin Ortlund) and you have to actually speak with them back and forth (and not just some online chat where you can leave).

I’ll have to wait until I can read Chalk’s book to give a review on it, but I still wanted to document some of my thoughts based on this interview in hopes that the book addresses these things. I also do not think Horn or Chalk would take anything I’m saying here by surprise. I don’t think for a minute they haven’t thought about this. Nevertheless, what I’m about to say gets curiously forgotten in the foray of “Yeah those Protestants can’t ever figure out what to agree on, let alone defend the perspicuity of Scripture.”

Might it be said that if Protestants suffer in their attempts to defend the perspicuity of Scripture because the practical consequence of sola scriptura is, ironically, a tyranny of obscurity and diverse human opinion, the Catholic, in contrast, avoids this suffering because the complex of the Catholic Magisterium yields a kingdom of clarity?

This thing might be possibly conceivable 100 years ago, but especially since the 2nd Vatican Council, there has been no end of scholarly efforts to show that the “hermeneutic of continuity” actually has a basis. Dignitatis Humanae (State is stripped of coercive action in matters of religion), Nostra Aetate (no more turn or burn), Lumen Gentium (atheists can be saved and whatever else), and many other documents led to many more dubia and more dubia which required assemblies of theologians (not least the CDF) to issue documents “clarifying” this or that. The recent revision on the death penalty, amoris laetitia, and the inter-faith meetings (bordering on indifferentism and religious pluralism), continuously surprising levels of unforeseen ecumenism, and many more things have Catholic apologists running like energizer bunnies with hours upon hours of “nuance” to prove continuity.

Oh, I don’t think the mere fact of magisterial documents being “unclear” to everyone is a debilitating issue. Please, don’t go there. I am well aware of this feature, if it is not a less intense symptom, going back to the Council of Nicaea (325). Horn, at the end of the audio, even brought up this oft-made rebuttal from Protestants (i.e., “Catholics have the obscurity of magisterial documents to deal with and so they are in the same boat”). As always, the answer to this is that the clear, tangible, visible, and sensible magisterial office that is permanently stationed in the episcopate surrounding the Petrine throne has the potential to make things more and more clear until things are undeniably clear, unless someone has a defect which can’t otherwise be remedied.

But it is not just the obscurity of magisterial documents that Protestants find obscure, you see. Protestants also find obscure the very basis upon which it is thought that there exists this visible, clear, tangible, and easily sensible machinery called the magisterium to do precisely what it claims to do. You can’t just make a claim to this kind of machinery as if that alone upgrades our epistemology! You have to make it credible or show it to be credible. And not just that, but compelling! And if there is anything I’ve learned in my 10 years of going deep into the defense of Catholicism, it is that there has always been far more difficulty than I originally thought there was to make a nice clean case… one that leaves all opponents instantly decapitated. We can get there, but not without a mountain climb.

In the first place, you need this machinery to be consistent with itself. That’s number one. Protestants, both in the 16th century and today, have always made it a point to apologize for their non-adherence to this appeal to magisterial machinery by their claim that this supposed machinery doesn’t live up to its claim by the “presence” of discontinuity and contradiction.

I said above that perhaps 100 years ago the Catholic magisterium could boast of an easy demonstration of her consistency, but not since then. But I said, “might be possibly conceivable.” Even before 100 years ago, you had a number of controversies come up whose intellectual puzzles still cannot be said to have been “resolved.” We could survey some of these throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but I’m more looking at the pink elephant of the Council of Constance (1414) and its decree Haec Sancta. While this problem has been dwarfed by internet apologists, real historians and theologians have made it clear that this is still a monster to face, let alone the fact that we’ve had no magisterial “clarification” on the matter. Close in proximity is the matter of what to do in the case of a heretical Pope? Catholic apologists all have different answers, but they might funnel down to what Bellarmine, Suarez, Cajetan, John of St Thomas, and others have to say. Ever wonder why there is still no resolution to this Rubix cube? It is not simply because the magisterium “hasn’t gotten around to it.” That is for sure.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the Eastern Churches, the whole array from Byzantine-Orthodox, Oriental Orthodoxy, to the Assyrian Church of the East (add what you may), who themselves have a claim to apostolic succession, oral tradition, the sacramental constitution, the priesthood, etc., etc. One will have to get deep into the study of these controversies going back to the 5th century, a time when Christendom (here I follow Philip Jenkins’ “The Lost History of Christianity” and “The Jesus Wars”) was just as divided as 16th century religious Europe was, and then perhaps they can begin to say that the Roman narrative is perspicuously correct. In fact, Eastern Orthodox theologians and academics (Khomyakov, Kireevsky, Sobornost thinkers, and its enduring legacy) have also criticized the “Roman magisterium” as a construction foreign to its own understanding of sacred tradition. No one is going to accuse these thinkers of being adherent to sola scriptura.

I won’t venture to get into every past controversy where not only are the magisterial resolutions themselves difficult to follow (in terms of coherence), but the presence of these puzzles affect directly whether the magisterium itself, as an entity, is a perspicuous fact for Christian doctrine. To the degree, then, that the case for magisterium is itself perspicuous, it is to that degree that a Catholic earns the right to terrorize the Protestant because the doctrine of sola scriptura leads to the tyranny of obscurity on “essential doctrines.” If we can’t make a perspicuous demonstration of the continuity and coherence of the magisterium itself, especially on those points where its very being is persuasively demonstrated, let alone its documentary output, then I’m afraid the attempt to prove the “obscurity” of Scripture as a way to highlight the need for a supremely authoritative interpreter only makes a full circle right back into the same problem that is being described by the protagonist. And if we are making a full circle over and over, might we cease spending so much time on the “epistemological advantage” of Catholicism and get into the meat of the arguments from the best of both sides?