Theses on the Perspicuity of the Scriptures (in conversation with Stanley Fish)

[Open for debate!]

  1. The perspicuity, or clarity, of the Scriptures is not of the sort that we should say, “Any reasonable person can see that this is what such-and-such Scripture says.”
  2. The question is begged, who is a “reasonable” person?
  3. When it comes to the Scriptures it is not true that any person who can read the marks on the page and put them together into some sort of sense can automatically come to the “correct” meaning.
  4. The meaning of the Scriptures, as with any and every other mode of communication, is a matter of interpretation.
  5. Interpretation takes place every time the Scriptures are read or heard.
  6. Conversely, at no time when the Scriptures are heard or read does interpretation not take place.
  7. Even when we think that we hear an absolutely clear and impossible to misunderstand passage of Scripture, we are interpreting it.
  8. However, our interpretation seems “natural” for various reasons:
  9. E.g., we have heard multiple times a particular interpretation and have become convinced of its truth;
  10. The multiple constraints that make up our context (all of the things that make us who we are) have led us to simply assume an interpretation as correct;
  11. In light of our assumptions and presuppositions, we regard a given interpretation as correct.
  12. This does not mean that all interpretations are therefore equally valid.
  13. Or, even if an interpretation is valid according to a given context that it does not necessarily follow that it is correct.
  14. But the question is begged, how is an interpretation judged to be “correct”?
  15. It is judged to be correct based on an individual’s or a community’s context.
  16. Thus, the interpretation cannot be given or judged correct except from within a context.
  17. No one operates a-contextually, or apart from a context from within which one interprets.
  18. A person who thinks he is interpreting without assumptions or presuppositions simply has not recognized his context.
  19. Therefore, the perspicuity of the Scriptures may not be assumed;
  20. Or rather, any given “clear” interpretation of the Scriptures may not be assumed to be apparent to anyone at any time, regardless of that person’s context.
  21. Thus, what is apparent to one group of Christians, even to an entire denomination, may not be assumed to be clear to any other group or denomination.
  22. It is not sufficient to simply assert that a particular passage of Scripture is perspicuous.
  23. Since no asserted meaning of a particular passage is without interpretation, i.e., simply and absolutely “literal,” every interpreted meaning requires related argument.
  24. Whether such an argument is given every time an interpreted meaning is asserted is irrelevant.
  25. If the argument is not given, it is simply assumed.
  26. If the interpretation is not questioned or challenged, the hearer or reader either assumes the same argument, or has accepted some meaning that fits equally with the words of the speaker or author, or has not understood the interpretation given.
  27. The perspicuity of the Scriptures can only be accepted equally and in the same way among those who have the same context, i.e., the same assumptions and presuppositions.
  28. Hence, different Christians disagree about various “clear” passages of Scripture because they do not share the same context:
  29. E.g., one person accepts the historicity of all of Jesus’ sayings and actions, while another person accepts only some of them;
  30. Or, one person has one interpretive “key,” such as, “All Scriptures testify to Christ;” while another person has a different interpretive key, such as, “God is absolutely sovereign.”
  31. Or, one person believes that Christ’s actual crucified and risen Body and Blood are eaten and drunk with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper because “Jesus says it is so;” while another person believes that Christ’s Body and Blood are spiritually present or symbolically present because human bodies are not able to be in two discrete places at the same time.
  32. Interpretive keys are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they cannot be equally applied:
  33. E.g., two individuals’ understandings of Predestination will differ if one applies the interpretive key of election in Christ while the other applies the interpretive key of election from the absolute sovereignty of God.
  34. Thus: the Scriptures are equally perspicuous to either party in a dispute, but they are perspicuous to either party only according to each party’s context.
  35. There is no “outside” authority to which either party can appeal, because there is no “outside” for contextualized people;
  36. And everyone is contextualized.
  37. Thus, there is no possibility of ending the argument by saying, “The Scriptures are clear here; my interpretation cannot be challenged.”
  38. An interpretation can always be challenged.
  39. Therefore, it will again be necessary to make an argument for one’s interpretation.
  40. Every argument for a given interpretation will be an attempt to change another person’s context.
  41. If the context is successfully changed by an argument, then a new interpretation of a passage of Scripture will become “clear.”
  42. This does not mean that a given interpretation is free-floating, irrelative to any substantial moorings or bearings.
  43. There is no such thing as a free-floating interpretation.
  44. Conversely, every interpretation is bound by the context of the interpreter.
  45. Therefore, saying that an argument must be made for any given interpretation is simply to state what every interpreter has always done: make an argument for a given interpretation;
  46. E.g., Luther, in The Bondage of the Will says that the Scriptures are externally clear;
  47. That is, anyone can read the marks on the page and understand that the Scriptures simply confess the trinity of God, or the humanity of Jesus, or the unforgivable sin;
  48. On the other hand, because, outside of Christ, the hearts of all humans are darkened by sin, even if they understand the marks on the page they “apprehend and truly understand nothing of it.”
  49. Luther acknowledges that unless a person has the right context (i.e., “in Christ”), the testimony of the Scriptures to the Christ who saves will not be perspicuous.
  50. Luther: “For the Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture, both as a whole and in any part of it.”

Timotheos

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9 thoughts on “Theses on the Perspicuity of the Scriptures (in conversation with Stanley Fish)

  1. T,

    Where did you get these. I’m working through Fish’s ‘Doing what Comes Naturally,’ these theses bring some clarity to what Fish writes about concerning words and their meanings and his debates with some of the popular liguistic theory now present in the legal studies.

    As far as responding to you actual post, I’m going to the apartment hottub to think it over. I’ll get back to you.

    For another perspective, my wife asked me what I was reading. I responded with the title of your post. She said “ew.”

    B

  2. They’re my theses.

    I’m reading the same book, and I couldn’t help but relate them to the Scriptures and how we should view them.

    Good to hear from you!

    Tim

  3. This will be short because I agree almost all of these theses, but then again I like Voelz’s What Does It Mean. I think the only thing I can say is that there are times when those not in Christ get the interpretation of a given Scripture right.

  4. It depends on what you mean by interpretation (hence, proving Stanley Fish’s overall point!). But I’m not sure what it would look like, from a Lutheran perspective, for an unbeliever to get the interpretation “right.” Are you thinking of an example?

    Tim

  5. It depends on what you mean by interpretation (hence, proving Stanley Fish’s overall point!)

    Touche

    But I’m not sure what it would look like, from a Lutheran perspective, for an unbeliever to get the interpretation “right.” Are you thinking of an example?

    If an unbeliever understands the words of Institution as our Lord meaning that His body and blood are truly present, the unbeliever has come to what from the Lutheran perspective is the “right” interpretation of the words of Institution. Whereas, if someone like a Baptist, who Lutherans normally understand to be in Christ or a believer, state that “This is body” does not in fact mean that CHrist’s body is there in, with, and under the bread does not according to Lutherans have the “right” interpretation.

  6. Also what I am trying to say is that the Holy Spirit (in Christ) can not be used as a trump card to discount someone else’s interpretation.

  7. “If an unbeliever understands the words of Institution as our Lord meaning that His body and blood are truly present, the unbeliever has come to what from the Lutheran perspective is the “right” interpretation of the words of Institution.”

    That’s an interesting point. It wouldn’t help that person, but still interesting.

    Tim

  8. That’s an interesting point. It wouldn’t help that person, but still interesting

    Absolutely, it would be for that person mere historical faith.

  9. I think Steven G’s take is also in line with Luther’s understanding. This seems to be what Luther meant by “external clarity”. When arguing against the Sacramentarians, Luther suggested that people with no personal interest in the debate (like Mohammedans) would come to Luther’s understanding, based on the rules of language. By external clarity, Luther meant that the Scriptures were written in normal language, following the rules of grammar. They were written to communicate, just like any other piece of writing, and so can be understood by people who have a grasp of the language.

    By internal clarity Luther is, I think, talking of faith and belief in the words of Scripture, which is only given by the Holy Ghost.

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