Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Against Scriptural Docetism

The title is clickbait. One finds that associating a position with which one disagrees with a Christological heresy is both cheap and effective.

A provocation: without sola scriptura, human society collapses.

Ok, that is an overstatement. Sort of.

This post is a follow-up to Andrew’s from the other day. We were discussing his last point on Facebook (liber faciei for those who want it in the original), and I thought I’d continue it here, in order for readers to tell me just how wrong I am.

The proposal is this: if we wish to affirm the full humanity of Scripture, we need to have a doctrine that does something like the work of sola scriptura. Why? Because, at a certain level, human communication is perspicuous, even if not exhaustively so. Every interaction we have throughout each day presumes this–and that not only for oral communication, but for written communication as well (which are only two modes of the genus “communication”). The entire edifice of contractual law, for instance, is built upon this presumption, and, if one violates his contract, he is accountable to the law for it, for he should have known–and did know–better.

The same is true of written literature. Take Homer’s Odyssey as an example. If one wishes to know what the Odyssey is about–what it means–one reads the Odyssey. In neither instance, that of contractual law or that of ancient literature, is there a need for an infallible umpire to secure understanding. If such were the case–which is to say, if human communication were deeply opaque by nature–we would need such an umpire for everything (though he could still only use human communication to grant us understanding, and so still and all we would be likewise befettered). 1 In other words, the assumption that we cannot understand each other, even in writing, requires a nihilistic and despairing view of an animal that is social by nature, and neither nihilism nor despair are Christian virtues.

Indeed, it is in principle possible to understand something of a text with no help at all from others, though it is also possible (and perhaps likely) to misunderstand a great deal more. For that reason, it is profoundly unwise to ignore all of the assistance that is available. With respect to the example of contract law, that is why we have lawyers (I knew I would find a reason eventually). With respect to the example of the Odyssey, that is why we have people who specialize in Homer and the reading of archaic Greek poetry. As Solomon says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Eric Parker helpfully explicated this principle yesterday via Zanchi. Expertise in exegesis is a great good, whether it is the exegesis of a contract, a poem, or the Bible, and in the case of the latter it is perhaps an even greater good, because the stakes are so much higher. None of this, however, requires infallibility, as we see if we are being honest and reasonable: these are, rather, questions of prudence. All three kinds of texts are instances of human communication, and in that respect there is no reason in principle why their reading should be generically different–and, again, the understanding of an interpretation, or of an interpretation of an interpretation, presumes the basic communicativeness of human language in any case. Perhaps paradoxically, then, Scripture’s humanity requires perspicuity (in the sense used above), which is ingredient in and fundamental to any construal of sola scriptura. If perspicuity exists, then sola scriptura is perfectly reasonable.

But what about Scripture’s divinity? One might suggest that God’s infinity and incomprehensibility would leave a divinely authored text shrouded in mystery. But this is to miss the point by focusing on the wrong divine attributes for giving an adequate account of Christian revelation. Why? Because Christian revelation is revelation. God’s incomprehensibility is the wrong place to start here, for the fact that Scripture exists is due to God’s desire to reveal himself, to manifest himself to faithful hearing, to communicate himself to a world undone by sin. This means–indeed, requires–that the presumption when treating of divine authorship should be in favor of clarity and understandability rather than of obscurity. Why, after all, should God not be able to communicate himself effectively should he wish to do so? And if he has willed to communicate with man at all, why should he not wish to do so effectively? To ask the question is, I think, to answer it. But effective communication requires the assumption that speaker and hearer (or reader) can understand one another. As John Webster is fond of pointing out (and rightly so), the rule finitum non capax inifinitmust not be reversed for any reason into infinitum non capax finiti. The infinite is capable of the finite, and the fact that we have revelation from God is proof of that. To assume, on the other hand, that God’s revelation of himself is necessarily inadequate on its own (whether because of his loftiness, his incomprehensibility, or whatever) is to affirm a version of the infinitum non capax.

So, to strengthen the claim about the reasonableness of sola scriptura above: both the human and the divine authorship of Scripture not only allow for but positively require perspicuity, and therefore sola scriptura: for the only reasonable basis upon which to deny sola scriptura is because scriptura is not clear. Secure the one, and you secure the other.

Fire away.

  1. Did you see what I did there? I used a word that you presumably have never seen (the OED gives exactly one citation for the verb, from 1837, and none at all for the participle), and yet you still understood me perfectly. Consider this a Q.E.D. for the perspicuity of communication. Incidentally, the OED also cites the word “bebutter,” which means about what you would think.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

7 replies on “Against Scriptural Docetism”

Home run brother. Well done! This makes perfect sense and yet men continually want to place someone or something infallible between the Christian and the infallible, clear Bible.

I’m not sure I follow the previous commentor…. how is this argument a defense of infallibility? It seems rather a defenses of scripture as authoritative, which is not the same thing.

Excellent piece, Eric. The idea of hidden knowledge was all the rage in the Renaissance. Erasmus argued that scripture is very obscure in places, especially regarding Christ’s two natures and the paradox of freewill and predestination. He concluded that these obscure passages should not be mentioned to the laity but kept only for the educated. Luther responded: “See now, my dear Erasmus, what that most moderate and peace-loving theology of yours leads to! You warn us off, and forbid us to try to understand the foreknowledge of God and the necessity laid on things and men, advising us to leave such things alone, and to shun and condemn them. And by this ill- advised labor of yours you teach us both to cultivate ignorance of God (which comes of its own accord, and indeed is inborn in us), and to despise faith, let go the promises of God, and treat all the consolations of the Spirit and certitudes of conscience as of no account. Such advice Epicurus himself would scarcely give!”

Excellent post! This reminds me of the main argument of Kevin Vanhoozer’s book “Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge,” but I don’t remember that he made the connections with sola scriptura.

You’re right, Jonathan. Vanhoozer does mention and go through this point in great detail. He unpacks this together with sola scriptura in Chapter 6 of the book.

Erasmus’ reply to Luther, Hyperaspistes, is well worth reading.

‘And time and time again you sing me the old lying tune that I make out that Scripture is obscure on this point. I say the interpretations vary, and I called into question which interpretation we should follow, that of the ancient fathers, which has been approved for so many centuries, or yours, which has sprung up so recently. In that place I certainly do my best to show that the Doctors of the church did not err in asserting free will but rather that you are blind about it. This is what I say: “If you then say that Scripture is not clear on this point, about which so many eminent men have been blind, we have come full circle.” You see that I am not speaking for myself when I say “about which so many eminent men have been blind.” These are your words, not mine. And if what you say is true, either Scripture was obscure to them or they wickedly resisted the Holy Spirit.’

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