“So All Could Understand”

Jan 30th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Reformed theologians use the term “perspicuity” to refer to a quality they believe Scripture to possess. By this they mean that Scripture’s meanings are plain and evident for even the ordinary reader, and that the Church is not a necessary interpretive intermediary. If Scripture were not perspicuous, then either the Church would be a necessary interpreter, or the simple minded would be excluded from the Bible’s truths. With this doctrinal belief in mind, I was struck while recently reading from the Book of Nehemiah. The Prophet Nehemiah tells us that:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithi’ah, Shema, Anai’ah, Uri’ah, Hilki’ah, and Ma-asei’ah on his right hand; and Pedai’ah, Mish’a-el, Malchi’jah, Hashum, Hash-bad’danah, Zechari’ah, and Meshul’lam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jesh’ua, Bani, Sherebi’ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab’bethai, Hodi’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Keli’ta, Azari’ah, Jo’zabad, Hanan, Pelai’ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.1


Ezra Reads the Law

The “book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Moses” is Sacred Scripture, but it does not appear here to possess the quality of perspicuity. The people in Nehemiah 8 were competent, capable of hearing with understanding. The people were listening carefully; the ears of all were attentive. They listened with worshipful hearts, crying “Amen!” and falling on their faces upon seeing the Scripture. In short, we have an ideal setting for an audience to be able to understand the Scripture that was read to them. And yet Ezra and the teachers were needed to give the meaning of the text “so that the people understood the reading.” These faithful listeners’ qualities of being competent, attentive, and worshipful were not independently adequate to understand Scripture.

The Reformed belief in the perspicuity of Scripture, to the exclusion of an essential need for an interpretive authority, is at least in tension with this text of Scripture. Given that Scripture is inerrant, in light of this passage, the Reformed belief in perspicuity must be false unless another portion of Scripture shows that this audience did not need to have the plainly read book of the law of God interpreted “so that all could understand.”

  1. Nehemiah 8:1-8. []

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  1. Tom,

    Good points. It reminded me of Philip and the Ethiopian: “So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus” (Acts 8:30-35).

  2. There are more examples. I was just reading John 5:

    45″But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. 46If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

    So the pharisees read scripture that was about Jesus. It was not that they intentionally misunderstood or disobeyed. At least on a conscious level they thought they were following Moses. I wonder if you change the name Moses to Paul you could say the same thing about protestants? Their failure be accept the church could be culpable because Paul wrote about it at least as clearly as Moses wrote about Jesus.

  3. When I heard this reading the other day, I had the exact same thoughts!

  4. I can hardly imagine that there is any Christian on this earth who has read the Bible from cover to cover and has then come to the conclusion that any ordinary human being can read the Bible books and underastand them without needing a person or a group of persons or an organization to help him, to explain things, to explain the meanings of words that are seldom used in daily language. Words like: sin, grace, salvation, heaven, hell, soul, kingdom of god.
    The Bible is an extremely thick and difficult book. With hundreds of stories in it. Thousands of names of persons, countries, towns, objects. Written by authors who lived in completely different cultures compared to the cultures we live in.
    Why do I think like this?
    1 Personal experience. I have read the Bible from cover to cover more than 10 times (I am already 66 years olds). I have read dozens of books in which Bible passages and Biblical concepts were explained (I am talking about books written for laymen, I am not a professional theologian). I have been to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of church services of various Christian denominations ……. but there are still quite a number of passages and even entire books (Revelation for instance) that I do not underastand.
    2 When you read the gospels it is obvious that when Jesus’ suffering, his death and his resurrection actually took place none of the apostles understood anything of what was going on. There can be no doubt about it that these twelve men were very familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures which foretold the suffering, death and resurrection of the coming Messiah and also explained their meaning. But obviousy the apostles had not been able to grasp the meaning of what they had read and Jesus’ explaining things to them must have failed. All this must convince us of the difficulty of understanding the Scriptures.
    3 If the Bible had been a book that was easy to understand you would never had had the hundreds or thousands of denominations that exist today. If you ignore the thousands of Christian denominations that have very few numbers and only operate in certain countries or certain towns you are still left with a few dozen Christian Churches that have to be taken very seriously. These Churches have their own universities, their own seminaries and their own professional theologians. But these highly learned Christian theologians (all inspired by the Holy Spirit?) disagree with each other over numerous matters that have to do with interpreting Bible passages, doctrines, ways of conducting their religious services, etcetera. So much confusion, so much disagreement, so many disputes all point to only one thing: the Bible is a thick book, hard to understand. And like I said before: with hundreds of stories in it. Stories that the Bible does not tell us in their chronological order.
    It is very hard to find the red thread that connects all the Bible stories and Bible lessons together and gives the reader an idea of the essence of what God is trying to tell us.
    4 It is true that before his going to heaven Jesus promised his followers the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit would help them to understand a lot of things they had not understood yet. But: this sounds a bit unpleasant but it is not meant negatively: it looks as if even the combination Scriptures/Holy Spirit is not sufficient to make ordinary people like me (and I think practically all humans with me) really understand every passage and every book in the Bible. Bible readers need help. From people, from orgamizations, from books, from websites, from blogs. And even then: the people, the organizations, the books, the websites, the blogs ……often contradict each other.
    What now?
    I have been a Christian all my life. Since my retirement I go from website to website and from blog to blog. But I cannot answer the question: What now? There are still a lot of things I am not sure about. And I think it highly probable that I have made errors in my personal interpretation of all the books, websites and blogs I have read

  5. Dear Willem,

    Thank you for this comment. I agree completely that Bible readers need help. That help comes from the sources you mentioned. These sources do often contradict each other. I would say that every interpretive truth-claim about Scripture is contradicted by some other truth-claim out there. I would bet money that you (like me) have made errors in your personal interpretations of the Bible, no matter your intellectual caliber or quality of study or degree of personal piety and devotion. So “What now?” indeed!

    Christ deposited the faith, and also gave the promise of the Holy Spirit leading the Church “into all truth,” with and to the Apostles. They passed on their teaching authority to their successor Bishops, and this has continued through the history of the Catholic Church. That is where you will meet the work of the Holy Spirit in leading the Church into all truth. It’s a bold claim, but the only claim that makes sense of Christ’s promises.

    You made an interesting comment about the Apostles not understanding some critical things even at the time of Christ’s departure. This is a point that Newman makes in his essay on doctrinal development. You can see the development of doctrine occurring even over the course of the writing of New Testament texts. That development, kept within the banks of the river of Truth by the Holy Spirit, continued within the visible Church.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  6. Tom,

    I’m wondering what you think of this (rather old) argument, advanced by William Whitaker in Disputations on Holy Scripture for the perspicuity of Scripture: you quoted a passage from Nehemiah 8 to show that Scripture is not perspicuous. However, you expected all of us, including Reformed readers who reject a Magisterium, to clearly understand what the quoted passage meant. Isn’t this self-contradictory?

    Also, hasn’t the Catholic Church been somewhat sparing in giving official interpretations of Scripture? The Church has declared doctrine officially, but to my knowledge, official interpretations of Scripture by the Magisterium have been rare. Given that, isn’t the Catholic in the same position as the Protestant, if Scripture is not perspicuous?

    Pax Christi,

    Spencer

  7. Dear Spencer,

    Thank you for commenting. I’m not sure what argument of William Whitaker’s you are presenting, so I’ll have to limit my response to your other comments.

    I quoted the passage in Nehemiah because it struck me for the reasons I stated. As I said, I think this passage is in tension with the Protestant doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity. I made note of my opinion that to ‘save’ perspicuity from contradicting Nehemiah 8, it would take another passage of Scripture to show that the audience did not need to have the plainly read Scripture interpreted for them.

    You asked whether my view was self-contradictory because of my expectation that all readers can understand the Nehemiah pericope. There is no contradiction in saying, on the one hand, that Nehemiah 8 is comprehensible, but that, on the other hand, Scripture in toto is not plain and evident for the ordinary reader such than an interpretive intermediary is not necessary. Besides that, if we disagree about the meaning of this passage, that presents more support than trouble for the position I’ve presented.

    I think your second paragraph is based on the understanding that (in my argument) the Catholic Church is only an interpretive intermediary when making official dogmatic proclamations about a particular text. This is not so. Like with Ezra and the teachers to his left and right, the interpretive function can occur whenever the Church exercises its teaching authority. Most commonly this is through sacred preaching during the liturgy of the word each day. This teaching ‘gives us the sense’ of Scripture, so that even our private reading is shaped by the regulative framework of Catholic theology.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  8. I don’t think anyone believes that everyone is equally capable of interpreting Scripture. The actual statement on perspicuity in the WCF is found in sect. 1.7. It reads like this (I insert the biblical citations in brackets):

    All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all;[2 Pet. 3:16] 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 a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.[Matt. 5:18]

    Furthermore, sect. 1.6 says, “we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.”

    In short, the ‘Reformed’ understanding is not that just anyone is an equally capable interpreter. Rather, I would say that it consists in two claims: (1) that any Spirit-led believer may, by reading the Scripture, come to a correct knowledge of the “things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation” and (2) that the correct way of resolving interpretive questions is “the due use of ordinary means,” which I take to mean that we are to determine the meaning of Scripture in much the same way we would determine the meaning of any other book. ‘Ordinary means’ certainly includes consulting experts. The claim, however, is that one gets to be an expert by studying, not by having that title conferred by church authority.

    This view may have some problems of its own, but it is certainly not so easily refuted as your strawman, above.

  9. Dear Kenny,

    Thank you for the comment. I hope you will kindly agree that I did not frame the Reformed position as this: “everyone is equally capable of interpreting Scripture.” I must admit, though, that what I did say was unfortunately ambiguous, giving validity to your straw-man concern. I said: “By this they mean that Scripture’s meanings are plain and evident for even the ordinary reader, and that the Church is not a necessary interpretive intermediary.” By “meanings,” I meant (and should have said more carefully and clearly) the Gospel message, that which is necessary for salvation.

    If you will accept that correction, I wonder whether your remaining response can still refute what I wrote about Nehemiah 8. The section of the WCF you quoted is consistent with my assertion that the Reformed believe that the Church is not a necessary interpretive intermediary. But in Nehemiah we see (1) [presumably Spirit-filled] believers listening to the Scripture, and (2) understanding it only through the means of interpretive authorities. They were not “consulting experts,” as you suggest, but rather listening to whom the text calls “Ezra the scribe” and “Ezra the priest.” He was able to interpret the Scripture for the listeners, its seems, not because of his in-depth study of the text, but because of his office as scribe and priest.

    My point was based on the premise that Reformed teaching believes that we can come to a sufficient understanding of Scripture excluding an “essential need for an interpretive authority.” Your straw-man accusation doesn’t affect this point, unless you mean that the Reformed position can allow for a necessary interpretive authority. I doubt you mean to suggest that experts are an interpretive authority, or even that they are necessary to understand the essential parts of Scripture. Otherwise, the interpretive meaning of Scripture would depend upon which experts we decide to trust, which would conflict with the belief that even the unlearned can understand the necessary parts of Scripture. My point remains that Ezra’s listeners were capable of understanding, listened attentively, and with worshipful hearts; and yet they still required an interpretive intermediary to understand the sense of the Book of the Law.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  10. Tom,

    I think that this crucial restriction severely undermines your argument. The reason is that the distinction between the necessary things, which can be understood by all, and the more difficult matters makes sense of the fact that, in the Nehemiah text, the people are said to have the ability to “hear [the Law] with understanding” and yet it is later said that the scribes “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” On the surface, the text appears to affirm that the people were both able and unable to understand the reading, prior to the scribes’ interpretation. The most obvious resolution to this apparent conflict is that the people had a superficial understanding after listening to the reading, and a deeper understanding after the scribes’ interpreted the reading to them. This is precisely what the WCF doctrine would predict, and this is why the teaching of the Word is actually highly emphasized in the Reformed tradition, despite the doctrine of perspicuity.

    The text does not say anything to indicate whether Ezra was able to interpret the text in virtue of his office or in virtue of his expertise. Doubtless Ezra had both office and expertise. In a certain very specific set of cases, which philosophers sometimes call ‘performative utterances’, the fact that someone in authority says something makes it true, even if it wasn’t true before. This is the case, for instance, when a legitimate authority says that such-and-such is the law (provided that he does not exceed his authority): it becomes the law by his say-so. The interpretation of Scripture is not like this. Perhaps God chooses to miraculously endow those who hold certain offices with supernatural expertise. Even if this is true, it is because of their expertise that these people are to be believed, and not simply in virtue of their office. When it comes to believing someone who has made a claim about a matter of fact (and what the correct interpretation of the Scripture is is a matter of fact), the only relevant question is what reason we have to believe that that person gets the fact RIGHT.

    I personally believe that the Church DOES have the sort of supernatural expertise I have mentioned. (The WCF might be interpreted as denying this, but I haven’t examined all sections of it closely enough to be certain on that point, and in any case the WCF doesn’t purport to be infallible.) However, I don’t see any reason to believe that the question ‘who speaks for the Church?’ has an answer nearly so simple as Rome supposes. My chief point (which I have made here before) is this: authority, or the right to command, is not the same as authoritativeness, or the right to be believed. The former can be delegated, but the latter comes only by being right. Ezra has authority in virtue of his office as scribe and priest – the people ought to obey his commands. But Ezra has authoritativeness because God has, by natural or supernatural means, given him the ability to interpret the Scripture correctly.

    Finally, let me point out that there is no avoiding the fact that each individual must use her judgment, to the best of her ability, to determine whom to regard as having authority or authoritativeness. Joining (or remaining in) the RCC is an example of making just such an individual judgment. Granted, having made that one judgment greatly decreases the number of such judgments you will have to make later (though it can’t completely eliminate them – there has not been an authoritative proclamation on EVERY issue, and voices within the RCC sometimes disagree; furthermore, the authoritative proclamations must themselves be interpreted), but it is not a strategy for avoiding them entirely. There is no such strategy.

  11. The text does not say “men, women and all who could hear [the Law] with understanding,” but simply all who could hear with understanding. It seems more likely to me that the author is indicating that those who had the requisite cognitive capacities to sit and hear a reading of the Law and its explication were there. In other words, not the infants or the mentally handicapped. I think this would be a plainer reading of the text than trying to make it mean that the people came who were able to understand some parts of the Law but not others. Ezra is explaining everything he reads.

  12. Kenny,

    Just a quick question, and then I’ll duck out.

    It is your contention that “the necessary things” can be “understood by all” [without an authoritative interpreter].

    Could you tell us what are “the necessary things” [these things being, by definition, easy to understand]?

    I can tell you what are “the necessary things,” if you want me to. Sadly, I suspect that we would not cite the same things.

    Sorry, one more thing. You wrote:

    Perhaps God chooses to miraculously endow those who hold certain offices with supernatural expertise. Even if this is true, it is because of their expertise that these people are to be believed, and not simply in virtue of their office.

    This looks like a euphemistic way of describing the teaching Magisterium, except that you fail to recognize the possibility that it is precisely in virtue of their office that the Bishops possess “supernatural expertise.” So your “even if this is true…” is a non sequitur.

  13. Hi Andrew,

    The identification of ‘necessary things’ is of course contentious. I don’t think anyone claims that everyone identifies them infallibly. For one trivial example, there will be disagreement because some people are insincere in their interpretive claims. There may also be other reasons for disagreement: people may not have made “due use of ordinary means” (i.e. they may not have investigated the matter closely enough), or their view may be obscured as a result of their spiritual state. So the claim that even “the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of” the necessary things does not amount to the claim that there will be universal agreement on them. Furthermore, it is compatible with the WCF doctrine that sincere, Spirit-led believers may not be able to identify which of their conclusions are necessary, provided that the necessary things are among their conclusions.

    Having said that, I would say that the ‘necessary things’ are something like the following: (1) that man is in need of salvation; (2) that God alone can save; (3) that God commands those who wish to be saved to repent, place their faith in Christ, and do good works. I take the ‘necessary things’ to be this broad/vague, because I think that extreme theological confusion is compatible with salvation; faith precedes understanding. This is why, for instance, I don’t attempt to specify which of the commands in (3) is actually necessary to salvation, but only state that God commands all of them. That’s just my own opinion of the matter.

    As to your second point, precisely what I was trying to say is that my general claim is compatible with something like the RCC view of the teaching Magisterium. However, what I want to emphasize is that even if, as you say, “it is precisely in virtue of their office that the Bishops possess ‘supernatural expertise'” it is nevertheless not simply in virtue of their office that they are to be believed. The reason for this is that authoritativeness cannot be delegated. IF something like the RCC doctrine is correct, then the bishops ought to be believed not simply in virtue of their office, but in virtue of the divine gifting which God has associated with that office. I think this is an extremely important distinction which is often lost in these discussions. I think the reason it looks like a non sequitur to you is that this claim is not a polemic against the RCC view, but merely an attempt to clarify the matter under discussion.

    Once we have made this clarification, we can see that there are at least two distinct questions under dispute: (1) how far is the ordinary believer able (by natural or supernatural means) to interpret the Scripture? (2) who, if anyone, has God gifted with extraordinary interpretive ability?

  14. Hello- Kenny,

    I’m really enjoying your comments here. I wanted to join in the conversation briefly with two things (But please don’t allow me to sidetrack your conversation with Tom or Andrew). It seems to me that Scripture wouldn’t even be required for a person to come up with the few “necessary things” you’ve identified. Self-awareness, righteous guilt, and logical reasoning could get someone pretty close to your “necessary things,” couldn’t they (assuming divine grace is involved)? If those are the utterly necessary things, is the rest of Scripture, in some way superfluous?

    Also, you said:

    So the claim that even “the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of” the necessary things does not amount to the claim that there will be universal agreement on them.

    If universal doctrinal agreement can’t be guaranteed within your framework of thinking (or can it?), to what kind of unity are believers called (John 17:20-23)? Sure, Catholicism can’t guarantee universal doctrinal agreement, either. However, sacramental unity, realized through shared communion (which diminishes all other points of disagreement within the Body) seems to provide a means by which doctrinal confusion can coexist with true Eucharistic/Sacramental unity. Catholicism cannot solve the perennial problem of doctrinal disagreement. But it can provide a larger sacramental context in which true Christian unity can be realized through Eucharistic communion- the Source and Summit of Catholic Christianity. If not through such a tangible symbol of unity, how could we ever realize the unity to which St. Paul called us in 1st Corinthians 1:10, for example?

  15. Herbert – On your first comment, I agree. Doesn’t that seem right to you? Many people (in, e.g., sub-Saharan Africa) are true Christians despite not having access to a Bible. They have got the ‘necessary things’ somehow or other (mostly through testimony). If God wanted to, he could certainly reveal this to someone who didn’t even have testimony to go on, and perhaps somewhere at some time he has. What the doctrine of perspicuity says is that it is plain for all to see that these necessary things are written in the Scripture.

    On your second comment, there is obviously no guarantee of universal doctrinal agreement; if there were, there would BE universal doctrinal agreement, but of course there isn’t. I believe (and I think I speak for most Protestants in this) that the unity of the Church is fundamentally a spiritual reality. It is our job to live and act in such a way as to manifest this reality to the world. We are not doing our job. However, agreement on EVERY doctrine ought not to be a condition of unity. I don’t necessarily see doctrinal disagreement (on inessentials) as a serious problem, but I do see disunity of all sorts as a problem. Doctrinal disagreement on inessentials is a problem insofar as it means that someone is believing falsely, but that is part of the condition of human beings on earth. We believe falsely about all sorts of things. It is also a problem insofar as it divides the Church, but if the disagreements are truly inessential then the problem is not that we disagree but that we are dividing as a result.

    I suppose that wasn’t a very straightforward answer to your question. The long and short of it is that there are many different ways in which we can grow to greater unity, to more clearly manifest the reality of the Church’s spiritual unity.

  16. Kenny-

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I know you’re engaged in dialogue with Tom and I don’t want to detract from that. But you’re touching on some issues about which I’m very sensitive, and which influenced my own journey to that most unexpected of places (considering where I was coming from): Catholicism

    1st of all, it still seems to me that your view on the essentials basically renders nearly every jot and tittle of the Holy Scriptures basically superfluous.

    And about my comments concerning “universal doctrinal agreement”… I’m simply suggesting that our understanding of what Christ and the Apostles meant when they called for our unity must be understood in some way apart from common doctrinal assent. That’s why I was appealing to the unifying role played by that Sacrament of sacraments: Holy Communion. Sacramental unity, being a real participation in Christ’s Body and Blood is indeed a perfect unity- which is precisely what we’re called to. On the other hand, as you’ve acknowledged, philosophical/theological/doctrinal unity (though I’d suggest Catholicism does indeed provide a framework for its hypothetical achievement) is ever-elusive. How, then, can we realize the type of unity to which we’re called? Through Sacrament.

    And finally, yes, it does sorta seem right to me that even the most isolated people can (and are) touched by the divine hand and given some knowledge of God (Romans 1). However, though you’re claiming that the Church is primarily constituted through some form of spiritual/unseen unity, such “reductionism” in the “essentials” of Christianity, to me seems to all but completely do away with the Church. The Church has to have “teeth,” does it not? Matthew 18’s prescriptions for Church discipline don’t stop short of demanding that Church isn’t either more or less spiritual than it is physical. The Church must be both/and. Check out St. Augustine’s Confessions, Book 8 ch.2 for a discussion of the great orator Victorinus and his change of mind concerning this very topic (that is, if you’re not already familiar with it). And again, thanks for the interaction!

  17. Herbert,

    You said, “I’m simply suggesting that our understanding of what Christ and the Apostles meant when they called for our unity must be understood in some way apart from common doctrinal assent.”

    This is, I think, an unintentional capitulation to the Protestant politically-correct tendency to assume that since nobody agrees, it must be meant to be that way. According to Luke, the first Christians in Jerusalem were “one in heart and mind,” and Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” It seems impossible to us today, but it’s the standard we’re meant to strive for. We have the deposit of faith, so the problem is merely one of assent. It’s not that we don’t know what it is that everyone should believe. Anyway, if I’ve misread you I apologize, and if I’m off the mark here I hope that one of the more knowledgeable contributors will correct me. This is my take on it as someone who is on his way to being received into the Church.

  18. Herbert,

    We are here using “the essentials” as an abbreviation for the WCF’s phrase, “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation.” So, first, there is a sense in which more things than that are essential to the Christian faith. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is essential to the Christian faith (any system of beliefs that does not include it would not be a form of Christian theology), but it is not, in my view, necessary for salvation. (Certainly UNDERSTANDING that doctrine is not necessary for salvation, or we’d all be doomed.) Second, there may be things which are inessential, but nevertheless extremely important, and there are certainly things which are inessential but beneficial. We should strive to know God as much as possible, and the Scripture is certainly not ‘superfluous’ to that task. In reducing ‘the essentials’ I am simply saying that very little knowledge or understanding is necessary for salvation. In fact, as I understand it, the RCC holds that NO knowledge or understanding is necessary, since infants are saved as soon as they are baptized. So the RCC teaches that you don’t need to know ANY of the things in Scripture (or indeed anything at all) in order to be saved, but this doesn’t render the Scripture superfluous.

    I am not going to dispute your claim about sacramental unity. I agree that the observance of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist is necessary to the Church’s identity (so that, for instance, although the Salvation Army is theologically similar to other Protestant groups, I would not consider them a legitimate Christian church because they do not observe the sacraments). See my discussion of the necessary aspects of an ecclesiology. I don’t have a detailed view about the exact nature of the sacramental unity the Church experiences.

    As for the visible/material nature of the Church, I agree that we are commanded to do what Victorinus would not do, namely, to be part of the visible manifestation of the Church on earth. This manifestation takes the form of specific local gatherings. Furthermore, we are commanded to submit to specific Christian leaders, and those leaders are commanded to exercise discipline over us. One of the problems created by the institutional disunity of the Church today is the weakening of these disciplinary measures: people just go find another church. The problem is worsened by the fact that most Protestant churches don’t see it as a problem or try to do anything about it (in fact, they usually don’t practice discipline at all). This is bad.

    Philologus,

    I know your post isn’t addressed to me, but I have to ask: is it ok if Christians disagree about what baseball team to root for? About what political candidate to vote for? About whether Coke tastes better than Pepsi?

    We all agree that there is a need for doctrinal unity, but I hope we also all agree that there is NOT a need for complete uniformity of ALL beliefs. The question is, what beliefs must we agree on? Perhaps you will answer, beliefs having to do with God; since we philosophers sit around constructing nitpicky counterexamples all day, I will respond by asking, what about the belief that God created a world in which Coke tastes better than Pepsi?

    When the NT says that the Christians were “one in heart and mind,” what beliefs did they agree on? Did they agree on who was going to win tomorrow’s chariot race?

    The aim of unity is a valuable one and most Protestants don’t value it nearly enough, so I can appreciate what you are getting at. I don’t mean to poke fun; I’m just trying to clarify the issue for all of us.

  19. Kenny,

    Why do you hope we all agree that there is not a need for complete uniformity of all beliefs?

    You’ve simply shrugged off my scriptural references, assuming that they can’t refer to a uniformity of all doctrinal beliefs: I’m wrong because I must be wrong. Am I missing part of your argument? Of course my post wasn’t directed towards the kinds of questions you raised in your rhetorical questions, but that doesn’t mean my contention is invalid. Does the Christian faith have a propositional content or doesn’t it? If the former, why are you determined to make sure that we don’t find out what it is and try to get everyone on the same page? If it’s because it seems hopeless, I agree that it seems hopeless from the side of the Tiber I’m soon to leave behind. Protestantism has no coherent structure to even begin to answer the question, so I can understand why it would seem hopeless to you, but Catholic ecclesiology accounts for the preservation of the faith once delivered to the saints. If you don’t want everyone to be unified in belief for some other reason, what on earth could it be? I’ve been in Protestant churches long enough to realize how harmful and destructive are the disagreements you don’t seem to consider “essential.”

  20. Philologus,

    I think you are misreading me. What I am saying is that it is not the case that we should agree about absolute every belief. We seem to agree in this particular belief, because in your latest comment you say “all doctrinal beliefs”. What is a ‘doctrinal’ belief? Which beliefs are ‘doctrinal’? Presumably not beliefs about soft drinks, baseball teams, or chariot races, right? If you agree that beliefs about soft drinks, baseball teams, and chariot races are not included, then you agree with what the point I was trying to get across in my last post.

    You also talk about the propositional content of the Christian faith. I believe that there is such a content and I want to, as you say, “find out what it is and try to get everyone on the same page.” If that’s your endeavor, I support it. However, there are big questions being raised here. One of them, the question I was adverting to in my previous comment, is, which truths constitute the propositional content of the Christian faith? Surely not ALL truths are part of the content of the faith, and that is the point I was trying to make. There is, somewhat ironically, some disagreement about which points we are trying to establish agreement on! Saying that we are trying to establish agreement on “all doctrinal beliefs” might be the beginning of an answer to that question, but it is only the beginning – you still have to clarify which beliefs are and aren’t ‘doctrinal.’ All I was trying to claim is that this is in itself a substantive issue that we should pay attention to.

  21. Kenny, I’ll check your link. It sure was a beautiful moment when Victorinus made a public profession of faith within the Catholic Church, wasn’t it? Thanks again for the interaction!

    Philologus,

    I want to commend you for making an important distinction. I agree that Catholicism provides the structural means for the realization of true doctrinal unity as well as sacramental unity. I’d even go so far as to say that once you’re received into the Church (as I was Easter 2008) we’ll be in a place of complete doctrinal agreement with one another through the submission we have in common to the Magisterium of Church; that is, both of us will be submitting ourselves to ALL the teachings of the Church. So you and I will be in a state of true doctrinal agreement. We can both go directly to the Catechism to see exactly what it is that we believe. However, I teach with a guy who’s been Catholic for many years. He’s old enough to be my dad. And he’s on the pastoral council at his parish. This man flatly denies any possibility of any pope making an infallible proclamation. He also claims that the Catholic Church isn’t the one Church established by Christ. Sure, this confuses me. And to be honest, he’s hardly Catholic in SOME ways. But I am glad that this man is still, to some degree, in a state of submission to the Church. Thanks again for bringing up that point.

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