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Sola Scriptura and Perspicuity

Sean Finnegan

The Great Pressure on Protestants to Read the Trinity Into the Bible…

From the time of the Protestant reformation to today, countless Christians have embraced the motto “sola scriptura,” a Latin phrase meaning “scripture alone.” The idea is that Christians can find whatever pertains to faith and piety in the pages of Scripture without depending on external traditions or authorities. This came up quite a bit in the battle between the reformers and the establish Roman Catholic Church. The Catholics claimed tradition was necessary for rightly interpreting Scripture whereas the Protestants argued people could understand the Bible without the Church telling them what it was supposed to mean. To this day the mentality of sola scriptura dominates the confessions and creeds of most non-Catholic denominations.

Sola Scriptura is, I think, a very good idea, but it can only be practical for the one who is willing to change his or her beliefs based on what the Bible actually says. Still, one will always need external help from translations, lexicons, cultural studies, etc. To be uncompromisingly sola scriptura would require someone to be able to read uncial manuscripts fluently without the aid of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek dictionaries. Even so, the sentiment has great force and it combines with another idea from the Reformation—perspicuity. Someone who is perspicacious can accurately see or grasp a matter. The idea here is that Scripture is clear and understandable by nearly everyone. Here are a couple of classic articulations of this notion:

On the Bondage of the Will (Section 4) by Martin Luther

Therefore come forward, you and all the Sophists together, and produce any one mystery which is still abstruse in the Scriptures. But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth. As Paul saith concerning the Jews, 2 Cor. iii. 15. “The veil still remains upon their heart.” And again, “If our gospel be hid it is hid to them that are lost, whose heart the god of this world hath blinded.” (2 Cor. iv. 3-4.) With the same rashness any one may cover his own eyes, or go from the light into the dark and hide himself, and then blame the day and the sun for being obscure. Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God.

Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7)

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 (Ps. 119:105, 130).

This mentality puts an incredible burden on Protestants to find their doctrines in Scripture. It will not do to say, “Well, the creed has the following…” or “The Church teaches that this means…” No, they must show the teaching in plain Scripture. This would all work out well enough if denominations were actually willing to evaluate their long cherished creeds in the light of Scripture, but, of course, they are not. The whole situation is doomed from the start, because the Protestant Reformation did not start from scratch and question each belief based on Scripture. Sure, there were a few, highly significant, doctrines that they put on the chopping block of biblical scrutiny and successfully eliminated, but many of their core beliefs were never up for discussion. For example, they never allowed the Trinity to be questioned and when people did apply sola scriptura to the dogma they found “themselves” on the chopping block.

However, now that Catholics and Protestants are no longer able to execute their fellow brothers and sisters on the charge of heresy, they have had to find new ways to deal with this thorny problem. This is precisely where the need arises for translators to monkey with the text. The issue comes down to pressure—pressure to make the Bible conform to the creed so that we can say the creed is biblical. Jason BeDuhn helpfully explains:

“For the doctrines that Protestantism inherited to be considered true, they had to be found in the Bible. And precisely because they were considered true already, there was and is tremendous pressure to read those truths back into the Bible, whether or not they are actually there. Translation and interpretation are seen as working hand in hand, and as practically indistinguishable, because Protestant Christians don’t like to imagine themselves building too much beyond what the Bible spells out for itself. So…there is a pressure (conscious or unconscious) to build up those ideas and concepts within the biblical text, to paraphrase or expand on what the Bible does say in the direction of what modern readers want and need it to say.”[1]

But, this sort of circular reasoning cannot prove anything. For example, the translators begin with the belief that the holy spirit is a “person.” As a result they go against their own stated translation principles to literally change the text from “which” to “who.” Next a reader comes along and, on the basis of all those personal pronouns, concludes therefore that the Holy Spirit is, of course, a “person.” We begin with a creedal belief and we end with one—and at the end of the day we have proved nothing.

We should not allow our doctrines to determine the text. To do so is like a doctor who believes that cancer is the root cause of all sickness. Someone comes to him for examination, and though the patient’s symptoms line up perfectly with the common flu virus, the doctor finds ways of convincing himself that cancer is the true culprit. Every test he orders comes back negative, but still he knows, in his bones, that chemotherapy is the right treatment. When translators see that troubling ὅ (which) they ignore the negative results for the test of personhood, and merrily capitalize the “S” on spirit and put “who” anyhow. This is a smoking gun of translation bias and it is absolutely unacceptable. It does the exact opposite of what all of the translations say they want to do; it injects theology into Scripture and limits the reader’s access to what the text really says.

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[1] Jason David BeDuhn, Truth in Translation (Lanham: University Press of America, 2013), pp. 163-164.

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