A buddy recently asked me to visit with his friend who is considering conversion to the Catholic Church, which I gladly did. After some time of listening, it became evident that a central issue of concern for this friend is the question of who has the right to interpret God’s Word. Evidently, years of debating different biblical interpretations among his Presbyterian brethren has made him weary and a little jaded toward the enterprise of reading Scripture for oneself.
With this experience in mind, I just read Pastor Kevin DeYoung’s recent blog post titled “The Doctrine of Scripture: Four Points from Two Verses” and realized that Kevin’s explanation of 2 Peter 3:15-16 is a wonderful solution for our friend’s biblical doubt. Here is the verse followed by DeYoung’s commentary:
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16).
On one level, in these two verses Peter is simply saying “Paul agrees with me on this issue of holiness, not with the false teachers.” But in the course of saying that Peter makes some crucial claims about Scripture. Let me highlight four.
1. We see that apostolic writings were being added alongside the Old Testament canon as authoritative Scripture. Verse 16 says some people are twisting Paul’s letters, as they do the other Scriptures. The word in Greek is graphe. It occurs 49 others times in the New Testament and in every instance it refers to the Old Testament Scriptures. It’s remarkable that Peter, writing in the 60s, would place Paul’s writings alongside the Old Testament as equally authoritative.
And what’s more, Peter doesn’t even try to defend this astounding claim. In his mind he’s stating the obvious. This was not a point of contention. Peter didn’t need to convince these churches that Paul’s writings were authoritative on the level of Old Testament Scripture. Apparently, they already recognized that, assumed that, and treated Paul’s writings in that way. So when Peter refers in verse 15 to the wisdom given to Paul he is probably thinking of divine inspiration, not just that the man from Tarsus was a smart guy.
2. Scripture can be hard to understand. Christians throughout the centuries have taken great comfort in verse 16 where Peter admits there are some things in Paul’s writings that are hard to understand. Even Peter, this great Apostle, this first among equals in the early church, recognized there are some tricky parts in the Bible. It’s not all simple stuff.
Christians have always believed in what’s called “the perspicuity of Scripture.” That means Scripture is clear; it’s understandable. But the doctrine of perspicuity has never implied that all parts of Scripture are equally obvious or equally important. Perspicuity means the main things are the plain things. It means that the message of salvation is clear. It means the basic and most central stuff of the biblical storyline is understandable, even if you’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer, even if you’re uneducated, even if you’re a kid. We can all get that Jesus is the Christ, that we must repent, believe in Christ, and obey his commands. This much is clear. But that doesn’t mean everything is clear. Some parts require a lot of study. Some parts need scholarly attention. Some doctrines are complicated. Some parts of the Bible are quite difficult. Just ask Peter about Paul.
3. But the flip side of this second point is that even the hard parts in the Bible still have right and wrong interpretations. Notice, Peter didn’t say, “Some things in Paul are hard to understand. So who am I to say what’s right and what’s wrong? All we have are our interpretations.” No, he says, some things are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction. Peter did not think just because something was hard there couldn’t be a right answer to that hard problem. Some Christians are intellectually lazy. They dishonor the word and the God of the word with their quick surrender into the land of “who knows?” and “it’s not a salvation issues, so who cares?” They say, “Understanding the doctrine of election is hard. Coming to a conclusion on homosexuality is difficult. Making sense of the roles of men and women is impossible.” And so we give up and figure no interpretation can be better than another. Peter, on the other hand, is not afraid to say that the presence of hard texts does not preclude there being right and wrong interpretations.
4. Some wrong interpretations can kill you. There is certainly room for disagreements among Christians about some issues. We see this clearly in Romans 14. We don’t have to be lockstep on every debatable matter. But on some issues errant interpretations are not just wrong, they are dead wrong. The false teachers in Peter’s midst were twisting the Scriptures to their own destruction. They were quoting Scripture, but not well.
I’ve been in debates before where both sides are using the Bible. And what sometimes happens is that good people get confused and think “Well, if they both use the Bible, I guess both sides must be ok.” But Peter suggests you can use the Scripture, but use it in such a misguided, unfaithful, twisted way that your use of Scripture actually leads to your own downfall. Not every issue is this serious, but certainly when we are talking about whether or not God’s people must strive for holy lives and whether or not sexual sin is to be taken seriously (2 Peter 2) we are talking about an issue at the heart of Christianity. So to twist the Bible so that it allows you to call sin a blessing and to call those who oppose the sin all sorts of names that end with “phobia” or “mental” is to spin the Scriptures to your own destruction.
Here are my thoughts on those 4 points:
1) True, it affirms Paul’s writings were considered Scripture, but this itself doesn’t address the interpretation issue. On this same thought, this verse doesn’t tell us which of Paul’s writings Peter has in mind. Did it include Paul’s Letters to Titus and Timothy, which were technically private correspondence? Or what about the ‘lost letters’ of Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 5:9; Col 4:16)? Further, it’s worth noting that 2nd Peter was historically a disputed book, which even Luther questioned.
2) Perspicuity is true to an extent, in so far as God wasn’t writing in Chinese or in a deeply academic and scholarly level, but the Bible says nothing as ‘dogmatic’ about Perspicuity as Protestants claim. The only time it really emphasizes “clearness” is when it comes to saying this or that was written to testify that Jesus is Lord. There is no guarantee or teaching that “the main things are the plain things,” nor all essential doctrines are clearly taught in Scripture somewhere or another. Two doctrines (among many) that highlight this point are the Trinity and Infant Baptism, two major doctrines that are not as “clear” to the average reader as (dogmatically) claimed.
3) Having right or wrong interpretations doesn’t *necessarily* apply to perspicuity or “difficult to understand”. An intellectually lazy Christian is condemned implicitly.
4) While I agree some issues are open for disagreement, apart from a Magisterium those parameters cannot be established. Worse yet, apart from a Magisterium, the “essentials” fizzle away into purely subjective criteria since each person ultimately decides what is “essential”. Romans 14:5 is case in point: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike.”
Protestants have had bitter disagreements on how to understand this, most especially in light of Sunday worship and Holidays like Christmas. Some Protestants reject or have extremely lax regulations about Sunday worship regarding this passage, others take it to mean Sunday worship is purely optional. And these are not liberal Protestants by any means I’m talking about, but rather Biblically astute Reformed folks. One such Reformed guy I talked with said he treated Christmas day as no different than any other day of the year.
One suggestion I’d make on the “difficult sayings” of Paul is an issue like “works of the Law.” Are these “works in general,” “works of debt,” “one or more of the 613 Mosaic commands,” etc, etc?? Getting that wrong certainly ends up twisting and misunderstanding Paul!
And speaking of whether sexual sins are to be taken seriously, there are various such sins that Protestants ultimately cannot agree upon, even the most conservative wings. Folks like John Piper have written strong Biblical articles on why divorice is forbidden for Christians, yet he openly says all pastors are free to decide that matter for themself. Divorce directly relates to adultery, and if depending on how ‘lax’ one is on divorce and remarriage directly corresponds to a real level of church sponsored adultery. Here is an article that I believe puts to rest the notion Scripture is perspicuous and that there isn’t a real problem and danger of moral relativism due to Sola Scriptura – it’s largely based on John Piper’s exegesis of the passages pertaining to divorce.
Thanks Nick. Sorry for the delayed response. I will grant that there is variety of belief among Protestants (although we recognize that there is arguably as much diversity in the Catholic tradition, including Bishops who disagree with elemnts of Church teaching (books revealing this reality, for instance, are by Bishop John Heaps. “A Love that Dares to Question: A Bishop Challenges His Church.” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1998. and Father Charles E. Coughlin. “Bishops versus the Pope.” (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Helmet and Sword Publishers), 1969). That aside, I have a serious question for you. Where in Scripture is there a revealed interest in a magisterium which provides an infallible interpretation of God’s Word for God’s people?
First, I don’t think the example of a dissenting bishop corresponds to the situation I was describing. If a bishop is disagreeing with Catholic teaching, he’s dissenting, disobeying, and thus betraying the Truth. In the Protestant scheme, there is no (visible) Church to dissent from, since dogma ultimately is determined by the individual, especially whether a given doctrine is “clear” enough or “essential”.
You asked: Where in Scripture is there a revealed interest in a magisterium which provides an infallible interpretation of God’s Word for God’s people?
I’d say one of the most important and clearest text in this regard is Acts 15, the first few verses say it all:
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”
This wasn’t a matter of turning to Scripture here to settle the matter, but rather going “up to Jerusalem” which was the Church’s Magisterial Head Quarters, so to speak.
If Sola Scriptura was really sufficient in itself to answer this, then the Council wouldn’t have been necessary – not to mention Sola Scriptura was functionally impossible at the time given not all the Bible was complete.
When discussing the issue and coming to a resolution, the Church authorities in Acts 15 didn’t really turn to Scripture since no Scripture directly addressed this. The only Scripture even quoted was an obscure reference to Amos 9:11-12, which was used in part to come to the decision.
Then as Paul and Silas departed and went preaching from town to town, Acts 16:4 says: “As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.”
I appreciate your response from Acts 15-16. That is a good point. I don’t think it’s conclusive, however. It may have simply been an example of the Catholicity of the Church, that is, Christians standing together to contend for the faith in opposition to aberrant teaching (i.e. the Judaizers), which is not synonymous with a magisterium. Think for instance of the evangelicals who just met in Cape Town for Lausanne 2010, bearing witness to a common Christian (catholic) faith. They did so without a magisterium, much less with any form of infallibility.
Thanks again Nick. I appreciate you brother. I’m in the delivery room with my wife who is in early labor. It’s going to be a long night! I covet your prayers. CC
Clearly you have more important things to do than chat. I hope all is going well though with your new baby.
I wouldn’t call the Acts 15 Council an example of “Catholicity” in the sense you suggest. A major doctrinal controversy was going on, and this was definitively settled by appealing to the Apostles at Jerusalem. This is the “model” Scripture gives us, and it doesn’t resemble a Sola Scriptura approach.
I don’t think the Cape Town example helps your case at all since these folks had no authority whatsoever over Christians, and certainly nothing comparable to the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem. The Cape Town folks were non-authoritative, likeminded fellows having a get together, not settling a doctrinal controversy. Remember Acts 16:4 says from then on Paul delivered the decrees of Jerusalem Council “for all Christians to obey.”
Take care. And Baptize your child asap!
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