I recently read Taking God At His Word, by Protestant pastor Kevin DeYoung. The book gives a good explanation of the traditional Protestant beliefs about the sacred Scriptures.
The book is concise and Kevin clearly explains what he is setting out to do:
“This is a book unpacking what the Bible says about the Bible. My aim is to be simple, uncluttered, straightforward, and manifestly biblical. I make no pretenses about offering you anything other than a doctrine of Scripture derived from Scripture itself.”
Sounds simple enough. But his challenge will be to demonstrate that he is correctly interpreting the passages of Scripture that he alleges are about Scripture itself. Let’s see how he starts out.
He discusses Psalm 119 and Psalm 19, both of which praise God’s Law, testimony, commandments, and so forth. Of Psalm 119, he writes:
“In 169 of these verses, the psalmist makes some reference to the word of God. Law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, rules, promises, word….The terms have different shades of meaning (e.g., what God wants, or what God appoints, or what God demands, or what God has spoken), but they all center on the same big idea: God’s revelation in words. Surely it is significant that this intricate, finely crafted, single-minded love poem—the longest in the Bible—is not about marriage or children or food or drink or mountains or sunsets or rivers or oceans, but about the Bible itself.”
But immediately a question arises in our minds: he is equating these various utterances of God as being coextensive with the Bible itself. But though certain books of the Bible contain God’s Law, God’s Law is not itself the Bible.
Further, a word is first spoken. When we think of testimony, we think of someone speaking aloud. This fact is glossed over in the opening thesis of the book, and not unintentionally. The entire book is undermined if the passages he cites were not intended particularly to be referencing the Bible itself, but rather God’s word–as manifested in several different and important ways, only one of which is in the Scriptures.
Doug Beaumont wrote a blog post rebutting similar claims by a different Protestant pastor (just Google: Soul Device Psalm 19 to find it). He goes into more depth in dissecting the errors made.
Kevin makes several claims about the interpretation of the Scriptures. In one, he talks about a dialogue he had with another Christian, who said to him:
“I don’t claim that you need to accept my understanding, nor would I imagine that you would claim that I must necessarily accept your understanding.” My reply was something to the effect that “I do claim that you need to accept my understanding, because it’s not my understanding. It’s the teaching of the New Testament and the affirmation of the orthodox.”
His point is that the Bible is understandable and that God has an intended meaning with each passage. But underneath this point is Kevin’s assumption that his opinion about what God meant in various passages of Scripture is what God meant in those passages.
He continues later:
“You can think too highly of your interpretations of Scripture, but you cannot think too highly of Scripture’s interpretation of itself. You can exaggerate your authority in handling the Scriptures, but you cannot exaggerate the Scriptures’ authority to handle you. You can use the word of God to come to wrong conclusions, but you cannot find any wrong conclusions in the word of God.”
Ironically, he falls to the temptation he warns against here: he does think too highly of his own interpretation of Scripture, by assuming his interpretation is God’s. And he fails to realize in the second part of the clever word play that, when he says you cannot think too highly of Scripture’s interpretation of itself, what he is actually doing is offering his human opinion about what Scripture says about itself. From the very first part of the book, we already see that he is misinterpreting the Scriptures in order to force them to support his preconceived ideas.
The Four Claims About Scripture
Kevin claims that Scripture has four important attributes: sufficiency, clarity, authority, and necessity. Of clarity he says:
“Clarity: The saving message of Jesus Christ is plainly taught in the Scriptures and can be understood by all who have ears to hear it. We don’t need an official magisterium to tell us what the Bible means.”
This is easy to assert but hard to demonstrate. If it is so clear, one wonders why we need a book by Kevin DeYoung about it at all. If it is so clear, then we can all read it and come to saving truth through it, substantially agreeing with all other Christians on it. And if we don’t need a magisterium, why do we need presbyteries, elders, councils, and the like? Why do we need Calvin’s Institutes and Luther’s Catechisms and the innumerable contradictory Protestant tomes on what the Scriptures mean? In fact it does seem like we need a magisterium (teaching authority), only that Kevin thinks that it is found, not in the Catholic Church, but in his own church.
On the Scriptures’ authority, he says:
“Authority: The last word always goes to the word of God. We must never allow the teachings of science, of human experience, or of church councils to take precedence over Scripture.”
This is another one of those quips that sounds really good but in fact hide assumptions. I agree that God should have the last word–and He will!–but since someone has to interpret the Scripture, it means that nothing should take precedence over (someone’s interpretation of) Scripture. But who is that person? Kevin DeYoung? His interpretations are not protected from error by God. His interpretations are a mere human’s opinion about what God meant.
Kevin very selectively quotes from some Churchmen:
“Or as the church father Athanasius put it, “The sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of the truth.”
(Note lowercase “church father.”) Yes we agree that the Scriptures are sufficient, but there are different types of sufficiency. Kevin is claiming in his book that the Scriptures are formally sufficient, but the Church throughout the centuries has only ever claimed they are materially sufficient. And material sufficiency is what St. Athanasius is speaking of here. Unwary readers would not realize this though, not having a broader understanding of the Church’s teachings throughout history, and so would think that this saint was agreeing with Protestants.
Kevin then makes this interesting claim:
“Scripture is enough because the work of Christ is enough. They stand or fall together. The Son’s redemption and the Son’s revelation must both be sufficient. And as such, there is nothing more to be done and nothing more to be known for our salvation and for our Christian walk than what we see and know about Christ and through Christ in his Spirit’s book.”
Again this sounds good but it is actually unsubstantiated. Nothing about Christ’s work being enough entails that the Scriptures must be (formally) sufficient. Perhaps Christ revealed Himself to us through Scripture and something else, say, Tradition. And both of those are sufficient, given the proper understanding through the Spirit-guided teaching authority of His Church. Lots of possible options, and none of them detract from Christ or His work. Rather they honor Him more correctly because they are the way He actually revealed Himself.
Next, he makes a claim about Catholicism:
“We cannot accept doctrinal innovations like papal infallibility, purgatory, the immaculate conception, or the veneration of Mary, because these doctrines cannot be found in the word of God and they contradict what is revealed in Scripture.”
These are not innovations but rather legitimate developments of doctrine. And all have support in Scripture. Kevin has a human opinion that they are not found in Scripture. So really he is just begging the question again of who has the divine authority to interpret the Scriptures? Who is interpreting them accurately?
Jesus honored His mother. Matter of fact, the Ten Commandments commanded He do so. We honor Mary too–that is what venerate means–so claiming this contradicts Scripture is just a false opinion based on a false Protestant tradition that Mary should not be honored.
On perspicuity, Kevin writes:
“In fact, the warp and woof of the entire Old Testament assumes that holy words and holy texts are adequate vehicles for the transmission of God’s intentions and desires. That’s why Nehemiah can tell us that Ezra and the priests “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8): not just their interpretation, but the meaning of God’s word.”
Except for the fact that God instituted an elaborate system of priests, leaders, and prophets in the Old Covenant to help the Israelites know His will and follow it. Never did Moses just toss down a scroll, say “read this,” and take off on a vacation to Ur. So the “warp and woof” of the “entire Old Testament” says nothing of the kind. Even in the passage that Kevin quotes from Nehemiah, the God-appointed leaders of the people are interpreting the divine meaning of the Scriptures to the people–“gave the sense, so that the people understood” it. How Kevin doesn’t see this in the passage just shows how powerful a Protestant interpretive lens colors one’s view of the Bible.
He tries to say Jesus just repeated the Old Testament to settle things:
“This same approach to Scripture was shared by Jesus and the apostles. Dozens of times Jesus appealed to a text from the Old Testament, thinking that such an appeal settled the matter. This implies that Jesus believed not only that the Old Testament was authoritative, but that it had a fixed meaning which people should have been able to recognize.”
Hmmm, not really. He appealed to the Old Testament but when he did, 1) He would often reveal the deeper or truer meaning, one which the Israelites had not known or understood (adultery -> lust, murder -> hate, divorce and remarriage, etc.), and 2) He would use passages in ways that they never connected or understood. He was standing there as the authoritative interpreter revealing the meaning that they had never properly grasped.
Kevin unintentionally refutes his own point:
“These high-sounding debates about perspicuity and hermeneutics really have to do with the character of God. Is God wise enough to make himself known? Is he good enough to make himself accessible? Is he gracious enough to communicate in ways that are understandable to the meek and lowly? Or does God give us commands we can’t understand and a self-revelation that reveals more questions than answers?”
Yes God is wise enough to make himself known. And good enough to make himself accessible, etc. And that means that He communicated Himself to the meekest and lowliest of us by not requiring the ability to read and be educated and have the time to study extensively. In other words, before the modern era, most human beings couldn’t study the Scriptures on their own and come up with their own beliefs on them. God knew this and so made sure His Church would understand His meaning in Scripture and Tradition and transmit that meaning to all people, including the vast numbers of illiterate people, the meek and lowly.
Sola Scriptura, contrariwise, leaves these people in the dark, because they can’t read the Scriptures for themselves. They then have to rely on self-appointed teachers, men like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli in the time of the 1500s, who each claim, like Kevin DeYoung, to be teaching the clear truth from Scripture, and yet who contradict one another on countless doctrines. Woe to the human race if God had designed things to work like sola Scriptura!
Kevin stumbles again interpreting the clear Scriptures:
“Whereas the more liberal Jews were taking the Mosaic allowance to be a blank check for divorce on almost any grounds, Jesus brought them back to the true meaning of the text. Divorce was acceptable as a concession in those situations where sexual immorality…”
What Jesus really did was explain that marriage was indissoluble. The supposed exception Kevin interprets here is a misinterpretation, yet you now have Protestants being little different from the Israelites of Jesus’ time, accepting divorce and remarriage for any reason, not just infidelity. But the point is that Jesus didn’t give an exception for infidelity; rather, He was speaking of an “unlawful” marriage, one which was nul to begin with. Hence the Catholic marriage annulment process, that investigates to see if grave impediments existed at the time they couple ostensibly got married, impediments that made it such that the marriage never happened. There is no Christian divorce and remarriage.
Hidden behind all of the book’s claims about Scripture is one man–Kevin DeYoung–and his human opinion, often erroneous, about what the Scriptures mean. The Scriptures can be understood, but only within the Church that Christ established and has protected from error: the Catholic Church. Otherwise you just have one more Protestant proposing one more fallible opinion about what God meant.