Sunday, November 6, 2011

Private Judgment

The accusation of "private judgment" has in my mind always been one of the weakest objections to Protestantism. Take, for example, the following line of argumentation from Bryan Cross (link):

When we approach Scripture, how do we determine what the Holy Spirit is saying? Either each individual is ultimately his own highest authority regarding what the Holy Spirit is saying, or that authority belongs to something outside the individual. In the former case, we are left with “private judgment,” and the endless fragmentation that must accompany it, as history shows. But the only plausible authority outside the individual, for determining what the Holy Spirit is saying in the Scriptures, is the Church.

What is meant by "determine" is ambiguous. It would be clearer if he answered the analogous question "how does Mr. Cross determine what the Roman magisterium is saying?" Nevertheless, here are the two most likely possibilities that come to mind:

1. Perhaps the question posed desires an answer to how one can understand what a communication - specifically, the communication of God through Scripture - means. Denigrating private judgment in this sense would be a plain attack on the divinely ordained function of language in general or special revelation in particular.

Of course, since at least one of Mr. Cross' collaborators thinks that [some] Scripture is incapable of being understood apart from ecclesiastic intermediaries (link), I suppose the latter actually could be what he meant by private judgment. Suffice it to say that the Protestant position is that the ability to understand Scripture is not only available to an elite few who in turn dumb down the message for their subordinates (Psalm 19:7); that is Gnostic.

To respond to the argument in the above link, in order for the argument against perspicuity to work, Nehemiah 8:1-8 must ironically be perspicuous. But to be clear, Nehemiah 8:1-8 doesn't say exposition was necessary for the people, though such certainly could have been conducive to their understanding and is further useful in that it demonstrates clarification and deduction from Scripture is legitimate. Most important to the present subject is the point that Nehemiah 8:1-8 is actually just an example of obedience to the prescription set down in Deuteronomy 31:9-13, a prescription in which Moses makes no mention of a need to speak anything more than what was written (cf. Joshua 8:30-35, 2 Kings 23:1-3, Nehemiah 9:1-3, etc.).

2. Perhaps private judgment refers to the process by which an individual decides to which of two or more mutually exclusive interpretations - one of which may make the most sense to the individual but all of which he understands - he will submit as authoritative. In this case, one can only take Mr. Cross' word that if his own judgment conflicted with that of the Roman magisterium, he would submit to the latter; in other words, he cannot definitively demonstrate to others that he is not one of the men alluded to in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. Finally, as John Robbins wrote in Slavery and Christianity (pg. 34):

The decisions not to think about certain subjects, to abandon one's own analysis, and to trust the Roman Catholic hierarchy in matters of faith and morals are themselves decisions of private judgment - rash, uninformed, and foolish, to be sure, but still private judgment. Those individual decisions, moreover, are not made once for all; they are made daily. The decision not to think about the most important matters is a private judgment that is made repeatedly by every subject of the Roman Church-State. The attack on private judgment is not only self-contradictory, it is also un-Biblical. Speaking to the multitudes, Christ Jesus himself commands them to think for themselves rather than rely on their religious leaders and experts: "Yes, and why, even of yourselves, do you not judge what is right?" (Luke 12:57).


Nick said...

Private Judgement is not a bad word, it is none other that using one's God given capacity to exercise Reason (i.e. evaluate all the evidence and fallibly side with what makes the most sense).

The issue is not that PJ is bad, but rather that PJ isn't enough. There needs to be an authority to mediate when disputes arise, as well as act as a principle of unity.

We all agree that PJ isn't the same as "authoritatively interpret," so this means either we have a Christianity in which there are no authoritative interpretations or a Christianity with them. Without them is a Christianity of highly respected opinions but no dogmas, with authoritative interpretations is a Christianity with dogmas.

If Christianity has authoritative interpreters, then our duty is to track them down and submit, just as it's our duty to track down the Scriptures and submit.

Ryan said...

"There needs to be an authority to mediate when disputes arise, as well as act as a principle of unity."

Protestants would refer to Scripture as that authority. What Scripture states would no less be opinion than what the Roman magisterium states. On both sides there is an infallible body of doctrine. The difference is that on your side Scripture is not viewed as perspicuous, which is why you think it is necessary that a different authority - one which therefore must act as an "infallible infallible" - step in to settle disputes.

Nick said...

But Scripture needs to be authoritatively clarified at times, which is why there is such divergent views in Protestantism on almost every doctrine, including the Sacraments. This is something a Magisterium can do, but among Protestants becomes opinion-vs-opinion.

The issue of perspicuity has an important nuance: the language is plain, and certain truths are stated plainly, but the idea that everything "important" is plainly stated is just not true, nor does Scripture teach "perspicuity" in that way.

Take any doctrine in dispute among Protestants and you'll see quite often that Scripture wasn't "plain" enough to settle the dispute.

If anything, what's really under dispute is the function of Scripture, particularly the NT. In the Catholic view, each individual Scripture was simply a document issued by the Magisterium to address a need at that specific time. This assortment of individual writings was eventually gathered into a single volume to act as a 'compendium' of sorts alongside the Magisterium. In the Protestant view, Scripture was given by God as a sort of stand-alone "Textbook" that was to address all "important" issues Christians needed to know answers to.

I believe there are many arguments against the Protestant understanding of the function of Scripture, and this issue of rising above Private Judgment is one of them.

Ryan said...

Misuse of a perspicuous source does not imply the source isn't perspicuous. If I say the Roman magisterium teaches sola scriptura, you'd look at me like an idiot. But can you by your own definition "authoritatively interpret" the Roman magisterium for me? No. So what? I don't see the necessity.

Arguments - fallible arguments - can provide the occasion of another's understanding as to what the true meaning of one's teaching really is. If a person fails to understand Scripture, that's not necessarily because Scripture is unclear, which is all I have to do to rebut the argument.

Anyways, it seems the material/formal sufficiency of Scripture is the root disagreement between RCs and Protestants from which all other arguments derive. That's all I was trying to show over at BeggarsAll and the extent to which I am inclined to argue here. If you disagree with that, I'm happy to here your arguments and clarify mine. Otherwise, I'm going to ask to set the discussion aside for another day.

Nick said...

If I'm reading you correctly, Scripture never needs to be clarified (at least on "essentials"), thus the notion of a clarifying Magisterium is nonsense - as is "private judgment".

So when it comes to Luther versus Zwingli, both must necessarily say "Scripture clearly teaches X," though one of them is ultimately (even if unintentionally) abusing Scripture, because Scripture is really only clearly speaking in favor of one of them.

Thus, for you, the only question on the table is whether Scripture functions like that, and you're Protestant precisely because you believe it does.

It's a coherent thesis, but I'd have to see a sufficiently plausible argument or article for it. Asserting it isn't enough.

Ryan said...

Yes to all, so far as one understands the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, i.e. Scripture is self-clarifying.

Nick said...

What is your argument in favor of Perspicuity at least on a theoretical level?

It seems to me that a document like the Westminster Confession would be a litmus test of sorts for whether Perspicuity can be shown to work in practice. If the WCF was operating under a hermeneutic of Perspicuity, then everything it teaches should be correct. If it teaches something you don't believe is Biblical, then you'd be forced to say the WCF divines failed to understand Scripture's clear teachings to some degree, and that you've somehow come to a greater degree of understanding.

Ryan said...

"What is your argument in favor of Perspicuity at least on a theoretical level?"

If you click on the "perspicuity" tag on the right side of the blog, you will see a few posts I've written on the doctrine other than in the OP. The essence of the argument would be that Scripture itself teaches it. I think John Frame's chapter on The Clarity of Scripture in his The Doctrine of the Word of God provides a good defense of this. I can post excerpts from it later if you would like.

"If it teaches something you don't believe is Biblical, then you'd be forced to say the WCF divines failed to understand Scripture's clear teachings to some degree, and that you've somehow come to a greater degree of understanding."

That's true, at least as it would relate to the specific issue. One example I can think of is its teaching on marriage and divorce. I think Scripture clearly teaches willful divorce is a sin (Matthew 19:3-6, 1 Corinthians 7:10-13). The WCF, OTOH, teaches that there are circumstances (e.g. adultery) when such is lawful (XXIV.V).

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

I find Nick's comments to be very troubling. As I do most Catholics who are of the same mind.

God is very clear in Scripture. He tells us: "“Now then, my sons, listen to ME And do not depart from the words of MY MOUTH (Pro 5:7).”

When we depart from God’s Word, there is no other alternative left but subjugating ourselves to the doctrines of men. There is no third option!!!

Hi Ryan! Love your blog!

Nick said...


Unless you happen to agree with Ryan on all "essential doctrines," then I'd hold off calling the alternate view "troubling".

I've admitted Perspicuity (the classical Protestant view) makes sense in theory, but I've not had the time to investigate Ryan's proofs for it yet.

As far as practice goes, such a view necessitates a crystal-clear united body of Christians who clearly see the "essential doctrines" of Scripture and adhere to them. This means, by definition, the moment you find a discrepancy on an "essential doctrine" between you and Ryan, one of you is necessarily abusing Scripture. I find that outcome to be troubling, because it forces the individual to be "all right" or "all wrong" because there is no such thing as a "subjective perspicuity". In other words, if I'm a true Christian, I should see all essential doctrines clearly in Scripture, and be united to those who do likewise. If I cannot do this, then either I'm not a true Chrisian (there cannot be a half-deaf Christian who only hears part of Christ's voice) or else perspicuity must be false.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...


The Catholic Church does not have the right to subvert God’s Word and be the final arbiter of truth. How in the world does any organization, made up of fallible men, have any right to claim they know better then an omniscient God, who is infallible and who is the very TRUTH Himself? “Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar (Rom 3:4).”

If no other person on earth can claim such noteworthy attributes, which they can’t, then their words are just vain babblings. As far as the RCC having the whole truth all tied up in one neat little package, and all Protestants varying to a much greater degree, this is not all that noteworthy.

We, as Christians, “grow in the knowledge” and grace of the Lord (1 Pet 3:18).” We are told in Scripture: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor 13:12).” We are also told, that “some things (are) hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (1 Pet 3:16).”

So, if some things are hard to understand; if we grow in knowledge; if we only see things as through a glass darkly, then it must be that truth and wisdom are to be sought out. If we’re seeking after something, as in actively pursing, such as wisdom and truth, then it is clearly noted that we do not possess all there is to know at the present time.

Perspicuity, at least in Luther’s mind, as well as many Reformers and Puritans, mostly referred to the essential doctrines of the faith. These things every orthodox Christian should agree on, because they in fact ARE taught clearly in Scripture. Such things include the gospel itself, as a child can easily understand it. But much latitude is given when it comes to non-essentials.

Why would God find it necessary to tell us that, “It is the glory of God to CONCEAL a matter, But the glory of kings is to SEARCH out a matter (Pro 25:2).” If the RCC claims they have truth in all matters down pat, then why are we told to be like the Bereans and search the Scriptures to see if these things are so, and why is it the glory of Kings to search out a matter?

The Bible is a book that was once and for all delivered to the Saints, complete in all its 66 books, but it is a book where its revelations of truth are meted out to us as we are given capacity to understand these truths. That is why we are told to move on from the milk of the Word to the meat. It is a progression.

One thing I do know, if I believed that the Magisterium possessed all doctrinal truths, I would be SO inclined to NEVER ONCE AGAIN pick up my Bible and search as the Bereans did for truth. There would simply be no need for God to speak any further to me through His Word. And isn’t this exactly what is happening inside the RCC? Sure it is! This is exactly what is happening. The Pope has spoken ex cathedra, and that is all that counts.

Sorry this is so sketchy, too many things happening right now in my life.

Nick said...


The Catholic response is that the Catholic Magisterium is operating no different than the 12 Apostles did in authoritatively expounding on the Scriptures. The Apostles were human, they sinned, but God also gave them divine gifts to protect them from officially teaching error. You can disbelieve the Catholic Magisterium has this authority, but to say it's impossible for a human to posses it goes against the historical Scriptural testimony.

Ryan takes the route that Scripture is sufficiently clear that a clarifying Magisterium is superfluous, which is fine (at least in theory).

Lastly, no Catholic ever said we know all there is to know, which is what those texts you cite are about. That's different from claiming to have a 100% pure and orthodox Gospel.