Last year, NPR ran a story titled “Trans religious leaders say scripture should inspire inclusive congregations.” It cited Shannon TL Kearns, the first openly transgender man ordained in the heretical and schismatic “Old Catholic Church,” and the author of the book In the Margins: A Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture. The article also quoted Lutheran theologian Austen Hartke, who believes that God “made” him “trans on purpose.” And it mentioned Baptist minister Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, who believes the Jesus of the New Testament endorses her inhabiting a “nonbinary body, a trans body,” according to her book Body Becoming.
Now, you may be thinking “that doesn’t sound like the Bible I read.” And you may speculate that such pro-trans religious leaders are forcing their own sexual and gender lifestyle and opinions on the biblical text. But for anyone who understands the principles underlying Protestant definitions and interpretations of Holy Scripture, none of this should be all that surprising.
That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have scoffed at pro-trans biblical interpretations when I was a conservative Protestant seminary student fifteen years ago—indeed, I would have found them bizarre and ridiculous. But the more I attempted to approach an objective examination of my own Protestant beliefs and premises, the more I realized that Protestantism didn’t actually possess the intellectual tools or arguments to censure what we can intuit even from natural law are grossly immoral acts. All Protestantism had, at its core, was personal, subjective opinion.
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A little known, but deeply fundamental, doctrine found across Protestant traditions is the source of much of this confusion. It’s called the doctrine of perspicuity, or clarity. Perspicuity, which originates with Luther, Calvin, and other first-generation Reformers, teaches that the Bible is clear. Protestants have debated the exact scope of that clarity, though early Reformers typically argued Scripture was at least clear in regard to what is necessary for salvation. But perspicuity within Protestantism has taken on many forms, such as that Scripture is clear on the fundamentals, or the Gospel, or more provocatively, that it is clear on everything. “I would say of the whole of Scripture that I do not allow any part of it to be called obscure,” Luther declared.
Early in my seminary studies, I realized the importance of the doctrine of clarity. Sola Scriptura, often cited as the most essential of Protestant doctrines, doesn’t do anyone much good if the Bible isn’t clear, at least in regard to its core teachings or the Gospel. If it isn’t clear, there would be no one able to interpret its meaning. It would be akin to acquiring a treasure chest of inestimable value but having no means of getting inside it. Perspicuity, then, serves as a sort of key to unlock the Bible’s meaning for individual Christians.
The problem is that even that first generation of Reformers disagreed over Scripture’s plain meaning. Luther and Zwingli famously could not resolve their debate at the Marburg Colloquy—so much so that Luther wouldn’t even extend the hand of fellowship to his fellow Protestant. The so-called Radical Reformers—who variously believed in pacifism, the sharing in common of all goods, and compulsory polygamy, among other things—disagreed with state-sanctioned Protestants such as Luther, Calvin, or Thomas Cranmer in England.
Those debates and divisions just got worse in the ensuing centuries. Counter-Reformation thinkers such as St. Francis de Sales and St. Robert Bellarmine identified scores of different opinions among Protestants on critical doctrines such as the Eucharist. Hundreds of independent ecclesial communities formed, each claiming to be the true church. Notre Dame historian Brad S. Gregory catalogs much of this in his book The Unintended Reformation.
As the years (and generations) went by, the chasms among Protestants solidified. That especially was the case once liberalism, a scholarly movement that expressed skepticism toward the divine origin and veracity of the Scriptures, became widespread in the nineteenth century. Today, you can find Protestant communities that believe most anything: that God is Trinity, or not; that Jesus saves only the faithful, or everyone; that God prohibits certain sexual behaviors, or that just about everything is permissible, as long as there is consent.
You need not look far today to see perspicuity in action. The Methodists recently split over differing opinions regarding biblical teaching on sexuality. Some ecclesial bodies within the Anglican Communion approve of LGBTQ+, others do not. Individual churches are leaving the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant body in America—over disagreements regarding sexuality and racial grievance. The history of every major Protestant denomination is one of constant interpretive battles resulting in new denominations or splinter churches.
Fixing all of the blame for this on the doctrine of clarity would be a bit hyperbolic—there is, also, the reality of sin. But it’s obvious that clarity has played a critical role in perpetuating Protestant divisions. The example of pro-LGBTQ+ Protestant leaders claiming that such sexual identities and lifestyles enjoy biblical support shows you how this works. Such people will claim that certain parts of the Bible are to be read in cultural or historical context, or that Christ and His Gospel supersede Old Testament teaching. There is usually a grain of truth to their premises: of course we should read the Bible in its historical, cultural, or linguistic context; yes, the New Covenant supersedes some parts of Old Testament teaching, such as dietary laws.
Whatever the issue, such persons will assert that they have come to believe that the Bible “clearly” teaches that gay sex and transgenderism is absolutely fine, or that contraception is a moral good, even a human right! You name the moral or theological issue and you can easily find Protestants debating Scripture’s clear teaching on it. The doctrine of perspicuity is the occasion not only for theological division, it is also the justification of grave moral evil.
More than a decade ago, when I dropped out of Protestant seminary and reverted to Catholicism, I had perceived the problem with all of this. As I argue in my new book, The Obscurity of Scripture, the Bible isn’t clear. If it is, why are Protestants so incapable of agreeing on anything, even what they term “the essentials”? If it is, why was I having so much difficulty understanding what my seminary professors and pastors told me was so obvious? Was I stupid? Deceived by the devil? Those are the kinds of accusations thrown around by Protestants when debating those who disagree with them over the Bible’s “plain meaning.” Yet those leveling such accusations are just as likely to be the ones with the moral or spiritual deficiency, with no way to adjudicate who is the authentic, real Christian.
In the end, I realized I didn’t possess the authority to interpret the Bible. But I knew an institution who at least had a plausible claim to that, one accessible via what are called motives of credibility. As I soon learned, Catholicism had the historical, theological, and yes, biblical evidence to support its claims. Investigating those claims changed my life and made sense of the Bible. We need to persuade our Protestant friends that the Bible may not be clear, but that doesn’t mean Christ isn’t speaking through it, mediated by His Church, so that we might have confidence not only of Scripture’s meaning but also what it communicates to us, this very day.