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Low Hanging Prooftexts - A Response to Joshua Charles

Primer

Just yesterday I saw a certain Joshua Charles - a Romanist author & blogger - share a year old blog post of his against the "private interpretation" of Holy Scripture, in a wider series titled "Becoming Catholic." Having read it this morning I saw an opportunity to address some major errors he promulgates, since I am taking my time with my review series of The Obscurity of Scripture. So, this will act as a good interlude. As usual, please read through the article first before reading my response.

He begins with framing the question as one of individual interpretation apart from the authority of the Apostles, and that there is not one example of such in Scripture. This in itself is an awful framing, but we will see why a little later. He then explains the "Protestant" view of us as individuals being able to interpret Scripture "as best as we possibly can" with the aid of the Spirit. While incomplete (and this too will be explained later), this is an accurate summary of a manifestly true teaching.

More interesting is how he claims this to not be the view of "many of the Protestant 'reformers' of the 16th century, some of whom ha[ving] a high view of 'church authority.'" He never provides an example of such, no citations, and likewise perpetuates the mythical dichotomy between authoritative Church interpretation (of any level) and the perspicuity of Scripture. These concepts are simply not at odds; a text can be perfectly clear in its message, and yet also be guarded by an authoritative interpreter, acting as a second layer of defence against erring interpretations.

The next paragraph begins the core "meat" (relatively speaking) of the article, so I will present it in full here:

That is precisely why protestantism has been endlessly dividing over differing interpretations of Scripture from the beginning. As many protestant confessions explicitly assert, Scripture alone has infallible authority. No office occupied by a human being can claim to speak with God’s authority on its meaning. Only Scripture can do that. Therefore, the natural conclusion is that if a Christian believes Scripture teaches X, while a human authority teaches Y, they are obligated to go with what “Scripture” says (which assumes they are correct in their interpretation—but that’s for another post). This logic is unavoidable—even for those sects that have a higher view of church authority.

We will now walk through the innumerable errors of this paragraph. First is the problem I am at pains to expose every chance I get; what is "Protestantism"? It is an abstraction, not a concrete tradition/communion, equivalent to grouping Rome, the East, Anglo-Catholics, and other "high church" sects together under a term like Ecclesialism. The immediate problem here is that now Charles' accusation of "endlessly dividing over differing interpretations of Scripture" now equally - perhaps even more violently - applies to Ecclesialist communions. They themselves have split and continue to split endlessly on matters of interpretation, authority, and so forth. If he or another Romanist responds with how they are specifically Romanist, not Eastern or Anglo-Catholic or what have you, then great! Likewise can I respond that I'm not a "Protestant", a Baptist, a Presbyterian, or what have you, but an Anglican. Thus, he must have equal weights and measures and not impute the alleged faults of other traditions on mine.

Next, that "no office" today can "speak with God's authority" on the meaning of Scripture is incredibly vague; it can refer to a true Reformation proposition or a complete strawman. The strawman sense is in claiming we deny such authority to pastors/priests simpliciter, which is utterly false. They have God-ordained authority to teach, to correct, to discipline, and yes, to interpret Scripture for their flock. Authority is not, however, co-extensive with infallibility, and thus they can err. Yet, when they do accurately teach the counsel of God, they teach with His authority.

The non-strawman sense is in the Reformation's denial of any other inherently infallible, conscience-binding authority that must be assented to ipso facto like Scripture. This was certainly denied by the Reformation (e.g. Martin Luther's famous "unless I am convinced..." spiel, and Article 21 of the 39 Articles), yet the claim is far more precise than just denying divine authority as Charles puts it.

The next part is the most erroneous, and so is worth repeating:

Therefore, the natural conclusion is that if a Christian believes Scripture teaches X, while a human authority teaches Y, they are obligated to go with what “Scripture” says (which assumes they are correct in their interpretation—but that’s for another post).

Notice the immediate conflation of categories; if a Christian believes Scripture teaches X, they are obligated to go with what Scripture says. He is conflating the individual apprehension of the content of Scripture with the content itself. This is critical to point out because unlike how Charles portrays them, the Reformers did not assert a blanket right to interpret Holy Scripture however one wanted, that their private thought was the ultimate authority. They rather asserted the right to private investigation, that every man has a right to test the claims of other authorities by Holy Scripture. Yet, those Scriptures had objective content which was itself impressed upon the conscience. This is clearly demonstrated by Francis Turretin in vol. 1, topic 2, question 20 of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, wherein he simultaneously asserts the individual right to privately interpret the Scriptures, yet with the assumption that this occurs by means of the Scripture themselves impressing content on the mind via the Spirit, and not the individual imputing meaning to the Scriptures. Thus, Charles is right when he says this "assumes they are correct in their interpretation"; precisely, the Reformers did assume that correct interpretation is that which binds, not any and all private interpretation, especially paragraph 22 of the same section cited, wherein Turretin explicitly denies man's right to mix his own thoughts with Scripture, but only to extract that which is already contained therein.

Thus, Charles' "logic" is avoidable, because it isn't a logic at all; it's an incoherent strawman.

The following couple of paragraphs deal with his experience in a Presbyterian congregation, which I feel no obligation to defend. They are not my congregation, let alone even my tradition, so any alleged errors Charles finds there do not ipso facto carry over to Anglicanism.

Where the article gets really interesting - and really eisegetical - is his use of various biblical prooftexts for his position, starting with the episode of the Bereans. He again produces the false framing of Scripture teaching interpretation by Apostolic authority as opposed to "individual Christians," that the Apostles alone had the authority to render definitive doctrinal judgment, and that only schismatics and heretics took this authority upon themselves. Once again, I will address this a little further down, specifically in Charles' (re)interpretation of the Berean episode (Acts 17:10 - 13).

I - The Bereans

To Charles' credit, he does not waste time with useless pre-amble, but jumps straight to the point, quoting the passage in full, claiming that Prots believe this justifies believers interpreting Scripture "on their own," and the claim that the Bereans did not interpret Scripture "on their own." The section following this I will quote and address point by point:

But the Bereans did not interpret Scripture on their own. They understood it only after being taught to interpret it properly by the Apostle Paul (vv. 10, 13).

This opening claim is a complete fiction; nowhere does the account even imply that the Bereans understood Scripture "only after being taught to interpret it properly by the Apostle Paul." It rather says that "they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so." That's it. Paul proclaimed the Gospel, and the Bereans tested his claims by the Scriptures; Reformation practice 101.

However, we could even grant that Paul did teach the Bereans how to properly interpret Scripture. Indeed, in a limited sense, this is certainly true; the new revelation of Christ provides a new paradigm by which to view Israel's scriptures (which doesn't deny the intelligibility of existing prophecies to act as a test for claims of Messiahship, as the Bereans did). This is still not a denial of perspicuity, since complete perspicuity presupposes complete revelation, which we all grant was not the case until the coming of Christ, after which the Scriptures are now opened up to all on the articles of faith. And even with this, no magisterial Reformers promote the interpretation of Scripture merely on one's own as Charles claims. Even the Westminster Confession of Faith - the dominant confession of Charles' own tradition - itself speaks of necessary aids for the interpretation of Scripture. Concerning secondary matters, chapter 1 §6 says that:

... there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.

So, the "light of nature," "Christian prudence," and the "general rules of the word" must be used in the interpretation of Scripture pertaining to these matters, not just one's own private fancies. Even further, the following chapter states:

All things in scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; 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.

And just what are these "ordinary means" according to Westminster? According to Q.88 of the Shorter Catechism:

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

And in what way is the word used to this end? WCF chapter 14 says this:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

So, according to Westminster - easily the most low-Church of the magisterial Reformation traditions - the "ordinary means" by which the learned and unlearned may come to understand Scripture includes the ministry of the word; that is, the reading and expositing of the Scriptures within the Church. Now, does this deny that individuals may be so graced as to come to a saving knowledge of God just by reading their Bible without anyone else's aid? It does not, but it does deny such as an ordinary means by which we come to interpret Scripture, since the ordinary means laid out is the "ministry" of the Word (and the sacraments, another public act of the Church).

In other words, Charles demonstrably does not and possibly even did not understand the standard Reformed confession, which only piles onto the other key error of his article in failing to cite any Reformation sources on the matter. Moving on:

They [the Bereans] never arrived at the truth with just themselves and their Bible. In fact, prior to the Apostle’s appearance, they were Jews, and therefore cannot even be counted as believers. Once they heard the apostolic proclamation, and were taught directly by St. Paul how it made sense of Scripture, only then did they see the truth.

Once again, Charles relies on the strawman of "just themselves and their Bible." Nobody is promoting the withdrawal of believers from the Church to read the Bible on their lonesome, even if it is technically possible for one to accurately discern the faith from such, because such is still a dangerous exercise. Rather, the Scriptures are clear and perspicuous for believers, even individually, and men have the right to privately read and interpret Scripture. And yet, these Scriptures are ultimately meant to be read in and with the body of Christ in the local church, such that we grow as a body and correct one another when error almost inevitably manifests. Thus we have a nuanced both-and situation; yes, Scripture is clear such that pious men in private reading can come to a full and saving knowledge of the faith, yet also are they not licensed to restrict themselves to such, but to also treasure reading with the body of Christ and seeking instruction from their leaders. This is not a difficult concept to grasp, because everyone from all traditions grants it in the context of the fallible local church.

Further, nobody proclaims the clarity of all of Scripture apart from the Apostolic teaching. In fact, that is precisely our point; Christ & the Apostles opened up the Old Testament and themselves spoke with clarity to provide a sure foundation for our faith.

But worst of all, Romanists like Charles put themselves into a bind with this argument. Notice; Charles' article asserts that Scripture cannot be interpreted absent the "authority" of the Church, for no individual has the right to privately interpret, and nor can they fully apprehend Scripture's content without Apostolic interpretation. To argue for such and counteract a "Protestant" prooftext, he states that the Bereans only properly understood Scripture when Paul proclaimed the full truth to them. Ignoring the utter ignorance of Reformation thought this betrays (as shown above), consider the consequences of this:

Scripture cannot be directly apprehended in private context, but can be directly apprehended with the mediation of Apostolic proclamation. Now, where did Paul and other Apostles deliver this proclamation to groups like the Bereans? Throughout the book of Acts, the other NT texts, and countless undocumented meetings. Now, since their preaching - including their writings - was all about giving that proclamation and showing believers how to rightly interpret the Old Testament, Charles argument therefore necessitates the right to private interpretation of the Apostolic scriptures, for by his own argument that very proclamation was the principle by which the Old Testament Scriptures were made clear. That is, the Bereans did not have the right to nor ability of direct, private apprehension of the Scriptures without Apostolic interpretation, but they did have such a right respecting that Apostolic interpretation; they could receive it immediately in their private reason and apply it to their lives, and through it the Scriptures.

Therefore, as the Apostolic scriptures - being the Apostolic proclamation in written form - are themselves the principle of interpretation, and being such make clear the Old Testament, Charles' argument against the right of private interpretation in fact proves the right of private interpretation of Holy Scripture by logical necessity.

For Charles to deny this, he must assert a completely arbitrary standard wherein the written Apostolic teachings themselves are not a principle of interpretation, yet their oral teachings and the (non-revelatory) promulgations of their later successors somehow are such principles which may be directly apprehended. To which I would respond; why? By what non-arbitrary standard do you make this claim? Why is one set of words able to be apprehended in itself but not another just because the latter is written? Beyond this, I would feel no need to respond, apart from exposing the obviously ad-hoc nature of this hypothetical reply. By Charles' own logic, if the Apostolic scriptures require further "authoritative" interpretation to be rightly understood, despite those Scriptures themselves having the purpose of interpreting the OT, then every "authoritative" interpretation requires further "authoritative" interpretation ad infinitum, thus making the apprehension of the content itself impossible.

On his final line about the Lord interpreting Moses and the Prophets for the Pharisees and Apostles, I need only repeat that we grant that Christ's revelation was necessary to fully lift the veil over the OT. I could say more but there's no need, so I will simply end on a basic exposition of what the Bereans did, without the distortions Charles imputes on the text:

I - Paul came to the Bereans proclaiming the Gospel (v.10).

II - The Bereans tested Paul's claims themselves by examining the Scriptures (v.11).

III - Many of them believed as a result (v.12).

And... that's it. The Bereans did not take Paul's message for granted because of some unchallengeable authority claim, but because they examined the Scriptures to verify it. That is what the Reformation sought to promote, and which Rome sought to destroy; the right of believers to examine the doctrinal claims of ecclesial authorities.

In conclusion, Joshua Charles cannot deny the 1 to 1 parallel of the example of the Bereans with the thrust of the Reformation without injecting foreign ideas into the text and straw-manning the Reformation, and thus his argument fails.

Now we will address Charles' next example and a favourite of Roman apologists; the Ethiopian Eunuch.

II - The Ethiopian Eunuch

Charles summarises the account in Acts 8:30 - 35, then notes how the the text tells us of the Eunuch's high position, and how he appeared to be literate and educated in the Torah in an age of widespread illiteracy. While all fine points, none of these show something particularly significant; a man had questions on a particular passage of Scripture, and needed someone to help him. That's it. Nothing of this denies biblical perspicuity (see the above discussion on ordinary means), and it only could do so only if the passage itself was shown to be insufficient for answering the Eunuch's question, which the Acts account nowhere imitates. Indeed, I submit that believers with even basic biblical learning could see and demonstrate to others how the passage (Isaiah 53) pertains to the Messiah, or at minimum someone other than the prophet himself. Now, putting that aside and granting an inherent vagueness in the passage, this would still not refute biblical perspicuity, since, as WCF 1.7 and other Reformers themselves state, not all of Scripture is equally plain. Rather, it must be shown that it is not clear on any one of the articles of faith. So, for the preceding reasons, this prooftext too is a nothing burger.

III - (Post) Apostolic Authority

The next section is a lengthy collection of verses demonstrating real authority exercised by three post-Apostolic parties; Timothy, Titus, and the Ephesian elders. Pay attention as we go through these.

On the Ephesian elders, he quotes Acts 20:28 and comments the following:

Thus, while an Apostle appointed these elders, he equates this appointment with being appointed directly by God.

And all the Reformers said, "amen."

On Timothy, having cited 1st Timothy 1:3 & 18-19:

As St. Paul had appointed leaders with authority to teach and govern in the churches himself (Acts 14:23), he now lays this responsibility on Timothy.

The Apostle then provides a series of instructions on doctrine, and the qualifications of bishops and deacons. “If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed,”

After which he cites 1st Timothy 4:11 - 16, 5:17, 6:2 - 5, and 2nd Timothy 2:1 - 2 on the authority that Paul vested in Timothy. Yet again, all the Reformers say, "amen."

But then he cites 2nd Timothy 2:15 as proof that "Timothy is tasked with rightly handling the truth, not individual non-appointed believers."

It's difficult to articulate just how silly of a claim this is. What does the passage intend by "rightly handling the truth"? If by such Charles wants to claim it refers to the ability to rightly understand and apply the word of God, then sure, I agree. Now I would ask him; where does Paul give this charge to Timothy to the exclusion of all others? Where does it say that only Timothy or anyone of his position can "rightly handle the word of God"? It does not. In fact, it is the same Paul who tells the Galatian church (not merely their leaders) to be on the lookout for false gospels (Galatians 1), which presupposes a personal apprehension of the word of God through the Apostles.

The same comments as above can be made for his analysis of Titus. The problem, in sum, is Charles' fatal conflation of ecclesial authority with apprehension of texts like Scripture, an epistemic issue. That is, a layman's lack of authority to teach in the Church (which the Reformers and magisterial Reformation traditions all grant to be true) is not the same as a lack of right or ability to apprehend the teaching of Scripture and act accordingly. This conflation is central to the entirety of Charles' article, and it is simply false.

IV - Apostolic Co-Authorship

Charles next moves to point out alleged instances of "co-authorship" in a number of Paul's, showing the authority of these men to be some way linked with the Apostle. Once again, this presents no issue for the Reformation; Paul is working with these men, spreading the Gospel alongside them, so it is only natural for them to speak to the Church alongside an Apostle. This does not prove anything contrary to the Reformation, chiefly the concept of inherently infallible, conscience binding councils, or infallible Papal decrees, or that individuals do not have the right to search the Scriptures for themselves, or that these Scriptures are unclear without a living voice tradition. So, this whole section is redundant. The same issue presents itself in Charles' final section on the Jerusalem synod, which I will address last.

V - Obedience

Charles points to a number of passages exhorting obedience to leaders. Yet again, for the umpteenth time, the Reformation is in complete agreement here. We must submit to the leaders that God has placed over us in the Church, just as we must obey our parents (Eph. 6), without any pretence to their authority being infallible and beyond question. It is an obvious both and: We submit to leaders and follow their commands by default, but when it is manifest that their commands conflict with a higher law, we must resist them.

VI - Warnings

Towards the end of this article Charles quotes a selection of warning passages against disobedience to Apostolic authority. He begins with one of the most abused prooftexts in the Romanist toolbelt; 2nd Peter 1:20 - 21. Charles claims this to be an explicit condemnation of interpreting the Bible on one's own. Of course, as is immediately obvious in this passage, it does not pertain to the "interpretation" of Scripture as we understand it (the apprehension of the text in our mind), but rather, the origin of prophecy itself. That is, Peter is describing the process by which prophecy comes to man, that being the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and not any man's private fancy. This has nothing to do with the interpretation of already given prophecies. One can see this in the exact extract of this passage that Charles gives:

First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

He then cites 2nd Peter 3:15 - 17 on ignorant men twisting the harder sayings of Paul, commenting that such error occurs when men interpret Scripture apart from Apostolic authority. And yet again, nobody is claiming the right to interpret Scripture apart from "Apostolic authority," only the specific authority alleged by Rome to be Apostolic. The rest of this section is insignificant so I will finally move to the Jerusalem synod and then conclude this piece.

VII - The Jerusalem Synod

The Jerusalem synod has become a favourite prooftext of Roman apologists lately in their arguments for post-Apostolic authority (that is, their specific conception thereof). Charles notes how non-Apostolic men partook in the Council and thus shared in their authority, by which the Council as a whole rendered a divine judgement on the question at hand that was binding on the whole Church. The supposed significance of this is the proof of the Apostles passing down their authority to others in the future.

First, for the twelve billionth time, nobody - not even Baptists - deny that Apostolic authority was passed on in some sense. And I say in some sense because likewise does nobody - not even Romanists - claim that the full, unqualified authority of the Apostles was passed onto successors. For example, can any successors of the Apostles receive and inscripturate new divine revelation? All traditions explicitly deny this, yet such was a key component of Apostolic authority. Rather, all sides believe that some form of the Apostles' authority of governance and ministry was passed onto successors. Thus, since everyone must concede that the Apostolic authority continued only in a qualified sense, the Jerusalem synod is not a prima facie proof of some high ecclesiology ala Rome or the East, because it can be easily taken prima facie as proof of continuing public revelation.

Now, how does the Reformation reconcile this event? Quite simple; we grant that the Holy Spirit continues to work in post-Apostolic teachers, and that in such an instance wherein the Spirit is speaking in a man, that man is speaking infallibly. This is not the question. Rather, the question is the principle of verification. That is, what source(s) has a particular gift of protection from error such that it may act as a fundamental, unquestioned authority for our faith? All sides would agree that this minimally includes the Apostles. And indeed, that is ultimately why everybody accepts the Jerusalem synod without question; because the Apostles, guaranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit, accepted it. They have the unique relationship with Christ and the Spirit such that they can with certainty detect the will and presence of the Holy Spirit, including in councils of non-Apostolic men. By contrast, if this synod was held, say, around A.D. 100, with no Apostolic men in attendance (since they are all dead), would the same motives of credibility be present? Not even close, apart from probabilistic arguments of the proximity of such a council to the Apostles. Yet without the principle of verification ala the Apostles, its authority is thus open to our scrutiny.

Conclusion

Joshua Charles' article - and really the whole series of which it is part, from my brief gloss - is a classic case of an over-confident convert to Rome speaking with an immense sense of his own authority to critique his former tradition, yet who in reality has little idea what he is talking about. As shown above, the article is riddled with category errors, strawmen, and interpretive blunders, resulting in a production that only spawns further confusion in lay readers. There is also the colossal irony, perhaps even hypocrisy, which runs through the whole article; if the "private" interpretation of Scripture is wrong, why does Joshua Charles suddenly have the right to interpret these passages on his own as if that objectively establishes his case?

Ultimately, it is my hope that at least some of them will catch this response and learn better how to detect poor argumentation.


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Ismael Gomes Bonfim Rodrigues Isma
Ismael Gomes Bonfim Rodrigues Isma
Sep 16, 2023

I love it! Very grateful for your writings! Gos bless you!😉

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The Other Paul
The Other Paul
Sep 16, 2023
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Thank you!

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