Will Methodists Recognize the Error of Private Judgment?

Almost four hundred years ago, English Protestants convened at Westminster Abbey to create a new confessional document for the English Church. This document, the Westminster Catechism, became foundational for the Reformed tradition. In this text, the Westminster divines make a remarkable claim regarding the nature of Holy Scripture:

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.

Unfortunately for those Reformed scholars, almost four hundred years of divisive Protestant history have undermined the doctrine of clarity, or perspicuity, of Scripture. This is most recently evidenced in the debate over the United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference in St. Louis, which determined to maintain its doctrines regarding LGBTQ marriage and clergy and strengthen discipline for those who defy church teachings. The decision elicited howls from pro-LGBTQ Methodists who justified their opinions, in part, on their interpretation of Scripture.

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A recent Washington Post op-ed by lesbian Methodist pastor Hannah Adair Bonner exemplifies a case study in the inherent problem with perspicuity. Bonner observes:

I spent my adolescence reading the Bible cover to cover, wrestling with its teachings, until I finally realized that it did not condemn me for wanting to answer that call… Yet as I studied the scriptures, this time as a pastor, I understood that it was possible for God, far from condemning my sexuality, to call me into a loving relationship. That’s the irony: While traditionalists claim that progressives reject scripture, many of us have spent uncountable hours poring over the Bible’s every line. We simply read it differently.

Bonner has hit upon an essential dilemma within Protestantism. One person reads the Bible and determines homosexuality is immoral, based on an interpretation of such passages as Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; and 1 Timothy 1:10. Some of these passages suggest that some sexual immorality may even disqualify one from heaven. Another person reads the Bible and determines that God’s unconditional love should contextualize all biblical injunctions and that one should read passages about sex in a cultural and historical context. Indeed, do not most Christians read passages about women being silent in church (1 Cor. 14:34) or covering their hair (1 Cor. 11:2-16) as being culturally conditioned? Thus no LGBTQ behavior can disqualify one from the kingdom of heaven, despite St. Paul’s admonitions. At least, this is the kind of reasoning such persons employ.

This is not to say that there are good reasons to believe biblical prohibitions against certain sexual behavior are normative across time, while St. Paul’s rules regarding women’s conduct in church are not. But the Protestant paradigm possesses no consensus on an interpretive framework to make such distinctions. Indeed, it is fundamentally individualist in reference to interpreting Scripture. Although many Protestants are encouraged to read the Bible within the context of their denominational and theological tradition, the onus is ultimately on each believer to determine what Scripture means. This paradigm can be traced to Martin Luther, who believed his personal interpretation of Scripture justified rebellion against Catholic ecclesial authorities.

Thus when one Methodist disagrees with another over interpretation of biblical passages regarding homosexuality, there exists no authoritative foundation upon which to debate. The traditionalist says biblical teaching on sexual morality is part of God’s moral law and cannot be abrogated. The progressive says that sexual morality, like many things, is culturally conditioned, and thus the rules governing it are not absolute. Who decides which perspective offers the correct interpretation of supposedly “clear” biblical teaching? Perhaps an ecclesial assembly like the one recently convened in St. Louis could do the task, though such synods are loath to make anything resembling infallible declarations on doctrine. This would reek of the exact kind of Catholic dogmatic tyranny from which the Reformers sought to free themselves!

This is the unavoidable problem for Protestants and perspicuity. A doctrine conceived to bring freedom from the dogmatic yoke of Catholic ecclesial authorities became an insurmountable obstacle to Protestant unity. As long as there are different people, there will be different interpretations of the Bible, even over what is necessary for salvation. Employing what the Westminster Divines describe as “ordinary means”—including such things as reading a good translation of Scripture, prayer, listening to biblical preaching, considering historical/linguistic interpretations, etc.—doesn’t solve the problem. Prayer, preaching, and recourse to historical or linguistic context has never been sufficient to resolve interpretive disputes.

The Catholic paradigm, alternatively, rejects perspicuity. This does not mean the Church believes Scripture to be entirely inaccessible to laymen, as is often caricatured by Protestant detractors. As the Catechism teaches: “The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful … to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” But Scripture is not so clear that all persons can read it and interpret what is necessary for salvation. Recourse to Holy Tradition, an infallible source of theological truth, and the magisterial authority of the Church are also required. These other authorities, particularly the Magisterium, serve as a theological judge and referee to preserve a consistent, coherent doctrinal system. Without it, like Protestantism, Catholicism would devolve and dissipate, unmoored from the principle of unity established by Christ (c.f. Matt. 16:18, 18:18, 28:18-20; Luke 10:16; John 13:20).

The Westminster Divines would almost certainly roll over in their graves if they knew perspicuity is now used to justify LGBTQ-friendly theology. Yet this is the individualist, egalitarian bed the Protestant Reformers made. Until Protestants—be they traditionalist or progressive—recognize Rome as their true ecclesial mother, they will have to lie in it.


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