A Catholic Reflection on “Taking God At His Word”

kdeyI 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.

Kevin’s Thesis

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.

Interpretation

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.

Conclusion

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.

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32 Responses to A Catholic Reflection on “Taking God At His Word”

  1. Bob says:

    Devin,
    Your in the same boat as Kevin is. Your church has never officially-infallibly interpreted the Scriptures. This means that all that a Rc can do is to give his “human opinion, often erroneous, about what the Scriptures mean.”

  2. Augustine says:

    The typical proof-texts offered to justify the unbiblical thesis of Sola Scriptura fall short of logic and history.

    Just like Psalms 19 and 119, the book of Nehemiah were not considered Holy Scripture by Israelites, to whom only the Torah or Pentateuch held such privilege, neither did St. Paul consider his second letter to St. Timothy to be Holy Scripture when he referred to Holy Scripture in it. In both cases, it was first the Church who proclaimed the entirety of the Old and the New Testaments to be Holy Scripture, the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God.

    Holy Scripture itself attests to the necessity of an interpreting authority, as we are reminded in today’s first reading, when the Ethiopian eunuch replies to St. Phillip: “How can I [understand what I am reading], unless someone instructs me?” (Acts 8:30ff)

    Christ is risen!

  3. Bob says:

    Augustine,
    We both know what Scripture is today. We agree on 66 books. Scripture is interpreted by everyone who reads it. There is no way to get around this.

    Where in the Scripture does it identify the RCC as the interpreting authority specifically? Where has the RCC officially interpreted the Scripture?

    • Augustine says:

      Bob,

      That’s a non-sequitur for Catholics.

      Nowhere in the Bible does it say that it is the sole deposit of the Word of God. As a matter of fact, as the end of the Gospel of St. John states, there is more that is not found in writing. We Catholics call that Holy Tradition, the living Word of God in the Church, where we find the teaching authority of the Church.

      Christ is risen!

  4. Bob says:

    Augustine,
    I agree that it says that at the end of John’s gospel. Can you give me a specific example of what else Jesus said and did that is not in the NT?

    • Augustine says:

      We don’t know them specifically, just the teachings that Our Lord imparted on the Apostles through them, who, in their turn, passed on to their disciples and so on to this day. This unbroken chain of orthodoxy is called Apostolic Succession. That’s why the earliest Christian writings strike as rather Catholic, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, as their authors were typically Catholic bishops.

  5. Thomas Brunt says:

    Hypocrisy! – - If Kevin’s not allowed to interpret scriptures, how is it any different the Church fathers, or the Pope? The Gospel of Rome is heresy! The truth is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not works, so that no one can boast.” Did God not give us brains? Perhaps to read his word.

    Peace, and love
    Thomas

    • Devin Rose says:

      Thomas,

      Ah, if Protestantism is true, then what you said about everyone having the right to interpret the Scriptures is accurate. Because, if Protestantism is true, then there is no way to distinguish between the content of divine revelation, and human opinion about what that content is. That goes for the canon of Scripture and how to interpret the Scriptures.

      But if Catholicism is true, then your statement is false. There is a difference when the Church, established and guided by Christ, proclaims dogma (based on divine revelation) and when Kevin DeYoung offers his human opinion about what divine revelation is. In the former case, the teaching is not human opinion, but divine truth; in the latter case, it is one man’s opinion that can bind no conscience.

      • Bob says:

        We can also say that your dogmas are human opinions since they were never taught by the apostles. When we look at the RCC today we find that many of its doctrines were not taught nor believed by the apostles. Only doctrines taught by the apostles are binding.

  6. The Word of God is Jesus Himself.

    Then preaching and teaching about Jesus and His gospel. And in Baptism and The Lord’s Supper (pure gospel – freely given ).

    Then then Bible.

    In that order.

    The Word itself contains it’s own authority because faith is created (given) when those things (above) are done to the sinner.

    Thanks.

    PS- I’ver never liked De Young.

    He doesn’t know how to separate God’s law from His gospel. And he poo-poos the sacraments.

  7. Beverly says:

    Thanks, Devin, for such a great review and rebuttal to the author’s misguided (and yet sincere, I am sure) understanding of Holy Scripture given to us by His Church. It is how the Protestant understands his/her faith after 500 years without the fullness of the Faith passed down through Scripture and Tradition with God-given authority (and love I might add).
    Yes, we can read and glean and apply the scriptures to our daily lives, PTL! And when questions arise or understanding is iffy, we have His Holy Church who has and does authoritatively give proper understanding. What a gift! This is only possible through the magisterium who has been given the authority to pass down the faith from Christ himself.

    • Bob says:

      Beverly,
      Its not true your church can give you an authoritative interpretation of the Scripture. Such a work has never been produced by your church.

      • Devin Rose says:

        Bob, yes we know that you do not think the Catholic Church is God’s divinely established authority on earth. But just because the Church has never “produced” a work that offers an authoritative interpretation of every verse, it does not follow that she is not the authoritative interpreter of the Scriptures.

        • Bob says:

          Devin,
          Claiming to be “the authoritative interpreter of the Scriptures” and not producing an official interpretative work on the Scriptures only shows that the claim has no substance. It also shows your leadership does not really believe it either otherwise they would have produced such a work by now.

  8. Francis Choudhury says:

    The Holy Scriptures are the Word of God. This is admitted by Protestants generally. But it is clear that if the Scriptures are wrongly interpreted, they become the word of man. For, as the Protestant Bishop Walton says: “The Word of God does not consist in mere letters, whether written or printed, but in the true sense of it.”

    This is also what St. Jerome (who was the first to translate the Bible into Latin) had said ages before: “Let us be persuaded that the Gospel consists not in the words but in the sense. A wrong explanation turns the Word of God into the word of man, and, what is worse, into the word of the devil; for the devil himself could quote the text of Scripture…” Indeed, he did so when he tempted our Lord in the desert (Matt 4: 6).

    This point should be well considered by those who confidently boast that they stand by the “Bible alone”, and imagine that to stand by the Bible alone means that they rely not upon human authority, but upon the Word of God.

    Certainly nothing can be better than to stand by the Word of God, but is what they call standing by the Bible alone, actually standing by the word of God?

    Firstly, the Bible, though divinely inspired, is but a written document, and a written document often so obscure, that St. Augustine, though so great a scholar, and a Doctor of the Church, confessed that there were more things in the Bible he did not understand than those he did.

    Secondly, the Bible, because it is a written document, always remains silent unless interpreted, that is, unless some meaning is affixed to the words, by someone. It is clear that the Bible cannot speak and interpret itself: you must take the Book in your hand, open it, read it, compare passages, and attach a certain meaning to the words in them.

    Therefore, when a Protestant says: “I stand by the Bible alone”, he does not mean that he stands by the Bible uninterpreted – for in such case the Bible is mute.

    He does not mean that he stands by the Bible as interpreted by the Church – for that would be not the Protestant but the Catholic way.

    Nor does he mean that he stands by the Bible as interpreted by somebody else; as that would be – according to his notion – to give up his right of private interpretation.

    What he really means then is that he stands by the Bible alone as interpreted by himself, and that the sense in which he personally understands it is the sure Word of God!

    • Bob says:

      Everyone who reads and studies the Bible must interpret it for himself. It is only by comparing his interpretation with the Scripture can he know he has done so correctly.

      • Devin Rose says:

        Bob, you reason in a circle:

        1. Joe reads the Bible, must interpret it for himself
        2. Joe then must compare his interpretation to the Bible
        3. But then go back to 1, because to compare his interpretation with the Bible, he must interpret the Bible.

        Under Protestantism, the individual is the ultimate interpretive authority. This ends up making the individual, and not the Bible, the actual authority.

        • Bob says:

          Devin,
          1- it is true that we must all interpret as we read the Bible. Same goes for your comments. I must interpret your comments so as to understand you.
          2- If Jesus makes the claim He is the way of salvation such as He does in John 3:16 I can see if He says this same kind of thing elsewhere. In this case its quite easy to see that He does again.

          I can also check my interpretations with commentaries and teachers who are knowledgeable in the Scripture. I can also discuss my interpretations with others and see if they have a better interpretation based on facts I missed.
          Ultimately we are all responsible for our own understanding and beliefs since no one can do that for us. This is true of the RC also. He is the ultimate interpretive authority for interpreting and understanding the teachings of the RCC.

          • Augustine says:

            Do you realize that you are resorting to tradition? However, unless you keep on that path, going further back in time, all you find is human tradition with no guarantees. By going back in time, you find the Apostolic Tradition of interpreting the Word of God; you find the Catholic Faith.

  9. Scripture interprets Scripture.

    Since it is the gospel (Romans 1:16) that “is the power of God”…then we know that faith is created from the hearing of the gospel (by the grace of God) in those who actually hear it, then we know that we can use a ‘grace scheme’ to interpret…and not a ‘legal scheme’..which does not create faith…but, as St. Paul calls it, is a “ministry of death”.

    “The Word of God does not retune void, but does what IT sets out to do.”

    • Francis Choudhury says:

      If “scripture interprets scripture” how come there are countless conflicting and contradictory Protestant interpretations of just about every verse of scripture? Whose interpretation is right, whose is wrong? How do we know? What about Joe Blow who can’t read? How does he understand scripture? Whose opinion should he listen to? Whose interpretation should he trust? Does he believe Pastor X who tells him the Eucharist is only a symbol or his neighbor Y who believes that it is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ because He Himself clearly said so?

      • Bob says:

        Can you give me 4-5 different interpretations of John 3:16 by Protestants so I can see how they contradict each other?

        • Francis Choudhury says:

          Bob, if that’s the best you can do to deny the patently obvious (phenomenon of major doctrinal conflicts among Protestants), I’m not going to waste my time providing you with anything to illustrate anything!

          Your “scripture interprets scripture” claim is so utterly ridiculous as a proposition, you’re now resorting to playing meaningless games instead of backing up your assertion with something of substance (be it scriptural or just plain logical).

          And no, the Word of God (which, in the prophecies of Isaiah refers principally to Jesus Christ) not returning void without succeeding in the matter for which He was sent, has nothing whatsoever to do with (private) interpretation – or should I say “wresting” as in 2 Pet 3:16? – of Scripture.

          • Bob says:

            Francis Choudhury,
            You claimed that “there are countless conflicting and contradictory Protestant interpretations of just about every verse of scripture” and I would like you to give me an 4-5 example of this with a well known verse. Otherwise I have no reason to take you seriously.

            • Francis Choudhury says:

              You mean just like I have no reason to take your patently far fetched and irrational claim seriously, especially given that you can’t substantiate it with either scripture or logic? Cool, then!

              • Bob says:

                Your the one who claimed that Protestants are contradictory in their interpretations of Scripture. I just asked for a few examples how Protestants contradict themselves in interpreting John 3:16 and you could not give just 3-4 contradictory interpretations on this verse. This is not an unreasonable request for you.

            • Francis Choudhury says:

              Are you seriously pretending that I or anyone else has to provide you with examples of major differences in doctrines between Protestants? I’ve told you – I’ve got no time to play silly games with you!

  10. Randy says:

    Great review here Devin.

    “The Son’s redemption and the Son’s revelation must both be sufficient”

    That part of his assertion makes sense to me. Revelation must be sufficient. Sola Scriptura fails to be sufficient. So it must be rejected. Christianity makes no sense if you can’t resolve disputes over key doctrines among sincere, intelligent Christians. If Jesus is God then His word should not get lost among many human opinions.

    • Devin Rose says:

      Randy great point. And of course when Kevin DeYoung says that “the Son’s revelation” must be sufficient he is asserting that that revelation is found solely in the 66 of 73 books of the Bible that he accepts.

  11. Devin Rose says:

    Friends,

    WordPress spam filters glitched up badly yesterday, and spam was coming in by the hundreds every few hours, so I had to cut off comments on all posts. I have re-enabled them for this post for a day to see whether WordPress is filtering correctly again, but if the comments get cut off it is due to those technical problems.

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