Laymen and Scripture: A Reply to Doug Wilson

Pastor Wilson,

I apologize for the long delay in responding to this post of yours. I tried to keep my explanations short, but these are huge issues. I’ve divided this post into four headings, to try to make the issues as I see them more manageable.


I agree that absolutized private judgment gets confused with sola Scriptura and the priesthood of believers. This is the egalitarianism of which I spoke. I agree that the functional fragmentation of the Church makes things messy, as your “both with their Bibles open” Calvinist / Arminian example shows. My concern is trying to flesh out how to deal with the messes in a responsible and constructive manner. I also agree with the distinction between discussion and authoritative pronouncement. I am convinced that this distinction is blurred on the lay level because of the populist-egalitarian mentality. Speaking as one who has studied a variety of issues from a variety of angles in an educational program in which I’ve been frequently forced to account for my assumptions (and have thus often been forced to change those assumptions), I think that many issues which are discussed on the lay level are just grossly distorted.

The question is how to navigate one’s way through the messes. Egalitarianism having been fully repudiated, it is necessary to acknowledge that there are levels of competence and credibility, even for laymen. If this discussion continues, I will spell out what I mean, but for now I’ll leave it hanging. I do think that Frank Turk is right in suggesting that if more laymen knew that their elders were watching their Internet activities and stood prepared to discipline them for it, the situation would vastly improve overnight.


You wrote that in egalitarianism the notion that “we are created and designed to think and believe in community is rejected.” This is why I spoke as I did on the other thread, incurring the wrath of the baptistic posters—who, precisely because they are baptistic, generally recognize no external regulation of the expression of their beliefs. This is the matrix within which sola Scriptura appeals are often made (and were made in that thread, by the baptistic posters) but it is wrong on every level to read SS as a manifesto for egalitarianism.

Clinging Vine is simply wrong to say that Acts 17:11 gives her as a private individual the absolute right to judge absolutely anything by the sole authority of Scripture. That’s not what sola Scriptura means. This was discussed with Anne a couple of years ago and she simply rejected the proper distinctions drawn from more detailed study of the Reformation doctrine as found in Mathison’s Shape of Sola Scriptura. She’s been exposed to the proper categories, and she’s rejected them. Most baptistic folks do. They couldn’t possibly accept the correct understanding and remain baptistic because this is a worldview thing. It’s just one way that Baptists entirely redefine Reformation terms, and thus empty the Reformation of all its properly catholic content.

But why do I say that Acts 17:11 doesn’t say what Clinging Vine made it say? First, it is a descriptive statement about a particular group of people in a particular time—in fact, a particularly extraordinary time. Why is it “plain” that the verse lays down a universal rule for all time? More importantly to whom is that “plain”, and what is their justification for that judgment? Second, even if it can be generalized for all time, it says nothing about publicly criticizing ministers. It merely says (in generalization) that we could be noble-minded by testing things by Scripture. But testing things by Scripture isn’t a mere given itself. It assumes a whole lot of things that the individual can’t control—like the definition of Scripture, what sorts of “tests” we would use Scripture in, whether a given person is actually competent to administer those tests, and so forth. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily entail subsequently running off to a blog to tell the whole world why the minister is a tradition-bound compromiser who isn’t “letting Scripture speak for itself.” This is egalitarianism gone to seed, and if allowed to prosper it will destroy all lawful order in Christian society.


Serious hermeneutical issues are wrapped up with the bad definition of sola Scriptura. Certain situations in my life have for the last couple of years found me making arguments about them. For reasons related to my rejection of a very bigoted form of anti-Romanism and my acceptance instead of a more catholic sort of Reformational view, I have come to be repeatedly accused by both laymen and ministers from other churches of such things as (1) compromising the Gospel, (2) overthrowing the Reformation, (3) becoming a Postmodernist Skeptic, (4) hating and fearing the Bible, (5) loving mere man-made traditions over the plain Word of God, (6) belonging to an intellectual cult, (7) having an arrogant “bacheloritis” instead of simply humbly listening to those with Doctorates in THE BIBLE from Big Time Evangelical Seminaries, and even (8) of having lost my mind by questioning commonplaces of backward-looking Evangelical thought such as the uncritical acceptance of foundationalist epistemology.

Perhaps the mature thing to do would have been to ignore all that, especially since those to whom belongs the care of my soul have never expressed such worries about me. But I didn’t ignore it, and so I have found myself involved in controversies with bombastic people whose lives seem to revolve around a perpetual series of emergencies and the extreme solutions which they concoct to handle them. This is not the place to recount these battles; I mention them here only as an experiential-oriented clarification for my above remarks. None of this is abstract for me. It’s all just about as real as it can get for an incarnated being.

While I’m at clarification, let me say one more thing about the hermeneutics issue. I think Evangelical hermeneutics has more to do with men like Descartes and Locke than with what is found in the Bible. Typically those in the grip of these sorts of hermeneutics simply refuse to even do elementary reading to obtain the categories necessary to evaluate such a claim. It then becomes nearly impossible to reason with them because they pretend that whatever comes out of their own heads while they are “just” reading the Bible, nothing interposing between them and the Text, simply is the ipsum verbum Dei. “Exegesis” is then construed as something that takes place between a Spirit-guided man and his own copy of the Bible. With untrained laymen that Bible in English is simply taken for granted, no purely American baggage recognized. With some trained laymen and even more ministers, the Greek text is substituted for the English, but because Theology has become divorced from everything else the result is dozens of pages of participle-parsing and preposition-picking without any concern at all for things like (1) the beliefs of the historical Church, (2) the need to critically examine deeper questions about language and its relationship to truth, (3) exploration of other types of hermeneutics, or (4) the importance of community regulation of belief. And I think this results in what Tolkien derisively referred to as “scientifictitious” beliefs.

Recently in another thread, Perry Robinson argued that Calvinistic hermeneutics are indebted to the nominalism of the Scotist tradition. I see no reason to deny this (it seems foolhardy to do so, given such studies as Torrance’s Hermeneutics of John Calvin). There is no such thing as a “pure” hermeneutic, a way of approaching the Bible that literally partakes of no external factors, but flies free of all embodied (cultural, historical, personal) situations and grasps Form-like “timeless truths.” At the same time, it is not true that external factors are everything. Whatever Scotus bequeathed to Calvinism, it’s difficult to read a book like Jeff Meyers’ The Lord’s Service and come away saying “We can’t get much about covenants from the Bible. It’s mostly late Medieval nominalism.” Neither of these options seem like good ones to me. As Calvinists, I think we do need to pay more attention to our “pre-exegetical” assumptions, and yet as Christians I think we need to be faithful to the basic Christian view that the Scriptures can be understood. Understanding them might be harder than the Fundamentalist egalitarian thinks, but it might not be as hard as the professional philosopher thinks. We need some decent discussion of these issues.


Concerns were raised about my statements regarding laymen contradicting ministers in public. Again, I spoke the way I did because of the baptistic posters present there, with some of whom I have had much personal experience.

For brevity’s sake, let me just say this. I do not believe that ministers are unopposable by laymen. I deny the populist-egalitarian reading of the Reformation. But since someone raised the specter of “Romanism” I also deny the rigid docens-discens (teaching-learning) paradigm which the Roman Church maintains as part of its ancient legacy. In that paradigm, as has been explained by authors such as Peter Brown and Walter Ullmann, inferiors are never allowed to question superiors, but only to learn from them.

This view was related to much of the ecclesiastical abuse that occurred during the Middle Ages, particularly in its waning couple of centuries prior to the Reformation. It began to be questioned as early as Alexander of Hales, and by the time of Ockham there had developed the concept of “fraternal correction,” which stipulated that laymen could question their superiors under certain careful conditions of charity, always maintaining the due respect to the office. Even within the papalist system, then dominant, restrictions upon the power of the ruler were developed. It was argued by the canonists that if the pope promoted heresy he ceased to be pope and could not only be dealt with by laymen, but actually became inferior to the least layman. This tradition of fraternal correction was one of the streams that fed into the Conciliar Movement of the 15th century and allowed the Church, including for the first time, the laymen, to judge the papacy for destroying the peace and unity of the Church. The Conciliar Movement in turn fed into the Reformation in the next century, and is a critical chunk of evidence that we need to consider if we are going to understand the Reformation views on the priesthood of the laity and the limitations of ecclesiastical authority. Those who wish to see a summary of my view of the Reformation may find it here.

Just in case it matters to my critics, I feel deep affinity with Wessel Gansfort’s remarks here and here on the subject of lay obedience to superiors. I particularly like his example that if the pilot of a ship is drunk or insane and tries to sink the ship, the passengers have the right to restrain him for the sake of everyone’s lives. The differences, I would suppose, between us and Gansfort is that we aren’t faced with the type of tyranny that he faced, and he didn’t see the Second Great Awakening.

As my NSA professors (and my long term blog readers) well know, I’ve done a great deal of work on these subjects. I stand willingly in the tradition I’ve described above, and any reading of my words that suggests I think ministers can’t be questioned by laymen, period, is a bad reading. I think it’s highly interesting that most who interpreted my words that way are baptistic in their outlook. Of course, much of contemporary Protestantism is fundamentally baptistic, and this makes it very difficult to get real-live Reformational discussions going. As an Evangelical culture, we simply aren’t ready for the nuanced view of authority held by the Reformers. The extremes that we too readily grasp for reveal our immaturity. We’re not up to the level that our fathers lived on, which is exactly why I want to be so cautious in how I discuss issues of the Bible and its interpretation, the limitations of authority outside of the individual Christian, and the standards for public arguments about theology.

Thank you for your time and the invitation to respond, Pastor Wilson.

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