Amandus Polanus on the Church’s Role in Interpreting Scripture (1)

Sola Scriptura is one of the slogans that have come to be attached to the Protestant Reformation.While the so-called five solas, as descriptive terms of Protestant theology, originated long after the sixteenth-century, they capture well some of the primary emphases of Protestant thought as they relate to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reformed authors, in particular, treated Scripture as the cognitive foundation of the knowledge of God for redeemed sinners. The Spirit of God working by and through the written and preached Word produced the true knowledge of God through his Son Jesus Christ. Among other things, these ideas require that Scripture possess divine authority, that it be sufficient for faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:15-17), and that its primary message be clear (perspicuous). Scripture possesses divine authority as the very Word of God. Scripture is all that the believer needs to become wise for salvation through faith in Christ as well. Scripture is able to make believers complete by furnishing them with all they need for every good work (1 Tim. 3:15-17). Yet if Scripture is not clear on these points, then it will remain a closed book to all who read it.
The clarity, or perspicuity, of Scripture became one of the main points of debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation and Post-Reformation periods. Roman Catholic authors denied the perspicuity of Scripture. They appealed to the magisterium of the Church to provide authoritative interpretations of the Scriptures in light of church tradition. Protestants, by contrast, argued that was inherently clear because Scripture is profitable and sufficient for the ends that Scripture assigns to itself. Scripture authority and sufficiency both supposed and demanded perspicuity.
Amandus Polanus (1561-1610) wrote extensively on the doctrine of Scripture against the famed Roman Catholic apologist, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). His refutation of Bellarmine spanned nearly 800 pages in his Syntagma Theologiae (Hanover, 1610, pp. 95-831). Polanus was a German Reformed theologian who spent much of his academic career teaching in Basel, Switzerland. Historians, such as Richard Muller, have referred to his Syntagma as one of the most important textbooks of theology in Early Reformed Orthodoxy. Polanus’ treatment of the perspicuity of Scripture sought simultaneously to substantiate the right of the private interpretation of Scripture by individual Christians and the necessary role of the church in interpreting Scripture correctly. This post and post two sketch briefly his arguments for the church’s role in interpreting Scripture in opposition to Bellarmine’s defense of the magisterium. The third post in this sequence develops his treatment of the private interpretation of Scripture in light of his counsel meditating on Scripture. Together, these posts show that the Reformed view of the perspicuity of Scripture argued for both the necessity and the insufficiency of private biblical interpretation. Instead of examining his biblical arguments in detail, these posts seek to outline large sections of his thought followed by a few biblical reflections on them.
After establishing the authority, necessity, and canon of Scripture, Polanus treated the perspicuity of Scripture under the question of whether it was permissible for the laity to read the Scriptures (chapter 43, pp. 583-598). After giving thirteen reasons (from Scripture) why the average Christian had both the right and the duty to read Scripture (591-597), he developed his teaching on the perspicuity of Scripture (chapter 44) in response to Bellarmine’s objections (599-632). Responding to Bellarmine’s treatment of Scripture became a standard feature of the Reformed development of the doctrine of Scripture during this time period.
Polanus’ primary contention was that no part of Scripture was obscure in itself (601, 606). While this did not mean that everything taught in Scripture was equally clear to all people, he argued that the Scriptures are light with respect to what they are and that they give light to the sons of light through the Spirit’s work in their hearts (610). He concluded that the Scriptures, like the sun, have light in themselves and that only those who are blind (through sin) cannot see their light (610). The result is that, for believers, “The Scriptures are the external instrument and the external cause of the understanding of faith “(611, my translation). While Christians may not understand everything in the Bible with equal clarity, the Scriptures are inherently clear in relation to their ability to communicate God’s intended purpose. In contrast to Bellarmine (613-623), Polanus argued (from Scripture) that the Spirit enables believers to understand Scripture for salvation as well as to grow in understanding Scripture throughout the Christian life (624-632).
Polanus’ arguments for the perspicuity of Scripture led him to answer several questions regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture. His fourth question related to the church’s role in interpreting Scripture under the heading of power and jurisdiction in interpreting Scripture (672-683). The first three questions, respectively, related to the sense and use of Scripture in light of its ends (633-644), various means of explaining Scripture in light of various biblical genres (644-670), and analytic and synthetic interpretations of Scripture (671-672. From ends to principles or from principles to ends, respectively). He answered his fourth question regarding power and jurisdiction in interpreting Scripture by explaining the relationship between magisterial and ministerial authority. His first point was that the highest authority and judge over the interpretation of Scripture, which is magisterial, was God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture as the author of Scripture (672). This meant that the Sprit was the supreme judge of all controversies regarding the sense of Scripture, since the Father speaks to the church by his Word and Spirit. The highest authoritative interpreter of Scripture was, thus, Scripture itself. Under Scripture, the Lord committed the public ministerial authority of interpreting Scripture to the church (673). As his fifth question reiterated, the church’s authority in interpreting the Bible was not magisterial (contra Bellarmine), since the interpretations of the church could be either true or false (673). The church must implore God for the illumination of the Spirit in interpreting Scripture and the church must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture itself (676). He added here that even Bellarmine admitted this principle on some level. In light of these distinctions, Polanus concluded that private individuals could offer edifying, yet not official, interpretations of Scripture (679). While private interpretation is necessary, godly ministers and church councils alone help the church through the corporate interpretation of Scripture (681-682).
The above material defines the nature of the perspicuity of Scripture as well as the nature of the church’s role in interpreting Scripture. This is an important foundation, since it shows that the fault present in all misinterpretations of Scripture resides in those interpreting Scripture rather than in Scripture itself. Contra Bellarmine and Roman Catholicism more largely, the Scriptures are clear. The next post expands his treatment of what the role of the church in interpreting Scripture should look like.