Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 6 (Interpretation)

Blunt’s sixth chapter is entitled “The Interpretation of Holy Scripture.” However, a more accurate title would be “Hierarchies of Guidance with regard to Holy Scripture” as that is what he presents here.

This will be (should be??) a fairly short post, because Blunt’s presentation here is simple and straight-forward. He begins out of the gate with a flat denunciation of the notion of the perspicuity of the Scriptures, that is, the idea championed in the Reformation that Scripture is clear and simple enough to be read and understood by all:

It is sometimes alleged that this true meaning and sense becomes evident to pious and humble minds at once by a kind of instinct; but however correct such an allegation may be to a small extent, it is contrary to fact when made as a statement applicable to the Bible in general, and to pious and humble minds in general. It is perfectly certain, for instance, that the Song of Solomon, the prophecy of Ezekiel, and the Book of Revelation are not capable of interpretation by instinct. It is also clear that many various interpretations of nearly every part of the Bible will be given by different good men who have no other guide; and that some of these interpretations will be so utterly inconsistent with, and even contrary to each other, as to make it certain that they cannot all represent the truth. Hence, although piety and humility are the proper foundations for a penetrative insight into the meaning of Holy Scripture, external guides to its interpretation are also necessary.

Blunt, 106-107

So—to clarify the argument—Blunt’s two principle proofs for the non-perspicuity of the Scriptures are 1) the really hard books, and 2) a diversity of interpretations even among the well-meaning.

While I agree with Blunt generally in this chapter, this initial establishment of the reasons makes me squirm a little. Perhaps it’s my Lutheran upbringing that emphasized the importance of everyone reading the Scriptures for themselves, perhaps it’s his assumption that a diversity of interpretations is an inherently bad thing. However, I’ve also heard and seen enough very bad biblical interpretation to agree with him that flat, unmediated, unbounded, undirected Bible reading can frequently do more harm than good.

I do want to highlight his second point, though: it’s not what he says explicitly, but implicitly he appears to be arguing for a restricted range of “correct” interpretations if not a single true reading of every passage of Scripture. (I’d like to know if he, like some at the time, would argue for a single right reading of every passage, but he seems too catholic to fall into that particular trap.)

So—guides are required for right reading. The guides Blunt will identify next are ecclesiastical and hierarchical. He begins his discussion of guides with Christ himself, followed by the examples of the apostles from Acts from which he proves his prior point:

In fact, we can hardly open a page of the New Testament but we find the writer of that page guiding us to some interpretation of Scripture which not one person in ten thousand would have found out for themselves; and thus showing the general application of the words spoken by a humble and pious man to Philip, when asked if he understood the mysterious Scripture about the death of Christ, “How can I, except some man guide me?” [Acts 8:31]

Blunt, 108.

(The way he keeps repeating “humble and pious man” makes it clear to me that he is citing some source [likely Calvinist?] that uses that phrase defending the perspicuity of the Scriptures, but I don’t recognize it off the top of my head…)

The move to the post-apostolic age brings with it the first mention of the Holy Spirit which I find both purposeful and deliberate. Note here the context and caveats connected with the Spirit and its interpretive gifts:

It is clear that these interpretations of the Apostolic age were made by those to whom the Holy Ghost had been given for this among other purposes. In some cases it is mentioned that the interpreter was “full of the Holy Ghost;” and in every case it will be reasonable to suppose that our Lord’s promise, “He will guide you into all truth” was fulfilled.

But this province of guidance by the Holy Ghost was not given solely to the Apostles. The represent the Church of all ages, and especially the ministers of Christ in the Church; and as our Lord promised his own perpetual Presence in the words, “Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world.” so He promised the perpetual Presence of the Holy Ghost, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that he made abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth.” Thus the Holy Ghost has been always believed to guide the solemn assemblies of Bishops which are called Councils, whenever they have sought His Presence in a humble determination to abide by his guidance; and it is not difficult to distinguish such Councils from those in which questions have been prejudged or decided from secondary motives instead of humble desires for the Truth.

And as this guidance is given in its highest degree to Councils of Bishops, so in a lower degree, it is part of the ordination gift which is bestowed on all priests and Bishops when the words are spoken, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”

Blunt, 108-109.

Thus, in the hierarchy of guides, Blunt establishes:

  • Jesus
  • Apostles
  • Councils of Bishops
  • individual bishops
  • priests/clergy

Blunt gives particular attention to the clergy piece in discussing their interpretive status:

And although it cannot, of course, be maintained that these authorized interpreters [the clergy] are infallible interpreters, it cannot be doubted that those of them who wish to use the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their expositions of Scripture will receive that guidance, and be preserved from error to the extent to which they submit their studies and ordinary means of knowledge to His benediction. One purpose of their office is the instruction of the laity. It is an universal rule that such instruction shall be founded on Holy Scripture. Hence it is one purpose (and many regard it as the chief purpose) of their office that they shall be the ordinary interpreters of the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Blunt, 109-110.

Thus, Blunt pretty bluntly states that when we’re talking about interpreters guided by the Spirit, it ought to pertain to the clergy rather than the laity. He does get to the laity in the next paragraph, acknowledging they are part of the Church and also guided by the Spirit “so far as it is needed for the purposes of their own Christian life” (Blunt, 110). However, he sees it as a different an lesser order of interpretation than what the clergy receive—else why should the clergy be charged with instructing the laity on the Scriptures? Logically, then, the priestly comprehension is greater than that of the laity.

Finally, Blunt takes up the idea that the Holy Spirit cooperates with natural gifts and acquirements. Thus, he argues that of two devout men, one very learned and the other very ignorant, “the learned man is infinitely more qualified by God to become and interpreter of Scripture than the other” (Blunt, 111). Furthermore, there are great troves of wisdom in the history of the Church, and again—following the previous example—Blunt states:

and of two equally good men, the one of whom has used these treasures and the other has not, the best and most reliable interpreter can very easily be discerned. It is in these treasures, then, that we find the TRADITION of the Church as to the sense and meaning of Holy Scripture; the results of the co-operation of God’s Spirit with man’s learning in searching the Scriptures through many hundreds of years.

Blunt, 112.

Thus, both intellectual development and learning the teachings of the Church create far better interpreters than the “humble and pious man” with which Blunt began.

Blunt concludes the chapter with the acknowledgement that the Scriptures still need to be read, searched, and studied because time is always drawing us into new circumstances which can draw out “hitherto undiscovered meanings” and, indeed, “a special message to the nineteenth century may be found there, of which there would be no perception, because there was no need of its perception, in the ninth century or the third” (Blunt, 112).


Obviously, Blunt is very interested in making the argument for an educated priesthood as the central and local arbiters of the meaning of the biblical text. That makes perfect sense and, largely, I agree with that. I can’t agree that ordination gives an inherently richer/better interpretation of Scripture than the Basic Package Holy Spirit given in Baptism. I also think this argument lands more soundly if you envision Blunt’s target audience as school children in an English village where the vicar is the only man who’s been to university. That’s certainly not my context!

I also can’t help but see a certain symmetry between the model of inspiration and the model of interpretation, that strikes me as structurally suspicious… The notion that the Bible was written by a few specific set-apart men and that its interpretation should be likewise reserved for a few specific set-apart men (because of course they were all men in Blunt’s day) seems like a mutually reinforcing paradigm that is as much about maintenance of the present power structure as it is about the past…