William Twisse (1578–1646) wrote this work during his time as prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly (from 1643 until his death in 1646). This was his reply to a letter that had been anonymously written and sent to the assembly from Germany titled “A Perplexing Question and Doubtful Case of Conscience.” Though the letter claimed to come from a Protestant in the Netherlands, the assembly suspected that it had actually been written by a German Jesuit feigning a “question of conscience.” Twisse’s reply was posthumously discovered and printed in 1652 on the recommendation of Joseph Hall, bishop of Norwich. In the section of the letter just prior to the portion here republished, Twisse had concluded that although the author of the subversive letter frames the question as “whether we can have any certain faith by the holy Scriptures,” the real issue is “whether it be possible for us by the holy Scripture, to have any certain assurance of the meaning of it.” The following excerpt of Twisse’s response therefore takes up the issue of scriptural interpretation.
But it may be this Author through the confusion of his wits, hath not hitherto been so happy as to deliver himself fairly of his own meaning: Therefore, let us take notice of the Discourse it self, whether it may bear any better state of the Question than yet we have been acquainted with: For I guess that in the issue the state of the Question will come to this, Whether it be possible for us by the holy Scripture to have any certain assurance of the meaning of it.
Disc. The reason of our doubting is this, Both Papists and Calvinists holding contrary opinions, do maintain & prove by the holy Scriptures (as they suppose) the contrary to that which the Lutherans hold; seriously affirming, that in the Scriptures the Lutheran Religion is condemned, and theirs confirmed. Which thing no man will deny to be an evident Argument of the obscurity of the holy Scriptures. . . .
Consid. The sum of all this is, that the Scripture is obscure; and that which the Author would infer from hence is this, therefore it is impossible to be sure of the meaning of it; whereby now I perceive the Perplexed Question and Doubtfull case of Conscience comes but to this in plain terms, Whether it be possible for a man to be sure of the meaning of Scripture; the Author maintains the Negative, & proves it, because the Scripture is obscure, and the obscurity of Scripture he proves by this, that men differ in the exposition of it.
Now this I will examine in order, and first observe the dodging disposition of this Author, and manifest evidence of his corrupt affection, and that he comes to this work with an intention not to seek the truth, but to circumvent it rather: For whereas the force of his Argument to prove that the Scripture is obscure, is but this, that Divines differ in the interpretation of Scripture, yet it served his turn rather to instance in Papists and Calvinists joyning together in the interpretation of Scripture contrary to the Lutherans. Might he not as well give instance in Papists and Lutherans holding together in interpretation of Scripture contrary to the Calvinists? Might he not as well have instanced in Lutherans and Calvinists joyning together in the interpretation of Scripture contrary to the Papists? Undoubtedly he might, for it is but an indefinite proposition, and the matter is clearly contingent.
Now an indefinite proposition in a contingent matter is confessed in Schools to have no greater force than of a particular proposition: As much as to say, they differ one from another in the interpretation of some Scriptures. Now this may very well be true, not only of Papists differing from Protestants, but of Papists differing from Papists, as Maldonate from Jansenus, and Protestants from Protestants, not only Lutherans from Calvinists, but one Lutheran from another, and one Calvinist from another in the interpretation of some places of Scripture. Nay, doth not one Father differ from another after this very manner? And do not Modern Divines, even Papists as well as Protestants, take liberty of dissenting from all the Ancients, in the interpretation of some places of Scripture? Witness Maldonate in the interpretation of that Mat. 5. Blessed are the poor in spirit, who takes a way of interpretation different from all the Ancients, by his own confession. And Cardinall Cajetan when he was put upon the studying of Scripture by occasion of his conference with Martin Luther, who would hear nothing but Scripture, see what a profession he makes in his entrance upon writing Commentaries on the Scriptures, Si quando occurrerit novus sensus Textui consonus, nec à sacra Scriptura, nec ab Ecclesiae Doctrina dissonus, quamvis à torrente Doctorum sacrorum alienum, aequos se praebeant censores. And when Austin [Augustine] takes notice of the multiplicity of translations of the Scripture, he was so far from being offended thereat, that he professed there was more profit than damage redounding thereby to the Church; and why may it not be so by different interpretations also? it being more easie to judge which of them is the right, or by refuting them all to find out the true interpretation, than at the first dash to find out the true meaning.
2. Observe the absurd and malicious carriage of this Author. 1. In shaping different Religions, according to different interpretations of Scriptures, whereas I have shewed, that the force of the proposition is only a particular, namely, that they differ in the interpretation of some places of Scripture, which difference I have shewed may be found, and ever hath been found more or less, even amongst them that are of the same Religion, as amongst none have been more different interpretations of Scripture found, than amongst the Ancients. Yet what Christian is found to be so impudent and immodest, as to lay to their charge that they differed in Religion? And look how many different interpretations of Scripture were found amongst them, [were there as] many different Religions . . .amongst them? He might as well profess, that the Papists amongst themselves, the Lutherans amongst themselves, and the Calvinists amongst themselves are of different Religions.
3. We acknowledge different opinions between Lutherans and Calvinians; so no doubt there are different opinions among the Lutherans themselves, and the Calvinians themselves, but we utterly deny there are different Religions. The Lutherans we hold to be true Churches, agreeing with us in the fundamental points of faith, and likewise in being free from Idolatry; for albeit they have Images in their Churches, which we conceive to be a very dangerous thing, yet they doe not worship them; and although they hold real Presence in the Sacrament, yet they do not adore it.
So that albeit we think some of their opinions are contrary to the Scripture, and they think the like of some of ours, yet neither we say of their Religion, nor they of ours I trow, that it is contrary to the Scripture, much less that it is condemned in Scripture.
But come we to the main scope of this Authors Discourse, which is to prove that the Scriptures are obscure, and from thence to infer, that we can have no assurance of the true meaning of it. To this we answer,
[. . .] By denying the consequence, which is this, Divines differ in the interpretation of Scripture, therefore the Scripture is obscure.
And I prove the absurdity, and untruth, and weakness of it.
1. It is weak. For at the uttermost it proves that it is obscure but in some places: For this difference of interpretation is but of some places, as I have shewed, and the force of the proposition I have shewed to be no greater than the force of a particular.
2. It is absurd. For by the same reason [i.e., same mode of argument] I may prove, that the Scripture is clear. Thus:
i. That Scripture is clear in the interpretation, wherein men of different opinions and different Religions doe agree.
ii. But men of different opinions and Religions do agree in the interpretation of divine Scripture.
iii. Therefore the divine Scripture is clear.
And indeed it will be found that we agree in the interpretation not of some only, but of many places of holy Scripture. Now what absurd a course is it for a Disputant so to dispute, as that his Argument may be retorted with as good force against him; yea, and much more? For when men of different opinions are found to differ about the interpretation of a Scripture, it may be this ariseth from the love of their own opinions, which makes the Scripture seem to sound the same way, but when they agree in the interpretation of Scripture, notwithstanding their other differences, this argues the Scripture to be clear enough. Nay, we know Bellarmine will dislike an opinion, and Maldonate an interpretation of Scripture, for Calvin’s sake, striving to differ from such as they hate, though without all just cause, and to wrest the Scriptures to serve their turns.
3. Lastly, the Consequence is as untrue, as it is weak and absurd. For the cause of this difference may be in the darkness of their understanding, who take upon them to interpret it, rather than in the darkness of the Scripture it self, which whether we consider the Law or the Gospell, each of them is termed light by the Spirit of God. Thy Law is a Lanthorn to my feet, and a light unto my pathes, saith David, Psal. 119. And of the Gospell our Saviour speaks, Light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, Joh. 3, [so that] the greater will be their condemnation.
2. I.e., “Discourse.” This is a block quotation from the original letter. Twisse’s response consists of block quotes from the original letter followed by Twisse’s reply under the subtitle “Consider.”
3. I.e., “Consider.”
4. Juan de Maldonado, S.J. (1535–1583), who was trained under some famous Dominicans at the University of Salamanca yet became a famous Jesuit theologian, was particularly known for his commentaries on Scripture. Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638) was a Dutch Roman Catholic theologian who became famous (or infamous) for his strong anti-Jesuit responses from what was considered a faithful Augustinian position on grace, predestination, and human freedom.
5. Tommaso de Vio Cajetan (1468–1534) was one of the most prominent Dominican theologians of the early sixteenth century and a primary respondent to the Protestant movement.
6. “If ever a new and sound sense of the Scriptural text arises, and it is not dissonant either with Holy Scripture or with the teaching of the church, then, even if that new sense differs from a torrent of holy doctors of the church, it is they who rightly expose themselves to censure [rather than the new and sound sense].”From the preface to Cajetan’s commentary on the literal sense of the Pentateuch, In Pentateuchum Mosis iuxta sensum quem dicunt literalem commentarii (1531).
7. Here, as above, Twisse is making a logical point. One cannot validly draw a universal conclusion from particular premises. For example, from the particular premise that “some cats are black,” one cannot validly draw the conclusion that “all cats are black.” Likewise, from the particular premise that “some scriptural passages are obscure,” one cannot validly draw the conclusion that “all scriptural passages are obscure.”
8. Roberto Bellarmino, S.J. (1542–1621) was one of the most prominent Jesuit theologians of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and a primary respondent to the Protestant movement. Twisse’s point here is that these famous Roman Catholic exegetes at various places took a position on a scriptural text simply because it was the opposite position from the one taken by John Calvin.