It is sometimes said, mostly by Protestants but sometimes by Catholics and Anglicans, that there exists such a thing as "the plain meaning of Scripture" (PMS) and this thing ought to serve as the normative criterion for the acceptance or rejection of any proposed assertion about Christianity in particular but sometimes of any assertion at all. Some Catholics will say that, while there is such a thing as "the plain meaning of Scripture", the "final meaning", that is, the interpretation given to Scripture by the Tradition and the Magisterium, is more important than "the plain meaning". I shall argue that there is no such thing as "the plain meaning of scripture", at least as it is used by most Protestants, and hence, a fortiori, it cannot serve as a normative criterion for the interpretation of scripture.
First of all it must be admitted by all sides that, whatever else one must mean by the expression "the plain meaning of scripture", it means, first and foremost, a certain kind of interpretation of scripture. This is because, in spite of the fact that some passages of Scripture may be taken literally, at their "face-value", so to speak, there are certain very obvious exceptions to this. For example, when we read, in Revelation, "I am the Alpha and the Omega", we cannot take this literally, unless we sincerely believe that God is identical to two letters of the Greek alphabet. No one, including severe literalists (SL) who think that the world was created in six 24-hour periods, will suggest that God is nothing more than a letter of the Greek alphabet. The language is quite obviously metaphorical, and presumably other cases such as this one would be sufficient to show that in at least some passages the Scriptures must be interpreted in light of their metaphorical content, and that to interpret them in a literal way in every instance would be to reduce Christianity to nonsense.
So, if every reading of the Scriptures, including a literal one, is in reality an interpretation of the Scriptures, we must take some pains to distinguish the interpretation of the Scriptures that is called "the plain meaning of the Scriptures" from that set of interpretations that is favored by the Church. The non-Catholic view is essentially connected to the criterion of private judgment that I criticized in this post. According to the non-Catholic view, PMS is something that is equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader. No one denies that different well-informed, rationally competent readers often come up with different interpretations of the Scriptures--that is why there are so very many Protestant denominations, after all--but the central idea is that disputes of this sort can be settled by well-intentioned and jointly cooperative searches for the truth, in which rational agents rely on their own rational powers, their own private judgment, and a cooperative examination of all available empirical evidence. The fact that this has rarely, if ever, succeeded, for some reason, gives no one pause, but it is not my intention here to examine the psychological underpinnings of PMS, as interesting as such an inquiry would be.
The Catholic view is rather different. Catholic practice has traditionally been to privilege certain readings of the Scriptures over others. In particular, any interpretation that is inconsistent with the Tradition is regarded as out of bounds. So, for example, suppose someone were to cite Matthew 24.36 ("But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only") as evidence that the Father knows something that the Son does not know, hence the Father is superior in knowledge to the Son and since God is omniscient the Son is not equally God with the Father. This interpretation is arguably consistent with PMS, at least insofar as this interpretation is saying nothing more than what the text itself says, and yet this interpretation is clearly heretical, expressing, as it does, a view about the Son that not even SL would accept. On what grounds would the orthodox Christian reject this interpretation? The defender of PMS will typically argue that there are sufficient other passages in the Scriptures to warrant reading this passage in a certain way. The Catholic will say the same thing, but add that this interpretation is heretical, that is, it contradicts the consensus fidelium that has grown up alongside the Scriptures themselves, grounded in them, of course, but in an important way distinct from them.
What is common to both approaches, then, is the belief that a given passage of Scripture must be interpreted in light of what can be found in the rest of the Scriptures, that is, both sides agree that Scripture nowhere contradicts itself in any meaningful way. (Some defenders of literalism go farther, and assert that the Scriptures do not contradict themselves in any way at all. I think this view is false, but I will not take issue with it in this post.) Where they differ is in the fundamental criterion by which competing interpretations are adjudicated. In the case of the Church, all interpretations must be compatible with the Tradition and the Magisterium; in the case of the non-Catholic defender of PMS, all interpretations must be compatible with his or her own private judgment as to whether the proposed interpretation is consistent with everything else that this particular defender of PMS happens to believe to be contained in the Scriptures. So whereas the Church posits a corporate, diachronic criterion of authoritativeness, the non-Catholic defender of PMS posits an individual, synchronic criterion of authoritativeness.
Closely related to this issue is the question of how best to interpret the Tradition itself and, indeed, the Magisterium. This is not just a passing problem, something tossed into the mix by non-Catholics so as to distract attention away from the "real issue". In fact Catholics themselves argue, sometimes quite heatedly, over whether a particular view really is a part of the "genuine" Tradition of the Church, or whether a particular interpretation of the Tradition really is a part of the "genuine" Magisterium. Some of the instances where these debates are very heated, however, are based on ignorance of what the Tradition and the Magisterium actually are. Catholics who assert, for example, that the Church's teaching on the ordination of woman, or on birth control, or abortion, could conceivably be changed in the future, clearly have no idea of what they are talking about. But there are other cases that are not so clear cut. Allow me to choose a rather personal example to illustrate the kind of difference of opinion that I am talking about. In some recent posts I argued that petitionary prayer has a particular character, and the character that I urged was not the character that many lay Catholics accept. Consequently I was taken to task by some faithful and well-intentioned Catholics regarding my understanding of the nature of petitionary prayer. If there is anything that is discussed with great frequency in the Scriptures, it is prayer, so presumably this difference of opinion could be settled by an appeal to the Scriptures. But, of course, what I was proposing in my posts was a particular interpretation of those very Scriptures, so it would be begging the question to simply point to the very same Scriptures and say, "They don't mean what you say, they mean what I say." Although this line of defense is not uncommon among some defenders of PMS, it is clearly fallacious and I don't think very many of the more thoughtful defenders of PMS use it (at least not very often). Since my proposal had to do with the meaning of prayer in general, it also will not help to try to compare various passages throughout the Scriptures, since in every case it would be begging the question to suggest that my interpretation does not fit the instance. What is needed is something independent of the Scriptures themselves, otherwise the difference of opinion cannot be settled even in principle, and since the distinct interpretations are incompatible with each other then at most only one of them can actually be true.
If you are a non-Catholic defender of PMS, you are out of luck in a case like this: the dispute cannot possibly be settled. But it is not clear that the Catholic is in any better position, since (at least in my opinion) neither the Tradition nor the Magisterium declares my view out of bounds (of course I think that, or I would not have proposed the reading in the first place). But others may disagree with me: someone might assert that the Tradition does indeed declare that my view of prayer is inconsistent with orthodoxy, and then our dispute will have moved from an interpretation of the Scriptures to an interpretation of the Tradition. It is precisely here that the non-Catholic defender of PMS thinks that he has the Catholic by the short hairs, because this, it seems to him, levels the playing field between the Catholic and the non-Catholic, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth, as I hope to show.
A number of factors will necessarily influence any interpretation of the Scriptures, including the PMS interpretation. In this section I will briefly review them and explain why the Catholic (and Orthodox and Anglican and, indeed, anyone who accepts that standard Scriptures-Tradition-Magisterium troika of authoritativeness) is on firmer ground in his understanding of the nature of the Scriptures than the non-Catholic defender of PMS because of his more successful integration of these factors into his understanding of the Scriptures.
The first factor that must be taken into consideration is the origin of the Scriptures themselves, and this factor has two aspects. On the one hand, there is the question of the individual texts themselves and their historical origins. By "individual texts" what I mean is, for example, the text of the Gospel of Matthew, or the text of St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians. This aspect can be further divided into two distinct problems: the text of these works as we have them today and the text of these works as they may have existed in the first century. There is not only no reason to suppose that these two things are the same in any particular instance, there is actually every reason to suppose that they are, in fact, quite different. On the other hand, there is the question of the formation of the Canon of Christian Scriptures, by which I mean the formation of a collection of texts that are accepted as constitutive of the Bible as it is read by the Christian community (as opposed to, say, the Jewish community, which obviously does not accept any of the New Testament texts as parts of Scripture). Let us call this first factor the "historical context". I will return to it shortly.
The second factor that must be taken into consideration is the nature of the community that received these texts and made use of them for determining the content of the faith. This community is itself a historical phenomenon and it is vitally important to assess whether this community suddenly ceased to exist in the 16th, or indeed, any other, century. There are two essential elements to this factor that must be taken into consideration: its communal nature and its accepted standards of discourse, including its use of literary genres such as myth, history, biography, and epistolography. Let us call this second factor the "cultural context".
The final factor I will call the "semantic context". By this what I have in mind is the simple fact that meaning and reference are culturally bound concepts, and the plain fact of the matter is that, as similar as we may be in some ways to the peoples of 2000 years ago, we are mostly very different. Cultures, like every other biological category, evolve over time, and when the timespan is great enough cultures may evolve in such a way as to become incommensurate with what they once were. Although I do not think that the Christian community as such has evolved to that degree in 2000 years, nevertheless our capacity to understand the earliest Christian community is a function of our capacity to cognitively grasp the overall cultural milieu of 2000 years ago, and our capacity to do that is severely limited by the vast distance of time and space that separates the contemporary Western intellectual scene from the intellectual scene of the first century in the Mediterranean basin.
I will begin by saying a few things about the historical context that affect the viability of PMS. It is a historical fact that the earliest New Testament document is St Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, which has been dated by most scholars to the year 50 or 51, though some scholars argue for a date as much as a decade earlier. If we accept a date of around AD 27-30 for the death of Our Lord and the beginning of the Apostolic Age, there is a gap of at least 10 and as many as 20 years before any document was even available to be counted as "Scripture". During this period, the "Scriptures" as such for the new Christian community would have consisted solely of the Septuagint, the translation into Greek of the various holy books circulating at that time among the various Jewish communities in and around Palestine and as far south and west as Alexandria (where the translation was made). It is important to note, as well, that the Septuagint contains more books than what we now think of as the Hebrew Scriptures: not all of the books contained the Septuagint had Hebrew originals, but they were all used in one way or another by one or another local Jewish community. The earliest surviving Gospel account is that of St Mark, which most scholars date to between 60 and 75, with a majority favoring the period between 68-73. Hence there was no written Gospel for a minimum of 30 years after the death of Our Lord and thus no Scriptural account of his life and teachings. It is possible, of course, that the Gospel of Mark is based upon some other, now lost, written account, but there is no empirical evidence to support such a claim. There is some textual evidence that Mark, Matthew, and Luke relied on some common sources, but there is no way of telling whether those common sources were written texts or oral traditions.
There is, then, a rather difficult problem to be overcome by anyone who wants to claim that the only source of authoritative teaching within the Christian community is the "plain meaning of Scripture", since there were no distinctively Christian scriptures for the duration of the first Christian generation. Quite the contrary, what distinctively Christian Scriptures we do possess owe their very existence to the oral traditions of that first generation that were committed to writing only as the Apostolic Age drew to a close and the growing Christian community began to realize that the message would have to be handed on to future generations, given that the Lord was not returning during their lifetime in the way that many of them had originally believed he would. As we will see when we turn to the semantic context, this feature of the surviving Christian Scriptures makes PMS highly implausible.
The lack of distinctively Christian Scriptures during the first generation of the Christian community is a problem in one direction; the proliferation of distinctively Christian writings during the succeeding generations is a problem in the other direction. As time went on more and more texts were produced by Christian writers, whether evangelists, apologists, or theologians, and many of these texts survive but are not counted as "Scriptures" in the technical sense under consideration here. Thus there soon arose a problem regarding which writings were to be regarded as authoritative, and which not. This problem was already quite intense as early as the second century. It is essential to note that nothing in any of the distinctively Christian writings indicates which distinctively Christian writings are to be regarded as authoritative. In the end, it was the Christian community itself, operating independently of the writings themselves, that decided which writings were, and which were not, authoritative. The Canon evolved not only very slowly, but it evolved in different ways in different regions. As Bruce Metzger has shown in his book The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development, and Significance (Oxford: 1987), the Canon evolved independently in the East and in the West, and there was not always full agreement on which writings were to be regarded as authoritative. If the Christian community cannot decide for itself which writings are to be regarded everywhere and always as authoritative, it is difficult to see what other reason there could be than that they could not agree on which writings were fully consistent with orthodoxy and which were not, which most important for communicating the Gospel and which least, and these are differences of opinion about meaning and interpretation. It simply is not the case, historically, that such issues were settled by appealing to something as clear and unambiguous as "the plain meaning of Scripture". Instead, the criterion was the criterion of orthodoxy, that is, works that cohered with what the Christian community already believed were regarded as authoritative. Works that appeared to conflict with the Christian community's sense of the Gospel message, works such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, were rejected, in spite of the fact that they did not contain any outright contradictions of anything contained in what we now think of as the Canonical Gospels (beyond the sorts of minor contradictions that the Canonical Gospels show among themselves).
In light of this historical context, then, it is implausible to suggest that the "Scriptures", as such, constituted anything like an authoritative source of doctrine for the first generation of Christians, or to suggest that as the Canon was forming there would have been an intuitively obvious reading of the authoritative texts that would have been obvious to any reasonable person. Indeed, heresy was as common then as it is now, if not more so, in spite of the fact that the Christian community was much smaller then than it is now. If there were a simple and obvious "plain meaning of Scripture", it seems that it would have jumped out a little more clearly in a context in which the people were far more homogeneous and fewer in number than today, and yet that didn't happen. Instead, we find the Christian community determining authoritativeness independently of distinctively Christian texts.
At this point the importance of the cultural context should be coming into higher relief. The earliest Christian community made decisions about the content of the Christian faith not by means of appealing to specific texts, but by gathering together as a community to determine the consensus fidelium. Indeed, the very texts that we now look to for authoritative teaching teach us this very fact, as we see the Apostles gathering together in Jerusalem to determine what is to be done about certain beliefs and practices that impact the growing Christian community.
As that community evolved over time, it grew distant from its Jewish origins. We see this, too, in the way that the earliest Christian community interpreted the Scriptural texts that it did have, the Septuagint. On their reading, the book of the Prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, a term that is arguably ambiguous in both Hebrew and Greek but that was taken to mean not merely a "young girl" (the meaning of the Greek term used in the Septuagint translation) but a "virgin" in the sense of a young girl who had never had sexual relations with a man. As the young community began to experience persecution at the hands of the Jews, they continued to sing the Psalms at their gatherings, but the words took on new meaning for them, as the enemies being referred to were no longer Babylonians or Philistines, but the Jews, or just sin in general. These sorts of cases are particularly troublesome for the defender of PMS, since the "plain meaning of Scripture" in these cases is really quite different from what the earliest Christian community imputed to the texts. Does this mean that the earliest Christian community, the very community that gave us the New Testament Canon as we have it today, did not itself understand the content of the Gospel that they were to commit to writing? That stretches plausibility to the breaking point.
Some will argue that the Apostolic Age was entrusted with the Gospel by Our Lord himself, and guarded from error by the Holy Spirit, but that after that first generation died out the Christian community slowly began to drift away into error. This is a rather desperate move, since it would be impossible to stipulate any non-question-begging criteria by which to judge the point at which the Christian community first began to err. I suppose that if one dislikes the doctrine of the Real Presence, one would argue that they began to drift away into error by the beginning of the second century, when the apology of Justin Martyr makes clear that the Christian community was already committed to that doctrine. Or perhaps they began to drift away into error in the high middle ages, as Papal power came to be ever more closely associated with temporal power, and the Church lost her moorings as a temporal institution and became nothing more than a political one. Or perhaps they began to err when they began to charge money for indulgences, or even just to believe in the existence of such a thing as an indulgence. Indeed, different groups will all cite different criteria by which to judge that the Christian community is no longer authoritative over the individual, thus licensing the individual to strike out on his own and determine the "plain meaning of Scripture" for himself, but the fact that so many different groups cite so many different "plain meanings of Scripture" seems never to give these folks pause.
Turning finally to the semantic context, it bears repeating that there can be no such thing as a "private language". Language is, by its very nature, a public thing, and our use of language is monitored, not by ourselves, but by the linguistic community in which we use the language. If I refer to a fire hydrant as a "cat", and tell the local firemen, when they come to my burning house, "Quick, connect your hoses to that cat over there," they will rightly stare at me in bewilderment. So I will point to the hydrant, and one of them will say "Oh, you mean the hydrant?" To which I may reply "Call it whatever you like, just put your hose in it and douse my house." But that's not how language works unless you happen to be Humpty Dumpty. In real life, if someone misuses a term, the others correct him. "That's not a cat, by the way," the firemen will tell me later, "it's called a 'fire hydrant'." I can refuse to believe them, but people will think I'm weird if I continue to call fire hydrants "cats".
III. Public and Private Language Games
This is an important feature of language, and it illustrates that in actual human languages terms must be capable of reference if they are to have any meaning, and reference is also public. It connects our terms and concepts to ontological correlates out there in the world, and makes it possible for one person to communicate to another about objective reality. The defender of PMS does not deny this, indeed, he actively relies on it, since he is assuming that the meaning of Scripture, if it is read in a simple and straightforward way, will refer in a perfectly simple and straightforward way that any man can discern for himself. And yet, the very person who endorses this PMS view, denies to the language of Scripture the very element of linguistic usage that underpins his view: i.e., the prerogative of the linguistic community to correct the individual. According to the defender of PMS, there is not only no need to be "corrected" by the community, since every man can "correct" himself, there is some sense in which to be "corrected" by the community is to abandon one's right and duty to determine the "plain meaning of Scripture" for himself. There is, in short, a very serious contradiction in conception at work here. Without a community to determine what any meaning is, let alone a "plain" meaning, there can be no such thing as meaning at all. Hence, the defender of PMS puts himself in the awkward position of saying that the "plain meaning of Scripture" can be determined by every individual for himself, in spite of the fact that all meanings are determined by the community that uses tha language. In the case of the Christian community, it is difficult to see how that community is not a diachronic institution that has existed for nearly 2000 years now and, hence, to determine the meaning of any utterance made within that community, including within that community's writings, one must consult the linguistic practices and rules of that entire community, that is, of the Tradition.
The Catholic, as a matter of practice, always takes the Tradition into consideration in interpreting the Scriptures and, hence, is always treating the language game of Christianity as it ought to be treated: as something public rather than private. This puts the Catholic at a decided advantage over the non-Catholic defender of PMS, who mistakes intellectual independence for doctrinal freedom. This is ironic, because most non-Catholic defenders of PMS are not in any way defenders of doctrinal freedom, indeed, they are often the most vocal defenders of doctrinal orthodoxy, just so long as it is their orthodoxy that they are defending. And yet, by virtue of their claim to have privileged access to "the plain meaning of Scripture" they tacitly claim the power to determine what the doctrinal content of the faith ought to be, just so long as they can give an account of their interpretation of the Scripture that satisfies their own internal intuition regarding what makes the most sense out of the Scripture in question.