It occurred to me that a good case in point is the doctrine of the Real Presence. The examples I gave yesterday ("I am the Alpha and the Omega", "But of that day and hour, no one knows...") were perhaps rather too straightforward, texts that few Christians, if any, would dispute the meaning of. But the doctrine of the Real Presence is another matter. Christians can, and do, disagree about it, and it illustrates rather nicely just how important the cultural and semantic contexts are for the interpretation of Scripture, including the interpretation grounded in a putative "plain meaning" of Scripture.
Here are some Scriptural texts pertaining to the doctrine of the Real Presence:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." [Matthew 26.26]The significance of that final quote to the doctrine of the Real Presence will be made clear in a moment. Let's begin by discussing what "the plain meaning" of the other texts is.
And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." [Mark 14.22]
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." [Luke 22.19]
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." [1 Corinthians 11.23-4]
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. [1 Cor 11.27]
For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. [1 Cor 11.29]
Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. [1 Cor 15.12-14]
Generally speaking, what the defender of PMS means by "plain meaning" is really nothing other than "what the text literally says", but in the present case what the text literally says is a little difficult for some folks to swallow. The texts present Our Lord as telling his disciples that some bread is his body, and few people these days have the philosophical insight or theological imagination to take that literally. So they make a rather curious argument. They say something along the following lines: "Since it is obvious that the Lord's body could not literally be bread, especially seeing as how is intact, pre-crucified body is standing right there holding the bread, this text is clearly metaphorical. The 'plain meaning' here, the 'obvious meaning', is that the bread is only symbolic of his body, and the breaking of it is a metaphor for the breaking of his physical body later on." As we saw in yesterday's post, nobody would seriously suggest that the Lord really is identical to a letter of the Greek alphabet even though the Scripture depicts him as saying "I am the Alpha and the Omega", so the defender of PMS seeks to assert that the Institution Narrative is really no different than the apocalyptic text of Revelation.
Not only does this strategy confuse two very different genres--evangelism and apocalyptic--but it fails to take into account St Paul's own apparent approach to what he says in his texts. In the final passage I quoted St Paul is at pains to explain that the doctrine of the resurrection is not to be understood metaphorical or symbolically or allegorically but literally. Clearly some Christians even in St Paul's time thought that, perhaps, the "plain meaning" of what they were taught had to be what could most easily be made sense of in light of their current understanding of the nature of things, and that understanding clearly did not include anything like bodily resurrection. The Athenians had laughed out loud when Paul had preached the resurrection to them, and one can well imagine other audiences reacting in a similar way. Clearly St Paul's theological imagination was far superior to some of his listeners. Why it should be possible for a man to be risen bodily from the dead, but not possible for his essence to be present not only in his material body but in some other material entity, such as bread, no defender of PMS bothers to say. Instead they merely assert, without argument, that the doctrine of the Real Presence is "contrary" to the "plain meaning" of the Scriptures.
Only it isn't. Of course, it might be, if you adopt as an a priori principle that only those metaphysical principles that are consistent with Enlightenment scientific principles can be regarded as true. If one adopts that principle, then of course bread cannot become the Body of the Lord. But there is no non-arbitrary reason to adopt that metaphysical principle in the first place and, indeed, the Christian has every reason to reject it, since that principle would also eliminate the possibility of bodily resurrection.
If, by contrast, you accept the sort of Neoplatonic metaphysics that we know were at the foundations of the earliest Church Fathers' thinking about the content of the faith, then you also accept the existence of non-material entities such as essences that are not tied by bonds of necessity to any particular material instantiation. Hence, you are committed to a metaphysics that would make such a thing as transubstantiation entirely possible. For this sort of a reader, the "plain meaning" of the Institution Narrative might be the literal reading, but more importantly it might be the reading that is consistent with the doctrine of the Real Presence. In other words, you cannot claim that the doctrine of the Real Presence is incompatible with the "plain meaning" of Scripture unless you antecedently adopt a point of view that makes the Real Presence impossible in principle, regardless of any Scriptural evidence for it, and to do that is to beg the question against the defender of the doctrine of the Real Presence.
In short, PMS is hopelessly theory-laden to begin with, just as every other interpretation is. There can be no such thing as a reading of the Scriptures that is not theory-laden. So in determining what interpretations are most probable, it helps to know the cultural and semantic contexts in which the Scriptures themselves were produced. We know for a fact that Neoplatonism was a part of that context, while Enlightenment materialist and empiricist assumptions were not, and this is why the Fathers accepted the doctrine of the Real Presence, and hence the interpretation that favors the doctrine of the Real Presence is to be preferred to any interpretation that makes the doctrine of the Real Presence impossible.