Saturday, October 20, 2007

Theory-Ladenness: A Case Study

In a post yesterday on "the plain meaning of Scripture" I argued that there can be no such hermeneutical principle as "the plain meaning of Scripture" if that principle is grounded in the judgment of the individual as to the adequacy of his own judgment regarding the "plain meaning" of Scripture. Instead, I argued, every interpretation of the Scriptures must be grounded in the full understanding of the consensus fidelium, since it is that community that establishes the ground rules regarding what meanings are possible for the Scriptures, and which are impossible.

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]

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]
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.

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.


Kevin said...

Okay, I know we've been over this (i.e., the whole Transubstantiation thing), but I hardly see how this helps your case against PMS. When you get into the notion of a non-material substance (at least, "non-material" by Enlightenment standards), you can just about postulate any interpretation of "Real Presence." Indeed, the Anglicans, Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, and even the Calvinists can agree (the Calvinist would take issue on presence "in" the elements, but even the Catholic doctrine qualifies this local presence as "not in the manner in which bodies are in a place," so everything's good). In other words, I think there's a problem of the, what I hereby proclaim as, Plain Meaning of Roman Catholicism (PMRC). In addition to the Eucharist, we could also discuss the PMRC in regard to Original Sin, what has been an ex cathedra statement, what constitutes an infallible doctrine of the ordinary, universal magisterium, or the salvation of non-Catholics. Or we could get really obscure and discuss Mary's virginitas in partu. I think you get my point.

Scott Carson said...


I'm not exactly sure I understand just what you're saying, but if I do understand you, then--tah-dahhh!!!--I agree with you!

I'm not claiming that the Scriptures have no definitive meaning, as William Witt suggested over at TitusOneNine. In rejecting PMS as an interpretive principle I'm rejecting a very specific version of it, the one I defined in the first post that is essentially connected to private judgment.

In my view, the meaning of the Scriptures is in fact determinate, but it's up to the corporate Christian community to determine what that meaning is. The typical appeal to PMS is used against this method of interpretation, and it is this more typical usage that I'm objecting to.

The historical fact of the matter is that Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians have always believed in the doctrine of the Real Presence (though they do not always agree on the metaphysical explanation for the Presence, as we discussed regarding transubstantiation, and of course some Anglicans [mostly those who have, for one reason or another, become disconnected from their roots] no longer accept the doctrine of the Real Presence), and it is a historical accident that is not mere coincidence that Christians first began to reject the doctrine only with the advent of individualism, along with the rise of materialism, and empiricism, during the Enlightenment. To be suddenly told, after 1500 years, that the Christian community has completely misunderstood the "plain meaning of the Scriptures" and low and behold there is a tiny little community of believers in Northwestern Europe who have the light of divine truth in their possession is, well, stretching things a bit.

So it's true, in a way, that "when you get into the notion of a non-material can just about postulate any interpretation", but the point is that we don't. It's not that literally anything is permitted, the point is rather that the Church determines what is acceptable and what is not, not the private judgment of any one individual.

I think, though, that once we accept the idea that the heart of the interpretive community is not the individual but the Church, topics such as Original Sin and the Virgin Birth become much less problematic.

Pontificator said...

I long ago realized that the New Testament can be read as authorizing a catholic understanding of sacraments and a Protestant understanding of sacraments. Baptist biblical scholars are just as bright and competent as their catholic counterparts. They simply do not see baptismal regeneration or eucharistic real presence in the texts.

Clearly something more is going on than scholarly disagreement on the plain meaning of Scripture. It's a matter of looking at the whole of Scripture differently.

Kevin said...


I understand what you mean by PMS and criticizing its inadequacy (I did read your original post on it, but I was working on a presentation for class, so I didn't have time to respond). Anyway, my criticism is that, even if we grant the inadequacy of PMS, the Catholic also has problems within his own system in determining what is doctrine, indeed, dogma. Hence, the PMRC is curiously unclear when it comes to the things I listed. I can grant the problems in interpreting scripture, but I see similar problems in interpreting Catholic dogma, which are particularly problematic given the Catholic Church's claims about herself. is a historical accident that is not mere coincidence that Christians first began to reject the doctrine only with the advent of individualism, along with the rise of materialism, and empiricism, during the Enlightenment. To be suddenly told, after 1500 years, that the Christian community has completely misunderstood the "plain meaning of the Scriptures" and low and behold there is a tiny little community of believers in Northwestern Europe who have the light of divine truth in their possession is, well, stretching things a bit.

I simply don't read history that way. As a Protestant, even Reformed, I can see many of the early church fathers' statements on the body and blood of Christ as fully in-line with my beliefs, b/c I don't presume them to believe in any sort of physical change (though maybe some did, I don't know), so "the host becomes the body of Christ" can be interpreted along fully spiritual lines. In fact, I could probably even accept Transubstantiation (oddly enough) given the way most Catholic theologians (conservative and liberal) explain it. The "scandal," to which I've spoken before, of Transubstantiation for the Reformers was that it was conceived physically, corporally, or whatever you want to call it. I can't imagine it being that big of a deal if everyone knew that the RCC doctrine means that some sort of non-material reality apart from every physical property that we can determine is what is switched-out at the concecration. The Protestant "Jesus spiritually gives himself to us in the receiving of the host" could fit into such a conception. Certainly most Lutherans would be fine with such "Transubstantiation" since all they wanted to do was preserve the physical reality of the host and wine. Also, we can't just say that for 1500 years "the Church" believed such-and-such until some know-it-alls in the North made a fuss. Substantial change (and what it means) was debated long before Luther and continues within the RCC. As well, the Eastern disputes with the West on substantial change can't be dismissed as relatively unimportant when compared with the RCC v. Protestant interpretations, especially when it was Eastern criticisms that the Reformers appropriated.

Pontificator said...

Given that eucharistic theology is one of the few things I know a little (just a little, I grant), I'd like to comment on Kevin's statement that the Reformed understanding of eucharistic presence (and here I guess he is probably thinking of Calvin) can find strong support in the theological and liturgical tradition.

I just don't think that is so and reference Darwell Stone's massive book on the History of the Doctrine of the Eucharist.

I think it is true that Reformed Christians can find statements in, say, Augustine that seem to support their views, but the similarities diminish when the whole of Augustine is read, remembering at all times the intimate union of symbol and reality.

But in any case, the Western Church found it necessary to move beyond the language of symbol in order to adequately state the eucharistic presence, as did the Byzantine Church. In my essay "Eating Christ" (Pro Ecclesia), I argue, following Anglican theologian Francis Hall, that the fundamental eucharistic dogma of the Church is the "real identity": the consecrated elements are the Body and Blood of Christ. Transubstantiation, as developed by the medievals, is but one attempt to express this dogma. The important point for faith is the belief that these consecrated objects of bread and wine are in the most profound sense the Body and Blood of Christ and thus deserving of true worship and adoration.

And here is where Reformed theology and practices separates decisively from catholic theology and practice. Whatever else the Reformed may believe about the eucharistic presence, they agree that worship adoration of and prayer to the elements is nothing less than idolatry.

Kevin said...

Yes, but what does a Catholic (or Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) believe by "an intimate union between symbol and reality" or "real identity" and so forth? I do grant that the local presence "in" the elements is a difference between Calvinists and others, as I noted in my first comment.

Pontificator said...

Kevin, the catholic's belief about the union of symbol and reality is manifested in praxis. So the real question you need to be asking is, How is catholic eucharistic praxis different from Reformed eucharistic praxis?

Do Reformed prostrate themselves before the eucharistic elements? Orthodox do.

Do Reformed pray to the elements (i.e., to Jesus now sacramentally present under the species)? Catholics do.

Do Reformed reserve the Blessed Sacrament? Catholics and Orthodox do.

Do Reformed return unconsumed consecrated bread and wine to the sacristy to be used again for another celebration of the Supper? Catholics and Orthodox view that not uncommon Protestant practice as sacrilege.

Do Reformed really believe that that piece of consecrated bread on the altar really and truly IS Jesus?

Kevin said...

Indeed. I can't argue with that. My original point was just that the belief in substantial change is so ill-defined as to be open both to a myriad of interpretations and effectively no interpretation. Certainly, though, the praxis has an interpretive power of its own that I should have attended to.

Anonymous said...

Scott, one small bone to pick: Didn't St. Augustine say that the "primary" meaning of a text is the meaning that was in the mind of the author when he wrote it? So, for example, when was Jesus at the River Jordan the Holy Spirit came down as a dove "in bodily form." Even if one were to admit that the text before "in bodily form" could be read as the Holy Spirit descending metaphorically or symbolically or invisibly through spiritual operation only, the further words exclude that meaning. Nobody adds "in bodily form" for a mental notion of an event happening that has no physical manifestation.

Wouldn't this sense qualify as the proper "first" sense of a text?
Tony M