Plain Sense I

It’s time that we talked a bit about the “plain sense” of Scripture. I’ve seen a certain amount in the blogosphere recently about the plain sense, so I thought I’d say a word or two (or a couple thousand) about it to give a biblical scholar’s perspective on the issue.

I. A Short History of the Plain Sense

The main argument in Church history that led to the need to talk about a “plain sense” of the Scriptures is, of course, the Reformation. John Calvin, Martin Luther, and others argued for the pespecuity of the Scriptures which is a fancy way of saying that the Scriptures are clear and understandable. As long as a person has the Spirit, they can understand what the Spirit meant in the composition of Scripture. Now–that was a loaded sentence so we’ll say a few things about what they were saying and what they weren’t–and yes, I’ll be working with some sweeping generalizations here.

A. Rejection of the Need for a Magisterium

In the first place, the claim of the perspecuity of the Scriptures was a reaction to the atmosphere of the Late Medieval Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps the most important meaning of their declaration is that a magisterium with an authoritative interpretation of Scripture was unnecessary. Note, please, they weren’t saying hat the teaching of the magisterium was necessarily wrong (at least not on all points); they were arguing that it was unnecessary and that Christians could read and understand Scripture for themselves.

With this statement, they were making a bit of a departure from standard church practice. In the first place, they were sanctioning giving the whole Scriptures to the people in their own language. We focus on the latter part but the former part was the real issue. After all, there had been vernacular translations and paraphrases of certain sections for quite a long time.

Giving the whole Scriptures to the people was a rather problematic endeavor. The Church had noticed that heresies arose when people read the Scriptures for themselves–and by themselves. After all, the Marcionites, Arians, Nestorians, Sabellians, Cathars, etc. were not heretics because they *weren’t* reading the Scriptures; they *were* reading them, reading them improperly, and thus the Scriptures were promoting the problem, not solving it.

Furthermore, there was always anxiety around the Old Testament. The Church believed and taught that the Old Testament and New Testament fit together as a seamless whole. The revelation of Jesus superceded parts of the OT. After all, according to Paul the Law was a pedagogue–the slave who instructed children–but since the children have achieved their majority as inheritors of the kingdom, the pedagogue can be dispensed with. More particularly–the Church knew which sections no longer applied. Any old Joe who picked up a Bible didn’t..

Looking at the Old English material, this anxiety can be clearly seen. Ælfric in his sermons warns against applying the old law in a blanket fashion (like in the sermon for the Circumcision of Our Lord); Æthelwold in his translation of Benedict’s Rule warns against the monks hearing of the Books of Samuel and Kings outside of a liturgical setting where they were properly (i.e., typologically) interpreted.

As a result, lay people–the literate ones at least–were given only parts of Scripture (like the Psalms) and edited portions of the Gospels for their reflection and pious devotion. The Reformers threatened this whole system.

B. Rejection of Interpretive Methodologies
Another facet of this insistence on the perspecuity of Scripture was directed towards the abuses of allegorical interpretation. And there were certainly abuses that needed correcting. Look at any sermon or interpretation of the number of fish caught in the disciples’ net in John 21 and you’ll see a perfect example of what I mean–wild speculation abounds. The Reformers were arguing that these excesses violated the clear meaning of Scripture. There are at least two things to keep in mind, though: 1) the Reformers themselves were schooled in and used these “allegorical” methods and 2) these were pre-Scholastic methods operating in a post-Scholastic environment.

First, the Reformers were themselves schooled in these methods of interpretation; it was deep in their bones. Consequently, when you open their writings–and I’m thinking specifically of some of Luther’s sermons here–you find exactly the same thing. While they rejected the excesses of the method, they knew and used the method itself. Understanding their rejection of it means understanding the limits they thought should be palced on it.

Second, these reading methods were quite old. They were patristic, in fact, and sprang from the reading methods of Late Antiquity. Allegorical interpretation proper is most often found coming from a monastic milieu (Gregory the Great being a foremost promoter) that operated within the categories of Stoic philosopy. That is, their focus and interest was on human action–moral action in particular. Taking seriously that all Scripture was inspired to be profitable and upbuilding, they played in and with the text within the boundaries of the creeds. They would take texts that seemed (to them) to serve little or no useful function and wring it for every potential bit of profit, sometimes utilizing rather unusual mental gymnastics to find some divine honey.

Scholasticism with its Aristotelianism and later Nominalism explored and used the texts in different ways than the Stoic-flavored contemplative readings. Under the dialectical schoolmen, the texts became less a playground and far more a mine for doctrine. This is the attitude that the Reformers brought. If the text was a source of axioms for theological proofs, it had to have a stable meaning that didn’t change so much. So–allegory had to be curtailed if not rejected. Note that Aquinas interprets the Scriptures the same way; the literal sense is the sense to be used for the establishment of doctrine.

Now, these two meanings were the anti-Roman meanings of the Reformers’ dicta. But–here are some other factors embedded in there as well.

C. The Agency of the Holy Spirit

The Reformers–like the Catholic magisterium–believed that the whole text, Old and New Testament, was written by a single author: the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the Spirit taught how the Bible was to be read. Without the Spirit, the Reformers believed that the Scriptures were inscrutiable–or at least could not be rightly read. Thus, they assumed the unity of the OT and NT, and that some literal meanings were either not correct or had been superceded.

One of the most important safeguards here is that if the whole Scriptures were by the Holy Spirit all apparent contradictions within Scripture are just that–apparent rather than actual. For instance . . . when in his ministry did Jesus cleanse the Temple: at the beginning as reported in John or at the end as in the Synoptics? (Many interpreters concerned with contradiction asserted that he did it both times. You’ll still find this today in some circles.) Potentially more damaging, who are the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus recorded in the gospels? Could they really be the biological children of Joseph and Mary–who, it was taught, were celibate? (These family members were interpreted as cousins.)

What happened when the Reformers put the Scriptures in the hands of the people is what the magisterium predicted–problems. People without the discipline and teaching of the Church–often without even a basic understanding of the creeds–began interpreting the Scriptures in ways that neither the magisterium nor the Reformers intended. Various heresies were soon revisited. Antinomian controversies rocked the nascent Lutheran Church. The “Enthusiasts” began proclaiming complete liberty from all morality. Calvinists, in particular, attempted to translate the legisltion of Torah into the law of the land with remarkable failures. Marian devotion plummeted after the first generation of Reformers. In short–they had a mess on their hands.

One of the outgrowths (and causes) of the Reformation was Renaissance learning. Western scholars started studying Greek and Hebrew, old texts were compared with one another, and Protestant biblical scholars began talking about the grammatical sense of the text. As these trends progressed and universities became the locus of major biblical interpretation, the grammatical sense became a way of saying “the clear sense not constrained by a Catholic interpretation.” As things moved even further this became “the clear sense not constrained by either Catholic or Protestant interpretations.” Finally, it became “the clear sense free from any dogmatic constraints” and we were on our way towards the scientific study of Scripture.

The sceintific study of the Scriptures began doing its work which included noticing all sorts of contradictions, seams in the texts, historical blunders, and many of the traditional presuppositions were called into question. The original intentions of the author became the dominant “meaning” but the authors in question were now the many separate human authors rather than the Spirit. Finally, the accuracy of what the text revealed was questioned. Questions of cosmology, biology, and history arose as the texts were read without dogmatic restraints and as they were read in parallel with other contemporary texts.

Finally, certain parts of Protestantism could no longer ignore these developments and they began a backlash against this method of reading the text. The result was a certain hardening or rigidity of reading known to us as fundamentalism. The fundamentalists, in a way, insisted on what the Reformers did–that there was a single correct literal sense of the text over against other ways of reading–but they were arguing something different against different opponents from what the Reformers had been arguing. This is the point when the novel notions of infallibility and inerrancy were introduced. So, these are the seeds of modern day “literalism.”

The problem of terminology now arises. In essence, the fundamentalists and the biblical scholars were in agreement: most passages of the Bible have a more or less obvious meaning. To interpret them apart from that is to depart from the clear or plain sense of the text. I don’t say “literal” here because a strict literalism means a rejection of figures, schemes, and tropes in a way that is itself an aberration.

As all self-conscious readers of texts know, sometimes a text signals that its contents are not meant to be read literally. Figures and tropes are clearly literary devices and should be read that way. When Jeremiah says that the Word of God is a hammer, no rational person thinks that God’s breath congeals as a hand tool. Furthermore, certain genres in Scripture clearly signal that they are to be read with a different set of understandings–unless you believe that there is a literal seven-headed red dragon running around somewhere a la Revelation.

In order to avoid these misinterpretations and misrepresentations, both biblical scholars, fundamentalists, and other believers talk about the “plain sense of the text.” And I don’t think that this is a problem. In fact, I am prepared to argue that this is the sense that the great majority of all Christians use when they sit down to read the Bible (or any other text for that matter). So–what’s the problem?

(To be continued…)

1 thought on “Plain Sense I

  1. bls

    Just wanted you to know that I did read this. Even though I didn’t want to, given the topic.


    (It’s good, BTW. Interesting history. You’re like an encyclopedia.)

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