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.