Scott Carson: Scripture, Meaning, and Interpretation

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.

Read it all.

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Posted in * Religion News & Commentary, Other Churches, Roman Catholic, Theology, Theology: Scripture

22 comments on “Scott Carson: Scripture, Meaning, and Interpretation

  1. azusa says:

    Wow, so illuminating. Before reading this, I had always believed the author was the kilt-wearing progeny of an automobile! Silly me …

  2. Dale Rye says:

    The present Anglican dilemma in a sentence: “most non-Catholic defenders of [the plain meaning of Scripture] 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 [i]their[/i] orthodoxy that they are defending.” That applies to absolutist reappraisers and reasserters alike. Neither is willing to submit their private judgment concerning God’s Word to the difficult and prolonged process of community discernment.

    Note the insistence that “the Bible/Tradition/Magisterium troika” is common to Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans alike. Of course, for Anglicans, the Magisterium is not exercised by a Pope or even exclusively by the College of Bishops. It represents the reasoned consensus of all the faithful reached as their collective discernment of the meaning of Scripture as interpreted by Tradition and Reason (by which the Anglican Fathers clearly meant “[i]common[/i] sense,” not “private judgment”).

    One caveat, of course: Anglicans historically did not regard the “consensus of all the faithful” to require agreement by everybody everywhere. If so, the collective discernment of the Church of England could never have prevailed against the much more popular discernment of the Church of Rome. Instead, they regarded the interpretation of Scripture to be an activity best carried out within a community that shared common assumptions about the use and interpretation of language generally, that is to say a particular linguistic group… a single nation.

    The logical problem with the current conversion of Anglicanism into a single international church is that rejecting national autonomy to interpret Scripture eliminates any rationale for rejecting the Western consensus, which is Latin Rite Roman Catholicism.

  3. Christopher Hathaway says:

    The logical problem with the current conversion of Anglicanism into a single international church is that rejecting national autonomy to interpret Scripture eliminates any rationale for rejecting the Western consensus, which is Latin Rite Roman Catholicism.

    Except for the historical argument that identifies the normative witness of the church with that before there was a Western consensus versus an Eastern consensus. The sensus fidelum is not what most Christians think now but how they have always thought. The Reformation does represent an argument about how to determine this.

  4. Irenaeus says:

    “According to the non-Catholic view, PMS is something that is equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader” —Scott Carson

    This seems like a staw-man argument. What Carson calls the “non-Catholic view” sounds remarkably like the Schofield Bible view—whose quirky epistemology Mark Noll ably dissected in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

  5. Dale Rye says:

    If it were a straw man, neither Carson nor Noll would have to dissect it. The fact is that I encounter men with PMS almost every day in the real world and here.

  6. Phil says:

    Note the insistence that “the Bible/Tradition/Magisterium troika” is common to Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans alike.

    Carson is wrong; that troika is common to Catholics and Orthodox only, as you go on to admit, Dale: “… for Anglicans, the Magisterium is not exercised by a Pope or even exclusively by the College of Bishops. It represents the reasoned consensus of all the faithful reached as their collective discernment … of course: Anglicans historically did not regard the ‘consensus of all the faithful’ to require agreement by everybody everywhere.”

    In other words: every Anglican can believe what he or she wants, and nobody has anything further to say about it. That’s not Catholic; that’s not Orthodox.

  7. Mark in BR, LA says:

    There’s much merit in the essay. Thanks, Kendall, for posting it.

    One quibble: I think that most Orthodox would opt for other ways of framing what’s identified in the essay as the “Bible/Tradition/Magisterium Troika” – preferring instead phrases such as “the Great Tradition of the Church” or “the Teaching of the Holy Fathers.” As is often noted, Orthodox tend to be suspicious of separating “Scripture” and “Tradition” as distinct categories. Rather, Tradition is nothing other than Scripture rightly understood within the Church. Or, as Fr Georges Florovsky phrased it, Tradition is never the “mere memory of words,” but rather “the constant abiding of the Spirit in the Church.”

  8. Philip Snyder says:

    I will pull out my Evangelical Anglican and talk about the Plain Meaning of Scripture when read according to the sense of the text. When God is speaking about the Alpha and Omega or when Jesus is speaking about being the door, we know that they are speaking metaphorically. When Paul is saying “Don’t do that!” (whatever “that” is), the sense of the text is not that he is speaking metaphorically, but that he is giving moral statements. So, when he talks in I Cor 5 and 6 about sexual expression and bringing lawsuits against fellow believers, Paul is not speaking metaphorically about anything. He is giving plain and concrete commands. Thus, when Jesus or Paul speak against sexual immorality, we should interpret the text according to its plain meaning.

    This notion that we cannot know the mind of God and so we shouldn’t try is hogwash. The first is a true statement. I cannot comprehend myself or my wife, let alone God. But the whole purpose of the creeds and the scriptures and the moral teaching is so that I know which God I am worshipping. If the “god” I worship contradicts the creeds or the scriptures, then that is not the God of Abraham, Issac, Jacob nor is it the God and Father of Jesus. To that god, I should not listen, but should only listen to the God I know through Holy Scripture and through the creeds and teaching of the Church.

    YBIC,
    Phil Snyder

  9. William Witt says:

    I have no problem of talking about the plain meaning of Scripture. That is simply another way of saying that Scripture is inherently intelligible and that it has a unity that can be ascertained by human minds. This is an understanding that would have been endorsed by Christians as diverse as Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, and, of course, Reformers as like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Jewel or Richard Hooker.

    The alternative of denying that there is a plain meaning of Scripture is simply to say that Scripture is inherently unintelligible and has no unity that can be discerned by competent readers. It is to open the door to either scepticism or gnosticism.

  10. AKMA says:

    Prof. Witt, it sounds to me as though you’re propounding a false dichotomy (“either it is inherently intelligible. . . or inherently unintelligible”). Is it truly not possible that language isn’t [i]inherently[/i] either intelligible or unintelligible, but that various verbal expressions may be more satisfactorily intelligible to various readers at various times?

  11. rob k says:

    A lot of Scripture, whether simply narrative, allegorical, metaphorical, is indeed intelligible, but some is, to a lot of us, hard to grasp. Also, there are apparent internal contradictions. These are the areas that need a Catholic type of authority, which, as is in the RC Church, is actually pretty generous in the bounds of orthodoxy that it sets as limits. At least some kind of conciliar authority should be our guide.

  12. driver8 says:

    An interesting counterpoint to #2 from the Archbishop of Canterbury:

    [blockquote]Any Diocese compliant with Windsor remains clearly in communion with Canterbury and the mainstream of the Communion, whatever may be the longer-term result for others in The Episcopal Church. The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the Diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such…. I should feel a great deal happier, I must say, if those who are most eloquent for a traditionalist view in the United States showed a fuller understanding of the need to regard the Bishop and the Diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the ‘National Church. [/blockquote]

  13. FrKimel says:

    I am delighted to find Scott Carson’s excellent article on the “plain” meaning of Scripture linked here on T19. Dr Carson is a philosopher and classicist and always worth reading. May I suggest that this article be read in conjunction with a piece he published a few days earlier: “Why Privileging Private Judgment Is A Sin Against Unity.”

  14. FrKimel says:

    What does it mean to say that Scripture is intelligible? Clearly it is intelligible, at least mostly, as a collection of historical texts. Thousands of historical critics make their living reading and understanding these texts within their historical context. For these scholars, the “plain meaning” of each text is identical to its historical meaning. Given the diversity of interpretations offered by the academy of biblical scholars, one might wonder why, if Scripture is so intelligible to any competent reader, so little consensus in interpretation is achieved by historical scholarship. Regardless, the intelligibility of Scripture as text must be presupposed if the historical study of the Bible is to be accomplished.

    I suspect that Dr Carson, though, is not thinking merely of what we might call the historical intelligibility of the Scripture. I suspect that he is thinking of the theological intelligibility of the Scripture–Scripture read precisely as Scripture and not just as historical text. It is this theological reading that requires, as Carson writes, that “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.”

    Here I think that Carson is absolutely right and my friend Bill Witt absolutely wrong. A proper and edifying reading of Scripture as Scripture requires that the reader be fully immersed in the faith and practice of the Church. Apart from this faith and practice, the Scripture is fundamentally unintelligible. Scripture must be read with the Church, in the Church. Only with and in the Church can the profoundly unity of the Bible be discerned. Why? Because it is only with and in the Church that the Bible is in fact and reality one book whose author is the creator of the universe. Divorced from the faith of the Church, Scripture necessarily breaks down into an anthology of texts–interesting and intelligible in themselves, generating infinite speculation and diversity of interpretation, but not the transforming Word of God unto salvation.

    I am not trying to score polemical points here. The crisis of Protestantism is precisely a crisis generated by the fiction of the plain meaning of Scripture, ostensibly available to any competent neutral reader. During the past few decades a number of Protestant scholars have acknowledged the problem. George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas immediately come to mind. The evidence against the dogma of plain meaning is massive, yet its adherents hold on to it for dear life. Why? Not because of the evidence but because the dogma is necessary to secure independence from authoritative communal tradition.

  15. William Witt says:

    Here I think that Carson is absolutely right and my friend Bill Witt absolutely wrong. A proper and edifying reading of Scripture as Scripture requires that the reader be fully immersed in the faith and practice of the Church. Apart from this faith and practice, the Scripture is fundamentally unintelligible. Scripture must be read with the Church, in the Church.

    Al,

    I do not disagree with this. Of course, Scripture needs to be read in the Church. That’s what it is for. This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text.

    To provide a parallel example, the score of a Mozart symphony has an inherent intelligibility to those who know how to read music, and especially to those who are trained classical musicians. To me, who has a minimal ability to read music, and no musical training whatsoever, it is just notes on a page. However, this does not mean that even my amateur ears cannot pick out a Mozart symphony when I hear it played–at least those pieces with which I am familiar.

    The intelligibility, however, is not provided by the listener, nor even by the classically trained symphony. Mozart who was, of course, part of a musical tradition himself, provided the intelligibility, and the trained musician does his best to be faithful to the text. Should a new Mozart score be discovered, trained musicians could play it because of its inherent intelligibility.

    None of this has anything to do with “private judgment.” Someone (either with or without the relevant musical skills), who just decides to wing it as he goes along rather than follow the score, is not “playing Mozart.” Someone with amateur skills, who does her best to follow the score, will nonetheless be playing Mozart, even if not with the adequacy of a classically trained musician.

    In both cases, the inherent intelligibility is in the text. In the former, it is ignored. In the latter, it is revealed. The question of whether or not the musician correctly interprets the text is not provided either by the private musician, or even by the skilled guild of classical musicians. It is only because the text has an inherent intelligibility that skilled (or even unskilled) musicians can listen to a performance, and respond: “That is (or is not) Mozart.”

  16. FrKimel says:

    Bill, I’m always happier when we agree than disagree. But I suspect we do disagree and that our apparent agreement is occasioned only by the unclarity of my remarks.

    But before offering a rejoinder, perhaps you would first state clearly what you mean by the “plain reading” of Scripture. Thanks.

  17. FrKimel says:

    Scott Carson has responded to Bill Witt: “Authorial Intent.”

  18. DavidBennett says:

    This is a topic that, I think, has led many of us toward a more Catholic view of Scripture. I wrote a blog entry about it back in June of 2006, expressing thoughts similar to that of Carson. The full article developed into There is no Plain Meaning of Scripture, my contribution I guess, to the conversation. For me, it was the internet that led me to question the plain meaning of Scripture. The huge number of disagreeing groups appealing to the plain meaning of Scripture leads many to seek a less subjective way to read Scripture.

  19. FrKimel says:

    A thoughtful article on this topic has just been posted at Siris.

  20. moheb says:

    THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA: Mr. Carson uses the expression from the Revelation at the start of his essay to demonstrate that there is no such thing as plain meaning of Scripture. He writes: “when we read in Revalation,”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.”

    What Mr. Carson fails to mention is that in each of the three instances the phrase is used it is not used in a vacume. In each of the three instances, if Mr. carson would read the complete sentence he would have found out that the “plain meaning” is clearly stated. Here are the three sentences:
    1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
    21:6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”
    22.13 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

    None of the instances says” I am the Alpha and the Omega, I am Greek letters.”
    I hope Mr. Carson was attempting to be funny and that he does not really believe that it is not possible to see the “plain sense” of the Alpha and Omega.

  21. AKMA says:

    Moheb, I’m inclined to think that Carson means exactly that “it is not possible to see the ‘plain sense,’ ” because he doesn’t accept the premise of the plain sense (at least not in the way would settle arguments — the Muggletonians took the plain sense of Scripture to indicate that God was about five feet tall). The point that several here want to make is that the Church provides the appropriate, or authoritative, or magisterial guidance that enables us to see “plainly” that God is not simply a Greek letter.