"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Prof. Carson vs. the Protestants on the "plain meaning of Scripture"

It is with keen interest that I've been following Prof. Scott Carson's series of essays centering on the general question how Scripture is to be interpreted. Those include, in chronological order: Scripture, Meaning, and Interpretation; Theory-Ladenness: A Case Study; and most recently, Authorial Intent. As useful background, I also recommend his earlier post Why Privileging Private Judgment Is A Sin Against Unity. Much of his effort is an extended argument against what he calls "the non-Catholic view" that there is such a thing as "the plain meaning of Scripture" that is "equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader." I am happy, if unsurprised, to find myself in agreement with the substance of that argument, one that will stimulate my thinking for a needed expansion and revision of my old, related essay Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent. But in this post I want to jump in on Scott's side by way of responding to two counter-arguments put forth by educated Protestants in their comments.

The first is one that I've encountered before in debate with Protestant theologian Dr. William Witt, who offers it anew, this time against Scott, in the combox of this post at TitusOneNine. Although I think Scott has mounted an effective reply to WW in Authorial Intent, I want to put the matter a bit differently in order to bring out WW's error in a way that frames the fundamental issue more clearly to me, and I hope to other readers.

WW insists, in two different comments actually, that the text of Scripture is "inherently intelligible." None of the disputants, including yours truly, would disagree with that; indeed, Aquinas says that the entire deposit of faith is contained at least "materially" in Scripture, from which it follows that Scripture is intelligible in itself, even though not always "formally" to us without further ado. Both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches have always affirmed that, or what amounts to that; and in that sense, we may agree that Scripture is "inherently" intelligible. Nor would WW deny that "Scripture needs to be read in the Church," as both Catholicism and Orthodoxy insist. Indeed, he says "That’s what it is for." So where's the disagreement?

WW goes on to say: "This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text." Here's where the problem arises. WW's assertion entails in turn that something called "the plain meaning of Scripture" (PMS) is somehow available to readers independently of how the Church interprets Scripture. Scott seems to think that that has the further implication that "PMS is something that is equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader." And I agree with Scott that the history of biblical interpretation amply demonstrates the falsity of such a notion. But as I write, I'm not sure that WW would think such a notion worth the effort to defend. He's too smart for that. So I'm more inclined to read his statements as ambiguous, themselves admitting more than one interpretation that must be considered important for the debate.

To deny that "the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility" might just be meant as a logical consequence of the belief that nothing other than Scripture makes Scripture intelligible. If that's what's meant, then Scott has shown on strictly philosophical grounds that it's false. But it might instead mean that some agency other than either Scripture or the Church makes Scripture intelligible, with the obvious implication that the Church must conform herself to what that agency makes clear in, or through, Scripture. There are two candidates for such an agency: the human authors and the Holy Spirit, which latter is assumed to be the ultimate inspiration and author of Scripture. Of course WW and most everybody else would want to say that, somehow, both agencies together provide Scripture with its inherent intelligibility. So let's go with that.

If we take the human authors as proximate providers of intelligibility, on the assumption that what they meant is what the Holy Spirit, as ultimate author of Scripture, meant to convey by inspiring them, then the way to understand Scripture is simply to understand what the original human authors in each case intended. But that is, or would be, largely useless as a guide to knowing what it is that God has authoritatively revealed and that is somehow conveyed, in its entirety, through Scripture. Although knowing just what the human authors intended is often useful, even important, for learning what God wants us to learn through Scripture, only experts can have adequately informed opinions about human authorial intent, because much knowledge about historical context, cultural milieu, literary forms, and the like must come into play for the purpose of discerning such intent. One might argue that there is, or at least can be, consensus among experts about such things, and that such would suffice for a kind of epistemic authority assuring the rest of us about what the plain meaning of Scripture is in disputed cases. But that runs up against the notorious disputes among scholars themselves; even when there is agreement, it is provisional and subject to differing theological interpretation. So, to rely on the epistemic authority of biblical scholars for the sake of learning the plain meaning of Scripture provides us only with opinions that most believers aren't even in a position to form for themselves. Some opinions are more, some less defensible; but regardless, none of that suffices to afford us an object of divine faith, unless one wishes to reduce divine revelation to a matter of opinion, which no party to the debate wishes to do.

The fact is, as Scott argues, that there is no way round deferring to the consensus fidelium of, and within, the Church, for determining the most important meaning of Scripture, which is the canonical sense. Scripture is a collection of books written in most cases by people who did not know each other; what each meant severally is not necessarily the same, and in many cases probably is not the same, as what their statements mean when interpreted in light of the rest of the canon, which is in turn a lot closer to what the Holy Spirit intended to convey. The authors of the New Testament, moreover, were conscious of writing only within and as members of the Church, using a tradition they had inherited precisely as such. The formation of the New Testament canon took a long time and used prior, ecclesial criteria of orthodoxy as a norm for deciding which books did, and which did not, belong in the New Testament. Accordingly, the Church had the faith whole and entire before she had those parts of "inspired Scripture" that distinguish her Scripture from Judaism's. She even determined, by her own authority, whether what's now called the Old Testament was to be accounted Scripture in any normative sense; that's what the second-century Marcionite heresy was mainly about. The authority of the Church, in short, is necessary and sufficient for knowing what counts as Scripture. By the same token, the Church is necessary (though not always sufficient) for understanding what the Holy Spirit intended to convey by means of the human authors of Scripture; for it is only in and through the Church that we get a canon which telling us what God proposes for our assent, as distinct from what the human authors of those texts, taken severally, meant or thought.

Now obviously none of this means that every interpretation of Scripture that prevails in the Church at any given time is correct. In that sense, WW is right to imply that the Church "can misread the text." But the only alternative to the difficulties WW runs into is to hold that, when the Church interprets Scripture with her full authority, which is precisely what speaks for the consensus fidelium, she is affording both authentic and true interpretation, preserved from error by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the texts and the formation of the canon.

What I'm driving at, in the end, is what I often drive at: for knowledge of the content of what God has revealed—as distinct from the gift of actually believing it—there is no alternative to a Church with an unbroken, true Tradition and a Magisterium divinely preserved from error when it interprets Tradition with the Church's full authority. Of course the latter two are not independent of Scripture, which infallibly expresses Tradition and, along with it, norms the Magisterium. And so I close with a statement I often quote:

10. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

blog comments powered by Disqus