Monday, August 06, 2007

there is no plain sense of scripture

The notion that there is "a plain sense" of Scripture, and correlatively that Scripture alone should govern our life in Communion, is mistaken.  It is belied by the existence of many thousands of Protestant denominations, all of which have their origin in disagreements over what Scripture says.

Rather, as Paul told Timothy, the Church is the pillar and foundation of the Truth.  The Lord gave the Apostles magisterial (magister = teacher) and juridical authority, which they passed on to their successors, and which they passed on to their successors -- a process that will continue until the Lord returns in glory.  It is the bishops of the Church, as successors of the Apostles, who have authority to interpret Scripture and promulgate doctrine (docere = to teach).

We may, of course, interpret it too, but only within the parameters of their interpretation.

9 comments:

Jeff said...

Good post. I posted an article along similar lines on my own blog.

a somewhat contrarian DDX said...

I guess then we need to know what those parameters are before we understand anything from scripture…if, that is, there is, as you say, no “plain sense of scripture.” I don’t see the various denominational groups (or theological camps) interpreting differently as much as emphasizing different portions to the obscuration of others. For some it’s forms of baptism, others the eucharist, others spiritual gifts and so forth. Rather than contrary interpretations they simply obscure or refuse to interpret what doesn’t promote their program or reinforce their sectarian identity. To ignore scripture is no substitute for interpreting it, which I believe every believer should do, hopefully in the light of historically accepted interpretation and never contrary to the plain literal sense. But there obviously IS a plain literal sense…and more.

The style of Jesus sayings and teaching was consistent with the rabbinical thought and teaching style of the times. Interpretively, He sometimes agreed with one rabbinical school or another, such as Hillel versus Shamai. At times He brought forth something entirely unique either in content, interpretation or both. However, the main difference between Him and other rabbis was the authority with which He taught. It was said, “Never did one ever teach like this, having such authority!” They didn’t say no one ever taught it. It was His (divine) authority that was unique. (Mat. 7:29, Mark 1:22). Other’s healed, cast out demons and taught on the same subject matter. In the Hebrew Scriptures O.T.) other’s had even raised the dead! But, I digress...

The New Testament writings often interpret Old Testament scripture in a surprising allegorical way that one would not naturally get from the literal sense and some seem like a huge “stretch.” But, that was acceptable methodology.
Since NT times there has been a Hebrew acronym P.A.R.D.E.S.(פרדס) which forms a word meaning “orchard.” Interestingly it is the origin of the word “paradise.” The Pardes system remains today a method of systematic exegesis in Judaism and is an acronym for the four components and is also common to the church:
• Pshat (פְּשָׁט) — the "simple meaning" of a verse or passage
• Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints" of a deeper allegorical meaning beyond just the literal words
• Drash (דְּרַשׁ) — "interpretation"; unraveling meaning by comparing words and forms in the passage to similar occurrences elsewhere
• Sod (סוֹד) — the "secret" or mystical meaning of a passage, as given through inspiration or revelation
It has been recognized since 1c.BC that there IS a Pshat, a plain literal sense or meaning of scripture, plus lot’s more.

If there is no literal “plain sense” then there is only the allegorical and mystical and we must be informed of those “parameters” you mention in order to interpret anything at all and know we are within bounds. If that is the Roman view it might explain why even deeply spiritual Roman Catholics often know so little of scripture. Reading it would be futile. Why bother? You’ll just get it wrong unless you already know what the Church has said. If we can’t be familiar with innumerable commentaries through the centuries we can only go with whatever someone with Church authority has told us.

MMBX went to a Roman Catholic school until 8th grade. She said they encouraged NOT reading the Bible as it would only confuse them. Rather, they were assured that anything they needed to know they would be told.

The New Testament commends the believers in Berea because they “searched the scriptures” (for themselves) presumably interpreting them to test the apostle’s teaching rather than the other way round. (Acts 17:11) Is that method now reversed?

The Protestant Reformation in response to Roman corruption did not produce the New Jerusalem. Protestantism, Romanism, This Orthodox, That Orthodox, every human group has blown it at one time or another.

As we read scripture, we must interpret to understand. There is clearly a “plain” and literal sense (and much more) to scripture. But the only interpretation that accomplishes anything of eternal good is that of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writer inspiring the reader or hearer. On that I would hope we can all agree.

I guess then we'd need to know what those parameters are before we understand anything from scripture…if, that is, there is, as you say, no “plain sense of scripture.” I don’t see the various denominational groups (or theological camps) interpreting differently as much as emphasizing different portions to the obscuration of others. For some it’s forms of baptism, others the eucharist, others spiritual gifts and so forth. Rather than contrary interpretations they simply obscure or refuse to interpret what doesn’t promote their program or reinforce their sectarian identity. To ignore scripture is no substitute for interpreting it, which I believe every believer should do, hopefully in the light of historically accepted interpretation and never contrary to the plain literal sense. But there obviously IS a plain literal sense…and more.

The style of Jesus sayings and teaching was consistent with the rabbinical thought and teaching style of the times. Interpretively, He sometimes agreed with one rabbinical school or another, such as Hillel versus Shamai. At times He brought forth something entirely unique either in content, interpretation or both. However, the main difference between Him and other rabbis was the authority with which He taught. It was said, “Never did one ever teach like this, having such authority!” They didn’t say no one ever taught it. It was His (divine) authority that was unique. (Mat. 7:29, Mark 1:22). Other’s healed, cast out demons and taught on the same subject matter. In the Hebrew Scriptures O.T.) other’s had even raised the dead! But, I digress...

The New Testament writings often interpret Old Testament scripture in a surprising allegorical way that one would not naturally get from the literal sense and some seem like a huge “stretch.” But, that was acceptable methodology.
Since NT times there has been a Hebrew acronym P.A.R.D.E.S. (ס ד ר פּ )which forms a word meaning “orchard.” Interestingly it is the origin of the word “paradise.” The Pardes system remains today a method of systematic exegesis in Judaism and is an acronym for the four components:
• Pshat (פְּשָׁט) — the "simple meaning" of a verse or passage
• Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints" of a deeper allegorical meaning beyond just the literal words
• Drash (דְּרַשׁ) — "interpretation"; unraveling meaning by comparing words and forms in the passage to similar occurrences elsewhere
• Sod (סוֹד) — the "secret" or mystical meaning of a passage, as given through inspiration or revelation
It has been recognized since 1c.BC that there IS a Pshat, a plain literal sense or meaning of scripture, plus lot’s more.

If there is no literal “plain sense” then there is only the allegorical and mystical and we must be informed of those “parameters” you mention in order to interpret anything at all and know we are within bounds. If that is the Roman view it might explain why even deeply spiritual Roman Catholics often know so little of scripture. Reading it would be futile. Why bother? You’ll just get it wrong unless you already know what the Church has said. If we can’t be familiar with innumerable commentaries through the centuries we can only go with whatever someone with Church authority has told us.

MMBX went to a Roman Catholic school until 8th grade. She said they encouraged NOT reading the Bible as it would only confuse them. Rather, they were assured that anything they needed to know they would be told.

The New Testament commends the believers in Berea because they “searched the scriptures” (for themselves) presumably interpreting them to test the apostle’s teaching rather than the other way round. (Acts 17:11) Is that method now reversed?

The Protestant Reformation in response to Roman corruption did not produce the New Jerusalem. Protestantism, Romanism, This Orthodox, That Orthodox, every human group has blown it at one time or another.

As we read scripture, we must interpret to understand. There is clearly a “plain” and literal sense (and much more) to scripture. But the only interpretation that accomplishes anything of eternal good is that of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writer inspiring the reader or hearer. On that I would hope we can all agree.

father wb said...

The Bishops can't teach anything contrary to what the Apostles taught, and the Apostolic teaching is attested by Scripture.

I don't mean that there is no LITERAL sense of Scripture, there is in most cases. Though some Scripture has no literal sense ("deep calls to deep in the voice of your cataracts" etc.). Origen taught this.

I do mean that what God means to convey in Scripture is often not PLAIN -- i.e. not obvious. Thus the controversies.

With respect to different denominations bringing out different emphases in the polyvalent meaning of Scripture, that is clearly true sometimes, but often it is not so. Baptists say it is not licit to baptize infants. Catholics say it is. Both claim to take their teaching from Scripture. Who is correct? They cannot both be correct, because their claims are mutually exclusive. And there are a thousand other examples.

The question is: how do you know which is the correct teaching? All Christians rely on the authority of the Bishops to place parameters on interpretive license, whether they realize it or not. For example, we all believe that the Son is consubstantial with the Father. Why? Because the Bishops at the Council of Nicea said so. In saying so, they circumscribed the polyvalent significance of the Gospel as in John 14.28 where the Lord says "The Father is greater than I." We can no longer interpret this passage in such a way as to exclude the full divinity, consubstantiality, co-eternity, etc. of the Son and the Father -- despite the fact that the literal sense of this saying would seem to incline AWAY from the doctrine of the Son's full divinity. And indeed much of Christendom in the second and third centuries, following Arius, interpreted the Scripture in just this way.

But why is such an interpretation illicit? On what basis do we say conclusively that it is INCORRECT? Because the Lord entrusted his "Word of Truth" to the Apostles, and gave them authority to teach and govern the Church, and they past on that authority to others, down to the present day.

This dynamic is attested not only in Scripture (Paul laying hands on Timothy, and telling him how to choose other men and lay hands on them; and also the Apostles choosing a successor Matthias to succeed to the place of Judas). Ignatius of Antioch, who probably knew both John and Peter, wrote to his flock as he was on his way to be martyred:

"As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one."

St. Ignatius was born about a.d. 35 or 40, and was thus a contemporary of the Apostles.

And so too St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about this very subject (who has authority to pick out the doctrine of the Apostles from competing doctrines -- from those who claimed that they know the REAL doctrine, as opposed to what the catholic Church taught) wrote in the middle of the second century:

"It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity."

Jody+ said...

WB,

I believe you answered part of my question in your response to ddx. I agree with you that trusting in an arbitrary and indefinable "plain sense" is what has led to the multiplication of protestant sects. However, I was concerned with the degree of authority you were allowing Bishops. Perhaps I should rephrase that--you seemed to be giving a great deal of authority to bishops, many of whom aren't taking the correlative responsibilities they have very seriously.

One place that I've found I disagree with some Anglo-Catholics is in what seems to me to be a too high view of the episcopal office apart from its faithful teaching of the apostolic faith.

At any rate, I was glad to see you reference the Apostolic teaching that is testified to in scripture--I would say that it is our responsibility as members of the Church to try, with humility, to hold our Bishops accountable to that standard.

father wb said...

Jody,

Indeed. There's no question that there are unorthodox, apostate, and heretical bishops. And its tricky in Anglicanism where -- as opposed to among the Romans -- we haven't got a juridical structure in place to deal with bishops who are doctrinally wayward. That is PRECISELY the problem of the present moment. What's the solution? The rest of the bishops should bring the wayward back in line. And there needs to be juridical mechanisms for doing so (for example, oh, I don't know, a Covenant of some sort).

With respect to heretic bishops and orthodox priests under their authority, the situation is particularly tricky in ECUSA. The problem is that we haven't got a truly catholic mechanism for getting bishops to begin with. The primitive (ecumenical) councils are quite clear that bishops are to be not only consecrated, but CHOSEN by other bishops; not elected by presbyters and laity, as they are in ECUSA. ECUSA has gotten the bishops it deserves: spineless, semi-literate politicians, with many heretics among them.

I think orthodox priests should not undermine the authority of their bishops, even if their bishops are heretics. They should work within the proper channels to try and get a better bishop. This can include bringing up their bishop on charges of heresy. But we know how well that has (not) worked in ECUSA. Of course priests should never themselves do anything heretical or immoral, even if their bishops order them to, or tell them its okay to. In other words, priests (like everyone) should proclaim the catholic faith (=the Gospel) where they are, and not exceed their authority, and be prepared to suffer for faith.

Case in point: I ministered for two years (2004-2006) in the Diocese of Connecticut. I had no problems, though the hierarchy are heretics. I preached the gospel and no one messed with me.

Jody+ said...

WB,

I think we agree. I would say though, that I would pray that there would be some juridical body established to enforce any covenant--sort of like the Methodists have done with their Book of Discipline. Their juridical body has enforced their discipline and prevented the sort of change-through-practice that has occured in TEC, at least thus far. And I would argue that time is on the side of the orthodox in the UMC, as it is in the Anglican Communion, as long as we maintain our global unity. One of the things that troubles me about the current differences between the so-called "federal" and "communion" conservatives is that those who are threatening not to support a communion solution are, in the end going to lose, or at least enjoy the fruits of a Pyhrric victory as the Communion fragments.

Ah well... at least we know how it all ends in the end. It's this in between time that's troublesome. ;-)

mmbx said...

I'm thinking that in your quote from Irenaeus the important parts are, "For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, ... if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity." I think the church quickly abandoned this admonition, thus... "the direst calamity" has befallen us. We've been sliding down the slippery slope for centuries. In my opinion the whole church needs a good dose of holiness at all levels. That's what is lacking.

ddx said...

(Sorry for doubling my text dear Fr. WB.) Good response. And, of course it goes without saying that a "plain sense" of scripture can not always be understand in a "literal" sense. The O.T. contains much idiom, which hebrew idiom is also found often in the N.T. making sense out of phrases that do not make "literal" sense in greek. Carry on dear FrWB.

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