Plain Sense II

(This continues Plain Sense I)

II Problems in Discussing the “Plain Sense”
By now it should be evident that the term “plain sense of the Scriptures” can be used in more than one way. In recent days, I’ve seen it used in at least three ways in the blogosphere (slightly caricatured for emphasis):

1. Plain Sense (bad) = fundamentalistic literalism offensive to those in touch with the reality (scientific and otherwise) of the 21st century

2. Plain Sense (bad) = unsafe reliance on meanings not sanctioned by or under the authority of the Catholic magisterium

3. Plain Sense (good) = the real straight-foward way to read the Bible with none of that wishy-washy liberal crap added in

Clearly there’s some semantic slippage within this term. I think we need to examine some differences to make sense of these different ways of using the term (and others not even cited here) and we’ll do it by offering a definition, then examining what the definition does and doesn’t say.

Here’s my provisional definition: The plain sense of the biblical text (or any other text) is the meaning that is most clearly indicated by the text itself taking into account grammar, denotation, connotation, figures of speech, figures of thought, and context.

First, this definition centers on the text. It does not focus on the author; authorial intent is not the plain sense of the text. We’ve all had our writing misunderstood. Sometimes, a person has figured out a way to read something we’ve written that disagrees with what we believe. And that’s tough–once a text leaves your pen, screen, or what have you, it begins taking on a life of its own. What you intended to say is part of that life, but is not the whole of it. For instance, look how many people think that the ++Rowan’s reflection paper about GC legislates a two-tiered communion. He has subsequently repudiated that–but that reading and understanding is now part of the life-history of that text whether ++Rowan likes it or not.

Second, this definition implies but does not state the role of the reader. Each reader gets a sense of a document’s meaning. While all readers construct meanings, not all meanings are equal–some are better than others. How do we judge between them? Well, part of it comes down to the realia of the text–grammar, denotation, etc.

In a New Testament interp class in my seminary days, my poor TA was trying to teach us about reader-response criticism. My partner for the assignment–now an Episcopal priest in Kansas City–and I returned to the larger group and assured them that the parable of the prodigal son was, in fact, a statement about the horrors of nuclear winter. We defended our bizarre interpretation by answering that our meaning was what the text had made us feel. Obviously–this is a bad reading. It is absolutely indefensible based on the grammar and syntax of the text.

Another facet of judging the quality of a reading examines how well the interpretation encompasses all of the evience of the passage. For instance, it is possible to argue that John’s Prologue is a gnostic hymn (and it has been so argued in the past)–but to do so, you have to find some way of accounting for v. 13–“And the Word was made flesh.”

I’ll not go on much further except to say that it’s typically easier to identify bad readings. I suppose bad in this case is a reading that seems substantively disconnected from where the text points. (And it is on these grounds that allegory is often criticized.)

Third, this definition is rather open and this is where complications arise. How does–or should–one determine the appropriate context of a text? Is it the paragraph that contains the text, or the paragaphs on either side of the prargraph with the text, or the chapter, or the book, or the canon as a whole? To some degree, it depends on what claim is being advanced. Again, it’s ob=ften easier to identify abuses of this. For instance, proof-texting: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” out of 1 Cor is a rather egregious misreading. Rather, Paul presents this statement as the starting point for a discourse–not its conclusion.

A more complicated example is a text like Mark 9:1: “And [Jesus] said unto [the disciples], Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” One way to read this–especially if you regard it is a disconnected saying of Jesus that was given a home by the evangelists–is that some of the disciples will not di before Jesus’s return. Indeed, one could even point to John 21 to suggest that there was a tradition in the early church that Jesus would return before the death of young John, the beloved disciple. Another way to read it is to keepo reading–the story immediately following is the transfiguration. Is that what was meant by “seen the kingdom of God come with power”? Quite possibly. At least, it certainly seems that Mark thought so . . . Context matters.

Fourth, a complication arises when we admit and start drawing attentions to figures of speech and thought. Some metaphors, similes, synecdoches, etc. are clar and obvious. When we speaking in the Psalms of sheltering in the shadow of God’s wings, I doubt most of us believe that God has physical wings. Ditto for a mighty hand and outstretched arm . . . But what about others–especially metaphors. How do you know when something is a metaphor and when it’s not? The key verses for any discussion of this topic are, of course, the institution narratives in the Synoptics and 1 Cor 11. Is “This is my body . . . this is my blood” the invocation of a metaphor–or a reality. And where’s the line between the two?

I think that most rational readers will agree that this is the place where the idea of the plain sense of Scripture shows a fundamental weakness. There can be disagreement between readers about what constitutes a figure of speech and/or thought and what doesn’t. Further more, even when the presence of such a figure has been identified, it is not always obvious which figure it is. For instance–to go back to the “shadow of his wings” bit–what kind of wings are they? A mother bired gathering her young–or a numinous angelic/divine figure? It does make a bit of difference in how we understand the text.

Fifth, my definition stops at the level of meaning. I would wager that many if not most of the complaints about the plain sense of the text are not really complaints about a meaning but at an application of a meaning. That is, the problem is not what people argue that a text means but what they argue should be done about it–or with it.

I’ll give you an extreme example from Church history. “If your eyes causes you to sin–pluck it out” etc. Eusebius tells us that on the strength of this text Origen castrated himself. You could concievably point to this as a just one of the horros of the “plain sense” of the text. And I’ll disagree. Here’s why: Most readers would agree that the text uses a figure of speech–hyperbole. Jesus gives us an extreme to make a point about the need to avoid sin. Origen doesn’t seem to read it that way–but neither does he read it “literally”!! Had he read it literally, he would have torn out his eye or cut off his hand instead of his–yeah well. Instead, he apparently read it as a synecdoche where mention of a part of the whole refers to either the whole or to another part of the whole (thus, generalizing “eye” and “hand” to “body parts that make you sin”). The problem isn’t even with the way that Origen read it, though, it’s how he decided to apply it.

Furthermore, ther are disgreements about the purpose of the meaning of the text. The semantic meaning of the text may well be clear but the intention or purpose behind it may be in question. “Along time ago there lived a king” means one thing if the king in question is Aragorn–another entirely if it’s Tiglath-Pilesar III (the guy whose army sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC}.This is, of course, tied in to how we apply it. (I wrote a bit on this here as well.)

III. Hypothesis
So, there’s a working definition of the plain sense of Scripture, some reflections about it and some weakness and/or dangrs associated with it. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the plain sense isn’t nearly the problem we make it. That is, I’d wager that with a good 75-85% of Scripture, you’ll find next to no disputes about the plain sense of meaning of the text. I’ll give you some examples.

Deut 3:14: “Jair the son of Manasseh took all the country of Argob unto the coasts of Geshuri and Maachathi; and called them after his own name, Bashan-havoth-jair, unto this day.”

1 Sam 15:12: “And when Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning, it was told Samuel, saying, Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a place, and is gone about, and passed on, and gone down to Gilgal.”

Matt 8:2: And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.

And yes, I’m picking verses at random here to make my point. Now try these . . .

Gen 3:24: “So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

1 Sam 15:33: “And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.”

Exod 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

I submit to you that none of my readers–or other readers chosen at random–will disagree about the plain sense of these texts. However, there can and will be disagreements about the purpose and application of these latter texts. The meaning, though, is not at issue.

That’s enough for now–more later. . .


About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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5 Responses to Plain Sense II

  1. Annie says:

    I never heard the term before this debacle in the church! I call them catch-phrases that have been utilized and taught by the extreme right–most of them grossly untrue!

  2. Gaunilo says:

    Derek – First, very nice job with these posts. Lucid exposition of what is a fundamental notion of the church’s reading of scripture.

    Question: I wonder if you would be willing to take up the question of ‘meaning’ and ‘application’ in another installment. At this point you’re using the distinction rather casually (and obviously have more to say on it), but I wonder if it’s a distinction that hasn’t become deeply problematic in literary theory. I’m not adverting to any extravagances of capital-T-theory (your anecdote on reader-response crit is well taken!), but rather to the question of the production of meaning (in this case) in the church, and whether the two are thereby divorceable. At the most basic level, wouldn’t the text’s intertextual imbrication within the canon problematize any facile notion of ‘meaning’ as such? And is ‘significance’ a strong enough notion for the church’s liturgical and sacramental use of the text in some identity-forming way?

    Not criticisms, these: questions rather that arise for me out of these very fruitful thoughts.

  3. Gaunilo says:

    Oops. I meant for the segue between literary theoretical considerations and theological considerations to be a bit less abrupt, there; both have something to say on the question.

  4. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Yes, meaning and application is where I’m headed next. Of course, with ch 3 back on track and the new carnival suggestion and the long-awaited Confraternity post promised to LZ it may be a few days before I get back to it…

  5. Anonymous says:

    best regards, nice info
    » »

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