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There is No Plain Meaning of Scripture

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Last night I was on Paltalk, where I visit Christian rooms regularly. I heard a gentleman tell another chatter that if he just read Scripture looking for its plain meaning, he would find the truth. Oh how many times I have heard this advice! I have heard so many Christians from wildly different denominations say that very phrase: just look for the plain meaning of the Bible! Can they all be right about the Bible having a plain meaning, yet disagree so vehemently what that "plain" meaning is? Is there such thing as the perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture? Is every part of the Bible, which was written over the course of hundreds of years, even meant to be understood plainly?

The question got me to thinking, and I concluded: There is no plain meaning of Scripture, as the phrase is commonly understood

Maybe it is the postmodern in me, or maybe I am too realistic, but my contact with Christians of all denominations has convinced me that there is no such thing as the "plain meaning of Scripture," at least not as popularly understood. The perspicuity, or clearness, of Scripture has been advocated by many Protestant theologians and denominations over the years. However, if there were a "plain sense" of Scripture, an obviously clear reading that can't be missed, a reading that is available if one just tries hard enough in humility, the hundreds of denominations that appeal to the "plain meaning" of Scripture would be in agreement. Even in matters of the so-called essentials or salvation issues, denominations appealing to the "plain sense" of Scripture can't agree. Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians appeal to the "plain sense of Scripture." Calvinists and Arminians do as well. If a plain meaning existed, wars could have been avoided, thousands of gallons of ink conserved, and millions of trees saved. Let me put it this way: If I had computer installation instructions that hundreds of different groups interpreted hundreds of different ways, I would certainly question how plain these instructions were. While talking of the "plain meaning" of Scripture may work in theory, in reality, the Bible's ultimate meaning is anything but clear if the number of denominations is any indication.

Catholics and Orthodox do believe in an objective meaning to the Bible, a meaning that is clear when read properly with the Church as a guide; We just don't believe that one can always find this meaning by simply appealing to the generic "plain meaning" of the Bible, whatever that even is. This objective meaning is only fully known in the context in which the Bible was produced: the Church. The dialogue between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 shows this method in action:

So Philip ran to him, and heard [the Ethiopian] reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30-31, RSV).

Was the Ethiopian Eunuch told to read the plain meaning of Scripture individually with the aid of the Holy Spirit? No, he knew that in order to properly understand the Scriptures he needed Apostolic guidance and the proper interpretational framework, that is, the context. Thus, Philip explained to him the true meaning of Scripture. Without Philip's guidance, the Ethiopian was unable to understand the proper context of the passage from Isaiah.

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Jason Sims says it in this way:

All Christians will harp about context, but I think the context that is often missing is the one you point to: the Church. Just like entries in a diary or an overheard conversation between old friends might leave an outsider clueless or even with the opposite meaning of what is being said, reading the scripture outside the context of the Tradition and Authority can leave us as confused and in error.

Bible Verses, photographed by David Bennett

At this point, I should pause, and examine the way I have been referring to the Bible as if it is one book. In the life of the Church, it is indeed one, inspired, book. However, historically, it is many books compiled into one, and was written over hundreds of years, by people of different cultures, writing in different languages. Some parts of the Bible are naturally clearer than others, and, some parts have deeper and hidden meanings beyond the simple literal meaning. I will continue to refer to a sort of general perspicuity of the Bible, but understand that both Protestants and Catholics believe that some parts of the Bible are clearer than others, although the point of this article is that there are major disagreements about even supposedly clear passages.

Catholics sometimes speak of the "perspicuity" of Scripture, but in a different way than a Protestant would use the term, because Scripture only becomes clear when understood in the interpretive framework provided by the Church. The Scriptures were written for the believing community (the Church), by the believing community, and were not really intended to be on the shelves of secular bookstores where any Tom, Dick, or Harry could read them "for himself." Thus, an individual picking up the Scriptures and reading them outside Apostolic Tradition will only get so far. Perhaps he will find the basics, or perhaps not. Remember that the ancient Arians appealed to the same Scriptures we do! How clear is the Bible with regard to the Trinity? According to the Arians, ancient and modern, it is not so plainly there. However, Apostolic Tradition tells us the Trinity is clearly Scriptural. To use the computer installation example again: if you wanted to understand the computer installation manual that a company had written, you would ask the company that wrote it what the manual meant, not an outsider.

Let me provide an example. Below is an excerpt from the Gospel of John:

Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3-5, NASB).

What is the "plain meaning" to be found in these verses? What does it mean to be "born again" and "born of water and spirit"? To most evangelical Protestant readers, these verses obviously refer to accepting Jesus Christ into your heart and confessing a belief in Him. "Born of water" refers one's physical birth from the mother's womb, and "born of spirit" refers to accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior at a later time, when one has reached the age of reason. Plain enough? Well...if you look at what the ancient Christian commentators on Scripture had to say, these verses plainly refer to water baptism. Even Martin Luther believed that baptism was the way in which one was born again of water and spirit. In fact, you will barely find anyone before the 16th century that believed otherwise. These verses were nearly unanimously interpreted to refer to the sacrament of baptism, the new birth. However, despite this fact, I have been told that "Scripture plainly teaches that baptism follows the new birth, and is not the new birth itself." However, if we believe that the Bible plainly and clearly teaches the evangelical viewpoint, then this logic leads us to a strange conclusion: the Scriptures are so plain that every interpreter before the 16th century missed the obvious, plain meaning of the text! Of course, this means the Scriptures weren't really that plain to begin with, since everyone who read the New Testament (many in the original Greek) prior to the Reformation apparently missed the obvious meaning. This is just one example of how what is "plain" to you or me may not have been plain to the Apostles or their followers, and thus it is problematic to appeal to the "plain sense of Scripture." This is also why we have so many Christian denominations and so many strange ones at that: anybody can read Scripture for himself, find something in it that is plain to him, and start a new denomination!

Some may take the ideas here too far, suggesting that if there is no plain meaning of Scripture outside of the Apostolic context, then studying the Bible individually has no point. Are Catholics and Orthodox simply unable to read Scripture "for themselves"? Of course not! In fact, as Catholic and Orthodox laity, we too have a role in apprehending and interpreting Scripture! We are a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church after all. Plus, the Church probably hasn't even given an opinion on most of Scripture, so we are quite free to read the Bible for ourselves in most places, seeing how it touches upon our lives and our personal situations, so long as our reading does not contradict known Church Teaching. This is why I have tried to explain the Church's role in interpreting Scripture using framework language. The Church does not stand over our shoulders while we read Scripture, telling us the concrete meaning of every verse, but instead offers the proper tools and framework to read Scripture correctly, so that even in our private reading we may discern what the Holy Spirit is telling us.

So what about formal biblical studies? Biblical Studies, including those done by laypersons such as myself, help the Church better understand the Scriptures, while the Magisterium (The Teaching Authority of the Church) provides the limits within which faithful biblical scholars must operate. Once again, the Church provides Biblical Scholars with a proper interpretational framework. Biblical Studies and the Magisterium complement and mutually benefit each other. The Church produced the Bible, so it makes sense that the Church's theologians and historians would study the Bible for the Church's benefit. The balance is often delicate, but rigorous Scriptural study has been done for years by faithful theologians with the blessing of the Church, and sometimes faithful theologians push the envelope and the Church blesses this (sometimes not).

So yes, we can do Bible study, study it for ourselves, comment on Scripture, discover what it means to us, etc, but average readers and biblical scholars alike must recognize that the Scriptures are not ours to interpret wildly any way we want. Just because we see something in Scripture, that does not mean that this is the objective meaning, no matter how "plain" to us. We can and must be open to correction from the Church.

Bible and More, photographed by David Bennett

I have heard in response to my objections, "well, the meaning of the Bible is plain, if you just read it right, do X, don't read it like group Y, etc." Of course, this is troubling, because if the meaning is plain and obvious, there is no need for qualifications. You add in the views of the esteemed Dr. so-and-so, the Confession of [fill in Continental European City], and the way group whatnot has interpreted Scripture since 18__, suddenly you are leaving "plain meaning" territory and adding traditions and human interpretations.

I have also been told that the reformers agreed ninety percent of the time, where Scripture was clear, and on matters where Scripture was unclear, they disagreed. The implications are that most Protestants agree where Scripture is clear, but disagree on minor issues, so there really is a generally plain meaning to Scripture that unites most Protestants. The problem with this is that it does not line up with reality. The initial reformers considered other reformers to be heretics, and did not consider all reformation parties to be equally "scriptural." Luther reserved much of his vitriol for fellow Protestants Zwingli and Calvin. Luther considered his own view of communion to be so obviously Scriptural that he argued fiercely against Zwingli's memorialist view. Even today, Calvinists and Wesleyans are often bitter enemies in many areas, and this is but one example of the failure of Protestants to even agree on what "essentials" the Bible clearly teaches. Plus, we must remember that the Reformation did not end in the 16th century, and the number of groups appealing to the plain meaning of Scripture has increased geometrically since the 16th century. So even if the initial reformers did agree ninety percent of the time (which is not true), when you add in the newer denominations, we now see even less agreement among the groups appealing to the "plain meaning of Scripture".

It has also been suggested that Scripture is clear, but since we are knee-deep in original sin, the meaning is only plain with the aid of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Scripture is easy to understand, but our sinfulness muddies the waters. I can agree to this, but only from a Catholic perspective. In a perfect world maybe we would be able to discern the true meaning of Scripture without the aid of the Holy Spirit working in Christ's Church and on a more limited level, in us individually. However, we do not live in a perfect world, and we, as selfish human beings, are much more likely to confuse our personal opinions with those of the Holy Spirit. This is why Catholics emphasize that the Holy Spirit primarily operates within the structures of the Church, even though he does speak to individuals, although this never contradicts His work in the Church. The Church was promised to be given all Truth, not every person individually. Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit gets blamed for every new-fangled private Biblical interpretation out there. All founders of new denominations, many disagreeing even on the essentials, claim that they were personally guided by the Holy Spirit to read the Bible in their newly-revealed plain way. So to answer the initial question, even if Scripture is somehow objectively crystal-clear and we just can't access it because of our sinfulness, we still, for all intents and purposes, are left with a Bible that is not plain to us without some sort of outside help.

In conclusion, there is no plain sense of Scripture as many Evangelicals understand the phrase. However, Scripture becomes more plain when read in the context of the Apostolic Church, but outside of this context, the true meaning may or may not be plain to the average reader. Unfortunately, usually when someone says "just read Scripture and its plain meaning," she means "read the Bible like I read it, which is plain enough to me (obviously), and if your 'plain reading' doesn't line up with my 'plain reading,' you are deceived or even stupid" even though the message is supposedly plain to begin with! This is the ultimate problem I have with appealing to the generic "plain meaning" of Scripture. The internet has given us the ability to come in contact with literally millions of Christians from thousands of different denominations, all making the same claims of "just reading the Bible plainly" all while disagreeing, sometimes on minor issues, sometimes wildly. It's enough to make a guy want to read the Bible with the Church, descended from the Apostles.

Last updated 10-14-2009

This article originally appeared on Per Christum: the Ancient and Future Catholics Blog, in a less developed form.

For more information see:
The Bible: Inerrant, Inspired, or Just a Good Read?
Are Catholics Born Again?
Baptism: More Than Just a Bath
A Catholic Reflection on Biblical Criticism