By Revd Dr Phillip Tolliday
A recent document posted by the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans notes that: ‘We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary to salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.’
In this paper I want to inquire into what might be meant by the plain sense of Scripture. (1) One of my primary questions will be: just how plain is the plain sense? To anticipate my conclusion, I believe the answer can be stated both negatively and positively. Negatively, the plain sense of Scripture is plainer than a deconstructionist believes it can be, but not nearly as plain as a fundamentalist believes it is. Positively stated, the plain sense of Scripture is sufficiently plain. In this context ‘sufficient’ is a loaded term, referring as it does to the sufficiency of Scripture and thereby forming part of the complex of the so-called Properties of Scripture.
In a world where the plain sense of any text is under suspicion it may seem overly ambitious to assert that we must read, preach, teach and obey the Bible in its plain and canonical sense. Indeed a moment’s sober reflection might serve to show us that given the manifestly different, not to say contradictory, interpretations of Scripture within our various communities that the plain sense of Scripture appears to be anything but plain. To this situation there are at least two possible—though to my mind unsatisfactory—solutions. The first is to say that the plain sense of Scripture simply entails the abandonment of the hermeneutical task. If all believers can find Scripture clear in its meaning and application then perhaps we just have to live with a ‘conflict of interpretations.’ The situation invited by such a scenario is the same one dogging the Anglican Communion at the moment: how much conflict can be sustained while still remaining under the same roof called ‘Christian.’ The second solution is to say that Scripture is the Church’s book and must therefore be interpreted according to the rule of faith. On this understanding it is ‘The church to teach and define, the Bible to illustrate and confirm.’ But it is here that the Protestant critique of the principle of tradition begins to bite, because how do we know that the magisterium of the church is a correct interpreter of Scripture? Moreover what becomes of the church’s obligation to listen to the Scriptures? Are not the dynamics driving the various authorities within the church similar to those of the individual interpreters? In what follows I will suggest that an understanding of the plain sense of Scripture does not commit us to the elimination of ‘readerly activity,’ nor does it ‘suspend interpretation.’(2)
Kathryn Tanner addresses the issue of the plain sense of Scripture via a ‘theological investigation that is almost sociological in nature.'(3) She argues that the meaning of the plain sense is to be discerned from its function within specific faith communities. Thus the plain sense is the familiar, the traditional and hence authoritative meaning of a text within a community whose conventions for the reading of it have therefore already become relatively sedimented.' (4) By this I take her to mean that the plain sense is the sense which is immediately apparent within the community and is accepted as their ‘unselfconscious habit.’ It may also be her way of countering a suspicion that the plain sense consists of whatever the community might say any given text ‘means,’ but this is not her point. To say that the conventions for reading a text in a particular way have become relatively sedimented means that a reading which strikes the community as unfamiliar would, on Tanner’s account, be not according to the plain sense. But presumably it could become so, since the plain sense is not anything ‘in itself, apart from an interpretive practice of using texts’ by the community. (5 Since her discussion of the plain sense is formal, ie., she is looking for the plain sense as a function of communal practice, it follows that she does not attempt to ‘prejudge the material character of the plain sense as that is variously established in fact by different communities or by the same community at different times or in different circumstances.' (6) Consequentially the plain sense need not be always and everywhere the same.
A tangible and material example of how Tanner’s proposal works in practice is provided by Kathryn Greene-McCreight who shows how the literal meaning or plain sense of Genesis 1-3 has been variously interpreted and understood by Augustine, Calvin and Barth. Her conclusion, which is justified by comprehensive examples from all three thinkers is that ‘the intent to read the “plain sense” in the examples of exegesis examined…almost never amounts to a search for the single meaning of the text.' (7) Instead we find ourselves confronted with three discrete attempts to negotiate the plain sense by way of an engagement between the text and the rule of faith.
Augustine emphasizes the importance of the literal meaning of the text, claiming that allegorical meanings can only be favoured over the literal in those cases where the literal meaning would be contrary to the rule of love. Ironically, Augustine himself found the literal meaning of the text repulsive and it was instead the sermons of Ambrose, themselves based on allegorical interpretations of Scripture, which finally turned Augustine’s heart toward the Gospel. In his negotiation of the plain sense, Augustine is attuned to ‘both intra-communal and extra-communal apologetics.’ Augustine’s plain reading is limited in part by the verbal sense of the text as well as by the rule of faith. Significantly the latter not only poses a ‘limit to polysemy,’ it also ‘generates polysemy’—and it is able to do both because the text cannot be read in contradiction to the catholic faith. However, in the end it is ‘on the basis of the literal sense that one can and must authorize doctrine.' (8)
In seeming distinction from Augustine, Calvin preferred the literal reading and disdained allegorical interpretation; a position which accounted in part for his criticism of Origen. In his commentary on Galatians he wrote: ‘Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and simple one [verum sensum scripturae, qui germanus est et simplex] and let us embrace and hold it resolutely. Let us not merely neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions which lead us away from the literal sense [a literali sensu].' (9) But what exactly did Calvin mean by the literal sense? Suffice it to say here that for Calvin the literal sense did not automatically rule out figural interpretation. Indeed literal interpretation turns out to be more complex than we might imagine because Calvin’s negotiation is between the verbal sense of the text and his doctrine of God. Whereas Augustine’s reading of the text was informed to some degree by his neo-Platonic background, Calvin’s is shaped by the cultural milieu of Humanism. Calvin, more than Augustine, interprets the biblical text according to the letter, ie., literally, but because of this, and not in spite of it, this means that he reads much of the text figuratively. In addition, the reason why a ruled reading necessitates a figurative interpretation of many texts is because for Calvin the purpose of the text is to expound doctrine and ethics.
Barth’s understanding of the plain sense of Scripture is controlled by his assumption ‘that the Bible’s central function is to witness to Jesus Christ.' (10) Barth distinguishes between the categories of myth and saga and reserves the term ‘saga’ for the creation stories. Since saga has to do with history, even if it is not limited to history, it follows that the creation stories considered as saga ‘call for reading a “deep” literal sense, one which “points beyond itself.”'(11) Since Barth regards the creation stories as saga he is able to make a very close connection between the literal or simple and figurative meaning in the text. Indeed for Barth ‘Scripture is read “plainly” in the inextricable conjunction of simple and figurative reading.’(12) Greene-McCreight provides an example of this
conjunction in Barth’s discussion of the work of creation on the third day.
‘The sea of which [the passage] speaks is, of course, literally and concretely the fluid element in all its earthly fullness, gathered and maintained in its place in relation to the earth, forming the natural western boundary of Palestine. But as such it is much more…it is a sign which points beyond itself…Similarly, the ‘earth’ is literally and concretely the terra firma on which, protected from the onslaught of the sea, man may and will have his being. But while it is this, it is much more. The miracle of its existence as such is also a sign…visibly and palpably it is a presentation of the grace in virtue of which God sustains and protects man for Himself and His purposes.' (13)
The polyvalence of the biblical texts means for Barth that a plain sense reading of Scripture must encompass the figural as well as the simple or surface meaning. In an example such as the one above, it is those elements of the story that point beyond themselves that signify no less than the simple, the proper and plain sense of the text.
Greene-McCreight’s conclusions from her study of Augustine, Calvin and Barth suggest that a plain sense reading of Scripture is based on more than its purely verbal sense. There is a constant negotiation between the text and the ruled sense of reading. Each of these theologians ‘comes to the Bible with an overall understanding of the “plot” of the story. (14) To be sure, that plot differs from person to person, but formally, as Tanner has already suggested, this means that a plain sense reading will result from ‘a conjunction of verbal sense and prior understanding of the subject matter of the text provided by the conception of the Christian faith supplied by the apostolic tradition. (15) Not only is it the case that the plain sense need not be always and everywhere the same; it is not always and everywhere the same.
Rowan Williams has suggested that we need to ‘re-examine and re-state the case for the primacy of the literal.' (16) The relation between the literal and the non-literal sense of Scripture is best understood as a tension between ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’ forms of reading. According to Williams, a literal reading is diachronic, by which he means that we can read a text in a dramatic way, ‘by following it through a single time-continuum, reading it as a sequence of changes, a pattern of transformations.' (17) These transformations include ‘the movement of the text as it stands,’ ‘the deeper movements or rhythms within it…the way in which it can put itself in question,’ an awareness on the part of the reader of the writer’s goals ‘as they are enacted in the text.' (18) These considerations lead to a measure of flexibility in the definition of ‘literal’ that Williams readily acknowledges ‘may seem odd.’ However, his point is that a literal reading of the text will disclose a dissonance as well as a resonance between the time of the text and our time. Such reading, is, he says, ‘a way of resisting the premature unities and harmonies of a non-literal reading (whether allegorical, existentialist, structuralist or deconstructionist), in which the time that matters is only the present of reader…' (19) Those of us who have employed such hermeneutical strategies are fully aware of their usefulness. But have we moved to these strategies too readily, bewitched by ‘narrow and sterile definitions of the literal sense against which recent hermeneutics has so sharply reacted.' (20)
Thomas Aquinas insisted on the priority of the literal sense of Scripture and he interpreted this literal or plain sense as the intention of the author—in the case of Scripture, God. Aquinas did not believe the literal sense to be dependent ‘on a belief that all scriptural propositions uncomplicatedly depict real states of affairs detail by detail; it can and does include metaphor…'(21) Consequently Aquinas allowed for an understanding of the literal or plain sense that included a ‘plurality of genres within it.’ However, this wider sense was lost and the culprit, according to Williams, was a ‘more sophisticated literary hermeneutic, by way of historical and comparative criticism’ that led to the redefinition of ‘literal’ that we now associate with fundamentalism (22) Williams argues that fundamentalism linked the literal with the historical, but then assumed (incorrectly) that the historical can apply only to a univocally descriptive and exact representation of particular sequences of fact. In the light of this it is interesting to consider that neither Augustine, nor Calvin nor Barth was able to sustain this demand for a univocal and exact representation of ‘fact’ in order to justify their plain sense or literal reading of the Scriptures.
These considerations lead Williams to propose that we ‘reconceive the literal sense of Scripture as an eschatological sense.' (23)This grows out of his assumption that how we understand our own relationship to the time and place of the text is an important element in ascertaining the plain sense of the text. A key question is, how does our time fit within the ‘time’ of the narrative? One way of testing how this works is by using a lectionary that involves us in reading as public performance. ‘At certain times, above all the paschal celebration, this is intensified in a way evidently designed to bring our time and the time of the canonical narrative together.'(24) But to read our time into the history of salvation is to read it into a time which is not yet complete. It is to read our lives in the light of the eschaton and it is therefore to be ‘integrated into…a future we cannot but call God’s because we have no secure human way of planning it or thematising it.' (25) Consequently, the literal or plain sense of Scripture guards against the premature closure of meaning. Far from the literal being a source ‘for problem-solving clarity, as it might appear for the fundamentalist’ it is instead always growing out of and being shaped by a particular set of communal and individual histories. In summary, Williams, like Greene-McCreight and Tanner, sees the plain sense reading of Scripture as an invitation to broaden interpretation and not restrict it.
The previous section has explored the possibility that the plain sense of Scripture might not be always and everywhere the same—indeed, that given the eschatological imperative in Christianity, it cannot remain the same. It has become clear that whatever the plain sense(s) of Scripture there is always some sort of negotiation—more or less explicit—that takes place between the text and the so-called ruled reading, better known as tradition. In this section I will touch on the plain sense of Scripture under the headings of ‘clarity’ and ‘perspicuity.’ These headings are reminiscent of the Reformation and post-Reformation polemics about the authority of Scripture and in particular the principle of sola scriptura.
Famously, Luther debated with Erasmus about the clarity of the Scriptures, arguing that Erasmus’ skeptical view of the Bible’s perspicuity was wrong. During the Council of Trent the debate with Luther was subsequently taken up and sharpened by Robert Bellarmine. Growing out of this polemical context, and driven in part by the objections of Bellarmine, Protestant Dogmatics came to refer to ‘the properties of sacred Scripture.’ They believed that objections raised against the clarity of Scripture entailed an assault on the authority of the Bible. In an attempt to defend the authority of the Bible they proposed a doctrinal complex consisting of Scripture’s ‘necessity,’ ‘sufficiency,’ ‘perspicuity,’ and ‘efficacy.'(26) Within this polemical context the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture was not simply, nor even primarily, an epistemological principle; it was also an hermeneutical, Christological, ecclesiological and critical principle.(27)
Fundamental to an understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture, and arguably the driving force behind all plain sense readings was the confessional principle: the notion that the clarity of Scripture had to do with God, and more specifically, with ‘God’s communicative act.' (28) Thus John Webster gets to the heart of the matter when he states,
‘Theological talk of the clarity of Holy Scripture is a corollary of the
church’s confession of the radiance of God in the gospel…The clarity of
Scripture is the work which God performs in and through this creaturely servant [ie., the Bible] as, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God illumines the communion of saints and enables them to see, love and live out the gospel’s truth.'(29)
These are strong claims and against them are ranged significant objections, five of which Thompson notes. Firstly, the doctrine fails to take account of the transcendent mystery that is the subject of Scripture. Secondly, the doctrine fails to acknowledge the God-given role of the church as the interpreter of Scripture. Thirdly, the doctrine fails to take seriously the nature of the words of Scripture. Fourthly, the doctrine fails in practice given the reality of diverse interpretations. Finally, the doctrine fails by its own criterion, since Scripture confesses its own obscurity. (30) None of these objections were new. Robert Bellarmine had already rehearsed most of them in the sixteenth-century.
In relation to Scripture testifying to its own obscurity, Bellarmine drew readers attention to Acts 8 where the Ethiopian eunuch needed an interpreter before he could understand the passage he was reading. He also pointed to 2 Peter 3:16 where the writer referred to some things in Paul’s letters that were ‘hard to understand.’ This, thought Bellarmine was enough to show that there was something wrong with the doctrine of perspicuity. He also referred to Augustine’s observations in De Doctrina Christiana where Augustine had opined that the obscure passages in Scripture were useful as a way of ‘taming our pride and rousing our understanding from listlessness.(31)
The Reformers responded by saying that these objections did not affect the doctrine of perspicuity, since they had never suggested that the clarity of Scripture should be confused with transparency. The assertion of perspicuity was not a call for the abandonment of hermeneutics (32) Neither was it an attempt to give the Bible qua text some magical or occult quality. Yet something gave rise to contrary suspicions and that something was an over-anxious desire to remove the subjective or communal dimension of Scripture in favour of its objectivity. This desire, understandable in the polemical context of the times was to create its own problems.
In Protestant Orthodoxy the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture took its place within a doctrine complex. Webster notes that within this ‘larger dogmatic ontology of the Bible’ such a complex provided a strategy against secularizing Scripture. By using this strategy the Reformers aimed to affirm that ‘these were not simply attributes of the subjective use of Scripture’ but were instead reflective of the ‘objective (though not, of course, non-natural) character of Scripture as divine communication.' (33) However, this push for objectivity did not come without its dangers and it is now evident that talk about the properties of Scripture could, and did, become disconnected from ‘talk of God’s reconciling and revelatory activity.’
Some attempts to defend the doctrine of perspicuity after the seventeenth-century fell into the trap of ‘talking of Scripture’s clarity in se and ante usum [so] that it became extracted from its proper dogmatic location and rendered as a natural property of the Bible qua text.' (34) And this in turn led to a situation in which ironically, the very thing that had been feared, ie., subjectivity, made its reappearance by way of ‘rational accessibility.’ Disconnecting perspicuity from its doctrinal and confessional setting meant that instead of its context being ‘the self-communicative presence of God to the community of faith’ it now became ‘the transparency of an historical report to historical reason.' (35) Thus a seemingly maximalist claim yielded minimalist conclusions.
The second article in the Jerusalem Declaration is hardly making a spectacular claim in its demand that ‘the Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense.’ The tradition of the sensus literalis ‘is the closest one can come to a consensus reading of the Bible as the sacred text in the Christian church.' (36) Formally, therefore, I have no issue with the article as it stands; materially, however, I do have some reservations. I have tried to show the plain and canonical sense has varied from time to time. Yet the plain sense has been the consensus view and those who advocated it did not assume that their differences from previous readings entailed a diminution of the plain sense. It is more accurate to speak of the plain sense in the plural, whether we regard this as a consequence of eschatology (Williams), or communal life (Tanner), or multiple interpretations of the text (Greene-McCreight). Moreover, I have suggested that the post-Reformation quest to objectify Scripture and abstract it from its doctrinal setting which, being ecclesial, is at least eschatological and communal leads to a narrowing of the literal sense of Scripture, and this in turn suggests what all the defenders of perspicuity reject: namely, that the plain sense equals transparency.
1. For the purposes of this essay I shall regard the terms ‘plain sense,’ ‘clarity of scripture,’ and ‘perspicuity,’ a synonymous. Some would also include the ‘literal sense’ under this heading. For a recent attempt to distinguish the plain sense from other senses, i.e., the original, the intended, the historical and the literal, see John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism,
2. John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Doctrine II,
3. Kathryn Tanner, ‘Theology and the Plain Sense,’ in Garrett Green, ed., Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation,
4. Tanner, ‘Theology and the Plain Sense,’ 63.
5. Tanner, ‘Theology and the Plain Sense,’ 64.
6. Tanner, ‘Theology and the Plain Sense,’ 65.
7. Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 241, emphasis in the original.
8. Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 80.
9. Cited by Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 97.
10. Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 226.
11. Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 186.
12. Greene-McCreight,Ad Litteram, 223.
13. Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 223, emphasis in the original.
14. Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 244.
15. Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 244.
16. Rowan Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ Modern Theology, 7, 1993, 121-134 .
Williams, like Tanner, is indebted to the seminal essay by Hans Frei, ‘The “Literal Reading” of Biblical Narrative in the Christian Tradition: Does It Stretch or Will It Break?’ in Frank McConnell ed., The Bible and the Narrative Tradition,
17. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 123.
18. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 122.
19. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 123.
20. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 124.
21. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 123.
22. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 124.
23. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 132, emphasis in the original.
24. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 126.
25. Williams, ‘The Literal Sense of Scripture,’ 132.
26. Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics,
27. Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons In Hermeneutics,
28. Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture,
29. John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Doctrine II,
30. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word, 21-30.
31.Thompson, A Clear and Present Word, 15-153, for these and other examples and 153-157 for W. Whitaker’s response to Bellarmine.
32. Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge,
33. Webster, Confessing God, 34-35, emphasis in the original.
34. Webster, Confessing God, 35.
35. Webster, Confessing God, 35.
36. Frei, ‘The “Literal