Saturday, November 03, 2007

Plain Meaning Once More

Crimson Catholic has a post on the recent discussion of 'plain meaning of Scripture'. It makes a number of worthwhile points, but also manages to make a common, and very serious, mistake that Catholics tend to make about Catholic doctrine of Scripture. I had noted the importance of distinguishing between "authoritative interpretation" in the sense of "an authoritative act of interpreting" and "authoritative interpretation in the sense of "the way of understanding the text that is authoritative". On this Crimson Catholic replies:

But there cannot even be an authoritative interpretation in the latter sense absent an authoritative interpretation in the former sense. Even if it is the best approximation for what the author intended, it still is not authoritative, for unless the author also intended to yield the authority to interpret his text to a subsequent authority, his mere writing itself ontologically lacks authority. So either the author intended his text both to be authoritative and interpreted by a subsequent authority, or God as co-author intended it (perhaps beside the intent of the author) in the same way, but in both cases, the subsequent interpretive authority is an essential element of either the divine or the human will to produce an authoritative act of communication.

However, this involves a sort of distance between author and reader that fits very poorly with the Catholic view of Scripture; and, moreover, which on at least a very common Protestant view gets Protestants entirely wrong as well. It's not generally denied that there is a subsequent interpretive authority; what is denied is that this subsequent interpretive authority is the Church rather than the Holy Spirit. Protestants do not think the words on the page carry authority; they think the words engraved on the heart by the Spirit with the stylus of the words of the page carries authority. The Crimson Catholic thinks that Protestants put the authority in the mere writing. There are perhaps cases of this, but these will widely be regarded by Protestants as aberrations; they put the authority not in the texts but (like Catholics, it might be pointed out) in the God who breathed them forth and gives them force and power to touch the heart.

And this is where I think attempts, like that of the Crimson Catholic and of several other Catholics in the recent discussion, to defend the Catholic view of Scripture on general philosophical principles will fail; at most they can show that it is not incoherent. But the Catholic view of Scripture is not based on a general account of the nature of authority and interpretation, nor can it be, given the unique relationship between the teaching of the Church and the Scriptures she has received; it is based on the Catholic view of the relation between the Church and the Holy Spirit. The Protestant denies that the interpretive authority is the Church rather than God; the Catholic challenges the dichotomy implicit in the 'rather than'. While this 'rather than' marks a break between the two, such is the emphasis in Catholic doctrine, as found, for instance, in De Fide Catholica and Dei Verbum, on the work of the Holy Spirit, and on the Father speaking with His children through the Scriptures, the more a Protestant emphasizes this, the more his or her view approximates the Catholic view of Scripture. I assume here, of course, that the view of the Trinity in the Protestant case is Nicene. And all this, again, is because the Catholic view of Scripture is not based on these vague and dubious pronouncements about the nature of texts, which are nothing but red herrings that obscure the real point; rather, it is based on the Catholic understanding of the Holy Spirit's work in the Church.

The failure to appreciate this properly seems to me to land the Crimson Catholic in a number of muddles. The word 'authority' is used a lot, but it was irrelevant to the point originally being discussed; Bill's claim was about the plain meaning of Scripture. It's the Catholics responding to it who keep trying to make authority the key issue, by fair means and foul; and they have generally been doing so by conflating two very different (albeit related) things: the authoritative character of what is interpreted and the authoritative character of the interpreting. It is simply false that the latter is required for the former to have any effect in our lives at all; any Catholic who reads Scripture on his or her own is living proof that you can interpret Scripture, which is authoritative, without authoritatively interpreting it, because every Catholic who reads Scripture in private devotion is doing precisely that. The whole history of the development of Catholic doctrine is filled to the brim with cases in which people have interpreted Scripture unauthoritatively to have those interpretations later recognized authoritatively as correctly capturing the authoritative meaning of Scripture. The principle that there is no authoritative interpreted without authoritative interpreter also does not fit well with the fact that the primary practice of the Church is to let any Catholic read and interpret Scripture, with intervention only where a danger to faith and morals is perceived.

The Catholic who reads, say, the parable of the unjust judge, and suddenly recognizes a feature in it that he has never been taught before, will naturally and reasonably regard it as authoritative, with only the negative reserve clause that it not be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church. If it becomes a matter of serious concern, there may be a need to confirm that it is indeed genuinely authoritative, rather than merely seemingly so. This confirmation may take the form of either a definitive pronouncement or a natural outgrowth of the Christian practice and prayer of the whole Church, i.e., all those other Catholics with all their unauthoritative reading being drawn by the grace of the Holy Spirit to the truth. I take it that none of this can be seriously regarded as inconsistent with the Catholic view of Scripture. But none of this is possible unless it is recognized that, indeed, there is a sort of plain meaning of Scripture that does not require the direct intervention of an authoritative interpreter to be discovered, unless by 'authoritative interpreter' we mean Truth Himself.

Protestants and Catholics actually agree on the key thing here: namely, that the authority of Scripture is the authority of God, that the authoritative teacher of the meaning of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, and that without Him there is nothing but darkness. The difference arises in that, from the Protestant point of view, Catholics too easily conflate the interpretive act of the Holy Spirit with human interpretive acts, and, from the Catholic point of view, Protestants have an incomplete view of the work of the Spirit in the Church's interpreting of Scripture. As long as the dispute never seriously engages with this point, it is self-perpetuating, because it will never have any effect except the raising of even more light-obscuring dust.

And this all is yet a further argument why Christians who make apologetic arguments against other Christians should start with what the other side gets quite right, and never say a word against them until they have done so. Easier said than done, of course.

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