Over at the Siris blog, Brandon has an interesting post, in the form of an imaginary (but realistic and well-thought-out) dialog between a Catholic and a Protestant on the subject of the “plain meaning” of Scripture. It’s intriguing not only for its remarkably unbiased presentation of how each side would defend its views, but also for what it reveals about the fundamental problem with Bible-based theology.
The big problem with Bible-based theology is, of course, that God does not show up in the real world to clarify what the intended meaning of any particular passage of Scripture might be, and in His absence, the “plain sense” of the Bible does not, in fact, produce any significant theological unity among Christians. That’s why separate groups of Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians exist to have such a debate in the first place. Brandon obliquely acknowledges this problem, and refers to Protestant attempts to address it, but, as discussed below, such answers are not quite adequate.
(Note: in the dialog that follows, “C” is the Catholic and “B” is the Baptist, representing Protestants in general.)
C. But don’t you hold that Scripture has a plain sense, and that this plain sense alone is authoritative, independently of the Church?
C. And that to interpret Scripture properly all you have to do is read it?
B. As long as you aren’t willfully misreading it, or letting unscriptural biases get in the way of reading it plainly, yes.
So here’s the “out” that explains why Christians disagree about the “plain sense” of Scripture: at least some of them are either willfully misreading it, or are letting unscriptural biases get in the way of reading it plainly. “At least some,” however, really means “most Christians,” since there is no single, common interpretation of the Bible that is held by the majority of Christians. There may be individual doctrines (such as the resurrection) about which there is broad, general agreement within Christianity, but there is widespread theological and practical disagreement, such that any individual, coherent interpretation of Scriptural teaching as a whole inevitably is held by only a relatively small minority of Christians.
This leads to one of two conclusions: either most Christians are not “true” Christians, or else most Christians are willfully misreading the Bible and/or letting unscriptural biases get in the way, without intending to and without realizing that they’re doing it. Either way, the Bible is powerless to correct the situation, since its “plain sense” is unable to overcome the willful misreading and unscriptural biases enough to communicate its true meaning to those in error. That’s a serious liability, because the whole point of having an authoritative Bible is to teach the ignorant and admonish those who go astray. It does little good to claim that the plain sense of Scripture is authoritative if the Bible is unable to effectively communicate this “plain sense” to anyone who is not already predisposed to embrace it, or even to make the errant reader aware that there’s any problem with what he thinks the “plain sense” is.
The Protestant solution to this problem?
B. If there is one thing that is clear, it is that Scripture is an instrument whereby God moves hearts and minds. We Baptists hold that it is God who works through Scripture.
Bearing in mind that Brandon here is giving an example of what the standard Protestant response would be, rather than his own personal views, I think it’s instructive to consider this response, because it is a typical Protestant position. Yes, the human heart is weak and is prone to misread the Bible BUT the Bible is no mere ink on paper pages, it’s the Living Word of God, Who works in and through the printed words to engage the reader directly, overcoming the biases and prejudices that would otherwise prevent the “plain sense” of the Bible from getting through.
That’s a brilliant response that directly addresses the “private interpretation” objection, and blows it away. You can’t deny God’s almighty ability to get His point across if He truly wants to make the point. The only problem with this response is that it also completely blows away the Christian’s excuse for why the “plain sense” of Scripture manifestly fails to produce actual doctrinal unity among Christians. How can the Baptist and the Catholic still be arguing about what the plain sense of Scripture is, if they’ve both read the Bible and thus had the experience of interacting with God in a way that delivers each of them from their fallible misinterpretations and imparts to them the true intent of what God had to say? To claim that God is able to effectively communicate His truth is to leave yourself unable to explain the manifest fact that Christians hold conflicting ideas about what “truth” God is communicating. Even in essential areas like the nature of God and the plan of salvation.
This is just one of many internal inconsistencies that occurs as a direct result of God’s consistent, universal failure to show up in the real world. You can’t tell a story about a God who is concerned and involved and active in human affairs, and have it be consistent with itself and with reality in the absence of any verifiable concern, involvement, and activity on God’s part. Without God literally showing up in the real world, each Christian is left with no alternative but to conclude that he is uniquely special in having been granted a rare spiritual insight into God’s real truth, and that those who disagree with him are either false Christians, or spiritually inferior in some way. Or else he could conclude that he himself has fallen into the trap of believing things that are not true, with no way to discern the difference between what’s the true meaning of Scripture and what isn’t. Is either scenario what a wise heavenly Father would really want for His beloved children?