Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thoughts on the So-called Plain Sense of Scripture and the No True Scotsman Fallacy


20 Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, 21 for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

15 And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, 16 speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)


In my last article on the subject, I shared some objections as to why Catholics do not accept the concept of Sola Scriptura — that it is a manmade doctrine not to be found in Scripture. This time I want to discuss an assumption which is held by some proponents of Sola Scriptura, which holds there is a “plain sense” of Scripture apparent to all who read it, and therefore a Church which can determine what is a correct interpretation is unnecessary.

This is not a reasonable claim. When one considers that the Bible was written by individuals who wrote thousands of years ago, as a member of a different culture, it is quite likely that to read it as if it was written by a 21st century author is to read it in a sense which was never intended.

Preliminary Comments

The reader should be aware that just because I reject the concept of a “Plain Sense” of Scripture, it does not mean I reject the authority of Scripture. As a collection of writings written by individuals passing on the Revelation which God gave them and inspired and protected the authors from error in doing so. Scripture “is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16).

However, it does not follow from this that the Bible was ever intended to stand alone or to be interpreted by itself.

Thus, anyone who interprets my article as denying that the Bible is inspired or authoritative interprets it wrongly.

I don't doubt that some non-Catholics will disagree and perhaps dislike what I write.  Please keep in mind that any comments which I deem offensive (whether personal attacks or anti-Catholic attacks) will not be approved.  Please be civil in any expressed disagreement.

What “Plain Sense” Is.

Whatever is against the plain sense of the written word, or which gives countenance or encouragement to sin, we may be sure is not that which the Lord has spoken.1

—Matthew Henry

So what is this Plain Sense?  It is essentially rooted in Literalism, which is defined by Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary as, “Interpretation of biblical texts in straightforward and nonsymbolic language, using the literal meaning of the original words.” So if the Bible says God created the world in seven days, the Bible means exactly that. Any attempt to claim that the Bible never intended to give an “eyewitness” account tends to be accused of trying to “explain away” what the Bible says.

The claim of a “Plain Sense” of Scripture is that the meaning of Scripture is obvious to all who read it, and thus a Church is unnecessary and has no authority to insist on a binding interpretation. Moreover, exegesis and interpretation is not needed since any person who reads the Scriptures in good faith will understand the proper meaning, and only those who do not approach the Scriptures in good faith would insist on a different meaning.

If that kind of thinking sounds problematic, that’s because it stems from a logical error which will claim that “if YOU disagree from ME, it’s because YOU are in error.”

No True Scotsman Fallacy

This is known as the No True Scotsman fallacy, which is used in this case to negate all views of the Bible contrary to one’s own by labeling it as not being authentically Christian. It works like this:

  1. All True Christians will accept that a certain Bible Verse means X.
  2. Jones doesn’t think this Bible verse means X.
  3. Therefore Jones is not a True Christian

Under such a fallacy, any attempts to question the major premise or any counterexamples will be labeled as not being "a true Christian."

To employ a silly example, what if I claim that Jesus stating, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36) means He is an alien and if you do not agree you are not a real Christian and read the Bible out of context. How do you refute that? Such a claim refuses to consider any rebuttals by claiming they must be false because they disagree.

Caveat: This does not mean Scripture is Subjective

Because the above point can be misunderstood, I want to make this clear: The meaning of the Bible is not subjective. What makes it seem subjective is the multiple personal interpretations all claiming to be correct.

There are right and wrong interpretations of the Bible, and the issue is: Who has authority to make a binding interpretation?

My objection to “Plain Sense” and “Personal Interpretation” is it essentially makes any individual who claims it into his own Magisterium, disguising his or her personal interpretation as the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

An Example of the Pitfalls with Personal Interpretation

In St. Augustine’s work Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, we see in book 22, how Faustus (a member of the Manichaean heresy) reads the Old Testament and interprets it:

4. These books, moreover, contain shocking calumnies against God himself. We are told that he existed from eternity in darkness, and admired the light when he saw it; that he was so ignorant of the future, that he gave Adam a command, not foreseeing that it would be broken; that his perception was so limited that he could not see Adam when, from the knowledge of his nakedness, he hid himself in a corner of Paradise; that envy made him afraid lest his creature man should taste of the tree of life, and live for ever; that afterwards he was greedy for blood, and fat from all kinds of sacrifices, and jealous if they were offered to any one but himself; that he was enraged sometimes against his enemies, sometimes against his friends; that he destroyed thousands of men for a slight offense, or for nothing; that he threatened to come with a sword and spare nobody, righteous or wicked. The authors of such bold libels against God might very well slander the men of God. You must join with us in laying the blame on the writers if you wish to vindicate the prophets.3

Faustus personally interprets the Creation account and the Torah on the sacrifices in a literal sense, taking what he thinks is the plain sense of Scripture.  Those familiar with Scripture will be able to recognize the Scriptural events he speaks about.   Because of this interpretation, Faustus and the Manichaeans think that the God of the Old Testament cannot be the same as the God of the Prophets and the New Testament.

Now before anyone fires off an angry response here, let me make clear I do not claim that those who believe in “Plain Sense” and “Personal Interpretation” believe in the Manichaeism that Faustus did. Rather I use this example to demonstrate that a person who interprets Scripture for himself with what he or she thinks is the "plain sense" can very easily go wrong, and if such a person makes use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, it can assume everyone else is wrong rather than consider the possibility of personal error.

Guided by the “Spirit”

In response to this, some argue that the proper understanding is done through Guidance by the Holy Spirit.  In this, it would be argued that interpretations not done under the influence of the Spirit were wildly inaccurate.  This defense would claim that the Spirit reaches out to people of good faith and helps them to understand what Scripture means. Therefore it can be said that Faustus was not guided by the Holy Spirit, but those who follow the “Plain Sense” are.

The appeal to the Holy Spirit is another defense mechanism of the “Bible Alone” which is commonly invoked against the example of the false interpretation.  But there is a problem with the assertion.  How do we know who is deceived and who is not?  Or, more chillingly, how does the individual who is certain they are right know they are not deceived?

Faustus, like Arius, Nestorius and others were probably sincere in their belief that Jesus was less than God, and sincere in believing they were inspired while those who disagreed were deceived.  They certainly appealed to the Scriptures sincerely – yet they were in error.  So who determines what is right?

The problem is, this is another example of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and argues that whoever deviates from a chosen interpretation is not guided by the Spirit.  Regardless of beliefs, anyone can use this fallacy and say "This interpretation is not the same as mine.  Therefore it must be false."

Get enough different groups all using the fallacy and contradicting each other and you have a problem. If you have several denominations that hold contradictory views and all of which claim to have the true interpretation of Scripture and all of them appealing to the Bible, to whom are we to approach to determine which view is in contradiction to what Jesus taught His disciples?

If two or more groups say contrary things, they cannot all be right. However, just because one contrary is wrong does not mean the other is right. If one person says “All [A] is [B]” and another says “No [A] is [B]” both can be wrong if it turns out “Some [A] is [B].” Thus we can’t choose who is right simply on the basis of identifying group [B] as wrong.

Self Contradiction in Practice

Thus, the problem with an appeal to a Plain sense of Scripture which therefore requires no Church is that it is a self-contradiction. This claim is in itself a claim to have the personal or denominational authority to make a binding interpretation of Scripture (which they deny to the Catholic Church). In other words, the person appealing to the Plain Sense of Scripture in judging others who disagree with him is creating his own Magisterium — and one based on the argument that if you don’t agree with [X] you are reading the Scriptures wrongly.

The Data of Divisions

The existence of numerous denominations, all calling themselves Protestant, demonstrates this problem. If there is a plain sense of Scripture obvious to all who seek it in good faith, we should expect to see evidence of such a claim in the unity of all groups who claim to rely on the Bible Alone: all pointing to the Bible should hold to the same teaching if the teaching is “plain.”

Yet this does not happen.  If people disagree with a pastor or reverend and their take on Scripture, they are free to just go elsewhere to where someone teaches what they agree with.

Now I won’t go into the “20,000+ denomination” debate which annoys certain Protestants. This seems to be mainly a dispute over what a denomination is. Certain groups consider three different offshoots of Presbyterians as three different denominations. Others consider them one denomination. Without a mutual agreement on what denomination means, such arguments are worthless.

Setting that aside, however, we can say that when one has Lutherans, Reformed, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Non-Denominational and others, each claiming there is a plain sense of Scripture while appealing to their own belief as being what that plain sense is supposed to be, we can see that this is evidence against a Plain Sense.

A thing cannot both be [A] and [Not-A] at the same time and in the same context.  If two statements about a thing contradict, they can’t both be right, but (if they both share a fundamental misinterpretation they share) both can be wrong.

A Brief Preliminary on "Agreeing on the Important Things"

While this is a topic worthy of a post itself (which I hope to get to later), I will touch briefly on the defense sometimes offered that these different denominations agree on "important things."  The argument is, the differences are less than the agreements, and the agreements are what is discovered from the plain sense. The differences are over “minor” issues.

The reason this is a problem is, denominations do not say these differences are minor issues. Baptists who say Baptism is important and Calvinists who say it is a mere symbol are saying contradictory things about the necessity of Baptism. Denominations disagree on whether abortion or divorce is permissible or not… and a growing number of them are deciding not to contest the issue at all, merely saying nothing to avoid controversy.

So when it comes to the "Agreeing on the Important Things" argument, what we have is a reduction of Christianity to the Lowest Common Denominator, where people who insist on other issues as being important are accused of focusing on trivialities.  Certain denominations (the Anglicans and Presbyterians for example) are divided over the concept of homosexual marriage.  This does not mean that homosexuality is unimportant compared to what they agree on.  Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)"  He also said "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt 7:21)"

So we can say that the issue of obedience to His commandments is not optional, and therefore when two denominations dispute whether or not an issue is "important" either one is denigrating something important or elevating something trivial.

Actually, the "Important things" defense is another example of the No True Scotsman fallacy:

  1. There is no contradiction on major beliefs between denominations.
  2. Belief [X] is disputed between denominations.
  3. Therefore Belief [X] is not a major belief.

Any uncomfortable dispute between denominations is explained away by this argument. The problem is, it waters down the faith to the level of the group which believes the least.

The Question to Be Asked

Thus we have the problem with the claim of Personal interpretation in a nutshell. How can we know who has the correct interpretation when two groups disagree and both claim to have the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Hence, Catholics ask: When two or more denominations disagree over the plain sense of Scripture, to what do they appeal to settle who is right?

It cannot be the Bible — because this is what is being disputed.  Two parties with no other authority but the Bible can each accuse the other of interpreting it wrongly and will not accept the other's citation as a refutation of their belief.  Clearly in such a case, having an inerrant Bible alone is not of much use if people cannot agree on the meaning.

That is the problem: if one accepts The Bible Alone, there is nothing to judge between two disputing views to determine which is correct. Thus we have an impasse — if one accepts The Bible Alone and Personal Interpretation.

This is why the Catholics emphasize the fact that the teachings of the Apostles are passed on in both the writings of Sacred Scripture and in Sacred Tradition. We believe Jesus established a Church under the headship of the Apostles and that when one reads the Bible, when one considers Sacred Tradition, one has to view it in context of the faith which is passed consistently from generation to generation. A person who views Scripture apart from how it was interpreted since the times of the Apostles does not read Scripture correctly.

The denial of the claim that Jesus established His Church and protected her from error is to effectively kick out the support for a reasoned belief that the Bible is inerrant, and that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.4

This is because: If we do not know who has the authority to interpret, how can we know whose teaching, refutation, correction and training for righteousness is correct and whose is in error?

1 Henry, M., & Scott, T. (1997). Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary (Dt 18:15).

2 Kurian, G. T. (2001). Nelson's new Christian dictionary : The authoritative resource on the Christian world. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Pubs.

3 Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV. St. Augustine: The writings against the Manicheans and against the Donatists. (273).

4 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Board of Trustees, Catholic Church. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, & United States Catholic Conference. Administrative Board. (1996, c1986). The New American Bible : Translated from the original languages with critical use of all the ancient sources and the revised New Testament (2 Ti 3:16). Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.


  1. Very interesting subject, especially so in light of scientific observations that seem to point to errors in the Bible.

    Based on the comment in your blog that scripture is "a collection of writings written by individuals passing on the Revelation which God gave them and inspired and protected the authors from error in doing so", you seem to be saying that scripture is without error... just to clarify, is this your position and, if so, how do you account for some obvious contradictions with scientific evidence?

    Is it really necessary to claim that scripture is infallible or is there an argument for God having to use imperfect man to write scripture, with errors being made due to their imperfection, but that His consistent character and will shine through scripture despite this? There isn't a Christian I know that doesn't interpret the Bible one way or the other (even within the Catholic church, and between different popes), which would seem to indicate that interpretation is required and scripture is not always the crystal clear will of God, written down without error...

    Final point - please don't assume from the above that I don't value scripture or consider it to be fundamentally flawed - I am just struggling to come to terms with the viewpoint that it has no errors when it obviously does not tie in with scientific observation in some places (e.g. the order of creation - earth, sky and vegetation being created before the sun i.e. Genesis 14).

  2. Hello Mark.

    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you (very busy week). Hopefully I will address the issues you have and hopefully I have not misunderstood your point.

    There seems to be some terms which we use differently. So let's see if I can make some clarifications and see if that helps clear things up.

    A contradiction needs to be distinguished from a different emphasis.

    A contradiction, in terms of logic and philosophy would work this way: If one person says [A] and another says [Not-A], then you have a contradiction.

    However, if one person says [A] and another person says [B] one has to consider the possibility that two persons are emphasizing things most significant in their mind and both [A] and [B] can coexist.

    I don't believe there are contradictions in the Bible or contradictions between the Bible and Science... so long as both are understood properly. Likewise, I don't believe the Popes contradict each other, though they may give different emphasis depending on the topic being discussed.

    In the Bible, we need to recognize that the authors used their own talents and knowledge when writing, yet were inspired by God to present the truth He wanted present within the books of Scripture. The authors coming from a Hebrew culture (OT) and Jewish/Greek culture (NT) means that we have authors who express themselves using expressions and idioms and genres.

    So we would need to look at poetry as poetry, prophecy as prophecy and so on. It would be wrong to interpret everything as intending to be literal and historical, written with the intent to express scientific truths. An ancient man may describe conditions using the knowledge being available at the time. So, if an ancient writer speaks of the Sun seeming to stand still in the sky, it does not mean he errs. He's describing what the sun appeared to do from his perspective.

    The error would be with the person believing that such a description is what the Bible is intending to teach. In an inerrant Bible, he would be speaking truthfully with no intent (or interest) to comment on how the bodies in the Solar System work scientifically.

    Consider how, today, we speak of "Sunrise" even though it is archaic considering what we know. These statements are not intended to be taken literally.

    So when it comes to a question of whether Bible and Science contradict, the first thing to ask is: "Is my reading of the Bible correct?" If it is not, then a seeming contradiction proves nothing.

    Now I admit I do not know much of you. So I don't know the approach you take (If I have not misunderstand you, it seems to be a form of literalism and you are not sure how to understand apparent differences that seem to be present between Science and the Bible).

    Since this blog comes from a Catholic perspective, I can't speak for the answers other groups give. I can recommend some Church documents you can Google:

    Dei Verbum (Vatican II)
    Verbum Domini (Pope Benedict XVI).

    God Bless.