Text is not absolute

C. S. Lewis described his friend Owen Barfield as the “Other Friend,” who “read all the right books but got entirely the wrong things out of them.”

One of the lessons it took me a long time, and a Master’s in English, to really learn is how text is not absolute.

Is the Constitution “clearly” a document to restrain the states from oppressing the people, or is it “clearly” a document to protect the states’ rights from the federal government?

Does the second amendment “clearly” provide a right to bear arms or “clearly” limit the right to bear arms?

Does the first amendment “clearly” provide freedom to exercise or discuss religion in public or “clearly” establish a “wall of separation” between Church and State?

Does the Bill of Rights cast a “penumbral shadow”?

Are the “Harry Potter” books/movies a gateway drug to occultism or a fantastic Christian allegory?

Do people read _The Lord of the Rings_ and discern deep Christian themes or join strange clubs that wear elf ears and eat mushrooms?

Is Madame Bovary about the downward spiral of sin and addiction or about how the patriarchy and the Church oppress women?  Or is it just about sex?

Is Hamlet insane, pretending to be insane, or a madman who thinks he’s sane and pretending to be insane?  If he’s insane, is he bipolar, schizophrenic or sociopathic?

Does Aristotle contradict the Bible or not?

Does Plato promote or disapprove of homosexual behavior?

Any given text is open to a wide range of interpretations based upon which aspects one emphasizes.  People debate texts all the time, with each side claiming the “literal” reading of the text. Lawyers and lawmakers know this.  This is why they haggle over precise wording and punctuation in contracts and legislation.

The Muslims are “People of the Book” and there are several varieties of Islam.

The Jews are “People of the Book,” and there are 3 major modern forms of Judaism, with more specific forms, as well as the various ancient forms (Sadducee, Pharisee, Essene, etc.)

Then we have the over 30,000 Protestant “denominations,” plus the various ancient Churches in the East that consider themselves “Orthodox” compared to one another and to the Catholic Church, as well as all the ancient heresies, which all consider themselves to be going by a “literal reading of the Bible”.

Why does anyone sincerely believe that there can be such a thing as a literal reading of Scripture without the guidance of the Church?

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6 responses to “Text is not absolute

  1. Woman, without her man, is nothing.
    Woman: without her, man is nothing.

    Maybe both true. Recalls two interpunctuations of St John’s prologue, standard and Augustinian (as recalled by Dom Gérard).

  2. Is the Constitution “clearly” a document to restrain the states from oppressing the people, or is it “clearly” a document to protect the states’ rights from the federal government?

    Probably both, depending on which passage.

  3. Does the second amendment “clearly” provide a right to bear arms or “clearly” limit the right to bear arms?

    Probably both: i e a man could bear pistols then available but not cannons then available. Were there other limitations as to what a private citizen or as to which private citizen could carry arms? I do not know, you know and I do not know the text.

    First amendment clearly does NOT introduce a wall of separation between Church and State, as it was perceived at the time. The idea comes rather from 1905, France. Forbidding friars to teach (and even expulsing them) was already done, Clémenceau got rid of state and papacy co-electing bishops and of state paying the priests’ paychecks.

    Penumbral shadow of Bill of Rights – what does it mean? I do not know. The HP and LotR examples are construed, as much as the Aristotle-Bible example. Whether HP is Christian allegory or not, depends on what sensus allegoricus fits its sensus literalis. Whether it lures to occultism depends on its sensus moralis. And so on. LotR has a meaning (literally not true about the period and places imagined, morally very true) quite independent of this or that category of readers or their behaviour. Aristotle made very many conclusions of which I believe very few contradict the Bible. The question is whether this or that passage in Aristotle contradicts this or that passage in the Bible. Saying “since the first mover is perfectly blissful, he never decided to make anything or to do anything about what he made” – if there is such a passage or such assages – obviously contradicts “in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth” as well as any passage showing God as caring about us. But there is more to Aristotle than that error, and St Thomas Aquinas did not swallow it.

  4. Why does anyone sincerely believe that there can be such a thing as a literal reading of Scripture without the guidance of the Church?

    That depends on which passage. An Ethiopian Eunuch found some passages in the prophets difficult. Mosaic legislation is a very good example, where errors ranging from Ebionites to Albigensians can be deleterious. Prots went mainly wrong about exact translation of words like “Church”, “Bishop”, “Priest”, “Deacon”, and missed out on some things in Epistle to Hebrews (habemus altare). But of course, Calvin was as Geocentric as St Thomas Aquinas, Luther as Creationist as St Robert Bellarmine – since those passages pose no difficulty whatsoever.

  5. There are of course passages that are not difficult in themselves or once the answer is known, but which can be construed in difficult manners and which can be difficult for those unaware of answer – and “difficult” for those unwilling to take the answer. Like Helvidian error on the Perpetual Virginity re-hashed in Evangelical sects (“firstborn” being a terminus technicus, whether afterborn are there or not, and them not knowing it), but this was not accepted by Reformers Luther and Calvin.

  6. HGL,
    Rhetorical Questions

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