Pragmatism and the Limits of the Plain Sense

William Stacy Johnson
Princeton Theological Seminary

Reading these very fine papers of Elliot R. Wolfson and David F. Ford raises for me two questions, primarily in response to Ford.

(1) The Nature of Pragmatic Criteria.

The appropriation by Peter Ochs of pragmatism into biblical interpretation is fascinating and welcome, although it raises certain questions. Above all, it raises the question of criteria.

One may distinguish between pragmatism as a theory of truth and a method for resolving philosophical disputes, on the one hand, and pragmatism as a worldview, on the other. It has been claimed that use of the pragmatic method need not commit one to any particular worldview. But is this true? Pragmatism as a worldview, judging from the writings of Peirce, James, and Dewey, is anti-essentialist, fallibilistic, melioristic, and open-ended. As such, it calls seriously into question many traditional religious beliefs. Consider Peirce’s critique of the Eucharist, James’s “finite” God, Dewey’s religious naturalism, or Rorty’s dismissal of religion altogether.

It seems to me that Ochs is seeking to adopt a pragmatic method of interpretation within a particular interpretive community, while at the same time holding the broader implications of pragmatism as a worldview at bay. Is this really possible? I suspect, in the end, that it is not. Adopting pragmatism as a method will also lead one, inevitably, to a change of worldview. Why? Because the adoption of pragmatic criteria leads not only to corrections “in” the plain sense of scripture (as advanced in David Ford’s meditation on Ephesians) but corrections “of” the plain sense as well.

To put it another way, if one’s criteria are truly pragmatic, then one cannot, in principle, refrain from bringing a pragmatic critique to bear upon the biblical text itself, as many theologians are clearly doing today. Not unlike Ron Thiemann in his book, Revelation and Theology, I wonder whether Ochs, in sorting out pragmatic criteria, is pursuing what some have called a narrow “reflective equilibrium” that limits critique to what is acceptable within a particular communal consensus. Contrast that with a “wider” reflective equilibrium (F. S. Fiorenza) in which one must allow information and perspectives from outside the consensus to carry their full weight.

(2) The Cogency of the “Plain Sense” as a Category.

Clearly, the idea of a “plain sense” of scripture has some pragmatic merit. There is an obvious difference between literal and analogical interpretation, for instance. Nevertheless, I wonder whether “plain sense” holds up as a viable category when, as Ochs argues, certain scriptural texts should be understood as “vague” symbols. The idea of vagueness is not only lifted up by Peirce but it permeates the writings of James as well. One response to vagueness is the need for constant revision and acceptance of the provisionality of all judgments. So then, any so-called plain reading of a text is, at best, a provisional construction subject to ongoing revision as the text is reiterated in new contexts. It may be, at worst, a raw power play. What so many today hold up as a plain reading, which they contrast with modernist/historical-critical readings, is unthinkable apart from the very modernist methods they call into question. What is going on here?

My thanks to both authors for their stimulating work.