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On the “Plain” Meaning of Scripture

How is Scripture Illuminated to Us?

Over at the Pangea Blog on Patheos, Kurt Willems explores what he considers to be a flawed way of reading Scripture. He represents it by the concept of what Scripture “plainly” means to the reader. The idea seems reasonable. Why would God make Scripture “tricky” such that the meaning wasn’t clear? The problem with this technique is that this is an entirely egotistical approach to theology. The Bible was handed down to us, but it was not written only for us. It was written to an original audience, with divinely inspired timelessness. Let me give Willems’ take as he puts it:

I believe that this approach to the bible is flawed, which is why I often call it the “surface level approach.” It seems quite arrogant to assume that the Holy Scriptures are simplistic to understand and do not require us to do any homework. The problem is that we live with gaps in-between the text and us. For instance, there is a considerable communication gap between the original authors of the Scriptures and our 21st century culture. We all know what it is like to have a communication gap. Think about it. How many husbands get themselves in trouble for saying something that sounds like something totally different than what they actually had in mind.

Wife says: How do I look in this outfit.

Husband says: It looks ok.

Wife says: Ok… (she says with a tone). That’s about as good of an answer as calling me fat! You jerk!

This is a communication gap to the extreme! Now take this stupid analogy and imagine that there is also a language, cultural, and more than 2000 years in our communication gap; that is what we have when we approach the Bible.

Given the reality of this gap, we need to be careful not impose our ideas onto the text, even if they “make sense” to us. That does not mean that nothing is “plain” in the Bible, but over the past few years I have begun to realize that there is much more to the Scriptures than I had ever known. The bible contains several genres, some of which include: historical narrative (story), didactic literature (straight forward language), wisdom literature (timeless truths), prophetic literature (fore-telling or forth-telling), apocalyptic literature (imagery soaked), and poetry.

Not only so, but there is metaphors, word-pictures, hyperbole, humor, and many other rhetorical devises used throughout the 66 books. What I have come to realize is that if I am going to take the Bible as God’s inspired Word, I need to attempt to interpret every passage in light of the gaps, genres, and rhetoric that the Holy Spirit chose to employ in cooperation with the various human authors. To not attempt to read the Bible in such a way is to ignore God’s complexity, creativity, and incarnational nature.

I think that Willems is on to something here. To interpret each passage on its own merits as it “plainly” appears results in an extremely disjointed and inconsistent faith. Some passages seem to plainly support predestination, while others talk as if we have free will to choose to follow Christ. Most people feel that it is plain that Psalms and Proverbs are poetry, but there is disagreement about whether Genesis 1-3 is poetry or history. Those on each side claim that it is “plain” that they are correct. There must be something underlying our theology that unites these disparate passages in a way that yields a unified whole, rather than the disjointed and inconsistent faith that reads all passages “plainly”.

Even worse, some Christians force unity by reading their own prejudices into the text. Some of the founding fathers of our country spoke of “all men are created equal” while holding some men as slaves and unworthy of equality. They backed this up by choosing to interpret the short epistle of Philemon as plainly allowing slavery while interpreting away text that clearly indicated that all men (every nation, tongue, and tribe) were equal citizens of God’s Kingdom. It is all too easy to slip into this trap. I know I have in the past, and likely there are areas where this is still a struggle. I pray that God will reveal these areas to me and reveal to me the Truth.

I’d encourage each of us to look at Scripture more carefully. While it might seem more godly to look only for the “plain” meaning, I think it is offensive to God, and disrespectful of His Word, to treat Scripture as if it were simply a poorly written history textbook full of facts and figures but no nuance, no story, lacking in real literary skill. God is the greatest Author, certainly His Spirit is capable of much more than we have often credited Him with!

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