The Issues with Plain Reading of Scripture and Ancient Texts
There is a growing, somewhat growing, ideology that the Bible was intended to be a plain book without riddle or mystery. These proponents of “easy reading” or “plain reading” of Scripture attest that God would have intended that His word be easy for everyone to understand and there is no need for scholarship to recognize the Straightforward Biblical text. They claim that the English translation is sufficient in every area to relay every single verse accurately and substantially in all its original meaning and Godly intent.
This sounds like a fantastic thing on the surface, but when we enter into this type of thinking, we see that it is not only logically incoherent, but it is also linguistically, historically and exegetically incorrect. This is not to say that when we are able, we should not take a plain reading of scripture. “Repent and obey” is first transparent in nature but even this can be removed from its context and used as a confusing doctrine which we will see.
First, we embark on a journey with Galileo to better understand why specific readings may be false. Galileo lived during the transitional period from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason. His era was roughly contemporary with those of theological reformers Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564); astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), who plotted the elliptical movement of the planets around the sun accurately; and mathematician Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Galileo himself was a brilliant mathematician, astronomer, and inventor, who improved significantly upon the crude beginnings of the telescope. Galileo lived in Italy and was a faithful member of the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church.1 The church was dominated by a world-view that could be traced at least to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.). Long before there were telescopes, Aristotle had concluded directly through reason that the natural state of matter is to be at rest, and that the heavens are perfection, so all motion is regular. The earth, he concluded, is the center of the universe. The Catholic Church had accepted the views of Aristotle. Therefore, to be a faithful Catholic meant to agree with Aristotle. From their perspective, the Bible was replete with proof.
Note, the Catholic Church deemed Aristotle's views reconciled with Scripture at that time. This is where we've repeatedly taught that attempting to combine a scientific belief with the Bible can go wrong because the Bible does not strive to be a scientific source or a scientific claim making text. This brings us back to the point that if we try to force our observed understanding of science either from YEC or OEC view, we will miss the position of the Bible and the authorial intent.
The Catholic Church used the following verses to combine the Aristotelian view with the Bible: Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. (Ps. 93:1) And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. (Josh. 10:13) [The sun’s] rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (Ps. 19:6) The sun rises, and the sun goes down and hastens to the place where it rises. (Eccl. 1:5)
The Bible confirmed what people experienced every day. It just made sense. If the earth moved, things would be thrown off the globe, birds would be swept backward, objects tossed straight up would not be able to fall straight down. As Galileo studied the heavens through his improved telescope, he confirmed by the observation that the revolutionary teachings of Copernicus (1473–1543) and Kepler (1571–1630) were correct: the earth, along with other planets, moved around the sun. This meant the earth was not the physical center of the universe. It was a daring conclusion: “Hindsight underestimates the imagination required to break the grip of an age-old conviction that planets must move in perfect circles.” He published his findings in 1632 in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This put Galileo on a collision course with the political, theological, and academic powers of his day. Hindsight also underestimates the courage necessary to endure the attacks of the governing church authorities of his day, who wielded enormous power over individuals’ spiritual lives as well as immense political influence over parts of Italy.
Galileo was elderly and unwell when he was summoned to stand trial for teaching heresy against the settled doctrines of Rome. He was not required to leave the safe haven of the Republic of Venice to stand trial in Rome, but the fact that he did so, risking his life for his good standing in the church, testifies to his commitment to the church (as a youth he had considered entering the priesthood). He faced excommunication from the church—which meant possible imprisonment, but, more importantly, it declared an eternal spiritual loss to him as well. The church found him guilty of holding and teaching the views of Copernicus and ordered him to repent, recant, and agree never to propose further in any manner that the earth moved instead of the sun. Under pressure, Galileo recanted: “With a sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, detest the aforesaid errors and heresies”—namely, “that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth is not the center of the world and moves.” But even his recanting could not change the truth of how nature works. Galileo spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest for his discoveries and writing. The people who tried and judged Galileo may look foolish or even evil today, but many were undoubtedly sincere individuals who believed that the revelation of Scripture trumped human observation. They were confident that their (that is, the church’s) interpretation of revelation was wholly accurate and authoritative. They were concerned to uphold the existence of God. And they were confirmed in their certainty by centuries of tradition and by the agreement of everyone in positions of authority within their theological and academic spheres.
While there are still fringe groups that insist on a geocentric solar system, most conservative Christian groups today, including Young Earth Creationists, have adapted their views to Galileo’s conclusions. We haven’t rewritten the biblical statements that seem to say otherwise, but instead, we have adjusted our understanding of them. We agree that they are anthropocentric, that is, human-centered, and they report the perspective of the observer from the earth; they are not scientifically binding. So we take them as figurative, as observational speech, and not “literally” true. This can all be read about in our articles:
Now the issues of plain reading surpass that of the Catholic Church errors but it seems that we are nearly repeating history today. Guth and Valankin were able to show that the universe does, in fact, have a beginning and the estimated time was 13.5 +/- 8 billion years ago. These dating and time frames are done by the scientific method and standard observation of starlight and other planetary objects. Hugh Ross, an Old Earth advocate, and Astrophysicist has shown these models in his Testable Creation Model. Now, while I do not agree with everything Ross puts forth, he does make a strong case from a scientific standpoint that the universe is old in age. This would not fly in the face of any reading of Scripture as we've shown in prior articles (to sum: scripture makes no attempt at dating the universe, and any attempt at trying to explain that scripture does is improper theology). It should be noted, there are other views on this, but this article will not go into them, as we've set aside other articles for such things as you can read here:
A question I often hear is "Why can't we just take the bible at face value for what it says?" This question is an honest question that we aim to answer. To start, to take something at face value you must know what it is attempting to do, say and communicate. The ESV Translators have said, "We cannot spend the same amount of time on every single text. We have to make clear the messages that are essential to the Gospel." Further, each translation has a bend to its priority. ESV is laboriously translated and influenced by Calvinist; the NET uses the broad spectrum of translators and does an excellent job of noting why they chose specific uses of words; NASB aims to be the most word for word translation and so forth. All this to say, it's worth being able to navigate the original languages. The plain readers almost always attest that "scholars" can be wrong about several things, but what they don't realize when they such things is that (1) they are taking a scholars work at face value when they read any English Bible and (2) they are reading an interpretation of the original texts. Therefore, right off the bat, they are being logically incoherent.
There are a few groups who adhere to the "plainest meaning" reading style of the Bible and the main two are Open Theist and Young Earth Creationist. It should be said, I am not conflating the two of these to be equal to each other, it just happens that these two sets of belief systems use the same reading method. The plain reading of scripture, whenever possible, is usually the best solution. However, as we can show this will be a rare case when reading some parts of scripture.
The LORD says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Jesus echoes this in the New Testament by stating in Matthew 10 that He speaks in parables because there are secrets that only true seekers of His word will be given. Yahweh-Elohim used visions to speak to prophets, these prophets translated these visions from a human point of reference, much like we see in the book of Revelation. Jesus spoke in parables to mask the truth to those who were seeking and to those who just were not listening.
One problem with a "plain sense" reading is the extent of knowledge and understanding of Scripture and its background of the one applying "plain sense" to the text.
The second problem is that in an everyday sense approach, we most often assume our own frame of reference for the text and assume that what makes sense to us from our own cultural, social, spiritual, or emotional context is what the text itself means to say.
The third problem is that a "plain sense" reading often does not or cannot see features of the text like irony, wordplay, metaphorical writing, multilevel symbols, or other much more subtle features of communication that go far beyond, or sometimes in direct contrast to, what seems to be the "plain" meaning.
These issues did not surface until the Reformation occurred where the Reformers wanted to return to the biblically based tenet of the authority of Scripture. This was a vital movement and something that we should not shy away from. However, not every byproduct of the Reformation was a good thing. The Early Church Fathers like Basil, Origen, Polycarp, and several others all adhered to a method of exegesis that was anything but "plain reading." This is a huge reason why it is difficult for some people to grasp the writings of these men because they are, again, trying to read them as plainly as possible but that is not how they wrote nor how they intended their apologetics at the time.
For example, Basil thought that Genesis' command for man to have dominion over animals and things of the earth was actually a spiritual command to have authority over our bodies and sin.
That's as far away from a plain reading as you can get. However, Basil is often cited by one of our two groups as a literalist. That is because they attempt to scope his writing through a literalist lens. He was literal whenever possible, as we should be but often allowed himself to delve into scriptures mystery.
Further issues arise, whose “plain meaning” are we talking about? Why should your “plain meaning” be the same as my “plain meaning”? Even more significant, why should your “plain meaning” even come close to the “plain meaning” that the author and original audience of the text would have understood as they read or heard the words of the book?
This appeal to the “plain meaning” hides the truth that the text being referred to, at least by most who make this sort of argument, is a translation of a text composed in and for an ancient culture from a significantly different social, cultural, and linguistic world than our own. To get to the translation into our own language so we can afterward make a claim about its “plain meaning” depends upon substantial amounts of work by linguists, translators, theologians, historians, and others.
Some argue that the linguistic, cultural, and social differences between the time the texts of the Bible were composed and our own have little bearing on our comprehension of the meaning of the text. This is both true and untrue. While there are some who perhaps overstate the importance of the differences, there is a greater danger in understating it.
The “plain meaning” may depend on the translation you read. Discussions about modern translations broadly make reference to two methodologies which underlie the translation process: so-called “formal equivalent” and “dynamic equivalent” (various other labels are used, but broadly speaking the first is often described as “more literal” and the latter as “less literal” because of the former’s desire to preserve a closer relationship between individual words in the translation and individual words in the original). Hence the “plain meaning” derived from a formal equivalent translation may well result in the misapprehension of the meaning if an idiom is translated literally into what appears to be an idiom in the translation’s language, the “plain meaning” may actually be quite different from that of the original. Even if the receptor language has no idiom, the loss of idiomatic association can result in a failure of the original “plain meaning” to match the modern reader’s “plain meaning.”
We're going to take a look at some examples to understand better the point we are attempting to make:
Psalm 89 (19-28).
19 Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one and said: "I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people. 20 I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him; 21 my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. 22 The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him. 23 I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. 24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; in my name, his horn shall be exalted. 25 I will set his hand on the sea and his right side on the rivers. 26 He shall cry to me, 'You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!' 27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. 28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm.
The plain sense reading tells us that the new king from the line of David will be a military leader who will restore the empire of Solomon and increase his triumphs across the sea and the great rivers even though he has suffered a temporary defeat. In other words, the new king will be a conquering military leader like his ancestor David who will "crush his foes, and strike down those who hate him." Even Christians knowing full well the actual life and teachings of Jesus have tended to use this passage as applied to Jesus to project military images onto the Kingdom of God and ended up with disasters like the crusades.
But that reading of the text does not consider that all of the symbols in this passage come from the cultural context of the Ancient Near East, and are creation symbols of peace not martial symbols of war. The "battle" images refer to God bringing peace and justice into the chaos and disorder of the world (cf. Isa 11:1-9), which is always symbolized by water in such contexts ("sea" and "rivers" in v. 25; Genesis 1). Note that a feature of the New Jerusalem is that there will be no more sea (Rev. 21:1). That is a theological statement, not a geographical one.
As an example of the third problem which we listed above, we can perceive that irony is a feature that a plain sense reading will almost always miss. For instance, I have noticed Habakkuk 1:13 quoted as an ontological description of God, telling us what God is really like ("Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing"). That is then sometimes used as a way to interpret Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22 from the cross ("Why have you forsaken me?"). This is combined with a certain theory of the Atonement to offer a very hybrid "plain sense" reading. As Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world on the cross, since God is too pure to look upon evil, he turned away from Jesus prompting Jesus' so-called cry of dereliction (see Jesus' "Cry of Dereliction" and Psalm 22).
The problem is that the verse is Habakkuk is profoundly ironic, and in fact, means precisely the opposite of what the words say. It is a statement made to demonstrate that it is not true since God is, indeed, looking on evil in the world by allowing the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem. That moderately seriously undermines this reading of Jesus' words from the cross.
The same is true of the people’s first response to Joshua (Josh 24:16) or the apparent prayer of repentance in Hosea (6:1-3). Both appear to be sincere, but more careful study and an understanding of how the biblical writers use irony to make a point reveal that they are both insincere and betray the people’s misunderstanding of faithful response to God. The words say one thing, but the context makes it clear that nearly the opposite is the meaning.
Here are some more examples:
"Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Did God not know where Adam was after Adam had sinned? Of course, He did. The plain reading of scripture would tell us to assume that God didn't know. But, since God knows all things (1 John 3:20), God certainly knew where Adam was. Furthermore, God wasn't asking about physical location, but about the spiritual condition.
"You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I,'" (John 14:28). The plain reading of this text could be used to suggest that Jesus is not God in the flesh since the Father is greater than Jesus. How could that be so, if Jesus is God? But, we need to go to other scriptures for clarification. Jesus said the Father was greater than He not because Jesus is not God, but because Jesus was also a man and as a man, he was in a lower position. He was ". . . made for a little while lower than the angels . . ." (Heb. 2:9). Also in Phil. 2:5-8, it says that Jesus "emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men . . ." Jesus has two natures. Jesus was not denying that He was God. He was merely acknowledging the fact that He was also a man. Jesus is both God and man. As a man, he was in a lesser position than the Father. He had added to Himself human nature (Col. 2:9). He became a man to die for people.
"And He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation," (Col. 1:15) At first glimpse, this verse could imply that Jesus is the first created thing in the universe. Besides being wrong, that is heresy. To understand this verse, we need to understand others. Did you know that "firstborn" does not mean first created, but is a transferrable right describing pre-eminence? Gen. 41:51-52, "And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: For, said he, God hath made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house. And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."
Jer. 31:9, "...for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn."
Lastly, I'd like to show just one of many examples of where the study of the original languages is worth doing. In John chapter 21 we see Peter and Jesus having a conversation about love. Jesus asks him several times if he, Peter, loves Him. However, upon looking closer, we see that Jesus uses two uses of the word "love." First, Jesus uses the word "φιλέω" which means "mutual interest, affectionate love." The second time Jesus asks the question He uses the word "ἀγαπάω" which is agapao, meaning "expresses personal will and affection, rather than just emotional love." On the last asks of Jesus, He switches back to phileo or "φιλέω". This is not something that we grasp in the English translations, it's difficult to encompass these types of translations, so it is understandable. However, allowing yourself to take a more viable look at scripture reveals the truth. We see Jesus asking Peter three times, which some speculate is a redemption method since Peter denies Jesus three times. This isn't a dramatic revelation by any stretch of the imagination, but we do get a better grip on the text itself.
As we've shown this "plain sense" reading or interpretation of the Bible is very choosing. It fails in many areas when it attempts to the entire scope of the person's interpretive method. You'll miss out incredible background information, rhetorics, polemics, apologetics and more. More often than not, you will miss the original authorial intent. As disciples of Christ, we must take seriously the things put before us in Scripture, as all would agree I am sure.
Learning to navigate the original manuscripts, understanding the original background and authorial intent can seem like a daunting task. Let me reassure you that it is not only rewarding, but it is not as difficult as it may seem. You need not to be a scholar to encounter the word of God how it was intended.