It can be tempting for Christians to defer to the plain meaning of a verse in the Bible. That concept emerges in blogposts, small groups and internet discussions about various doctrines. The idea of a plain meaning is basically to say that if you read a text, you should be able to understand it immediately without additional interpretation or jumping through exegetical loops. Casual readers can just glance a passage over and immediately infer what the author is trying to communicate, sort of like having a conversation with another person. But the Bible might not be that simple. The plain reading is quite vulnerable to misunderstanding.
An important caveat needs to be made. Readers should understand that there is a sense in which the message of the Bible can be ascertained by anybody. Anybody can understand that Jesus died for their sins, taking their death upon himself and giving his eternal life onto them. But when we start talking about the nuances of doctrine and the great confessions of the faith, the plain reading is no longer useful. The plain reading is for children. Exegesis is for adults.
The Confluency of Scripture
I can completely resonate with the person who says, “The Bible is God’s word, so we should be able to understand it.” There is no point in relaying a message that the recipients do not have the resources to understand. But at the same time, it may be that God does not want us to be casual readers of the Bible. He does not want us to skim over the text and merely come away with a general idea, a plain interpretation of the passage. He wants people to really invest in understanding his word. That may be why he ordained dual authorship, otherwise known as the confluency of Scripture.
Dual authorship is the doctrine that Scripture is the product of both God and man. The men who wrote the Bible were members of a particular culture completely divorced from 21st century western culture. A casual reader of the New Testament needs to understanding the Jewish overtones to even understand the first page (the genealogy report). That principle can basically be applied to any body of work. If you read Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, you need to have some familiarization with the Protestant Reformation and Luther’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. If you read the New Testament, you need to understand the Jewish practices that Jesus and the apostles were addressing.
This is why theologians have developed what is known as the historical-grammatical method. This standard hermeneutic can be found in any theology 101 textbook worth its salt. The idea is that to understand a text, one must first understand the cultural impact on the author. If you do not, you are likely to appeal to a confusing, culturally-based text as your favorite proof-text of your favorite doctrine, boasting of the “plain meaning.” There is no shortage of examples wherein the plain meaning is abused.
1st John 2:2 – Calvinism And Arminianism
The debate over the relationship between free will and sovereignty has stretched back thousands of years, from the old Greek philosophers to the theologians of the 21st century. Contemporary Arminian theologians certainly do better than to appeal to the “plain meaning” of a passage. I certainly do not think this is a problem on only one side of a debate. Yet 1st John 2:2 is often boasted of in this debate with a few victory laps. I shall provide no background in this article and continue with the assumption you know what Limited Atonement is.
1st John 2:2 reads, “He is the atoning sacrifice not only of our sins, but also for the whole world.” If a casual, 21st century reader glances over this without understanding the Jewish backgrounds, the plain meaning of this passage will verify Arminian soteriology. That is precisely how one blogger understood this passage. He argued repeatedly that Arminian soteriology (the notion that Jesus died for every individual) was the “plain meaning” 1st John 2:2. But understanding the controversies and Jewish traditions of the Intertestamental Period will provide some reason to doubt the plain meaning.
Judaism was a highly exclusivistic religion. After the Babylonian exile, the Jews feared that they would lose their national identity. Their people would take Pagan gods, Gentile wives, and the Jewish bloodline would be lost to history, the only remnants of God’s covenant with Abraham being a footnote on the pages of history. So when the Jewish Messiah came and offered salvation to the whole world, this was difficult to digest. It was a sect of Judaism that threatened everything they have been striving for.
The apostles emphasized this point. If Jesus really was the Messiah, and he offers salvation to the whole world, then God’s covenant has not been lost. It has been expanded. This was repeatedly addressed by Paul in Romans, and indeed, John in 1st John 2:2. Essentially, to understand this passage, one really needs to understand how deeply the Babylonian exile impacted the Jews. It is not enough to understand the plain meaning.
Interestingly, the cited blogger was told this numerous times, as cited in a series of blogposts that all say the same thing. He never said anything substantial in response. All he had to say was something like, “Well, why didn’t John specify that Jesus had died for only some?” He did not need to. John could not have anticipated the theological debate that would emerge around what he said. He only knew about the theological debate of his day, and it is more than reasonable to expect that is what he was addressing.
The blogger also said something to the effect of, “There is nothing in the surrounding text to conflict with the plain reading.” But that only accounts for 50% of the historical-grammatical method. A complete hermeneutic will account for the culture.
Colossians 2:8 And Philosophy
Christian theologians throughout the centuries have been compelled by Grecian philosophy. They used Greek categories to define Trinitarian theology. Some have even argued that John the Elder was using the Grecian concept of the logos to in John 1:1. However, some Christians can be a little confused by the function of philosophy in the Christian church. Some might go so far as to refer to it as “man’s philosophy,” citing passages such as Colossians 2:8. This text reads, “See that nobody takes you captive through philosophy and vain deceit.” Some of the attempted reconciliations of this seem a little bizarre. It is difficult to say that Paul just meant “incorrect philosophy.”
In Part 6 of Dr. Julius Scott’s Jewish Background of The New Testament, under the subheading “Hellenistic Civilization And The Jews,” Scott pointed out that the religious outlook of the Hellenists was “polytheistic, pantheistic, metaphysical and speculative.” In particular, the Colossians began to contemplate specific platonic ideas, such as the neglect of the physical world.
In summary, Paul was condemning a specific Pagan philosophy. I can tell somebody not to be led astray by philosophy. They might say “Okay, I won’t,” and pursue an academic career in philosophy even though they were never led astray by it. So while the plain meaning of this passage seems like a condemnation of philosophy, the occasion of Paul’s letter and the Grecian culture he is addressing provides some clarity.
The Synoptic Problem
How many angels appeared at the tomb of Jesus prior to the resurrection? Remember that time Jesus told his disciples to pack sandals? Another account tells them not to pack sandals. What about the fact that there are contrary accounts of the cleansing of the temple? They are placed in different periods of Jesus’s ministry in different gospels. The Synoptic Problem raises the question of how one should explain these similarities and differences. The plain reading approach would undermine that project entirely. The plain reading would indicate that they just contradict each other.
However, studies from the Intertestamental Period could provide some insight on this problem. As Scott pointed out in the previously cited Jewish Backgrounds the ancients adhered to different standards of accuracy and storytelling than 21st century westerners do. If I were to tell a story of Jesus, I would tell it from beginning to end. The authors of the gospels were more interested in making a theological point. This led them to reorganize their accounts for emphasis. What John thought was important was completely skipped by Mark. But both provide critical perspectives of the Messiah that merge into a cohesive narrative.
The Plain Reading Is Highly Subjective
If somebody tells you of the plain reading, you should ask, “Whose plain reading?” What might be plain to one person will not be so obvious to another. What might be plain in one culture might not be plain in another. For example, in Romans 3:23, the apostle Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It was plain to him that he was talking about Jews and Gentiles alike. He was reminding the Jews that they were no better than the Gentiles. Sure, all individuals certainly have sinned, but that is not what Paul was saying. The casual 21st century reader might think it is plain that he is referring to all individuals. While all individuals have sinned, that is not necessarily what he is talking about.
People bring baggage to the text. Our doctrinal vantage point might also influence what we think the plain reading is. A young earth creationist might think of the plain reading when they visit Genesis 1. A Calvinist might think of the plain reading when she visits Romans 9, and a continuationist might think of the plain reading when he visits Acts 2. Your plain reading will be determined by the theologians and leaders of your tradition.
“It’s The Plain Reading!” Is Arrogant And Prideful
Imagine two characters named Tony and Evan. They are having an argument about Romans 9. Tony shrieks, “It’s the plain reading!” Evan might be left wondering why he would not notice something if it is in fact the plain reading. It is usually best to give people the benefit of the doubt. We should assume that the other person is doing their best, not being biased, and is striving to understand God’s word and live by the principles therein. But if we tell them that they are missing the plain reading, we are essentially saying that they are either too stupid to see the obvious or too blinded by their tradition.
The goal of a theological discussion is to enlighten, to bring clarity, and to correct any misunderstandings that you personally might be clinging to. If Tony just continues to shriek “It’s the plain reading!” “Why didn’t they say something different?” or “This is common sense!” he will be invulnerable to correction and unteachable, which is a bad character trait for a disciple of Jesus.
Why Christians Should Not Worry About The Plain Reading
The plain reading too often fails to account for the broader cultural context. It requires additional work. We have to read scholarship and understand what the people in that era believed to determine what the author might be saying. As we grow in Christ, we should rely more on scholarship to inform how we understand what the Bible says. This should not be foreign to Christians.
Everybody who reads the Bible in English already owes an unpayable debt to scholarship. If you are not sure what practical steps you can take to learn about the culture, it is actually not that complicated. Pick up a good study Bible or buy a commentary. Scholars are there to illuminate the Bible. If you have relied too heavily on the plain reading, do not feel bad. That is just what you do when you are a new believer. It is not too long to turn things around and learn some theological scholarship. Read some good theological books or the ancient world if you can handle that.
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