Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Bible and "Plain Sense" Reading

Over the last few years, as I have written about Bible interpretation on the Internet, I have focused on the historical-cultural approach: that we can’t understand what the Bible means to us, until we understand what it meant to the original audience, as the message was intended by the original writer. And I frequently get this question, in one form or another:

But shouldn’t the Bible be accessible to everyone? Shouldn’t everyone be able to read the “plain sense” of the words and get God’s message from them? How can the Bible, if it’s God’s word, be the sort of book that you need help to understand?

As part of my first few posts, giving the background and foundational understandings under which I operate, I’d like to offer this:

Part of the Protestant viewpoint is that the layperson can and should read the Bible for herself-- but that is not really the same as saying teachers aren't necessary. The original Protestant doctrine is called “the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture.” “Perspicuity” is an old word meaning “able to be perceived and understood.”

Here’s the doctrine as conceived by the early Protestant reformers:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)

The original doctrine states that the Bible is clear enough regarding matters of eternal salvation, that anyone can, by reading diligently, understand how to be saved. However, this understanding of perspicuity has changed in the last hundred years or so, such that nowadays people think there’s something wrong with the idea that we might need scholarly research to help us understand the Bible. This is particularly true in the individualistic cultures of the Western world. But Jesus and Paul and Peter taught from an understanding of individual and community in balance-- individual faith lived out within the church community. I don’t think any of the New Testament authors would have agreed with, or even understood, a mentality that any individual should be able to read and understand everything in the Bible alone, through the eyes of only his or her own experience and knowledge. The New Testament talks a lot about sitting under teachers to gain from their education and scholarship.

In any event, the idea that the Bible is supposed to be so timeless that anyone in any age or culture can read what seems to them like the plain sense of it, without misunderstanding and without needing any teaching or explanation, goes against even what the Bible says about itself. Just about every book in the Bible emphasizes right at the beginning, that it is a message by a certain person, to a certain group of people, at a certain time in history. For instance: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ. . . To all who are in Rome.” Romans 1:1-7. Or “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah. . . And in the days of Jeroboam, the son of Joash, king of Israel.” Hosea 1:1. I believe those "street signs" are there for a reason-- to tell us that the message was never meant to be understood a-historically or a-culturally. And the further removed we are from the time of the actual writing, the more scholarship we need to help us understand.

Does it necessarily follow that for the Scriptures to be inspired by God, they cannot have been messages to certain people in certain times and places, or that we shouldn't need scholarship and research, shared through community, to understand their full sense? Or is it perhaps that God values human experience through all of history, and doesn't want each age to feel no need of the wisdom that came before it?

Traditional church interpretations, based on the writings of early church scholars, do help-- but after the fall of Jerusalem, when the church lost contact with its Jewish roots, it increasingly interpreted the Scriptures through Greco-Roman viewpoints. These tended at times to obscure more than they illuminated. But today’s resources for understanding of the original history and cultures of the Scriptures are shedding more light than ever on authorial intent. We need to make use of the resources given us today, just as the man in Jesus’ parable of the ten talents (Matt. 25:14-30) expected his servants to make use of the resources he gave them.

If you believe the Scriptures are inspired, then it makes the most sense to say that it is each original message, as understood by the original audience, that is inspired-- not what it may seem to be to us, thousands of years and half the globe away. Salvation is one matter: it has to do with the relationship of humans to the eternal God, and is therefore timeless and understandable in any age. But much of the Bible has to do with the way humans relate to one another, and this is inextricably bound up with human history and culture.

It’s important to find out what the original, inspired message was. Otherwise we risk turning the cultures of the Bible into sacred cultures-- and dragging Christians unnecessarily and unfairly, back to the first century in the way they must relate to one another.


Shirley Taylor said...

"dragging Christians unfairly back into the first century" is an excellent way of putting this. I had not read it expressed that way before. Right now I am in a discussion with my niece who is a "I was created for my husband" Christian. Today I told her that if she really wanted to be Biblically correct then she would have to look and act more like the Muslims do because they are closer to the first century than she is, even with her restrictions. Excellent post.

Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

Hah. If your niece wanted to be more biblically correct, she'd study the original languages more closely and understand that when 1 Cor 11 says woman was created "for" man, that word "for" doesn't mean for man's use or for man's service-- but for man's SAKE. In other words, Paul is simply repeating the Genesis idea that God perceived that it was "not good" for the man to be alone and needed a "face-to-face strong aid," (which is what "helpmeet" actually means in the Hebrew).

Jesus never taught that one group of humans was created to be used by another.

Anyway, thanks! I may have worded the idea about Christians and first-century culture differently, but I was influenced by your posts! :)

Lori said...

Interesting. I appreciate the fact that you delineated the doctrine of Salvation as a separate issue, otherwise I would disagree with the thesis that we NEED historicity to fully understand Scripture. What I think is missing from your essay is the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit to make clear his abiding and perfect Word. I agree that understanding the culture and the intent of the author is important but not to the exclusion of the living power of Gods Word. Of course that path is also fraught with danger as it calls for the individual to decide on interpretation of said Scripture and as we know from experience that opens a whole can of nasty worms. I tend toward your point of view, but I embrace the mystery of an unknowable (in a complete sense) God (even to my frustration and occasional doubt).
BTW, really enjoyed your origin essays. Beautifully written.

Kristen said...


Thanks for commenting, and for your lovely words! Of course I don't deny the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and I rely on Him when reading the Bible-- but I also know how easy it is to misunderstand Him, and to substitute our own hidden wishes and desires for what we want a passage to say-- or to rely overmuch on what our churches say are the correct readings (because we risk rejection for disagreeing).

I too embrace the mystery of a God not fully knowable by the human mind. But I think when it comes to reading the Bible, we must use legitimate standards of textual interpretation, or risk moving from mystery to complete confusion-- and authorial intent is a key component of proper textual interpretation.

Marg said...

Kristen, I would love to have this article on my website. Do I have your permission to copy and paste it (pretty much) as is?

I have never come across that paragraph from the Westminster Confession.


Kristen said...

Marg, certainly you have my permission! I'm honored!

Marg said...


The Politics Of Heaven said...


You stated, " is each original message, as understood by the original audience, that is inspired....."

Are you saying that God has no part in the preservation of his Inspired word?

If you say yes, then you are saying something that Jesus and the Apostles didn't believe. They believed that the Scriptures they had at the time were inspired, not just the original message as understood by the original audience. And they relied on these Scriptures as authoritative.

And if you say yes, then we all are left up to the historical musings and whims of scholars and educators for our ultimate understanding of God's Word. The New Testament church was founded and expanded by unlettered men who followed the directives of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit according to the Word.

Kristen said...

Politics, you are setting up a false dichotomy. God inspired the original message to the original audience. That does not mean God has no part in the preservation of His message. Why would you think it means that? Why would you think I think that?

Of course Jesus and the Apostles believed the Scriptures they had at the time were inspired-- because they were the same writings that were originally inspired. There was no difference. Do you really think Jesus and the Apostles took no account of the historical understanding of the verses? They were far closer to the original cultures than we are today, weren't they? They were part of the same people, living in the same region. And they had rabbinical tradition to help. We Western Gentiles have none of those advantages today.

But here's the thing-- Jesus, being the Christ, knew where the rabbinical tradition differed from the original message. That's why He said, "You have heard it said. . . But I say. . . " He was returning to the original intent of the message as God inspired it. Later, the people recognized that the unlettered followers of Jesus had been with Him and sat under His teachings. The guidance of Jesus and the direction of the Holy Spirit led them towards understanding the original, inspired message-- in spite of what Pharisaical teachers had turned it into. We have to come to understand that message too, in spite of what the Pharisees of our day want to turn it into.

God's message is preserved. The salvation message is timeless and plain. But for the rest, where did God say it was supposed to fall into our laps without any seeking or study on our part?

The Politics Of Heaven said...


You are saying that Jesus was returning to the original intent, yet, at the same time, you are saying that certain things are plainly evident in Scripture. Jesus, in returning to the original intent, was returning to the original plainly evident word that was before them.

My point will be illustrated by one verse in Isaiah 8:20, "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, there is no light in them."

Kristen said...

Yes, I said certain things are plainly evident in Scripture. The eternal things like salvation are plainly evident, because they are unaffected by human culture. But things about interpersonal human relationships may indeed need clarification of the original intent.

Are you honestly telling me you think there's no merit in understanding original customs and historical background that throws a light on the text? What about the passage that says that at the Last Supper, John was reclining on Jesus' chest? Without an understanding of the way people sat at table in Ancient Near East cultures, a person can get entirely the wrong impression from this verse. And if we can be enlightened by a better understanding of original intent in an area like that, why not other areas?

I must ask, if Jesus was returning to the original plainly evident word-- if it was so very plain to them-- then why did they misinterpret it in the first place? And yet they were much closer to the original history and culture than we are.

What I don't understand is why you want to argue about this. What point are you trying to make?

iseetheglory said...

Hi Kirsten. Very interesting concept but it concerns me that translators and interpreters are said to have misrepresented these things - what does that say about God's power and providence to communicate a clear message to His people through these means - the infallibility of scripture? I guess Lori and Politics kinda summed up the concern. If these things are true, how can we trust that any of God's Word to us reaches us in tact? This article doesn't really encourage people to trust the inspiration of scripture for any guidance other than salvation, in case the inspired message has been poorly preserved - including teaching like 'love your neighbour' etc etc. Is that how you see most of scripture - just to clarify, or is it really only a few passages for which deep historical studies are needed in order to understand? How long have you held to this view of scripture? And how does effect your relationship with God? Can you say more about it....? Thanks for the challenging ideas :)

Kristen said...

Iseetheglory, I think your questions are predicated on the idea that the purpose of the Bible is to give us guidance-- but I think that the purpose of the Bible is to reveal to us the Christ and His Story of Redemption. I think that "God's Word," according to the Bible itself, is Jesus Christ, the "Word" who "became flesh" according to John 1. Jesus said to the Pharisees, "You search the scriptures, thinking that in them is eternal life, and it is they that point to Me, but you do not come to Me." I think Christianity must be Christ-centered, not Bible-centered-- with the Bible as a means to the end of knowing Him, not an end in itself. Any guidance we receive is a secondary issue; the Bible was not written to be a rule book. If it were, it would look like a rule book, and not like a group of stories and poetry and letters and prophecies.

But I'm not saying we can't trust what the Bible says! Passages such as "love one another," when they are studied for historical understanding and cultural context, turn out to mean -- "love one another." But that doesn't mean historical-cultural understanding is not important. The fact is that we do this already when we read the Bible, and we do it all the time. When Paul says, "Greet one another with a holy kiss," we don't believe we're supposed to start kissing everyone in church. We understand that there's a historical-cultural dynamic, and we look for the principle behind the verse (greet one another with love), and follow that instead of the literal meaning.

to be continued. . .

Kristen said...

Continued. . .

If the way a passage reads, lines up with the character of God and the nature of His New Covenant, then though it wouldn't hurt to see if there's anything we might be missing through lack of historical context, we're probably fine just taking it as read. But how much more beautiful, for instance, is the story of the woman who loses the coin and sweeps her house for it, if we understand that it's not just that she dropped a coin the way we might let a quarter roll under the couch? The set of 10 coins was a significant part of her wedding dowry, and losing one coin had the same significance for her as losing our wedding ring might have for us.

But sometimes misunderstandings can be more serious. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. Does that mean God intended slavery as an institution to continue for all time? No, because slavery, by its very nature, contradicts "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If you wouldn't want to be enslaved, don't own slaves. If a particular reading of a passage contradicts the big-picture message, then the reading is a problem, and ought to be checked out to see if we're misunderstanding something.

The same goes with the passages that appear to permanently subordinate women. Is the gospel good news for females too-- or just for males? Do we really want to spread a "too bad for you if you're a woman" gospel? Could that have really been what Jesus intended?

to be continued. . .

Kristen said...

In conclusion. . .

As far as God's power and providence to communicate His message-- the question is, should we really expect God to spoon-feed us all knowledge of the Bible-- or might He expect us to study it? And if for some reason we are unable to study it-- does He really intend each person to read it all by himself or herself, without help from the community of the faith? Do we not send people to seminary to learn to study the Bible and convey to us what they have learned? The problem is that many times all they do is learn the traditions that support the power of those in power. Is that God's fault? Shouldn't there be a dynamic between the leaders and the rest of the Body, each to hold the other accountable?

So yes, I believe study is important to a proper understanding of Scripture. I believe God gave us the Bible-- but He also gave us our human capacity for reason, and we should use it. He also gave us the Spirit, and we should let Him lead us and not be led by the letter alone.

How long have I held this view of Scripture? Several years, though each year I grow more in understanding of it. I have found that the beauty of the Bible is greatly enhanced when I seek to know more about the original context.

How does it affect my relationship with God? I've got to say I trust Him more and am more convinced of His goodness. I no longer have to force myself to believe contradictory things about His nature-- that He is good, just and impartial, but desires to permanently subordinate half the human race to the other half, for example.

I think it's time to let the Bible be what it is-- a group of writings written within history, and intended to be understood within a historical context-- rather than trying to turn it into what it is not, and never shows itself to be: a guidebook for living dropped in our laps by a miracle and somehow superceding human changes in culture and language so that it always means exactly what every individual reader thinks it says. That doesn't really make much sense, does it?

Wholly Life said...

Your blog and this post (as well as all ensuing comments) are amazing! Thank you for articulating so thoroughly.

Kristen said...

Wow, thanks!

Anonymous said...

" I think your questions are predicated on the idea that the purpose of the Bible is to give us guidance"

Love most of your articles. Thanks for the efforts. Just don`t agree with this statement. 2 Tim 3:16 says "scripture is profitable in righteousness." To me, that is guidance, unless you had something else in mind by guidance?

Keep up the efforts!

Kristen said...

Anonymous, thanks for the kind words! I'm not saying that the Bible doesn't give us guidance. I'm saying that's not the primary purpose of Scripture. I believe the primary purpose of Scripture is to reveal Christ and God's plan of redemption through Him. Even the passage you quote above doesn't say, "scripture's purpose is training in righteousness." It says "scripture is profitable for training in righteousness. Guidance, then, is a secondary purpose of scripture, but not the primary purpose of scripture. The Bible is not a rule book; it's a revelation of God. Hope that clears up my position. You are still, of course, free to disagree.