This is the second in a series of articles on what I call ‘the parameters of meaning.’ The first post, which is a rundown of the Twelve “Rules”, is here.
Basically, what I have in mind is that texts can only suffer certain interpretations as viable. If a person says to me that they are a postmillennialist, I am obliged not to interpret them as meaning that they hold that Christ will return and then inaugurate his millennial reign on earth. There are interpretations which are not interpretations. This series seeks to help define where the limits are. Please feel free to disagree. These are my rules.
Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1: Stick to the plain sense of the words in a passage whenever possible, always observing figures of speech
a. Plain-Sense and Good Sense
Placing the matter “plain-sense” first in a list of rules of biblical interpretation is to provoke the ire of many a Christian and the disdain for “non-scholarship” which quickly follows in its wake. It is so naive to think that one can strike out in this direction without taking under consideration the impact of texts upon readers and the ongoing effects of that impact among individuals and communities.
Still, there are few who would be willing to declare that a “plain-sense” does not, in fact, exist. If this were so it is hard to see how any wild and ridiculous interpretations of Holy Scripture could be kept out.
But perhaps it isn’t as easy as that (it rarely is). Perhaps it is the finding of the “plain-sense” that poses the problems? That it is “there” somewhere is to be admitted, but how to find it, that is the question.
But one has to start somewhere, and in any form of communication between one person and another, it is unwise to ignore what appears to be the meaning based upon taking someone at face value. Naturally, when someone is speaking to you but not employing an idiom with which they are completely comfortable, it is not unlikely that what they say and what they mean to say may be quite different. But we are talking about the inspired Word of God. And even if one is restricted to the use of one or two good translations, it has to be admitted that these versions convey the original very adequately for all intents and purposes. True, detailed work must be conducted in the original languages and with the best exegetical tools. But everyone knows that the “plain-sense” does not go away just because exegesis gets more precise. In point of fact, the reverse is the case. What exegetes are seeking first is what the texts are saying. Then the task moves on to asking what the writer intended by the words he chose and the paragraphs he put together.
Take myself as an example. I am writing about my personal rules of interpretation. In writing I hope not to make my readers think one thing when I mean another. Sometimes this happens. In some instances this is because I have written sloppily and have failed to say things clearly. More often when someone gets the wrong end of the stick it is because they have not read carefully, and have read their assumptions into my work without actually giving due heed to what I said.
This is understood, but “rights of the plain-sense” must be duly appreciated. Every writer who taps out a hermeneutics essay on his laptop understands that his first duty is to say what he means as well as he can. Yes, there is a great deal of the obtuse faux-profundity around. But the best writers want to be taken at face value. They are not, after all, trying to fool anyone into thinking they mean one thing while really intending another. What would be the point of that? There is a huge irony attached to any person who sets forth to teach Biblical hermeneutics and no one has the foggiest idea what he is going on about!
b. The “Plain-sense” and God’s Intent
Whatever the vagaries and defects of fallen humans, we are not at liberty to believe the same thing befalls the Holy Spirit. As the Creator of human language and communication He has bestowed a Word on mankind which is suited to all people and times ((I shall not venture off into a critique of modern views of “Contextualization” and whatnot. To me the examples of cultural misapprehension are due, not to the perspicuity of Scripture, but the lack of perspicacity in certain groups due to ungodly cultural mores). Therefore, we should begin reading Scripture with the same presuppositions of lucidity on the part of the writer as when we pick up a textbook or read a blog post: both of which were written to communicate the author’s intent.
We may begin with the basic assumption that the One who gives the word “Author” its meaning is not a blundering novice when it comes to stating his intentions. The “plain-sense” yields up to us all the most cherished truths of the Christian Faith: Creation; Trinity; Providence; Redemption in the Cross; Justification in the Resurrection; Eternal Bliss with a God who loves us, etc. Why, then, are we so keen to cast it off?
Think about this statement by Reformed scholar Vern Poythress:
In God there is a close relation between thought and word. “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isa 46:10). In the clause “I make known .” God speaks of what he is making known to human beings, and hence he includes his words to them. In the later clauses, “My purpose will stand,” and “I will do all that I please,” he speaks of his will, his inward thought if you will. Clearly his word is in conformity with his thought. – Vern S. Poythress, “Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy.” Available here. See sub-heading ‘Word and thought.’
It ought to be clear that Poythress’s argument depends here on us reading both him and the biblical text in a non-allegorical, plain-sense fashion. When we do take him “literally” we see that he is saying something quite profound. He is saying that between the thought of God and the action of God – both described in the Word of God in Scripture – there is conformity (that is, God is not thinking one thing and doing something else). So when God creates “grass, and the herb that yields seed according to its kind” (Gen. 1:11), lo and behold, the earth brings forth “grass, and the herb that yields its seed according to its kind.” (Gen. 1:12). When god creates humans upon the earth, He says to himself,
Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over creeping thing that creeps on the earth. (Gen. 1:26)
What happens next? God does exactly what He says He is going to do! This will be seen, I argue, in every scriptural example where God says He is going to do something and then does it (e.g. Gen. 2:17 with Gen. 3 and Rom. 5:12f.; Gen. 6:5-7, 11-13, 17-18 with 9:8-11; Gen. 11:7 and 9; 2 Kings 1:3-4 with 1:16-17; Jn. 21:21-22 and 21:23). Even when He uses dreams and visions which His servants must interpret (Dan. 4 and 5), there is still a “literal” meaning which is communicated.
As believers, we are glad of this. we know that Paul’s promise that “there is, therefore, no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), is based squarely on the promises of the Gospel (e.g. John 5:24).
What we are saying, therefore, is not just that “the Bible should be read like any other book” (although that seems like a sensible assumption!). We are saying that there should always be a bias in favor of the “plain-sense” reading of the text. Every effort should be given to make sense of the surface meaning. Priority ought never to be handed to an allegorical or symbolic or typological interpretation. If these other kinds of interpretation are to assert their rights, let it be first demonstrated that the plain-sense cannot make sense!