Plain-Sense Confusion

Everyday communication assumes that the one speaking and the one listening can understand each other.  Blog writers post for others to read their thoughts.  Newspapers and books are published on this assumption.  Even “postmodern” deconstructionists complain if their stated views are misconstrued.  Every debate and every teaching situation from the beginning of time requires that words communicate intent and that intent can be known.  Misunderstandings occur when, for example, someone has not said what they meant to say, or has knowingly equivocated, or when someone has not listened carefully or sympathetically.

Of course, when God is the Communicator we cannot believe He doesn’t mean what He says.  Arguably, there are instances where God has been deliberately ambiguous; or at least has allowed the inspired writer to be (e.g. Jn. 2:19-21), but these are exceptions.  If they proliferated we could not hold a doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.

In the disagreements between DT’s and CT’s it would help if both sides would try harder for lucidity.  That is why I appreciate it when a CT tells me he is “reinterpreting” or “redefining” an OT passage (sometimes because he sees warrant for it in the way the NT uses the Old).  Still more helpful is when he tells me he is “spiritualizing” (he finds a deeper spiritual meaning than a literal interpretation would convey).

I am not casting any aspersions at Steve Hays by these remarks, but he does question what I mean by the term “plain-sense.”  He thinks there are “fatal ambiguities in Henebury’s appeal to the “plain sense” meaning of the text,” and asks, “Plain to whom? Future to whom?” 

He wants to know if Ezekiel’s original audience, and those after that time, would have understood what I take to be the “plain-sense” of Ezekiel 40ff.  Presumably this is because he wishes to cast doubt upon whether when God gave a blueprint for a temple He was actually understood to be speaking about a temple?  He also seems to think that with the passage of time God’s words can undergo drastic changes in meaning and begin to mean different things to different readers depending on where they sit on the timeline of history.  If I am not interpreting his “fatal ambiguities” correctly I hope he will forgive me.  That is what I get from his questions.  He says,

“Here he [Henebury] indicates it would be plain to the audience. Well, what would be plain to the audience?”

I answer, that Ezekiel’s temple is a temple with rooms and stairs and walls and such.

“And which audience?”

I reply, both Ezekiel’s listeners; Jews after that (otherwise the efforts of Hananiah ben Hezekiah to reconcile it with the Torah were pointless); and us today!  Why would the sense change?

Please forgive my sense of humor, but I had the thought of Noah spending all those years building an ark according to God’s blueprint only for God to inquire, “What’s that?”

Ditto Moses and the Tabernacle.

Jokes apart, that is what I mean by “plain-sense” and “literal” and “normal” etc.  And when covenants and prophecy aren’t in view I see the same belief held by these men:

Greg Beale, in his A New Testament Biblical Theology speaks of “literal fecundity” (97), and of “literal expectation” (155).  For more examples see 113,150-151.  He also speaks of “the NT transformation of the OT storyline” (16).

Vern Poythress assumes a plain-sense when writing about the 8th Commandment in his paper on “Contracts and the Destructive Effects of Unfaithfulness” (6) when he writes,

So the eighth commandment comes in a context where God’s will defines its
scope and purpose. We do not have the right to re-interpret and re-define it according to our own selfish desires. 

Poythress’s whole argument rests on the assumption that the plain-sense of Scripture is known.

John Frame, in disagreeing with certain pronouncements of Van Til against Stuart Hackett refers to “normal meaning” (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 212), and leaves it up to us to understand what he means.  He means what people usually mean when they talk in such terms.

This is all I want to say about this matter.  Now to his latest post, Salva veritate.

Steve Hays starts off my quoting an off-the cuff remark.  He quotes me: “Additionally, it is a reason why one ought to be cautious about embracing the notion that the NT reinterprets the OT.”

Then answers,

Since I haven’t embraced that notion; since, as a matter of fact, I’ve been arguing the opposite, [NB he’s arguing a typology of the OT without ‘interference’ from the New] the cautionary is a red herring. For some reason, Henebury keeps trying to shoehorn my argument into a different argument than the one I’m actually using. Perhaps he keeps reverting to the default argument because he has more experience dealing with the default argument, whereas he doesn’t have ready-made rebuttals for my actual argument.

I want readers to notice the word “Additionally” in Steve’s quotation of me.  It means there was something before it; a context that was ignored.  I was replying to something Steve had said in another post when discussing my Reason 37.  The “addition” was just an aside from me.  It was meant generally, and applies that way.  I did say that Steve was “perhaps not” guilty here, “But,” I continued, “in my experience and reading, that is what is going on.”  In all candor, I cannot see how Steve’s argument is not anchored to his understanding of how the NT interprets the Old – a conclusion he has studiously avoided.

Some of the problem comes from Slteve’s selective interaction with me.  I realize that some selection is necessary in debates like this, but Steve should not think I had him primarily in mind.  As I have said, the “40 Reasons” are not aimed only at CT’s.  Moreover, I was and am treating Steve Hays as a representative of CT, while attempting not to put words into his mouth.  I’m finding it a little tough because he hasn’t disclosed enough on what he believes about this matter and I keep coming across points of disagreement between him and many CT’s.  Besides, calling the above a “default argument” is a bit unfair.  It’s not as if it’s the only thing I’ve argued!

He quotes me, “Better places to go would be Jer. 30:1-10; 31:1-14, 21-16; 32:37-41; 33:14-26.  These show again that there is no typology and “territorial referents” are constant.”

Then says,

i) I’m citing passages that present a new Eden or new Exodus motif. For Henebury to cite other passages that may not contain that motif hardly negates my appeal. The absence of a given motif in one passage doesn’t cancel out the presence of a given motif in another passage.

Of course he’s right.  I was only trying to give the reader other passages in Jeremiah that shed light on his texts.  Steve sees a new Exodus motif pointing to a typology in two verses in Jer. 16:15-16.  I don’t.  A motif may be present, but I see a comparison or contrast even.  I’m not trying to be evasive.  One cannot evade what one cannot see.  What pattern I do see is of judgment and deliverance of God’s people and their return to the land of Israel.  I gave some cross-references, but Jeremiah contains more.

 ii) If, on the other hand, he thinks a passage like Jer 31:1-14 also contains a new Eden motif, then that’s more supporting material for my position, not his.

There is a problem of definitions here.  Just what does Hays have in mind when he speaks of a “new Eden motif”?  I may grant the motif and have something completely different in my head than what is in his, in which case I would find support for my argument.  I say the passage speaks of future Israel’s (not the church) enjoyment of blessings of its new covenant when Christ returns.  I assume Steve does not.  We shall have to wait for him to tell us exactly what he does mean.

I claimed: Steve’s “typology” of recapitulation is not there.

Steve said: Where is “there”? Not there in the passages I cited or the passages he cited?

I reply: In neither.

He says the typology is “right there in the text.”

Then he’ll have to try harder to show me.  I don’t see types, and I dealt with the passages.

“For reasons I’ve give[n], that’s a type/token relationship.”

He has described somewhat what a type/token relationship is, but he has not explicated it in his chosen passages.

ii) However, even at the generic level, a motif is a recurring pattern, which dovetails with typology.

What does he mean, “dovetails with typology”?  If he means typology depends on recurring patterns that’s fine.  But does that prove there is a typology in play in his passages?  Of course it doesn’t.  Only if motifs (viz. recurring patterns) equaled types would that be true.  Since he has declared against that position he cannot rest his case with “dovetails.”

He quotes me again:

“In the verses he cited Israel was said to be “like Eden.” (Isa. 51:3).  All that was being done was that a comparison was being made.  The same is true of Jer. 16.  The comparison with the Exodus is one of a greater (future) migration to the promised-land.”

And responds:

That’s a strange criticism. In the nature of the case, a type/token or type/antitype relation is a comparative relation [but not every comparative relation is typological], involving analogy rather than identity. Tokens exemplify the type; they are not identical with the type.

 Likewise, one token is not identical with another token. Rather, tokens are similar to each other inasmuch as they instantiate the same type. Repetition with variation.


Steve’s advocacy of types and tokens comes from the recent work of scholars delving into semiotics and philosophical hermeneutics.  To think the biblical authors had these things in mind, and that they supposed they could be easily picked up by their readers stretches credulity.   Space prohibits saying much more on this.  I recommend a close reading of D. Moo’s essay “The Problem of Sensus Plenior” in the Carson and Woodbridge book, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon for those who wish to see something close to my position (esp. 195-198, although noting that Moo falls foul of Sailhamer’s critique of the usual promise-fulfillment schema).  I shall content myself with a quote:

Second, we observe in Scripture itself that typological understanding never creates new revelatory data.  It only underscores, illustrates, and amplifies what has already been stated clearly.  In other words: typological understanding enriches but does not replace a previous understanding of revelation.  It is checked by philological-grammatical understanding. – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 87. 

For Maier, proposed types must wait their turn till the exegetical understanding is in hand.

Steve Hays:

Likewise, in a type/antitype relation, the type is both like and unlike the antitype, or vice versa… In both cases, we’re dealing with a relation between two or more things. In the nature of the case, you can’t have a relation if it’s one and the same thing–salva veritate.

Yes, but unless he is going to try to prove “comparative relation” always includes typology what has he proved?  He doesn’t seem to see that he has yet to prove a typology in the motifs he’s used (I’m wondering how one would stop Hays’s type/token relationship from running rampant throughout Scripture).  Recall, new Exodus motifs do not equal new Exodus typology.

More to come… I note Steve has added some clarifications in his latest piece.



  1. Dr. Henebury,

    I would like your input on an issue that I have been mulling over for a while. I believe that we also should shun the notion that the NT “reinterprets” the OT. But I have gotten stuck on this one point. Many Christians believe that the OT presents the coming the Messiah as one main event—a day of salvation and judgment. But then, many go on to say that the NT presents the coming of the Messiah as two comings—Jesus death and resurrection first, and then His second coming.

    Isn’t the NT in a sense “reinterpreting” the OT conviction of the Messiah’s one coming by showing that it is really two comings?

    The answer I have come up with so far is this:

    First, God’s purpose in the OT was not to give a detailed chronology of the Messiah’s work for Israel. God was giving Israel hope in the midst of and after exile, that a Redeemer and King would come.

    Second, a careful reader of the OT would notice that a few things don’t “fit” with the picture of one coming of the Messiah in salvation and judgment. I am thinking of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53). Thus, an astute reader of the OT before Christ would say, “Well, it looks like there is one coming of the Messiah, but it also seems like he needs to suffer for sin, so maybe there is more to this than I thought.” Thus, the NT is not reinterpreting the OT, but giving full light to things already in the OT text.

    Third, God wanted the cross and resurrection to be highlighted. Many times in the Gospels the disciples did not understand the full significance of what Jesus did and said. Only what the cross and resurrection did the disciples perceive what Jesus meant (i.e. John 2).

    What do you think?

    1. This is a great question, and one which repays close study.

      First Chris, I think your answers are well thought out and quite compelling.

      I must be brief, but intend to write on this later.

      !. Most OT theologies have no place for the Second Advent in the OT.
      2. Studying the well-known passages (e.g. Gen. 3:15; 49:10; Num. 24; Job 19; Isa. 7, 9, 61:1-2; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9 etc.) shows that there is work yet to do which Christ must do. The stress, esp. in the Prophets is on what will be done at the second advent (e.g. Isa. 2; 11; 63; Jer. 30; Zech. 14). Isa. 53 refers to the Suffering Servant and was understood that way by pre-Christian Jews (Cf. L.E. Cooper’s article in the book ‘The Return of Christ’).
      3. Hence we must see the twofold coming of Christ as one work

      Hope that helps. must dash.

      God bless you and yours.

      Paul H.

      1. @Paul, I notice even a number of Reformed Bible teachers (I know Sydney Anglicans being some examples) accept the Messiah’s work as prophesised in Malachi 3:1-5 and 14-18 accept there is are two phases in which Jesus will fulfill these works. They even accept the classical dispensational analogy that the Church Age is a valley and Malachi’s depiction is similar to looking far to to peaks, and he couldn’t foresee there is a valley in between.

        The question is, if some/many in the Reformed tradition can accept the OT prophecies on Christ’s Coming is two Advents, why don’t they also accept that much of the prophecies that are seemingly incredible will be fulfilled when Christ returns? Why do they have to stick to a “there is no other prophecy that are yet to be fulfilled apart from Christ returns, judges all people, and inaugurate Heaven and Hell” and say all other passages have been fulfilled typologically or just graphic snapshot language of…nothing?

        (NB: I know Sydney Anglicans are not all typical Reformed in this sense. Phillip Jensen teaches there will be a future re-marriage of Israel to Jehovah God i.e. God will retsore israel when Jesus returns. But that’s another story for another day.)

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