Nonsense About The Plain-Sense

Steve Hays has written a little post in response to part of mine on What the Bible Really Really Says.  That is fair enough since I referred to him.  Once more he is very selective, and once more he entirely disregards the same proof of intertextual continuity in regard to the land promises in the OT that I included in the article.  Steve doesn’t like “the plain sense.”  He writes as though he takes it for granted.  We all do.  We all try to say what we mean.  It is (evidently) the Architect of Language who so often fails to do this!

This reluctant dispensationalist will not again get embroiled in a tit-for-tat.  The playing field will never be level.  I am not inclined to use up my time shooting at a moving target and Steve is not inclined to actually engage my major points.  But I shall say a few things here about his post “Plain-sense or just nonsense?”

In the first place, Steve completely bypassed the thrust of my argument in the post.  Does he agree with Kevin DeYoung’s argument from “what the Bible really says”?  Characteristically, he doesn’t say.  He is just concerned to attack the notion of a “plain-sense.”  He thinks my point is nonsense.  Others whom I respect disagree with him.  He does this even when it has been shown to him that those with whom he would most agree DO speak of “the plain-sense” etc., and assume everybody knows what they mean.  Terms like “plain-sense” or “face-value” or “literal” are not, of course, technical terms.  But people understand that what is meant by them is that a person means what they say and say what they mean.

Is that the end of it then?  Surely not.  While a person may mean what they say the interpreter of their words has work to do.  For one thing, he has to make sure he is not disregarding the context.  This is the most common mistake in the misinterpretation of Scripture.  This is what Steve was doing in the passages he used to shore up his novel yet exegetically barren OT typology – one of which I cited (and he omitted) in my post: i.e. Jeremiah 16.  This is what he was doing when he ignored my question about the identification of Zadokite and non-Zadokite priests serving God in Ezekiel’s Temple (see here).  I gave up the exchange because matters like these weren’t joined.

Steve’s Issues

But Hays now brings up “Several issues”:

i) Henebury contents himself with repeating his stale arguments while disregarding my extensive counterarguments.

If my arguments are “stale” it is only because they have grown stale waiting for Steve to interact with them.  I do not expect that situation to change.  Notice, he did it again in his post.  I did not disregard Hays’s arguments.  To call his arguments “extensive” would be accurate (he plied his trade long after I had moved on to other things).  But to call them “counterarguments” would be inaccurate.  Steve actually adeptly ignored nearly every main point I made.  He spent acres of blog-space on pushing a semiotic “type/token” position which neither supported his contention for OT typology nor indeed had anything to do with biblical typology as understood by the likes of Goppelt or Baker or Davidson or anyone else.  All these men saw OT types linked necessarily to NT antitypes.  Hays did not follow them.  He equivocated on the word “type.”  I spotted it, and he ignored it.  “Type”means different things depending on whether a language philosopher or a biblical scholar is talking.

I might as well be conversing with a prerecorded message.

I’m sorry he feels that way.  I feel that he might actually start listening to the message!

Over and over again in our debate I had cause to observe how Steve had just ignored me.  I shall not rehash the points.  Any interested person can read them for themselves.

ii) I’ve also analyzed the arguments of dispensational scholars like Robert Thomas, Craig Blaising, and Harold Hoehner.

I haven’t read him on this so I can’t comment.  If I were to hazard a guess much of the space would have been taken up with why one should not interpret the texts “literally.”

iii) Actually, you don’t win an argument with a homosexual apologist by simply appealing to the “plain sense” of Scripture. For instance, Robert Gagnon doesn’t merely invoke the “plain sense” or “face-value” meaning of Scripture. Rather, he conducts painstaking exegesis of his prooftexts, and carefully deconstructs interpretations to the contrary.

Of course “painstaking exegesis” is necessary!  Why would exegesis oppose “plain-sense”?  Exegesis is about discovering what is IN a text.  Eisegesis, of course, is reading another meaning into the text; one imported from the outside.  Some people will try to curve what the Bible says so as to make it support their views.  This is what we call “misrepresentation.”  But we don’t wave adieu to what the texts are “really really” saying because someone is misrepresenting Scripture or poking fun at it.  Misrepresentations and misunderstandings do not give a green light to curious unforeseen interpretations which leave the actual meaning of the words in context behind.

What I was writing about was that DeYoung’s whole argument depended on a closer reading of what the texts “really really” said.  If his arguments have validity, which they do, it is because he sets before his reader what is “plain” in the text.  Why is this so hard for some to grasp?

 iv) Let’s take some examples of groups who appeal to the “plain sense” or “face-valuing” meaning of Scripture:

Good idea.  I cannot spend much time doing this, but here are some comments.  The first thing I want to say is this: AN APPEAL TO THE PLAIN-SENSE IS ALWAYS AN APPEAL TO PARAMETERS – TO NARROW LIMITS.  IT DOES NOT ERADICATE ALL DISAGREEMENTS.  What it does do is to focus attention of the words and sentences and paragraphs in context!

a) Open theists/Mormons

Open theists take at “face value” Biblical statements about God changing his mind, expressing surprise, regret or disappointment.

Yes they do, and they are within their rights to appeal to the plain-sense.  Everyone is!  Then we who disagree with them can analyze their arguments to see if they hold water.  That’s a good way to proceed.  The arguments pro and con can proceed if everyone involved agrees that some biblical texts do SAY things like “And the LORD was sorry [nacham] that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved [atsab] in His heart.” – Gen 6:6.    The question is then joined, “how is the word “sorry” being used here of God?”  After all, there are many places where the opposite is said about God (e.g. Num. 23:19; Mal. 3:16)?

When countering, say, chapter 2 of Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible it is legitimate to bring in the many verses which describe God’s attributes and decrees.  But this should not be done until the passages which Boyd uses are examined in context.  Everyone who wants to keep to the “literal” sense acknowledges figures of speech like anthropomorphism.  One of the problems with open theists is their lack of sensitivity to such things, including the meaning of “literal.”  Here it is well to recall that the most extensive study of figures of speech was conducted by a hyper-dispensationalist, E. W. Bullinger.

My use of “literal” and “face-value” and “plain-sense” is the same as those whom I had previously cited to Hays (e.g. Beale, Poythress, Frame, Caird, and now DeYoung).  The idea, which is hardly new, is that a person’s intent in their communication is to convey what they mean in plain terms, expecting the other person to ‘get’ their meaning from the words being communicated to them, instead of reinterpreting them to mean something which “ “straightforward” (L. T. Johnson’s word) or “plain” (DeYoung’s word) reading would not procure.

As I have said, every communication – including our respective blogs – presupposes this idea of “plain-sense.”  This does not mean everyone comes to the exact same conclusion about what is meant.  It never does.  But, as I say, it sets the parameters of the discussion, and every person who wants to be taken seriously in debating open theism will stay within these parameters in their exegesis.

And Mormons are in a position to take literally various statements about God’s physical or humanoid features.

It must be determined whether, for example, they are over-reading the texts they use.   This is a good place to introduce my ninth “parameter of meaning”:

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal”. There will always be another literal meaning available which preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.

This is often done by those who want to push the plain-sense further than is necessary.  But I must move on…

b) Annihilationists

They take “literally” statements about the eschatological “destruction” of the lost.

We must explore the plain sense and not leap over it into spiritualized meanings.  A solid model of good procedure is what Robert Yarbrough does in his chapter in the book Hell Under Fire, (eds. C. W. Morgan & R. A. Peterson), especially his section “The Prima Facie Meaning of Jesus’ Statements on Hell.” (79-83).  And a literal meaning of “destruction” can mean either “annihilation” or “extinction” or, as Douglas Moo says, a person or subject that has lost the essence of its nature or function.” (Ibid, 105).  What we cannot say is that “destruction” may mean something entirely foreign to its usual connotations.

c) Sacramentalists

Lutherans, Catholics, Anglo-Catholics et al. appeal to the “plain sense” of Jn 3:5, Jn 6, Tit 3:5 &c. to prove the real presence and baptismal regeneration.

And we must join the debate there rather than simply saying “what do you mean by plain-sense?” while offering no counter exegesis of the words in context.  To take one example, the context of John 6 where Jesus is speaking about that which He calls “my flesh” shows He is speaking figuratively about subsisting on Him (He was also employing deliberately testing language here so it seems).  The literal interpretation shows this (cf. also Jn. 6:63).  The context shows that He was not even talking about communion!

Too often the problem is with making the text say too much.

d) Geocentrists

They take at face-value Biblical statements about the immobility and centrality of the earth in relation to the sun, moon, and stars.

But they are not allowing that “face-value” statements can be simple expressions of man’s vantage point.  We all know the sun doesn’t “rise” and we all say it anyway because we all understand what is meant.

e) Arminians/universalists

They take “literally” statements about the atonement for “all” or the “world.” 

I’ll skip this one.  It can be joined another time if need be.  I shall only say that the “plain sense” of “world” in those texts which refer to the atonement (e.g. Jn. 1:29; 3:16-17) does give those who hold to the universal scope of the Cross encouragement, as do all the lexicons and theological dictionaries of which I am aware.  Particular redemptionists I have read do not impress me with how they face “universalist” passages.  I am open to correction though.  My “Rules of Affinity” posts help to address this.

f) Errantists

They appeal to flat-earth prooftexts, which they take literally. The solid dome, subterranean hell, &c.

They say the chronology of the fourth day plainly contradicts the chronology of the first day. They say the chronology of Gen 1 plainly contradicts the chronology of Gen 2. They say the flood account contradicts itself on the number of animals (one pair or seven?). They say the chronologies of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are mutually contradictory. They say the genealogies of Christ (in Matthew and Luke) are mutually contradictory. They say the chronologies of John and the synoptic gospels are mutually contradictory. They say the resurrection accounts are mutually contradictory. They say the two accounts of Judas’s death are mutually contradictory. They say Daniel plainly mispredicted the demise of Antiochus. They say Jesus plainly mispredicted the Parousia. They say the Bible makes contradictory statements about the visibility of God, as well as contradictory statements about the mutability of God.

And Christians have got to be mature enough and honest enough not to try to get round these issues by a hermeneutical alchemy which refuses to look at the verses and provide clear answers within the clear meanings of the words in the passages.  If we say, “there is no contradiction between the 4th day chronology and that of the 1st day because this is all an analogy anyway” what have we won?

Henebury is emulating the tactics of liberals and cultists who preemptively discredit orthodox, Bible-believing scholars who patiently correct their naïve interpretations and facile attacks on Scripture.

Really?  Liberals and cultists very often employ a hermeneutics of denial whereby they state the plain sense only to disbelieve it.  There is some clear resemblance between them and Christians who cite the plain sense only to say, “and it can’t mean that!”  Unbelievers point to what a passage says and cry, “that’s absurd! I don’t believe it.”  Some believers point to what a passage says (Gen. 1; Gen. 7; Job 40 & 41; Jer. 33:14f.; Ezek. 40 to 48; Zech. 14; Rev. 7 & 20, for example), and cry, “that would be absurd” (like creation in 6 literal days, sacrifices in the Millennium; a literal count of 144,000 male Jews in Rev. 7 & 14), “it has to mean this,” and they change it into something more palatable.

But both are dismissing what the text says.  The liberal because of his animus against the Bible.  The orthodox because he would rather believe something else.  The unbeliever stops at what the Bible says (providing he is not misreading it, which is common).  The orthodox agrees with the liberal in rejecting what it says, but then overlays a different meaning on the passage than its actual wording conveys – and then believes the new meaning.

Just how do orthodox scholars correct liberals and cultists?  Do they do it by saying, “that’s spiritual not literal,” “that’s analogical”?  How does Robert Gagnon argue against homosexuality?  Try this: What the Evidence Really Says about Scripture and Homosexual Practice: Five Issues.

Steve wants to know about Genesis 17 and the Abrahamic covenant, but I’m afraid that will have to wait.


4 thoughts on “Nonsense About The Plain-Sense”

  1. Dr. Henebury, far be if for me the student to instruct the teacher, but your problem is that you are reading his post with in a plain sense manner. If you would simply use a Haysian hermeneutic you would quickly discover that Steve actually agrees with you and endorses Veritas School of Theology as a praiseworthy specimen of academic excellence(!)
    Just get past what Steve says on the surface and you will see what Steve means is a truth on a higher plane.

    I hope this helps sir,


    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

    1. Jason,

      Thanks for commenting here. It seems to me that a lot of the time those who object the most about the “literal” interpretation or “the plain sense” interpretation do it only when their views are threatened by it. They are happy to speak in such terms when the subject is the blood of Christ or the reality of the Devil or the sanctity of marriage. But when the topic switches to the content of the covenants or the age of the earth or the future kingdom they cry “abort! abort! what does literal mean anyway?”

      Even more frustrating is the newish maneuver of saying “I’m taking it literally” when it is quite clear from a comparison of what they’re claiming and what the passages are saying that they are not.

      In fairness to Steve he would not say that words can mean anything. But I would like to know why the words (one of my examples was Jer. 33 which contains words of four ancient covenants) must be made to point to things which, if left alone, no one would ever equate them with.

      God bless you


  2. @Paul, call me ignorant or naive or whatever, we have to ask what Steve Hays about what he would do to the liberal activist American judges about their insistence of “a living constitution” and the laws, US Constitution don’t mean what they plainly say.

    Thomas Ice pointed this question to the allegoricalists many years ago (1998/99?) and we are just rehashing the same arguments in different phrases.

    1. Joel,

      Sorry I missed this comment. Andy Woods has addressed just this matter in several fine articles. The best ones are called, I believe, “Enthroning the Interpreter”

      God bless,


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