what’s wrong with the “plain meaning” of scripture

All too often people attempt to substantiate their interpretation of a passage of Scripture based on the idea that it is “the plain meaning” of the text. It is particularly popular in arguments over the meaning of Genesis 1–3 where it is used to substantiate the claim that God created the world in seven 24-hour days because that is “the plain meaning” of the text.

It is, of course, a very bad argument. It simply glosses over so many problems anyone who appeals to it ought immediately to be seriously doubted. Here are but a few problems with it:

  • Whose “plain meaning” are we talking about? Why should your “plain meaning” be the same as my “plain meaning”? Even more significant, why should your “plain meaning” even come close to the “plain meaning” that the author and original audience of the text would have understood as they read or heard the words of the text?
  • An appeal to the “plain meaning” conceals the fact that the text being referred to, at least by most who make this sort of argument, is a translation of a text composed in and for an ancient culture from a significantly different social, cultural, and linguistic world than our own. To get to the translation into our own language so we can subsequently make a claim about its “plain meaning” depends upon substantial amounts of work by linguists, translators, theologians, historians, and others.
  • Some argue that the linguistic, cultural, and social differences between the time the texts of the Bible were composed and our own have little bearing on our comprehension of the meaning of the text. This is both true and untrue. While there are some who perhaps overstate the significance of the differences, there is a greater danger in understating it. Those who dismiss the significance are often as guilty of exegetical whitewash as those who think that appealing to “plain meaning” is a compelling argument for an interpretation.
  • The “plain meaning” may depend on the translation you read. Discussions about modern translations broadly make reference to two methodologies which underlie the translation process: so called “formal equivalent” and “dynamic equivalent” (various other labels are used, but broadly speaking the first is often described as “more literal” and the latter as “less literal” because of the former’s desire to preserve a closer relationship between individual words in the translation and individual words in the original). Hence the “plain meaning” derived from an FE translation may well result in misapprehension of the meaning if an idiom is translated literally into what appears to be an idiom in the translation’s language, the “plain meaning” may actually be quite different from that of the original. Even if the receptor language has no idiom, the loss of idiomatic association can result in a failure of the original “plain meaning” to match the modern reader’s “plain meaning.”

So, ultimately, the only “plain meaning” I’m interested in is that plain meaning which the author and the original audience would have appreciated as they heard or read the text. To arrive at anything approaching this “plain meaning,” however, is seldom such a trivial task as the term “plain” implies!

There are, of course, implications for the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture in these words, and I may follow up on that at some point in the future.

10 thoughts on “what’s wrong with the “plain meaning” of scripture

  1. Hi, I’m currently finishing off a paper on this very subject, for a forthcoming colloquium on Baptist Hermeneutics. The colloquium description is:

    The ‘plainly revealed’ Word of God? Baptist hermeneutics in theory and practice

    Baptists have always been proud to declare their reliance on scripture. However, in spite of the plethora of internationally renowned twentieth century British Baptist biblical scholars, there is surprising absence of overt reflection on the practice of Baptist hermeneutics.
    This colloquium will therefore provide an opportunity to explore the theory and practice of Baptist hermeneutics, consisting primarily of contributions from current British Baptist scholars, enhanced by insights from international participants.

    The colloquium website can be found at http://www.swbc.org.uk/baptisthermeneutics.htm

    And the abstract for my paper is:
    The Dissenting Voice: Journeying together towards a Baptist hermeneutic
    On the subject of scriptural interpretation, the Baptist Union of Great Britain Declaration of Principle states ‘that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret…’ However, when the (Baptist) Dissenting community read scripture, the question inevitably arises of what to do with the dissenting voice? Or, to put it another way, how are interpretative differences to be handled? The community-based model of interpretative authority developed by Stanley Fish finds many resonances with the Baptist approach to scriptural interpretation, and this paper explores ways in which Fish’s approach can inform the development of a Baptist hermeneutic. Central to this task is the mechanism by which ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ readings are evaluated, and the role which communication plays in the emergence of an authoritative voice.
    However, Fish’s approach poses a fundamental theological question regarding the authority of scripture: If the responsibility for interpretation rests solely with the reader and the reading community, in what sense is the ‘word of God’ to be considered authoritative? In answer, Karl Barth’s understanding of ‘the witness of the Holy Spirit’ in the community of readers is explored. By this account, the practice of community interpretation becomes, not an interpretative free-for-all, but an exercise in holy listening, with the possibility emerging of the voice of dissension being heard as the voice of the Spirit, speaking to the community from beyond its boundary. In this way the Baptist Dissenting voice is one which is inevitably and gloriously defined by interpretative diversity, as the Word of God speaks afresh to each new situation.

  2. Simon, thanks for the information, it sounds fascinating. I assume the colloquium relates to UK baptists rather than US baptists (although perhaps I’m wrong since the colloquium is in partnership with Baylor Uni)? Furthermore, I’d guess that UK baptists are probably quite distinct from US baptists, but I’m not an expert and may be very wrong in that belief!

    What strikes me as flawed in the notion that responsibility for interpretation lies solely with the reader/reading community is that it seems to ignore the fact that we’re dealing with an ancient text. It is necessary for the text to be translated (e.g. from biblical Hebrew) into the reader’s language before the modern reader can then assume the task of interpretation. The process of translation inherently privileges the author’s community’s understanding of the text because it must appeal to linguistic, historical, and cultural factors in order to effect a translation in the first place. To subsequently release the translation to the whims of modern readers seems (to me, at least) to introduce a rather arbitrary disjunction into the process of assigning meaning to the text. The meaning has partially been determined by historical considerations which seem to admit that the responsibility for assigning meaning lies not entirely with the reader and that there is a privileged meaning.

    Anyway, all the best for your paper!

  3. Hi Martin

    Interesting topic.

    Am I right in assuming that you are saying that an ordinary person cannot read the Bible and understand what it means, no matter how many times he reads it, unless he has an extensive knowledge of the biblical world from elsewhere than the Bible itself?

    Over the past four years I have been reading the Bible through in a variety of translations. I’m nearly finished reading the New Jerusalem Bible, and have previously read through the TNIV, NIV Archaeological Study Bible, ESV Reformation Study Bible, New Living Translation [2nd edition], Good News Bible [Australian edition] and “The Books of the Bible: a presentation of Today’s New International Version.”

    If the writer[s] of Genesis [and the Divine Author] mean us to see an evolutionary schema in Genesis 1 and 2, they have a funny way of showing it.

    The text certainly seems to say that God created the world and everything in it in 6 days. I don’t read this as being necessarily 6 literal 24 hour days, but I don’t think the authors mean to say that it happened over millions of years.

    I also think that the authors mean to tell us that Adam and Eve were special creations of God and are not meaning us to understand that they were created through a process over million of years.

    I understand the authors to be telling us that Adam was the first Man, after whom the race was named, and that Eve was the first woman.

    It is troubling if you are saying that we cannot understand the Bible without loads of information that is not included in the Bible.

    I’m not saying that extra-biblical background isn’t helpful, but in my almost seven read-throughs, I’ve learnt more than I’ve ever learnt from all of the books which I have read about the Bible.

    I have certainly found those books helpful, too and I realise that I read it through a filter based on my upbringing, the churches I’ve attended and the books I’ve read, etc.

    But since reading the Bible itself several times, I am confident that the ordinary person can understand much of what the Bible is saying through reading and re-reading it.

    I also believe that unless God is pleased to reveal himself to us through his Word that we cannot know him and that the illumination of the Holy Spirit is essential.

  4. Hi David,

    Thanks for commenting. You said:

    Am I right in assuming that you are saying that an ordinary person cannot read the Bible and understand what it means, no matter how many times he reads it, unless he has an extensive knowledge of the biblical world from elsewhere than the Bible itself?

    Not quite. I’d say that an “ordinary person” could not produce an accurate translation of the Bible from the original languages without extensive knowledge of the biblical world from both within and without the Bible. In other words, a lot of that hard work is invariably embedded in the translation process itself.

    Nonetheless there remain passages for which further information is helpful, even essential, if we’re to reach beyond a superficial understanding, and in some cases, if we’re to escape a superficial misunderstanding of the text. I’m actually preparing a new post on Genesis 1 which I hope to have ready soon, so please come back and see how I address some of the issues you raise in your reading of that passage. But let me also say that the texts of the Bible are not uniform: some really are quite difficult to understand comprehensively, others less so. In many instances the inner-biblical context is sufficient to grasp the meaning of the text, if not comprehensively, at least sufficiently.

  5. David,
    If you just read Gen 1 in English you would never know that the word ‘day’ is the Hebrew word ‘yom’ which means period of time and is not limited to a 24 hour time period.

    I’m not saying it was or wasnt a 24 hour time period but the English word is more limiting than the Hebrew.

    Another David Mc

  6. My understanding is that the Hebrew used in Gen 1 is formulated to impart that the creation did in fact take 6 literal 24 hour days. The use of ‘yom’ with a number and/or the designations of ‘morning and evening’ is, I understand, always to be taken as meaning normal 24 hour days and not some indeterminate period of time.

    I am reliably informed that this is the opinion of the best Hebrew scholars even though most do not agree with the notion of literal 24 hour days of creation, they do agree that the language used is intended to communicate 6 literal days.

  7. Martin,

    This is a wonderfully succinct post, and I thank you for it. I apologize for the delays in expressing my gratitude; I only just found it today. There were several key bits of information in your critique that I needed to know but failed to remember. I needed to know them because I am presently in dialogue with someone quite dear to me who is deeply entrenched in Dispensationalists theology, and the “plain meaning” (or, overly literal meaning) is foundational to that system (or, at least the form of it to which she belongs). Again, thank you for the insight and the reminder.

    Just to drop in my (minimal) knowledge on the Genesis topic:

    Whether the Hebrew writers believed it took 24 hours or thousands of years or even millions of years just does not seem to be a concern for them. They were not confined to modern cosmological or teleological arguments, nor were they cognizant of modern evolutionary theories of creation (that much should be obvious). They simply did not have the same philosophical framework that we use today to read and understand the account. For the Hebrews, the simple fact that creation happened and that their God did it was all that they needed. The amount of time was secondary at best. To paraphrase GK Chesterton: if a man turns into a pig instantaneously or over a period a years, it’s a miraculous sight to see (“The Everlasting Man”, 6).


    What is interesting to note is that a “plain reading” of the Genesis story creates(!) a problem for when we get to the first reference of “morning and evening” in 1.5. From human experience, which is what determines how we do “plain” readings, the sun and the moon are the means by which we reckon the periods of morning and evening. However, the sun (i.e. big light) and moon (i.e. little light) were not created until the “fourth day” (see 1.14-19, esp. 16-18). What this suggests to me is that “yom” does not mean what we have traditionally understood it to mean. If anything, it at least suggests that God’s understanding of “yom” is certainly not ours; but I half way wonder if that’s the point? (I think it is the point).

    Also, as a corollary (and Martin, please feel free to correct me on this): my understanding of the Hebrew verbs and verb-forms suggests periods of time in the development of the things created. In other words, when the plant-life and trees were created, the language does not allow for the idea that they were created in their full form ex nihilo; instead, the language points to the idea that such things grew, which takes time (certainly more time than a single day). However, again, the primary concern for the Hebrew writers is the fact that this stuff was created for the first time ever (by God) and grew.

  8. Contrary to the statement of “Another David Mc,” yom in Hebrew does not mean “period of time,” though the plural yamim is used for indefinite periods. It overwhelmingly means “day” as in day vs night, or as in days of the week. In various phrases it contributes the abstract concept of “time,” not any period of time. This is particularly the case in expressions meaning “when” and “since” where there is not explicit reference to the solar day.

    People who wish to find a reason for understanding long ages in the text of Genesis 1 will find it, but a survey of actual usage make it exceedingly unlikely that Genesis 1 was written to convey any idea that time periods other than what we know as our solar day were intended.

  9. Hello Marv. I half agree with you. In Genesis 1 יום (yôm) means “day.” The question is whether that should be understood providing specific temporal information relating to the duration of each portion of the creation week or whether it is designed as a literary means by which to portray God’s activity as encompassing a week in order to depict it as parallel to a human work week and highlight the significance of the seventh day. I would argue that there are sufficient indications within the passage to suggest the latter is more appropriate.

    The point is not dissimilar to the fact that the word “hand” in Isa 55:12 should be understand as a “normal” hand, but the context makes it clear that it has a figurative use there as well.

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