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.