There are many fallacies to which readers and commentators on the Bible fall victim from time to time (D. A. Carson has written a very useful book on many of them, replete with sometimes amusing examples), but there is one which is often overlooked yet often committed: what I’ll dub the “plain meaning” fallacy. This is committed almost every time someone makes a point by appealing to the “plain meaning” of the biblical text.
Offenders are numerous and rarely understand the nature of their transgression, and yet the result is seriously skewed interpretations of Scripture that, at least superficially, appear perfectly reasonable.
So what’s the problem? Well, there are a few. First, whose “plain meaning” are we talking about? Is it the plain meaning to a modern reader or the plain meaning for the text’s original audience or author? There’s certainly no guarantee that the two would be the same — particularly when you consider that the original text we’re talking about originally looks as foreign to modern readers as this:
To someone who points to the plain meaning of a passage, it’s worth asking them what the plain meaning of the above is!
Aside from the translation problems the idea of a single “plain meaning” arising out of a modern reader’s interaction with the text raises, there are other significant issues. For one, all communication leaves gaps — pieces of information that would be too onerous to include but which are shared between the source and receiver.
Take, for example, a simple discussion between two friends (I’ve called them “F1” and “F2”):
F1: Do you have any interesting books on watching paint dry that I could borrow?
F2: Sure do! I’ll bring them along when we catch up at church on Sunday.
There are pieces of information not explicitly included in this exchange: which church? What time on Sunday? Yet because both friends implicitly share this information they do not need to include it in their spoken words.
Things get even more complex when idioms or figures of speech are used. Take for example a story that beings with the words, “Once upon a time…” To any contemporary native English language speaker it is immediately clear that they’re reading a fairy-tale and so it should not be read as non-fiction. But to an archaeologist digging up the story in 2,000 years, they might not be aware of that literary convention, and so might read the story in an entirely different light. Their “plain meaning” would thus be very different to that of someone living today.
In other words, it doesn’t take much to change our reading of a text!
The problem is compounded by translation. Translations, by their very nature, domesticate texts. They transform them into texts which appear to be contemporary in many ways and so lull the reader into thinking that reading them is a task just like reading a modern work of literature. But translation, as often as not, conceals differences that could make a significant difference to the reader.
Take, for example, Genesis 1:6. Many modern translations offer something like the following:
Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”Gen 1:6 (NASB)
The choice of ‘expanse’ as a translation of רקיע obscures the significant cosmological differences between the original text and the modern translation, allowing modern readers to “get away” with reading the verse within a modern cosmological framework and — ultimately — to arrive at a young-earth reading of the text by forcing it further into a modern scientific mould.¹ The term רקיע refers to a solid barrier, and so cannot be made to fit with modern cosmology, but by translating as many versions do they allow a modern reader to claim a “plain meaning” of the text can be made to fit with our understanding of the universe.
So any attempt to build an argument from an ancient text — the Bible or otherwise — which appeals only to the “plain meaning” of that text in a modern translation should not be trusted.