It Makes Plain Sense! Or So I was Taught…

It makes plain sense… or so I was taught.  When I was a youth and even in my undergrad program I was taught a phrase to guide solid biblical interpretation: “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.”  What this advocates is to take the bible at the surface level of its meaning.  So, if Paul says something that to us sounds literal or “plain” on the surface, then we ought to be able to trust that.  Certainly God’s Word is not something that is supposed to trick us.  Therefore, whatever makes sense to us as we read various passages can be trusted as the authentic interpretation.

I believe that this approach to the bible is flawed, which is why I often call it the “surface level approach.”  It seems quite arrogant to assume that the Holy Scriptures are simplistic to understand and do not require us to do any homework.  The problem is that we live with gaps in-between the text and us. For instance, there is a considerable communication gap between the original authors of the Scriptures and our 21st century culture.  We all know what it is like to have a communication gap.  Think about it.  How many husbands get themselves in trouble for saying something that sounds like something totally different than what they actually had in mind.

Wife says: How do I look in this outfit.

Husband says: It looks ok.

Wife says: Ok… (she says with a tone).  That’s about as good of an answer as calling me fat!  You jerk!

This is a communication gap to the extreme!  Now take this stupid analogy and imagine that there is also a language, cultural, and more than 2000 years in our communication gap; that is what we have when we approach the Bible.

Given the reality of this gap, we need to be careful not impose our ideas onto the text, even if they “make sense” to us.  That does not mean that nothing is “plain” in the Bible, but over the past few years I have begun to realize that there is much more to the Scriptures than I had ever known.  The bible contains several genres, some of which include: historical narrative (story), didactic literature (straight forward language), wisdom literature (timeless truths), prophetic literature (fore-telling or forth-telling), apocalyptic literature (imagery soaked), and poetry.  Not only so, but there is metaphors, word-pictures, hyperbole, humor, and many other rhetorical devises used throughout the 66 books.  What I have come to realize is that if I am going to take the Bible as God’s inspired Word, I need to attempt to interpret every passage in light of the gaps, genres, and rhetoric that the Holy Spirit chose to employ in cooperation with the various human authors.  To not attempt to read the Bible in such a way is to ignore God’s complexity, creativity, and incarnational nature.

What have been your experiences with the “plain sense making sense?”

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  • In my experience, when a preacher claims a passage makes perfect sense, more often than not he has misinterpreted it. Gifted preachers can convince you of the sense of it yet when you try and explain it to others the reasoning seems to evapourate. And when you're young in the faith you assume its your fault.

    Ironically, when someone who genuinely knows what they're talking about explains a passage to you the sense seems even plainer. Like someone who takes 30 years to be an overnight success, the Bible yeilds its fruit in season.

    • Kurt

      Chris! We agree! Love that 🙂

    • So true!!!

  • Well said, Kurt. I'm having the same discoveries as I plow through seminary…will be tweeting a link to this.

    • Kurt

      thanks Suzanne!!!! Your awesome…

  • Megan Zupancic

    Kurt. You have a gift of communicating what is in your brain. Kudos brother.

    • Kurt

      It is always great when you come by and say hello. Always love a writing complement from a gifted editor! See ya tomorrow…

  • Jonathan B.

    I think what they're trying to avoid is people reading things that clearly aren't in the text into the text by ignoring the plain sense of the text so they can follow their twisted interpretation. Some texts are obviously meant to be read plainly. For instance, the texts describing Jesus' death are clearly meant to be read plainly as describing the death of the Son of God for our sins. But that doesn't mean there isn't deeper meaning we can find in those texts, but the deeper meanings shouldn't contradict the plain meaning of the text.

    People have gotten Ph.D's in Hamlet, expounding the nuances of a story so plain as the destructive power of revenge. Surely the God of the universe is a better author with a more important message to convey than Shakespeare, and therefore worthy of at least as much attention when reading and expected to layer at least as much nuance into his own story to us.

    • Karen Y Harris

      You can never have a true understanding of the word of the Father without seeking the kingdom of heaven first and the righteousness of the Father. It is not found in the theology of man, but through the living Spirit of the Father. I am not wise or nor am I ignorant. I have no titles inwhich to lean on, but through the grace of the Father, He leads and I follow. It is a relationship that the Father gives, and unfortunately, it can not be measured by man. It is getting up in the morning, and praising the Lord for just being here. It is excepting His Authority. It is to be uncovered, reborn and to be saved. The word is food and drink. It is health and happiness, it is a provision of life that is nesscary. You never stop seeking as long as you live on this earth, because no man or woman has the same mind of the Father. He blesses who He wants and curses who He wants. He gave us the same authority with a measure, that is called free will.

      In Genesis, It took man 235 years after the garden of Eden to walk with the Father again, There are two bloodlines that were born, One is that of Cain and the other which was Abel. Both were of two parents, Adam and Eve(which both never had a childhood, but where immediate a man and a women) This is unique, because Adam had a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
      He was crowned a King, and given a Queen from his body. That authority was snatched from Adam by the beast or the Serpent of Old. For this reason only, we are still struggling with the right and wrong. The serpent put himself in authority, and because he did this thing, we were told that He would crush they head and the serpent would strike they heel. That there would be hatred between the seeds of the woman, and the serpent seeds. The Serpent Seed strikes the word of God, While He Crushes the Serpent's head with the Truth.)
      If you count the years between the birth of Jesus and the last time the Father spoke to man it was 400 years. If you count the years between Noah Ark, it was also 400 years. People are so desperate to find the end, that they overlook the beginning. In Revelations Jesus is fully revealed, Alpha and Omega, until you know the beginning, you will not know the end.

      Stay Blessed and walking in the Land of the Living

  • Luke

    I see your point, and I agree that some subjects need to be studied more in-depth than others and validated with other parts of the Bible. However, I think that if we stray too far from a literal interpretation, it becomes very easy to impose one's beliefs on the text and have it read however it may fit one's own viewpoints. I believe that's how we come up with so many doctrinal differences within the church. My belief is that only by literal interpretation and confirmation from other teachings and themes of the Bible can we see what we are truly being told.

    • Kurt

      Luke and Daniel,

      Luke stated: "I think that if we stray too far from a literal interpretation, it becomes very easy to impose one’s beliefs on the text and have it read however it may fit one’s own viewpoints. I believe that’s how we come up with so many doctrinal differences within the church. My belief is that only by literal interpretation and confirmation from other teachings and themes of the Bible can we see what we are truly being told."

      this is gonna be a long response, because such an issue demands such. So don't read this as reactionary, but of clarifying my view.

      I do believe that there is much that is plain about Scripture which is why I said: "That does not mean that nothing is “plain” in the Bible". However, I am concerned about when we apply this method without going through the proper exegetical, literary, and historical work that we can end up with outrageous doctrines that would have been laughable to the original first century writers and hearers. This is the reason we have so many doctrinal differences.

      So, what is plain? The historical narratives of the gospels are plain (at least the points that matter the most… the life, death, and literal resurrection of Jesus). but many things are not plain that a modernistic hyper-literalistic method has claimed. The bible, as i say above, is composed of various literary genres and rhetorical devises. If we truly believe in biblical inspiration (which we all do), then isn't the serious lover of the Word one who takes the modes in which God chose to inspire the Bible with the utmost seriousness? Are we not doing a disrespect to God's Word when we chose to employ a "plain sense" reading on genres that do not demand such. Case in point — Genesis 1, which has a poetic/liturgical flow to it. Assuming a plain sense-makes sense approach is unintentionally disrespectful to the Scriptures, and leads to interpretations of the Bible that are damaging.

      CASE STUDY: Mark 13 (the little apocalypse). I will start out by showing my cards. I believe that this passage has everything to do with the destruction of the Temple in 70AD and nothing to do with the return of Jesus. I do believe in the return of Christ, but don't see this fact being prophetically foretold in this particular text.

      What follows are some excerpts from a paper I wrote on the subject.

      24 “But in those days, following that distress,
      “‘the sun will be darkened,
      and the moon will not give its light;
      25 the stars will fall from the sky,
      and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

      The images of the sun being “darkened,” the moon losing its glow, stars falling from the sky, and “the heavenly bodies” being “shaken” have often been regarded as an event that will happen during the still future tribulation. This is to take place as a sign that Jesus (Son of Man) is about to return. But this makes the mistake of misinterpreting apocalyptic language! In context, this passage suggests an impending national crisis that will come as an act of God’s judgment within history. Many other examples of this can be found throughout the Old Testament, especially Isaiah. Isaiah uses cosmic language to describe political events such as the coming of Babylon’s conquering and the eventual fall of Edom. These are realities that have already been fulfilled in history! Jesus is simply using an Old Testament prophetic rhetorical devise to explain the coming doom of Jerusalem.

      Consider the following analogy to understand the way apocalyptic language functions. Jesus saying that “the sun will be darkened” or that “stars will fall from the sky” could be compared how we might say that something that happened in modern day was an “earth-shattering” event. Think about the example of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most would agree that in modern rhetoric this could be referred to as an “earth-shattering” event. Now, suppose that someone read a news article with that type of language in it, they would not assume that an earthquake had caused the wall to fall down. They would understand the exaggerated metaphor. The same understanding may not be true of someone who two thousand years in the future, read the exact copy of that particular article. Such a person may be inclined to think that a literal earthquake destroyed the Berlin Wall, causing a new political situation to emerge. But we know that would not be true, because the historical reality is that the Berlin Wall was intentionally torn down stone by stone. The exact same idea must equally be applied to our readings of this apocalyptic text in regards to the destruction of the Temple. We have a two thousand year language gap, but when these are bridged appropriately, we may be able to avoid unnecessary doomsday theologies.

      As you can see from the above, if we take the plain sense of the apocalyptic imagery of Mark 13, we distort the actual meaning of the text. The Apostles believed in the second coming of Christ, not because of this text, but because after the ascension an angel declared it. Dispensational, futuristic, plain sense readings (in my opinion) lead to nonsensical fantasy about the destruction of a planet that Romans 8, Revelation 21, and other places make clear is going to be restored. But again, I may be wrong 🙂

      Blessings guys!

  • Daniel

    I'd have to say both are important. I think it reveals the beauty, like you said, of God's complexity. Much of the Bible can be taken at the surface level and still be inspiring and enlightening. But for those who would dig deeper into the cultural context of the writings and the various translation options, etc there is a deeper wealth of understanding, as long as we are guided by the Holy Spirit.

    I'm concerned by how easily the "surface level" understanding of the text is cast off as not important or valuable. It is that surface level understanding that is saving people in remote third world countries, where they aren't within reach of a deeper analysis, or in many cases, even a whole copy of the Bible. In many underground churches in Asia and the Middle East, a few verses are all that can be shared and memorized by the hungry new believers there. Jesus says we are to become like little children if we are to inherit the Kingdom of God.

    And I agree with Luke that too much heady, human analysis leads to doctrinal differences and, as Paul puts it, "Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen." (2 Tim. 2:14b) As we look for deeper understanding of the Bible we must be careful that our discussions do not turn into quarreling and division.

  • PaulAllenHunton

    Once again, I completely agree with Jonathan B. Who is that masked man? LOL! He needs to be my friend on facebook!

  • Jason

    I think the issue is not necessarily that we simply need to study more (which I am not saying that that is bad…. I actually think studying is a discipline we need)… but rather, that we need to approach the scriptures with humility. If we recognize that there are possibly many meanings and we are human and could be wrong, then we need to be careful with "plain meaning." Because, many times "plain meaning" is code for "the only meaning" which is code for "my meaning."

    Thanks Kurt for another great post.

  • Barry Anglin

    Most importantly, don't let the fact that, as Kurt points out, the Bible is actually a collection of disparate writings that seriously contradict one another, and was cobbled together by a council or two of bishops for political reasons when the church was first institutionalized…whatever you do, don't let this lead you to question the idea that it's God's inspired word…

    • Kurt

      Barry, I understand what you are getting at, but am not willing to go as far as you would like me to 🙂

  • Kurt, I love this post. God did not give us this amazing work through the hard and painful lives of people like Tyndale and others, not to mention the original authors…His Spirit working on it all throughout the ages, for us to treat is so shallowly. I am always compelled to humility to hear of all the people who get a scrap of James or even the first Christians, with very little written knowledge, especially the Gentiles–who despite it all followed Christ thoroughly, authentically and sometimes to their deaths.

    To those who have been given much, much is required. We must do our proper study of "God's Bestseller." The book by that same name about Tyndale is a great introduction into some of the history of the Bible. I believe it's the shallowness with which it's approached that oftentimes breeds disbelief…because on the surface it can seem contradictory or outrageous. One must know its nuances…and yes be led by the Holy Spirit, but since it's written, obviously, it's for the benefit of our minds, too, not just our 'faith.' I would have no faith without intelligence and imagination. Blessed, blessed, blessed is the Word Made Flesh, who as God brought this special gift to us. Let us be humble and encouraged.

    • Kurt

      Tasi, you said it wonderfully. Thanks.

  • James

    Kurt, I am generally curious as to your opinion on Bart D. Ehrman – specifically his book "Misquoting Jesus". I strongly disagree with many of his conclusions (specifically as it relates to the divinity of Jesus); but to a relatively "untrained" eye he raises a few interesting points about translation errors, authorship questions, etc.

    To be clear, I hold the Bible to be the divinely inspired word of God. The core of Jesus's message is never lost in my opinion; but without a deeper understanding of the history and times he lived in there can be issues of being "lost in translation".

  • John Holmes

    "the Bible is actually a collection of disparate writings that seriously contradict one another, and was cobbled together by a council or two of bishops for political reasons…." This is far from a fact, Barry, this is an opinion, better, opine! After reading the New Testament for over 30 years, I am amazed that the grand narrative is so symetric, Christocentric, and wise…. It makes one feel like the blind man in John 9, go to the pool of Siloam, accept that it is about the sent, Christ, and the book opens to you.
    If you are refering to Athanasius Easter Letters, he came up with that with ease because it was the common understanding of the mind of Christ, of the universal, and therefore catholic church, not politic's! You have been watching to much MSN, and Keith Oberman….!

    It is true that we need to look seriously at the genre, the form, the language, etc. But I think it does not replace the Holy Spirit, faith, humility, and meditation, all words the Word teaches a central as the great tools and foundations stones to understand, not to mention, a revelation of Christ and His Kingdom… Mt 16 The classic hermeneutic, of Christ centered, understanding, I think all the great theologians held from Irenaues, to Augustine, to Aquinas, to Luther and Calvin… Some have the tools, but have seemed to miss the big Tree, and the big tree is the crucified Christ…. Rev 5…


  • "Moruti" L

    A lot depends on how you read the bible:
    – as an academic (comparing religious writings, for example)
    – as a Christian, eager to listen to God's word
    -as a Historian who might be interested what (if any) is the historical core behind the exoduus narration
    – as an atheist, searching foe fodder for a polemic article
    – as a human being who is genuinely searching answers for his or her life
    – as a professor of Old Testament, who reads line by line, word by word of Hebrew text
    – as a pastor who is preparing a sermon and wants to make sure it is biblically grounded
    – as someone who loves literature and who thinks the bible makes for some worthwhile reading…

    and so on.
    "I belive, the bible was given to us as an inspiration, to open our minds, not to close them."

  • Barry Anglin

    John – We have had for some time now an entire academic discipline of historical criticism of religious texts which is commonly known as higher criticism. A major element of this field of learning is the objective study of the historical nature of the Biblical texts, when they were written, by whom, for what purpose, etc.

    I would suggest you check into it. What I have stated isn't simply my opinion. It's the opinion of many of the world's leading scholars in the field of higher criticism. PBS presented an excellent and up-to-date overview of the subject last year with the Frontline documentary entitled, From Jesus to Christ. It would be a good place to start.

  • Ray S

    I love this conversation, because in the literal it "for the most part makes sense". also if studied has a intricate message from the heavens above. Jesus had only the old testament, and i think he studied it everyday. i recently had a chance to study with mosaic jews and "wow". they have so much value for each word as well as numeric, and various other values. but i think if it sounds good in face value, it usually is. that's how we can arm our self with the word, because god makes it that easy. just read the book of proverbs, works great for that very reason..

  • John Holmes


    Thanks for the heads up, guess I read and heard about four score and seven years ago. Barry, read NT Wright and John H. Sailhamer Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach. This book shows the zigs and zags, the enlightenment myths and magic, the history, and the assumptions, and there pitfalls. A must read! A book your professor will not advise…!

  • Amy

    The problem with the so-called plain truth is that the human mind is very crafty. There is so much sensory data in the environment that we have to create filters to organize it all. We strain out the bits that seem to make sense together, based on our internal mental maps, and let the rest flow away. So, that a particular scripture seems to have a "plain" meaning may indicate that the reader already has mental constructs that readily organize the material. Whether or not their organizational structure then renders a meaning that resembles the intended meaning of the author is another question.

    I ran across this <a href="" rel="nofollow">sermon that speaks nicely to the question of seeing what we expect to see.

    On a related note, I love this <a>Radiolab clip that deals with the question of randomness and how we exegete coincidence. Really good stuff.

    • Amy

      I don't know why, but my Radiolab link didn't post. I'll try again.