It Makes Plain Sense! Or So I Was Taught…

* Repost from December 2010

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?”

  • http://mystic-mom.blogspot.com/ Shanyn

    Thank you for this…for reposting! This is well said, much better than I have tried to explain it in the past. 

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @Mystic_Mom:disqus … you are quite welcome. thanks for reading and sharing!

  • Mike Ward

    First, I love this post.

    I think I mentioned somewhere else that my experience has been with the similar statement, “Never interpret a difficult passage in a way that  contradicts a simple one.”

    I used to say this myself, but now think it is extremely flawed.

    You do a god job and starting to describe the problems with it, but I think even more criticism of the approach can be made.

    Without getting into that at this time, I’d like to add that when we do impose our own ideas onto the text, we elevate our ideas to the level of scripture.

    This is particularly dangerous for (theologically) conservative Protestants because in a “sola scriptura”/”biblical inerrancy” paradigm, once something becomes scripture is becomes unassailable.

    Arguing with an evangelical Christian who as projected his on opinions onto the text is like arguing with a brick wall. 

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @671e3eae3e90ae08c3a2f1bd39e8dc7d:disqus … VERY WELL SAID!

    • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com/ Dan Jr.

      I’m totally with you Kurt.   This plain-reading hermeneutic is exclaimed by Francis Chan alot.  I like his character  but he consistently endorses and exalts a bottom-shelf interpretation.   So in my community I have a few people who often combat good exegesis and contextualization by saying “it says what it says.”   They are naive to there own interpretive lens.  They don’t think there is anything between them and the text.  They often read their own issues, cultural frustrations and definitions of words into the scriptures.  It can be hard to help people detox from this “plain sense makes sense” approach because they see it as inherently a holier way to handle the bible when really its a sloppy way to handle the bible.  I did little post about this at my blog http://danwhitejr.blogspot.com/2011/05/reframing-bible.html

  • http://unorthodoxfaith.com/ Erik DiVietro

    Occam’s Razor still applies. While there is certainly much to be said for nuance and genre, generally speaking you can read what the Scriptures have to say and take it at face value.

    Of course, this implies that you must know what you’re reading, and this is where I agree with you. It is not enough to say, “This is what this means today.” Today’s context is not the original context. We must explore and come to understand (as much as possible) the history, culture and language of the original audience so we can receive the text plainly as they would have.

    • Mike Ward

      As much as I agree with Kurt on this I do thing we need to discourage people from making things complicated just for the sake of so confusing people that they’ll get so dizzy they’ll take anything we hand them.

      I often refer to the “most natural reading” of a passage to mean the interpretation that (IMO) just jumps out at you if you don’t analyze it too much (and don’t worry about whether or not it is consistent with your other beliefs). I think that’s usually a good starting point, and we should move away from it cautiously.

  • Erin

    In a world that’s becoming faster and faster paced, beveled by endless burroughs of corporate culture, bureaucracy. church trends, cultural divisions and fusions, people more than ever are starving for “simple”. With so many options flying at us, the instinct is almost “choose something! ANYTHING!” There is relief in believing we have chosen the simple explanation, if anything to reassure our own selves that our faith isn’t based on this rabbit warren of impossible navigation. While I understand the impulse, this situation makes it all the more important for us, as believers, to delve for the depths of truth.

    Some believers still insist that this is “complicating” matters. It is not. There is a vast difference between complication and depth. Depth can be exquistely simple, just as complications can be unecessarily shallow and painful. If we can learn to differentiate between desiring depth instead of creating more complications, we might have found one of the starting places to be able to receive the richness of Scripture. (notice I deliberately used “complication” rather than “complexity”. Again, it could just be words to some, but believe they are different in scope. Complexity is a valuable characteristic to our faith.)

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @c91f4d9122e93bc35c09c936bfc2a372:disqus … this comment was a delight to read. Great description of this stuff!

  • Billy Lejeune

    I heard N. T. Wright, who I think was quoting C. S. Lewis say something to the effect of:

    It’s not the hard sayings in ancient literature that are the problems, because since they are hard, you take the time to look them up in a commentary or whatever. The problem are the seemingly easy sayings that you don’t look up because you think you understand, but actually the ancient author meant something totally different.

    • JenG

      Exactly!

  • http://jeffkclarke.com/ Jeff K. Clarke

    Kurt,

    Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book ‘How to Read the Bible for all its Worth’ made this statement about scripture, “The primary aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the ‘plain
    meaning of the text.’  That is, by using what Fee refers to as an “enlightened
    common sense,” the test of good interpretation is that it makes good
    ‘sense’ of the text. In this sense, they would disagree with your first statement, at least in part.

    On the other hand, Fee/Stuart point out that scripture is at the same time both human and
    divine . That
    is, “the Bible is the Word of God given in human words in history.”

    Therefore, because the Bible is God’s word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture.  But because God chose to speak His word through human words in history, every book in the Bible also has historical particularity:
    each document is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in
    which it was originally written. Therefore, interpretation of the Bible
    is demanded by the ‘tension’ that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @c6755633cdddd1edea65bc58773cd6cb:disqus … what Fee means by that and what conservative Evangelicals/Fundamentalists mean by that are totally different things.  The “plain” meaning, if that means “what the text plainly meant to the *original* readers/hearers” then I’m all for that.  But, the way its popularly used is that the “plain sense” is what it means to me in a literal way that disregards proper narrative/historical hermeneutics.

  • ME

    What are some examples where this applies?

    For myself, I focus mainly on the New Testament and I take a fairly simple, surface level approach. Example, Jesus said not to worry about your food and clothing but to seek first His kingdom. That’s very hard but I try not to worry about the future and trust in Him. He told a parable about the rich fool who stored up his grain in a barn and wasn’t generous towards God. So, I try to not store money and to live on little. Jesus said to forgive so I try to forgive. I can’t even adequately do these simple things, or allow myself to be changed enough to do them. Don’t get the wrong impression of me. I’m a piece of garbage of a human being, totally awful in several ways. But this is how I interpret a lot of scripture.

    So when I read your post I wonder, am I the simpleton? Am I the naive one?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @78153f696f01abf682c1b167588d62a4:disqus … this is not about being a simpleton, but about handling the bible with care.  If you are interested, I highly recommend 2 books:

      1) Scripture and the Authority of God by NT Wright
      http://www.amazon.com/Scripture-Authority-God-Bible-Today/dp/0062011952/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328059507&sr=8-1

      2) How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Stuart and Fee
      http://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Bible-All-Worth/dp/0310246040/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328059533&sr=1-1

      I’d add, that devotional readings and reading the text to know Jesus better are perfectly possible without diving into the larger issues of genre / voice / etc.  But, its not possible to create a theology with just a surface reading of the Bible alone… without running into some serious problems

      • ME

        Thank you for your kind response. I guess the way I see it is we all have different tasks and it’s not for everyone to work out theology. In particular it’s not for me to work it out, so I probably shouldn’t have butted in on this conversation!

    • ME

      On second thought, disregard my comment. Wish I could delete it.

  • http://twitter.com/alicampbellyes Ali Campbell

    1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles are a prime example . . . a portrait of stuff “as it happens” and a remembered past from a people in exile . . . same period in their history – but they read so different and place emphasis in different places . . .

  • http://whitherthougoest.wordpress.com/ Brad Anderson

    Kurt, I appreciate this discussion very much. I’ve added to this and the discussions on other blogs by addressing the root issue of inspiration: http://whitherthougoest.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/so-what-does-inspired-really-mean-the-bible-and-god-breathed/

  • ellie_1

    It’s what I always tell people who fret and worry over the immense undertaking of the study of scripture: that’s why we have Christ. we accept Him and we don’t have to worry about what we know or don’t know as long as we got that. Then we can enjoy our adventure in God’s word instead of seeing it as a vast incomprehensible undertaking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.oller Stephen Oller

    This is one of the reasons I left the Evangelical church and have been attending a local Eastern Orthodox church. The Evangelical approach to Scripture is *highly* flawed.