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The Problem with "Plain Sense"
Reading of Scripture
A question I often hear in Sunday School classes or in discussions
about the meaning of Scripture is: Why can’t we just take the
Bible for what it says, at face value, "literally"? If what it says
makes plain sense, can’t we assume we have the truth?
This sounds like a good principle, and in "principle" I would agree
with it. I understand that the appeal of a "plain sense" reading of the
text is to try not to read things into the text. I have found, however,
that a "plain sense" reading actually takes far less notice of the
actual story itself, and must read far more things into the text or
simply ignore many features of the text to make it all "work," than do
other ways of interpreting the text. The main reason for this is because
what the "plain sense" of the text says to us, it says in the context of
a 21st century view of the world. In other words, we read and hear the
text from our own perspective of the world, which is far removed from
what most of the biblical text says in its "plain sense" from within its
own perspective of the world.
I agree totally that we should let Scripture stand on its own and not
try to make it say what we want it to say, twist it to support our own
pet doctrines or ideas, or ignore those features of the text that make
us uncomfortable. One of my frequent appeals is to return to Scripture
and take it far more seriously than we often do. But I think that takes
far more work and understanding than just reading the text and assuming
that whatever we think makes sense to us is what it really means, and so
is the Truth.
There are three crucial problems with a literalist or "plain sense"
approach to the text.
The first problem with a "plain sense"
reading is the range of knowledge and understanding of Scripture and its
background of the one applying "plain sense" to the text.
The second problem
is that in a plain sense approach, we most often assume our own frame of
reference for the text and assume that what makes sense to us from our
own cultural, social, religious, or emotional context is what the text
itself means to say.
The third problem is that a "plain sense"
reading often does not or cannot see features of the text like irony,
word play, metaphorical writing, multilevel symbols, or other much more
subtle features of communication that go far beyond, or sometimes in
direct contrast to, what seems to be the "plain" meaning.
An example of the first problem can be seen in a "plain sense"
reading of the vision of Psalm 89 (19-28).
19 Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one,
and said: "I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one
chosen from the people. 20 I have found my servant David; with my holy
oil I have anointed him; 21 my hand shall always remain with him; my arm
also shall strengthen him. 22 The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked
shall not humble him. 23 I will crush his foes before him and strike
down those who hate him. 24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be
with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted. 25 I will set his
hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. 26 He shall cry to me,
'You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!' 27 I will
make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. 28
Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him
will stand firm.
The plain sense reading tells
us that the new king from the line of David will be a military leader
who will restore the empire of Solomon and expand his conquests across
the sea and the great rivers even though he has suffered a temporary
defeat. In other words, the new king will be a conquering military
leader like his ancestor David who will "crush his foes, and strike down
those who hate him." Even Christians knowing full well the actual life
and teachings of Jesus have tended to use this passage as applied to
Jesus to project military images onto the
Kingdom of God, and ended up with fiascoes like the crusades.
But that reading of the text does not consider that all of the symbols
in this passage come from the cultural context of the Ancient Near East,
and are creation symbols of peace not martial symbols of war. The
"battle" images refer to God bringing peace and justice into the chaos
and disorder of the world (cf. Isa 11:1-9), which is always symbolized
by water in such contexts ("sea" and "rivers" in v. 25). Note that a feature of the New Jerusalem is
that there will be no more sea (Rev. 21:1). That is a theological
statement, not a geographical one .
But such aspects are not and cannot
be obvious from a "plain sense" reading, either in the psalm or in
Revelation. It takes a thorough understanding of the cultural and
historical background of the text to understand it correctly (see
Speaking the Language of Canaan). And yet,
for everyone familiar with those cultural images in ancient Israel,
reading these images as metaphors of peace rather than war would readily
be the "plain sense" of the text.
So, if we lived in ancient Israel 3,000 years ago, the plain sense
reading would be, well, plain. But to us today, it is not at all plain.
In fact, what appears to us as the plain sense reading is actually
nearly the opposite of what the text communicated in its own context.
Likewise, the following verses of this psalm (vv. 29-37) seem very
plainly to be referring to the covenant with David.
29 I will establish his line forever, and his throne
as long as the heavens endure. 30 If his children forsake my law and do
not walk according to my ordinances, 31 if they violate my statutes and
do not keep my commandments, 32 then I will punish their transgression
with the rod and their iniquity with scourges; 33 but I will not remove
from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness. 34 I will
not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to
David. 36 His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before
me like the sun. 37 It shall be established forever like the moon, an
enduring witness in the skies."
This echoes 2 Samuel 7 in which God promised unconditionally that
David’s lineage would always rule over Israel. That is the plain sense of both texts, and is repeated
in other places. Yet, we know that historically this did not happen. So
either the plain meaning is wrong, which it can’t be from an inerrantist
perspective (see The Modern Inerrancy Debate),
or the text does not mean what it plainly appears to mean to us modern
To say that this is really referring to Jesus rather than a Davidic
king, which most who advocate a “plain sense” or literalist reading
contend, sidesteps the whole issue. This itself violates the plain sense
of the text by introducing ideas that are not in the text in any plain
sense reading, and to which later
writings do not refer in retrospect. There are many other examples of
this problem in the Old Testament, as well as in the New Testament.
The second problem is much more difficult to identify without
knowing some broader features of the biblical text and biblical
theology. How do we know that a verse that appears to make good sense to
us means anything close to what we think it means? Or why do we not want
to take some verses at face value when their meaning is fairly obvious?
For example, I find many discussions of war among conservative
Christians interesting in that so many are quite willing to dismiss
Jesus’ rather clear teaching on non-aggression and non-violence simply
because it does not fit with certain ideas from a particular culture or
way of thinking. So, they contend, Jesus did not really mean to turn our
other cheek to enemies, because that is far too idealistic and not
practical in a modern world in which violence is all too common. As a
result, the plain sense reading of the text is rejected, in this case
because it does not fit with other ideas. The problem is the consistency
with which this principle can be applied to the biblical text.
I am suggesting that a plain sense approach to Scripture, without some
other deliberate and carefully thought out methods of interpreting the
text, will most often cause us to see in Scripture what we already think
about issues. That’s why it seems so "plain sense" to us! That
"plain sense" tells us that Jesus did not really mean for us to
turn the other cheek and to love our enemies and persecutors in all
situations, because that is impractical in our cultural context. And
common sense tells us that the command "Do not kill" really only means
premeditated murder by people who have no good reason to do so, and
could not possibly apply to capital punishment, or war, or killing
intruders in our home, or abortion to save the life of the mother (see
The Word "to kill"). My
point is, we do a lot of interpretation in terms of our
own ideas, even when the "plain sense" seems obvious. If that is true,
what do we really think we are doing with the passages in which the
"plain" sense is not quite so plain?!
As an example of the third problem, we can note that irony is a
feature that a plain sense reading will almost always miss. For example,
I have seen Habakkuk 1:13 quoted as an ontological description of God,
telling us what God is really like ("Your eyes are too pure to behold
evil, and you cannot look on wrong doing"). That is then sometimes used
as a way to interpret Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22 from the cross ("Why
have you forsaken me?"). This is combined with a certain theory of the
Atonement to produce a very hybrid "plain sense" reading. As Jesus
took upon himself the sins of the world on the cross, since God is too
pure to look upon evil, he turned away from Jesus prompting Jesus'
so-called cry of dereliction (see Jesus' "Cry of
Dereliction" and Psalm 22).
The problem is that the verse is Habakkuk
is heavily ironic, and in fact, means exactly the opposite of what the
words say. It is a statement made for the purpose of demonstrating that
it is not true since God is, indeed, looking on evil in the world by
allowing the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem! That rather
seriously undermines this reading of Jesus' words from the cross.
The same is true of the people’s first response to Joshua (Josh 24:16)
or the apparent prayer of repentance in Hosea (6:1-3). Both appear to be
sincere, but more careful study and an understanding of how the biblical
writers use irony to make a point reveal that they are both insincere
and betray the people’s misunderstanding of faithful response to God.
The words say one thing, but the context makes it clear that exactly the
opposite is the meaning. There are many other examples.
The issue, then, is how we go about deciding whether something
is a literal statement to be taken in its plain sense or is a figure of
speech. For example, how many of us have ever misunderstood someone who
was joking and we thought they were being serious? How we perceive the
comments makes a great deal of difference in how later conversation
Because of certain ideas about the nature of Scripture, we have had a
hard time seeing Scripture in terms of people
writing, and so we misunderstand more subtle forms of writing.
And so we think we are listening to one thing when in fact the writer is
saying something quite different. That simply calls us beyond a
"literal" mode of thinking to distinguish what kind of writing with
which we are dealing. It is often easy to think a certain text is a
statement about the ultimate reality of God, and that seems to us to be
its plain sense because that is what we have always been taught or
believed. Yet, if it is really a biblical writer making fun of someone’s
false ideas about God, we risk ending up with some very wrong
conclusions! That kind of decision about the text is very hard to come
by with a literal, plain sense reading.
The same applies in different ways to other features of the text such
as literary context, original language, cultural and historical context,
etc. As each of those aspects of the text is examined, we have moved
further away from a "plain sense" or a "literal" reading of the text,
and closer to an exegetical analysis of the text to hear the theological
Now, it is true that some of the great Reformers, such as John Calvin
and John Wesley, advocated a "plain sense" reading of the text. Moderns
who have wanted to avoid much critical examination of the text in favor
of a literal surface reading have often quoted them. However, we need to
note two crucial elements of the context in which they were advocating a
"plain sense" reading, and what they meant by that.
First, this classical plain sense approach was a product of the
Reformation, a major tenet of which was to recover the authority of the
Scripture for the people. For centuries, interpretation of the Bible had
been under the control of the dogmatic systems of the church and was
used to promote those systems. In some cases, Scripture was used as
little more than a source of proof texts for a doctrinal system that had been built
from centuries of practice and philosophical speculation. The primary
authority for the church was the church's own traditions, supported only
in a secondary way by Scripture. The Reformers, beginning with Martin
Luther, insisted on replacing the authority of the dogmatic systems of
the church with the authority of Scripture. In this context, "plain
sense" meant biblical study apart from those creedal determiners of
Second, since the early centuries of the church, biblical
interpretation had been influenced by the categories of Greek
philosophy. One of the early debates of the church concerning Scripture
was how to relate the Old Testament to the New Testament. Since the
early church had struggled to distance itself from Judaism, there was
reluctance to make the connection historically. So, using the categories
of Greek idealistic philosophy, the connections were made on the level
of typology and allegory. The Old Testament was seen as the shadowy
images of the true reality of the New Testament. This often led to a
nearly complete dismissal of any historical setting or meaning for the
Old Testament in favor of a spiritualized and Christianized symbolic
meaning. In this context, "plain sense" was a modest call for a return
to seeing the Old Testament in different ways than the sometimes
fanciful allegories that had become popular in the early church.
This simply says that while the Reformers did, indeed, advocate a
"plain sense" reading of the text, it did not mean quite the same thing
to them that it does to modern advocates who equate a "plain sense"
reading with virtually no biblical study. The Reformers who wanted a
plain sense reading took great care to do biblical study, most writing
detailed commentaries on the Bible. To them, "plain sense" meant that
there was a lot of work to do in understanding the biblical text rather
than simply accepting what the church had always said the text ought to
So, many people want to be able to assume a "plain sense" of the text.
Unfortunately, there is a high risk of misunderstanding the biblical
text with such an approach. In some cases it is simply because we assume
that the text means what we already think. The danger is that such a
"plain sense" of the text becomes what we want it to mean. In some cases we do not
realize the historical distance between the text and us. For some, it is
not being able to see the biblical text in all its richness and
diversity. And for some, it is simply a matter of not wanting to spend
the time studying to understand what the text might actually say beyond
the words on the page. In any case, the responsibility of students of
Scripture is to hear to text for what it says theologically. And that
often takes a great deal of time and effort in moving beyond the
physical words on the page.
Who says what the Bible says?
Evangelicals and the
The Bible in the Church
For an example of how sensitivity to the background of the text is
important, see Bible Study, Genesis,
Lesson 1: Listening to the Text
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