What Is the Plain Reading of Scripture? Part 1

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Thursday, February 4, 2021 1 comments

by Steve Risner

In a discussion about doctrine, the question of how we interpret a passage of Scripture is generally brought up. There are many different groups who feel that a certain interpretation of a particular passage is correct while others are incorrect. How do we know which interpretation is correct? How can we tell if one is probably wrong? I’d like to begin to explore that a bit today.

I am a Biblical creationist. This means my beliefs on our origins and the origins of the universe are founded in reading what the Bible says about it. I do not allow external sources to influence what I think the Bible says about this where the Bible specifically speaks on it. But there are certainly details or even entire topics regarding origins that the Bible doesn’t specifically speak on. In these instances, we would not allow an external source to alter what the Bible states, but we can use external sources to supply us with details, keeping in mind these details are subject to change as they are not written in the Word of God and may not be accurate.

For instance, if we are talking about whether or not there was a global Flood that destroyed all land-dwelling and air-breathing animals on earth except a small number of animals and humans that were saved on the Ark, we would have to agree the Bible is fairly clear that this happened. It is even fairly clear on when it happened. However, the Biblical text does not talk about massive graves of organisms that were buried all at once or huge sedimentary layers laid down during this deluge. We can assume, probably quite accurately, that this would happen, but the Bible does not speak specifically of it. We also do not have details on exactly what went on with continental drifting, mountain range formation, uplifting, or ocean creation. However, if we are to use external sources to help guide our thoughts on these ideas, we must be sure we do not allow those external sources to change what the Bible does say about the event. In other words, the Bible may provide a framework for something and where there are holes or left out details, we can use external sources to fill in the gaps, being diligent to not allow those sources to alter the framework the Bible has provided.

So how do we interpret the Bible in general and, in particular, the book of Genesis and other places where origins are discussed? What I believe is the best way to do this is called the “plain reading” or “natural reading” of the text. This is not reading it “literally,” and I’ll explain why later. In short, we allow the passages to tell us what they tell us. We allow them to speak for themselves without injecting our own desires or biases into it. Reading the text “naturally” would mean that if the passage presents itself as a historical narrative, we assume it’s a historical narrative. If the passage presents itself as poetry, we read it as such, but we also understand that poetry can talk about real people and events and be accurate as it does so. If it tells us it is allegorical or a parable, we read it as such. Books of wisdom should be taken as that and so on.

If how we interpret a passage of Scripture seems to contradict another passage of Scripture, we need to remedy this. It is usually not terribly difficult to do, but this can be a challenge on occasion. It could mean we need to reevaluate the passage we are looking into. It could mean we need to take another look at the passage we may seem to be contradicting. However, it is also very important to be sure the apparent contradiction is actually a contradiction. Sometimes we may think something looks like a problem at first glance, but upon further evaluation and after looking at the details a bit more deeply, we can see that the contradiction was just apparent and not real. This is actually pretty common, I think.

Here is just one example of this, but hopefully the reader can figure out others if they run across them in the future. The Bible tells us that Jesus would be, like Jonah in the belly of a fish (Matthew 12:40), in the grave for 3 days and nights. But Friday afternoon to Sunday morning is not 3 days and nights by our reckoning, is it? Luke 24:7 tells us this was the case—that Jesus rose on the 3rd day. There are several different explanations for this some have put forth over the centuries. I think the simplest way to remedy this apparent contradiction is to understand how the Jews counted days. A clue is found in Esther 4:16. Here we see Esther will fast for three days and three nights, but she actually approaches the king before the third night. Following our rules for counting the days, she would have had to wait until the fourth day to fulfill this command. Is this a contradiction? Not if we understand that Jews counted days differently than we do. A day actually ends (so the next begins) at sundown. So, Friday starts on Thursday night. However, even part of a day, if it’s before sundown, is counted as the whole day. So, while a passage may appear to be contradictory on the surface, sometimes it’s because we need to understand something about the culture or times or have more details about it. This does not give us license to completely alter a passage. This is often done in the name of following what was known at the time of the writing or something like that. This is not good and makes God out to be some sort of incompetent communicator. He is not.

A common problem today is that people bring their outside sources to the Bible and force the Bible to fit those sources. I believe the Biblical creationist does this to the least degree although, like anyone, it is possible we do interpret things based on our biases. However, if our foundation is to accept what the Word tells us and utilize that as a framework for the rest of our beliefs, it is much more difficult to allow external sources to change what the Bible is telling us. This is called exegesis vs eisegesis (more on that here). One is drawing out from the Word what it is telling us (exegesis) while the other is inserting in what we want or feel the text should say based on something from outside the Bible (eisegesis). Again, we must understand that the Bible does not give details about every last miniscule happening. However, this should not give us license to radically change what a passage says because we have found some external source that, while fallible and likely to change, is at odds with what the Bible tells us. External sources are fine to use, but they cannot ever cause us to rewrite what a well-established interpretation of a passage is saying. The truth is, for thousands of years both Jews and Christians alike have understood the creation account in Genesis to be a real series of events that occurred over 6 days and that the timeline is well spelled out for us to understand when Adam was created.

We are not talking about something like geocentrism here or something like that. While people may have had strong opinions on them, those types of things are not specifically stated in Scripture. The Bible does not tell us that the earth is at the center of our solar system or galaxy or universe. In fact, it does not mention the topic at all or earth’s location in physical space. Some may point to a belief in geocentrism and the conflict that arose when Galileo (I realize that Copernicus had a lot to do with this but Galileo had a pretty serious go of things with the Catholic Church over geocentrism) announced he believed the earth was not at the center of the solar system. They may say that this is a great example of allowing modern science to change how we interpret the text. But, this is nothing like this at all because the Biblical text makes no claims as to the specific design of the universe. Someone may have determined that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around us, but this isn’t brought out of Scripture. This means no newer, more accurate interpretation was needed.

I hope you as a reader understand this. We are not talking about something not specifically stated in the Bible. We are talking about something outlined in detail in the Word of God when we discuss origins and even when creation occurred. No external source should be allowed to completely disfigure the portions of Scripture that focus on origins or the Flood. If we are talking about something not specifically stated in Scripture, we might have more room to not be so rigid in our beliefs.

Next time, we will look at this in more detail as I feel it is an important topic. The “that’s your interpretation” argument needs to be put in its place. On occasion, it might be a reasonable defense, but often it is not at all. Thanks for reading.

This forum is meant to foster discussion and allow for differing viewpoints to be explored with equal and respectful consideration.  All comments are moderated and any foul language or threatening/abusive comments will not be approved.  Users who engage in threatening or abusive comments which are physically harmful in nature will be reported to the authorities.


MichelleO said...

This is a Treasure trove of information. Ty!