“Plain Reading” = Misleading

There’s a tendency in theological debate for people to appeal to the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture as some sort of trump card.

“This is the plain reading…”

“Oh if that’s the case, then it’s settled then.”

Really?!

Appealing to the plain reading very rarely settles anything. You end up having a debate about what exactly this ‘plain reading’ might be, as both sides want to claim that honour for their own point-of-view.

My suggestion: let’s abandon this whole method of argumentation altogether. Why should the ‘plain reading’ be the right reading or even the better reading?

In fact, what does the ‘plain reading’ refer to anyway?

Is the ‘plain reading’ the reading that deals only with the surface meaning of the text, without taking into account genre or literary devices or historical, cultural, linguistic factors or authorial intent? If that’s the case, then almost no Christian I know would argue that the plain reading is the best reading.

But if the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture is the reading that accounts for the complexity of genre, translation, background etc., then what purpose does it serve when we label it as the plain reading? Why use the term at all? Why not argue for the ‘best reading’, or the reading that makes most historical, linguistic and contextual sense?

Indeed, to use the ‘plain reading’ argument is, in my mind, just a way bullying the other person to accept your  position without actually having to defend your case. In other words, it’s an exercise of power. “This is the plain reading…” is not a neutral statement. It carries with it the assumption that the ‘less-plain’ reading is  automatically the wrong reading, and that somehow simplicity is self-authenticating. Where does this assumption come from? Is it actually true? Has the assumption itself been tested? (And if it has been tested and found to be true, I doubt that the test itself would be very simple.)

So I reckon let’s quit appealing to ‘plain readings’. It’s lazy argumentation and is a roundabout way of exercising power. By all means put your reading out there as the better reading but be prepared to defend it. Whether it’s the ‘plain reading’ or not shouldn’t matter.

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About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on August 28, 2012, in Bible, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Amen!

  2. Hey Pete, thanks for sharing your thoughts about this phrase. I don’t know if I’d say it was completely unhelpful though – I think what it does is guard against the opposite type of reading of scripture, that is to say the “this-is-what-I’d-like-the-passage-to-say” reading of a particular bible passage.

    Some bible passages have a tendency to invite all manner of ifs, buts, caveats, and exceptions when we try to interpret or discuss them, in a way which can sometimes lead us to completely disregarding the meaning of the words on the page. It is in these cases that we need to remember to read the actual words at face value, the “plain reading”, and we may be surprised that they have something meaningful to say to us.

    Totally agree with you about avoiding using it as a shortcut argument even if I don’t think it carries the assumption of superiority that you think it does.

  3. This is a helpful mindset for evangelical circles. I have some reservations about it, though, in a larger context. My understanding of the “Plain Reading” idea is that it came from the Protestant reaction against Romanists who said that the scriptures were too difficult for common Christians to understand. I think most of the reformers, at various points in their writings, put their foot down on an interpretation because it was the ‘plainest sense’ of the text (opposing allegorical or over-strained interpretations). I can think of a few examples in Luther and Calvin. Even in response to Augustine’s allegorisations of OT scripture. Luther was very zealous about taking scripture in its plainest sense. Owen says this a lot against the Socinian writers, who quoted a lot of scripture and tried to trick average Christians into an interpretation by alluding to complex contextual arguments, while neglecting what was “clearly the plain reading of the text”. So i think that our concept of “plain reading” comes from the reformers, who used it very successfully in defending the truth.

    None of these writers neglected the task of contextual and grammatical interpreting. However, there was a confidence that the scriptures were accessible (able to be interpreted) to those who did not have their kind of training.

    I also wonder whether, in a context where the scriptures were generally to be heard aurally within the NT community, nuances that are not plain enough to hear when read might not have been the intention of the authors. I think of modernistic interpretations of Revelation, which was to be specifically “read aloud” in the churches.

    In today’s world, allegorising and just plain mistreating of scripture is rampant and to me a good argument for these folk is to stick with the “plainest meaning” of a text.

    So i personally would keep the words “plain reading” in my vocabulary especially in discussion with Roman, and Orthodox friends. However i would not use it as a cover-up for shallow exegesis.

    Blessings. Love to hear your thoughts.

    • Thanks Dan. I love where the term ‘plain reading’ came from. A commitment to the clarity and accessibility of Scripture is a key plank in our Protestant Evangelical tradition. I would not, for a moment, abandon it.

      I am just wondering if it’s outlived its usefulness as a method of argumentation. You mention using it in discussion with Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends. There’s a problem with that though. The problem is that it assumes that their theology of Scripture values the ‘plain reading’ argument. RCs have historically (and to this day) appealed to the fourfold interpretation of Scripture inherited from the Middle Ages. And of course the Church still holds the key to correct exegesis and doctrine. So in my discussion with RC friends, an appeal to the ‘plain reading’ wouldn’t be as helpful as I might think.

      When it comes to discussions within the Protestant fold, I think it still has its uses, but not when it’s treated as a knock-down argument without further exegetical evidence to back it up. It’s that sort of thing that my post / rant was in reaction to. Perhaps one too many Facebook posts have done this? I can’t remember exactly but it may have been due to frustration at how frequently this type of lazy argumentation was used on Facebook.

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