Every time I hear the phrase “plain reading of Scripture” or “Scripture plainly teaches” I honestly twitch a little inside.
Before I get too far though, I wanted to acknowledge that Rachel Held Evans beat me to this idea in her recent blog post, “The Bible was ‘clear’…” She gave certain examples of how Scripture had been used in the past to defend segregation, slavery, banning interracial marriage, denying women the right to vote and even rejecting a heliocentric (earth revolves around the sun) concept of the solar system. To the last point, she makes an interesting observation:
But to accept Galileo’s thesis, our 17th century forbearers would have had to reject 1600 years of traditional Christian interpretations of passages like Psalm 93:1, Ecclesiastes 1:5, and Joshua 10:12-14.
1600 years of tradition had been wiped out by an upstart with a telescope. A plain reading of Scripture would have told us that his findings must have been patently false. But, a plain reading of the stars seemed to demonstrate otherwise.
Nothing is as plain as it seems.
I was also recently turned to an interesting section of Scripture that only seems to hammer this point home even more. That point being that sometimes Scripture is not as plain as we wish it was.
Don’t answer fools according to their folly, or you will become like them yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will deem themselves wise.
Proverbs 26:4-5 (CEB)
So…which is it? Should we not answer fools according to their folly…or should we? Are we to resist their folly so that we do not become like them, or do we answer them so that they might realize their folly? Proverbs was supposed to be a straightforward book of wisdom…but color me confused here.
Nothing is as plain as it seems…indeed.
I think when it comes to a “plain” reading of scripture, we would do well to douse ourselves with large buckets of humility first. Let’s be honest on two key things everyone does when it comes to scripture (thanks to Scot McKnight in his book The Blue Parakeet for this).
- Everyone interprets Scripture
- Those who try and understand Scripture…probably love Scripture.
So, before we start demeaning and calling down heresy on people who seem to disagree with our “plain” reading of scripture, let’s all settle down and approach the conversations with a bit of humility. The Bible is full of similar situations. Just read the first few chapters in Acts as the fledgling church was working out what to do with all the Gentiles that wanted to join up. Peter needed a vision from God and Paul had to defend his missionary work to the Gentiles at every turn. Where we stand, hindsight is 20/20 and we take their decisions for granted. But many stood up to defend that a “plain” reading of scripture would require Gentile converts to follow the Laws of Moses. The Jerusalem Council was convened to decide the matters and they issued a wise decree.
“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God.”
Acts 15:19 (CEB)
We’re not convincing anyone to turn to God when we get combative and defensive about our “plain” readings of Scripture. Sure we want to be true to the Bible and what it teaches, but the Bible is also replete with examples of people who fully believed they knew what the Bible taught and were quickly informed otherwise. Often the strongest judgments and reprimands in Scripture was reserved for those who used Scripture for their own benefit and at the expense of others.
Cover to cover, the message of the Bible is freedom and salvation. Any attempts to make a “plain” reading something akin to bondage, slavery or captivity has missed the point of Scripture entirely. As the Jerusalem Council concluded, we should not “create problems” for those who desire to turn to God. Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden is light and we should endeavor to make others burdens lighter as well. Our “plain” readings should be understood as just that….
We can talk about, share and discuss those readings with other believers in humility and grace. Hopefully we can come to an agreement or we may leave with differing opinions. Either way, we have talked about and discussed Scripture. As believers we have gathered together to discuss God’s Word and have probably benefited from the discussion. Maybe we will learn that somebody has a better telescope than we do.
What do you think? How plain is Scripture to you? Is there some value in debate and ambiguity in Scripture? Can a 4000 year old document really be as plain as we sometimes wish it was?