Clear Meaning or Simplistic Interpretation?

Scripture holds a high place, at least in principle, for Evangelicals. I remember this importance being ingrained in me since I was a child by my parents, school and church. As a result, I went to it in order to know what to do or what to think about many of the bad things that happened to me growing up. Most importantly, I wanted to know what God’s opinion was about the world around me, and what He wanted me to do as I navigated an uncertain world. I was not disappointed as I learned to trust Him and understand His character even though I did not always get all of the answers I wanted (I did not know specifically why I was suffering).

When I attended Biola University as a Bible major (and seminary at Trinity later), the Bible came even more alive for me. What made the difference was not simply being told what passages mean, but understanding how one arrives at the meaning. Many of the passages I had previously misunderstood became clear after I learned about the culture, background and language being employed. Sometimes, it was merely a matter of understanding the context better (some of these have been discussed on this blog).

What has deeply troubled me in many of my interactions with other Evangelicals is also something I have been warned about by almost every professor I have had whether from Biola, Westminster or Trinity.  The problem is a subjective reading of the text. While this is obvious in questions like “what does the text mean to me?” it is also prevalent in a fundamental misunderstanding of the doctrine of the “clarity of Scripture.” This mentality can be summarized as follows: I can open up my Bible and understand its plain meaning on whatever topic. This is a simplistic understanding of the text that ends up distorting rather than understanding the text.

To begin with, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not mean the Bible always says things “plainly” in a literalist fashion or that everything can be easily understood. The true doctrine says that the Bible is clear on what is necessary for faith and practice. In other words, you can open it and understand how to be saved and to be in a right relationship with God. The finer points however, are not always understood. Why?

  1. There are major cultural differences that prevent us from understanding an otherwise apparent reading.

Ex 1: One example of this is in how we interpret the parable in Luke 11 where a friend knocks on the door of a neighbor because a guest came late at night and food is needed. The friend inside gives the excuse that the door is shut and it will wake up the children if he was to get up and help. Many westerners do not get the joke here—the person inside is giving ridiculous and laughable excuses. It is the whole villages responsibility and not helping will reflect poorly on all of them there is a strong communal sense of responsibility. Jesus is making a “how much more” argument here. Would this ever happen? No! How much less likely that God would do such a thing! Consider the next parable where He asks what father would give his child a serpent when he asks for a fish!? Not catching this nuance often paints the incorrect picture that perhaps one has to pray and pray and pray in order for God to be roused to help.

Ex 2: One big thing we often miss because we don’t understand the original culture or are too consumed with our own is one of the major messages of Genesis: God is NOT part of the creation. While we spend lots of time pondering whether God decided to tell ancient and modern people the age of the earth and whether Evolution is true or not, we miss a key attack on the pagan worldview (which can be found in similar creation stories) that was pressing for the time. Some of this background is actually evident in the mode of communication the author uses in Genesis.

The author of Genesis refers to the “greater” and “lesser” lights instead of the “sun” and “moon?” Why? The word for sun and the word for moon are also used of deities of the time. Stating this would have communicated that God created lesser gods who are part of the creation. Instead, God puts things in the text to counter the notion that there are other gods (the sun and moon are inanimate objects set by God not gods) or that He is part of the creation (the Spirit of God hovers over the water, He is not a part of it).

2. We do not use the same language, and language itself changes over time.

Ex 1: Our language has changed. If someone today was to read about a building being described as “awesome” in older English they might not understand that the building is being described as terrible. Reading Shakespeare and not understanding that “bully” means “homosexual” will also result in a gross misunderstanding. Sometimes imposing a later meaning on the same word used earlier can result in a distortion of the actual meaning. The same change in a word’s meaning happens in the Bible too (it was written over the course of thousands of years).

Ex 2: Many people who are not aware of the scholarly debate over the word “head” used in Paul’s letters don’t want to consider that the metaphor of male headship might not mean what it “obviously” and “clearly” means…in English. Any attempt to show that the word is used differently in ancient Greek circles is dismissed as going against the “plain” meaning of Scripture. Imagine the change in meaning if the term actually meant “source” as was more commonly used.

3. Overall, not understanding the historical setting, audience and purpose of a book will prevent us from understanding the meaning of passages. Reading our own setting into the text will distort it.

Ex 1: This was often the error back in the days when slavery was the norm in our country. In the Old Testament a form of indentured servanthood provided a means for people to live who were in very bad circumstances and then only for a little while. God regulates it and regulates slavery of foreigners. In our country we took these regulatory laws out of their context and took them as a support for the enslavement of African Americans. Passages that spoke against stealing people were ignored. Further, the mark on Cain and curse of Ham were decided to be a clear reference to those with dark skin and provided a reason for why they could be subjugated.

Example(s) 2: Many folks read Proverbs like a book of promises or prescriptions for every circumstance. Does one answer a fool according to his folly or not answer a fool according to his folly? Proverbs 26:4 and 5 have different answers! Sorry Atheists this is not proof against inerrancy. It is to be taken as wisdom that is situational not universal. Training up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it is not a promise, but a generality. The famous Proverbs 31 woman is an example, but not a prescription for what every woman should be.

Overall, a simplistic reading of Scripture will result in a simplistic theology that at best misses the message of Scripture and at worse distorts it. As Evangelicals, we should be even more inspired to truly understand the Scripture the way they it was meant to be understood. It takes hard work and effort to interpret Scripture and is not often as simple as just opening the Bible and reading. To claim otherwise is to relinquish Scriptural integrity and authority.

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3 thoughts on “Clear Meaning or Simplistic Interpretation?

  1. Pingback: Numbers and the “Threat” to Inerrancy « Allison's Blog

  2. Pingback: Traditionalism and Annihilationism in Light of the “Face Value” Meaning of Scripture | Rethinking Hell

  3. Very well done. Clearly, if a reader does not understand the context of the scripture they will not grasp it’s meaning and thereby not be able to apply the lessen to their life. Al

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