On the Supposed “Plain Meaning” of Scripture

I just picked up Christopher Bryan’s little book And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (Cowley, 2002), and in it he offers this excellent nugget of wisdom that I think many in the church need to hear:

“Scripture is sometimes difficult to interpret. Our forefathers and foremothers were well aware of this. In the ancient world, Jews, Christians, and pagans would have agreed that sacred texts, because they were sacred, were somewhat cryptic and required interpretation–and that interpretation would not be easy. The Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip met on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza seemed to show precisely such an attitude. He was reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ the eunuch replied, ‘unless someone guides me?’ (Acts 8.30-31).

“The interpretation of a sacred text required, then, the best attention, intelligence, and understanding that one had to offer. It needed, as Paul said, the great Hellenistic virtue of hupomonē: that is, patience, steadfastness, stick-ability (see Romans 15.4). Reading the Scriptures as authoritative for the church was not therefore a task for wimps or for those who expected quick or easy answers” (Bryan, pgs. 6-7).

This historical reality may raise questions for those who have been brought up with a doctrine of the “perspicuity” of Scripture — that is, the idea that the Bible’s meaning ought to be clear and plain to all. But Bryan quickly points out that we shouldn’t hold too simple an understanding of Scripture’s perspicuity:

“Reformed theologians used sometimes to say of the scriptures that they possessed ‘clarity’ (perspicuitas), but they did not mean by that that the scriptures were easy to understand. They meant that the effort to understand the scriptures, if made honestly and faithfully, would always, in the end, bear good fruit” (7).

This little clarification on the clarity of the Bible is crucial, because unfortunately Christianity is littered with folks who cherry-pick verses out of context and make mountains out of molehills. As an old seminary professor of mine, John Hannah, used to say, “Being biblical doesn’t mean you have a verse for your concept — cults have that! It means that you have the weight of all of the revelation of God on that subject, so that it is nuanced by the totality, not a particularity.”

In the rest of the chapter, Bryan shows how advocates of slavery before and during the American civil war could claim to have the “plain meaning” of certain verses of Scripture on their side. And yet, it was the anti-slavery preachers who were seen, in the end, to be most faithful to the overarching story and themes of Scripture as well as the character of God revealed therein.

That overarching story is plain enough that even a five-year-old could see it: That God created humanity, then we fell into sin, and subsequently God called Abraham and his lineage to be the vessel by which redemption would be accomplished — culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and continuing by his Spirit through the Church until he returns to fully complete God’s creative purposes.

It is this overarching story, and its summary in the “rule of faith” or creed that the church has distilled over the centuries and which all branches of Christianity share in common, that should be our primary guiding line when approaching the (often quite intense) interpretive difficulties that Scripture very clearly contains.

As Bryan rightly concludes, “If that story stands, then we stand. If it does not, then we are, as Paul said, ‘of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Corinthians 15:19)” (13).


For more about Christopher Bryan, see my review here of one of his other excellent books, The Resurrection of the Messiah.



Categories: biblical interpretation

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