(If you’d like to see the other articles in this series, click here.)
Hermeneutics, the study of how to interpret the scriptures, is far more of an art than a science. Studying hermeneutics, which is what I have been doing in this series will not necessarily get you the right answers but it will at least get you better answers. It can help you to ask the right questions and avoid poorer ways of reading the scriptures. However, it will not ever give you the definitive end-all answer to what every text means and how that applies to us today. Hermeneutics is not mathematics.
But we don’t really like this. We want to have simple and straight-forward answers to our questions. So, many appeal to what is called the “plain reading” or a text. The idea is that divergent readings of a text are a result of doing something strange with the text, bringing your own ideas to the text rather than just letting the text speak for itself. And to be fair, this is a good impulse. However, everyone thinks they have the plain reading. Yet, we often disagree. We have to ask ourselves who has the real plain reading, whose reading is the most plain.
To be sure, some readings are genuinely ridiculous. For example, Matthew 27:5 says that Judas hung himself. Elsewhere, in Luke 10:37, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” It would be absurd to therefore conclude that Christians are therefore commanded to hang themselves, because Jesus’ words in Luke 10 are not referring to Judas’ suicide. That is not the plain reading.
But it is not necessarily always so easy to tell when a reading is absurd. Take Revelation 20, for example. Many think it is absurd to think that John is referring to a literal thousand years, while many others think that it is absurd to think that John is referring to anything other than a literal thousand years. We might be able to dismiss one or both readings as incorrect, but we cannot necessarily dismiss either reading as simply absurd. Appeals to the “plain reading” of a text are usually nothing more than appeals to the way an individual and their tradition normally reads a text.
Now, appeals to a plain reading can take different forms. Dispensationalists often like to refer to the “literal” reading. They claim to simply be understanding the words literally. However, this does not mean that they fail to acknowledge metaphors in the Bible, but it means that they ostensibly try to read the text in as straight-forward a manner as possible. However, Vern Poythress, a critic of Dispensationalism, writes:
The appeal to literalism is often seen as part of the avoidance of subjectivity in interpretation, but one does not really escape the possibility of subjectivity by simply waving ‘literalism’ as a banner. It is necessary to examine what one means by that word and to try to specify what it does and does not imply. Otherwise one only hides from intellectual challenges and from insight into one’s assumptions and limitations. I am not saying that all dispensationalists are hiding, but those who are not might well take into account that others are.1
Disclaimer: I’m not at all trying to pick on Dispensationalists in particular, but Dispensationalism is certainly a theological tradition that has grabbed hold of the kind of the hermeneutical shortcut that I am writing about here.
Of course, the rest of us do this all the time, albeit usually in smaller ways. This happens whenever anyone claims to just be “reading the bible” to get their doctrine, as if they have not been affected by their own theological tradition and background.
Reading the scriptures is difficult for us because we are not in the same context as the original hearers. We do not live in the 1st century. We are not Jews living in a Greco-Roman culture. What would be the clear reading to them will not necessarily be the clear reading to us. We will often have to do a lot more work to understand what a text meant to its original hearers than they would have needed to do because we are not the original hearers.
For example, in John’s Revelation, he assumes that his hearers understand the Old Testament extremely well. Many of the visions in Revelation are references to other visions or events in the Old Testament. John’s original hearers would have likely understood many of these references immediately, but we often do not. What was the plain reading to them is not the plain reading to us.
But a plain reading is not impossible because we are far removed from the original context of the scriptures’ original hearers. It’s impossible because we inevitably bring our own assumptions to the text that drive our interpretation of it. Appeals to a “plain reading” assume that it is possible to completely divulge oneself of all prior assumptions and perspective, which is just not the case. As human beings, we can never read a text “objectively” because we will always read a text from our perspectives with our experience.
We can, of course, have an excessively idiosyncratic reading of a text, such that we are blinded to what the text is actually saying. Yet pure objectivity remains impossible. Appeals to a plain reading are dangerous because they refuse to recognize that the way the reader is reading a text is shaped by their own assumptions and perspective. The “plain reading” takes those assumptions of the reader and makes them absolute; they’re just the way the world works; they’re self-evident. Normally, we don’t really have a problem with this if it’s our own assumptions that are made absolute, but we immediately see the foolishness in this if assumptions we disagree with are made absolute. Ultimately, there is no plain reading because we cannot read a text objectively, that is, free from our assumptions and perspective.
So, why even bother reading the scriptures, if we can never read the text objectively? Won’t we always be a slave to our perspective? Not really. We are only a slave to our perspective if we refuse to admit we have a perspective. After all, the text is still real. It does not cease to exist because we have trouble understanding it. There was an author who wrote the text intending to communicate something. Thus, the scriptures have meaning.
But we must be humble as we seek to read out that meaning. Humility allows us to listen to other people fairly because we recognize that we could be wrong. Thus we engage with other readings and seek to grasp how alternative readings understand the text. We have to ask questions about the meanings of words, the context, the author’s thought and purpose, etc. These all help us.
Yet, even when we do all this, all of us will still not agree. However, this is the only way forward if we want to listen to people outside of our own echo chambers and have a chance of understanding what the original authors wanted to communicate to the original hearers.
1 Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2nd ed., (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1994): 76-77.