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2A. The Plain Meaning Approach

A plain meaning reading of Scripture argues for a “literal” reading of the text. There are readers who suggest that the plain meaning of the text is the only meaning of the text. If the text says there was “fire” in the upper room at Pentecost, then there were “real” flames of fire. To read this way, one doesn’t need to know any history or grammar, only the words in the English Bible and usually the King James Version at that. With this in mind, what is the “plain meaning” of this text? At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar (1 Chron. 26.18 KJV), or this text: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” (Psalm 137.9 KJV). Go ahead, give it a try! These verses are in the Bible. What do they mean?

As we will suggest, many times, Scripture is interpreted by individuals in a purely subjective fashion. Have you ever heard any teachers say something like the following, “Today, in our study of the Bible, we are going to put the Word of God first. We are not going to deal with what we think the Bible says, but with what it actually says” (for actual think “plain meaning”). If not, consider yourself fortunate. The implication of that statement is that any interpretation that differs from the one that the speaker is presenting is based on what people think, while the concepts being currently taught by the speaker is the “plain and only meaning” of the text. Any disagreement with the “plain meaning” understanding of a text can cause one some serious problems within a church structure who propagates such an idea.

While “plain meaning” of a text is the goal, what we often arrive at in our interpretation is not the “plain meaning.” When we say “plain meaning,” we should understand that it refers to the author’s original intent, which was most likely “plain” to those to whom the message was originally given. “Plain meaning” and “understanding the meaning” should not be confused. If you lived in an urban city and had never traveled into the countryside and I talked about the “openness” of the countryside, the meaning would not be plain to you, while it would be plain to anyone living in the countryside. The baggage we all carry mitigates against a “just read the plain meaning of the text and don’t do any interpreting.”

Plain meaning is not reading our own cultural values from the twenty-first century back into an ancient document through the distorted prism of seventeenth-century language. Here’s an illustration from James 5.13-18, which is sometimes quoted by teachers when talking about prayer as if there was a category of prayer called “the prayer of faith.” The text reads:

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

When Christians who fellowship in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches talk about the “prayer of faith, 1” there is usually more heat than light in their speech. As always, context is critically important. Here the passage is about the activity of a community ministering to each other when they are together. James seems to draw a distinction between sickness and suffering in this passage by offering different remedies for each. In the Good News Bible, verses 13-14 read as follows: “…This prayer made in faith will heal the sick person; the Lord will restore him to health, and the sins he has committed will be forgiven. So then confess your sins to one another, so that you will be healed.”

We should note that confession of sins is important in the process of healing. However, there is nothing in the passage that implies that if a person has sufficient faith or prays a “prayer of faith,” then he or she will receive healing. Rather, the passage emphasizes that there is no circumstance of life where faith is impossible, therefore, there is no situation in life where a person cannot resort to prayer. In short, there is no category called a “prayer of faith” as implied by the improper translation in the KJV that if one could just pray a “prayer of faith” they would automatically get the results for which they are asking. Of course, this so-called “plain meaning” has abused those who are sick by blaming them for lack of healing instead of helping them realize that in any circumstance turning to prayer offered in faith may bring the intended results when attached with the confession of one’s sins.

It appears that what makes this “plain meaning” approach so intriguing to individual Jesus followers is that they simply want to know how the text provides guidance for their everyday needs in a very concrete and practical way. Typically folks reading from this point of view have no concern for the culture, history, or theology of a passage. I once listened to a couple read their daily “three chapters” who had no comprehension of what the text was saying except for an inspirational tidbit here and there. But they felt “righteous,” because they had been faithful to the daily task of reading and listening to the “plain meaning.” What often occurs in this form of reading is “what God meant” turns into “this is what God means” for the reader at the very moment of reading.
Herein is the problem: we have come to believe that whatever the text means while we are reading it is the intended meaning of the text and, often without thinking, we then “teach” the perceived meaning as what God meant. We do so when we say things like, “Today, while I was reading Matthew, God revealed to me that this text means….” So each reader becomes the final arbiter of the meaning of the text being read. Inspiration and personal guidance is highly valued in this approach to reading. Junk food and sugar-laden candy is the bane of our society. Junk reading has found its way into our lives in the individual devotional reading where any meaning goes. Like the quick fix of a chocolate bar, which makes us feel great for a moment in the short term, it produces sheer terror on our physical body, which in turn produces more hunger instead of satisfaction. An individual devotional reading could have the same results. We have become addicted to the fix of hearing God on the spot.

According to John W. Wright in his book, Telling God’s Story, there was once a time when the church read the Scriptures as story and the readers/hearers looked to find themselves in its pages. 2 But, a fundamental shift occurred and the idea of story was lost to a new narrative, which put the individual at the center and Scripture became a story of an individual’s move from sin to salvation to heaven when he/she dies, all the while using fragments of the text to form propositions to make the case. However, William J. Bausch says in his book Storytelling, “We are creatures who think in stories,” but have been trained to think in propositions. 3 In addition, an additional narrative beyond the “sin to salvation to heaven” narrative took root in which the modern American nation-state arose and has been deeply imbedded in the culture of USAmerica. 4 The rise of individualism, a product of the Enlightenment, turned the reading of Scripture into a fragmented search for an individualistic therapeutic meaning for inward personal experiences. 5

The Bible, however, begins with creation, which was the setting for its story. From creation, it moves to the rebellion of humankind becoming independent from God, to the recreation of humankind as “truly human” in Jesus. The telos of this story will finally be achieved at the consummation of God’s kingdom. This is not the narrative of the church; her narrative is about the interior life of the individual congregants. “Each individual became the story’s central actor; God may play a supporting role within the story of each—based upon the will of the individual.” 6 While the biblical story has as its goal the redemption of all creation, it has been narrowed to “the story of personal salvation.” 7 What Han Frei called the Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative[25] has taken place. With full biblical backing, the “cult of the individual” still reigns and the individual devotional approach to reading is the fodder to keep it alive and well on planet earth. An individual devotional reading is aided and abetted by three deadly Scripture reading diseases.

EndNotes:

  1. One might say that this is very often found in the “Prosperity Gospel” propagated in several forms of independent Pentecostal-Charismatic church organizations.
  2. John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 50.
  3. William J. Bausch, Storytelling: Imagination and Faith (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1984), 9.
  4. Wright, 48.
  5. Ibid., 18, 52.
  6. Ibid., 53.
  7. Ibid.
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