Opinions on faith and life

Plain Reading and Communication

2007-12-15

Often we hear someone say “A plain reading of the text here tells us…”, especially if the matter being discussed is controversial. Everyone says they’re just doing a “plain reading” of the scriptures. But it is literally impossible to read anything at all without interpreting as we go, so what exactly is a “plain reading”, and it is a good thing?

Communication is more art than science, and written communication is even tougher to interpret because it lacks certain aspects of context such as body language, vocal inflections, the situation of the writer and reader, etc. One only needs to visit the average message board to see how very difficult it is to communicate by written word alone. And this happens as much between contemporaries speaking the same language in the same culture as with speakers of different languages. What one post reader would consider a “plain reading” might be completely opposite of what the post writer intended to communicate.

Now add to this already precarious scenario two very different languages, cultures, and times, and you have the reason people argue over what the Bible really says. To simply read the translated words and nothing more is not a “plain reading” but irresponsible and lazy reading. Surely the Bible deserves better treatment! If it is wrong to even read “just the words” in the original languages, how much worse is it to do so with any translation. Yet so many people insist (but only when it suits them) that this overly-simplistic and childish reading is the proper way, and accuse anyone who disagrees with that approach of trying to twist the scriptures (see earlier post Are You A Gymnast?).

There just is no way to avoid digging into language and culture when studying the Bible, and for this most of us are at the mercy of translators and researchers. Some will read that and object, “How elitist! You say only educated people can read the Bible, and that’s just like any other religions with their ’infallible interpreters’.” But the difference here is that even the educated would not qualify as “infallible interpreters” unless they also were pledged to some particular ideology or privileged status. But the uneducated are still at the mercy of the educated, at the very least for translations. There is no avoiding it.

The point being, that if we must rely on experts to translate and to make dictionaries in order to understand the Bible, then we cannot object to experts being consulted for more than just translation. We must concede the need for help in learning about the culture and time and other pertinent factors that will affect our understanding of the text. For example, when we know that Gnosticism was a problem when the NT was being written, we can better understand why John would write, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world” (2 John 1:7). Gnosticism denied that Jesus came in the flesh because they held that the flesh was too evil for God to be associated with it, and so they denied Jesus’ humanity. Of course there are many other scriptures where this makes a much bigger difference, but this illustrates the point without getting anyone terribly upset.

In spite of knowing all this, many people will still insist that anyone who disagrees with their favorite time-honored misinterpretations is twisting the scriptures and should just do a “plain reading”. But it’s important to at least try and explain why this is not the way to read scripture, or anything else.