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Interpreting the Bible II: Excursus on the Plain Sense

I want to tie up a few loose ends in my first post on this series as well as point out some things on which I will need to comment further. In particular, I read this post by John Hobbins that references a post by Wayne Leman regarding complementarianism and the “plain sense” of scripture. I want to distinguish what I mean by “obvious exegesis” from the idea of “plain sense” and define what I would mean by either one. One should note, of course, that what I mean by those terms may differ from the way others use similar terms.

One might ask why I would bring in a second controversial topic when I started with evolution. Here, at least, there is a method to my madness. I think it’s very important to check out methods of interpretation by applying them to other texts and other topics. Very often we change our approach to interpretation when the topic or text changes–always a bad sign.

I recall one online discussion about plain text of scripture in which the texts were limited to the Sermon on the Mount. The individual with whom I was discussing started with Matthew 5:33-37. He told me I was in violation because I said I would take an oath as a juror, or in the unlikely event I took a public office.

No discussion worked, even to the point of getting him to understand the possibility that someone else might understand the application of the text differently. He appealed to the “plain sense,” and after several rounds of discussion defined this as the way an average American high school student would understand the text.

So I pointed him to Matthew 5:29-30 in which Jesus says to pluck out your right eye if it offends, or to cut off your hand. How would the average high school student understand that command? Now he had a very complex explanation which involved fulfillment of the command through the willingness to face martyrdom for one’s faith–a much more allegorical explanation than my view that 33-37 is a hyperbolic way of saying “Just tell the truth!”

One point here is that the “plain sense,” however defined, is very often not all that plain, and the way in which one comes to a “plain sense” in one text may differ substantially from the way in which one discovers it in another.

But further, the idea of plain sense is not the same as what I mean here by “obvious exegesis.” People have very little patience for distinguishing between the historical meaning of a text and it’s application, but the distinction is important. These terms are not always used consistently, but I’m using “exegesis” to refer to that historical meaning, or more precisely the meaning of the original author to his or her audience.

That historical meaning is much easier to discern than is the application, but even so, one of the main points of this series is that it is not only difficult to define, such as whether one goes into the prehistory of a redacted text, but difficult to achieve once you’ve chosen the precise target. It simply isn’t always all that obvious what an ancient text means.

Application, which is usually in view when one hears “plain sense,” is even more complex than is the historical meaning. The fact is that one cannot keep all the commands in scripture. Many of them are obviously intended for particular times, but even amongst the rest there are many commands that do not work well together, or which we would even regard as evil, such as the death penalty for sabbath breaking.

This isn’t exactly a new problem, invented by modernist or liberal Christians (perhaps like me?) who want to avoid following the Bible, but don’t want to admit it. Acts 15 describes an early church conference at which the discussion was precisely about what commands would apply to what people, particularly gentiles. In 1 Corinthians, starting with chapter 8, Paul expresses a somewhat different theology on the issue. The arguments all around might be very similar to modern ones. One side might well have relied on the plain sense of scripture, while the other relied more on theological nuances.

Now the topic of John Hobbins’ and Wayne Leman’s posts, the complementarian vs egalitarian debate, is a good test case. Let me limit myself to Paul as an illustration.

There are egalitarians who believe Paul was actually an egalitarian, and that there are good explanations for all of his comments that make them consistent with egalitarianism. There are those who believe that Paul personally had a problem with women, but that egalitarianism is nonetheless the correct theological position today.

Complementarians generally would regard Paul as supportive of their position, but this depends to large extent on the idea that we today should do the same thing as Paul did in this particular case.

When I discussed my own position (very egalitarian), I cited Galatians 3:28, “no more . . . male or female” in support of my position. Do I think Paul intends here to support an egalitarian position? If so, why does he elsewhere forbid women to teach?

The fact is that I don’t think Paul is an egalitarian, or that he intends to support egalitarianism here. I think he got pretty close to erasing the Jew or Greek boundary, and probably anticipated seeing slave or free become equal in practice. I doubt he thought of a day when women would be pastors on an equal basis with men.

So how can I be egalitarian and also claim to give any authority to the Bible? Well, there are certainly many things that I think were appropriate for a particular time or place, but are not appropriate for others. What Paul taught in his pastoral messages to his churches is not good advice for he 21st century.

So I’m arrogant enough to put myself above Paul? Well, yes, in the sense that I live in the 21st century, and he most definitely didn’t. I get to look at my situation and my time and try to apply the principles that come from the gospel to what I find here.

I think Paul glimpsed this, and points to it in passages such as Galatians 3:28 or Romans 16:7 when he calls Junia as apostle. But the path to that application is nothing like direct, and nothing that I think anyone would define as the “plain sense.”

I believe it permits me to express the historical meaning without having to bend it to modern practice, while at the same time letting the gospel guide me beyond the word to a more appropriate application today.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that my point here is not to provide a substantial support for any particular position but rather to show that Biblical interpretation, from historical meaning to current application is much more complex in practice than most people believe, and that this complexity is not something new.

In later posts I will provide further examples of cases in which multiple and perhaps odd interpretations of scripture have been made within scripture itself and in the history of the church. I also want to discuss both the definition of inerrancy and its application in interpretation.

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  1. What I am or not should have zero effect on what I think Paul and Peter were.

    For the rest, Carolyn Osiek, as I’ve summarized in a couple of posts, describes early Christianity as upholding a kind of love patriarchy.

    The historian in me feels that she is right.

    The believer in me does not think that I must be for or against complementarian marriage arrangements today. The New Testament offers many passages, 1 Cor 13 and Rom 12 for example, which make excellent touchstones to any marriage, egal or comp or compegal in style. I have friends and family who construe their marriage along a broad continuum of frameworks. The key to a healthy marriage is not framework. It is the degree to which passages like 1 Cor 13 and Rom 12 are practiced.

  2. If we invoke a literal reading of the epistles in marriage matters, then let us at least recognize that a vow of obedience has no ground in scripture but is purely tradition. The greatest concern is how people pick and choose what to read in the “plain sense.” “Plain sense” is always a choice.

    In my experience a woman who pledges obedience to the authority of her husband risks being deprived of living in a relationship of mutual consent. She has forfeited consent in her vows. This is how an authority – submission relationship is lived by some today. Therefore we ought to reject the rightness of this kind of relationship because it contravenes our understanding of what it means to be human.

    If we invoke 1 Cor. 13, then why not invoke the golden rule. Why not ask that a man treat the one next to him as he would be treated? Is this impossible?

    I believe that it does matter who we are and what we believe. To accept the stated complementarian position that the one in authority never submits and the one in submission always submits, may be to accept the deconstruction of someone else’s mental and physical health.

    But perhaps the non-Christian is in the best position to play the good samaritan in this case. A non-Christian is not confused by the apparent “plain sense” of scripture. Just as we don’t want a scientific establishment which believes in a 6 day creation 6000 years ago, we also don’t want marriage counsellors who are hampered by this verse,

    “But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

    I don’t think most complementarians would apply this verse literally either, so I am not implicating them as a group. I am just pointing out that we have to have a basis for how we treat people, for deciding which verses we use literally and which we don’t. We simply cannot say that everything that can possibly be derived from the scripture text is correct or morally right.

  3. I too do not think that my position has a retrograde action on Peter and Paul. However, I am still convinced that we must take a stand, as Osiek does in her discussion of Eph. 5,

    “In the Second Testament, 1 Peter 2:18-25 does something very similar to Ephesians 5:21-33 in that it holds up the unjust suffering of slaves as a mirror of the suffering of Christ, and enjoins slaves therefore to submit even to cruel masters. We have long ago rejected that comparison as illegitimate. It is time to acknowledge the same dangers in the wedding of the bride of Christ.”

  4. As Suzanne knows, I differ with her on a number of points. In the following, however, I do not have her or her positions in mind. I refer to positions that are widely held which she may or may not agree with. I am sure she does not agree with some of the positions I take issue with in this comment.

    Ephesians 5 tempers patriarchy with both the golden rule and the higher standard of Christ’s own self-sacrifice. Comps and egals who do not do likewise are sub-Christian.

    Taking the newness out of the new commandment is a move feminists sometimes make, on the principle that, when followed by women, it leads to their oppression. Nietzsche saw the problem, too, and regarded the new commandment as an ethic of unreconstructed slaves. Both men and women should be warned away from it.

    Fine, but let’s be clear: there are anti-Christian positions. There are versions of feminism which are incompatible with Christianity, just as there are versions of patriarchalism which are incompatible with Christianity. Additionally, followers of Nietzsche who see Christianity as dehumanizing at its core cannot also be Christians.

    A Christian patriarchalist marriage was and is, since there are plenty of cultures in the world today in which a form of patriarchy is in place, a humaner arrangement than a loveless egal marriage. Some of the best marriages I have witnessed are inscribed within the love-obey framework. To compare the generations upon generations of Christian women who lived out their marriage in consequence of a vow of obedience or still do as equivalent to slaves is demeaning to them, an act of moral arrogance. For example, if someone were to suggest that someone like Monica the mother of Augustine who voluntarily suffered the abuse of her godless husband was anything other than a free person, even though she had no legal rights, that would only prove that that person is incapable of making even the simplest of distinctions.

    Modern feminism and the legal changes it has wrought are a gift to be received from God’s hand I believe, but are replete as well with negative unintended consequences. Both aspects need to be subject to review. Otherwise egalism has become a new religion, a fundamentalist one to boot.

    Complementarianism or non-egalism of the kind taught by, for example, Emerson Eggerichs, Gary Thomas, and Sarah Sumner is practiced by millions of couples today within an egal legal framework. It is a chosen framework and cannot be compared to slavery. On a site like compegal, Marilyn Johnson, Letitia Wong, David Lang, and David McKay exemplify this kind of complementarianism. Comps of this kind are in some cases recovering egals, or were brought up by egal parents and found that unsuitable to them. Those who do not treat people who make such choices with respect are guilty of violating the golden rule.

    I do not agree with Carolyn Osiek insofar as she suggests that Peter made an illegitimate comparison, with regard to either the employer-employee or the husband-wife relationship. From a counseling point of view, how much scope to allow the comparison is always a delicate matter. To be sure, there are idiot counselors who tell women and sometimes men to put up with an abusive spouse no matter what. That goes beyond the contextually plausible intent of the author of 1 Peter.

    There are many men and women today – both genders – who suffer considerable abuse in the workplace, marriage, or elsewhere, endure it in the spirit 1 Peter suggests, and redeem their own lives and the lives of others in the process.

    There are other men and women who suffer abuse and learn to give it back according to the means at their disposal. This is understandable but is often self-defeating. Ultimately, it may lead to a twisted personality. The movie V for Vendetta develops this theme brilliantly.

    There are still other men and women who suffer abuse and endure it and have nothing, absolutely nothing, to show for it. The traditional response to this kind of suffering in Judaism and Christianity is to view it as a kind of martyrdom. These are very hard questions. We just had St. Stephen’s. Religions who hold up people like Stephen as examples are not for everyone.

    In the space of this comment, which is already too long, I fail to give sufficient clarificatory examples of what I mean. On the threads of compegal, I have written much more in this vein, and in more detail.

    1. John – I appreciate your comment and I think I can see where your examples would go.

      For my readers in general – I would suggest generally that it is better to debate details of the comp-egal debate over at Complegalitarian, simply because there are representatives there of all sides. I’m using my position on egalitarianism as an example, and of course I understand it will be debated, and I don’t mind how much it is debated in the comments, but I don’t think we have a fully representative group here to debate all the details.

      Again, please let nobody misunderstand. All the comments in this thread are welcome here. I’m just providing a link to a place where these issues will receive fuller treatment for those who want to go that way. With my next post this series is going to be moving back toward the creation-evolution debate which is where it started.

  5. I am unable to comment in complegal but I’ll pass on the debate here, except to say that keeping women subordinate is no better than creation science and many other things which some people feel free to reject, although they seem to be derived from the “plain sense” of scripture. I know lots of “good” people who believe in creation science but I don’t use that as an excuse to defend it.

    I also think it is important for a person’s stated position to be declared. Osiek has a position and it doesn’t help to obscure that. I don’t believe that having a position deprives one of the right to speak on a subject.

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