The Plain Sense of Scripture

Reading John Hobbin’s recent post and the post at Compligalitarian, I must say that I don’t care for “plain sense” arguments. Appeals to the plain sense of scripture tend to either ignore or deny that what was the plain sense of a text for the original audience is not necessarily applicable to us today.

Appeals to the plain sense of scripture tend to forget that when it comes to Paul’s letters, we are literally reading other people’s mail. And thus any commands in Paul’s letters do not directly map to the modern day. If we are going to describe our faith as being a faith grounded in history, we must take that history seriously when interpreting historical and contextual texts such as Paul’s letters.

We treat Paul’s letters like a handbook for our lives today rather than historically conditioned, occassional texts, written for a specific purpose or need. We find it easy to ignore commands to Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 because their names are explicitly mentioned. But we fail to recognize that all of Paul’s letters are just as specific and occassional as that single command in Philippians 4:2.

So if we’re going to appeal to the plain sense of scripture in our interpretation, we must first recognize that the plain sense is not necessarily directly applicable to the 21st century and in fact there’s often no reason to assume that the plain sense was applicable to anyone beyond the immediate situation Paul is addressing. Going back to Euodia and Syntyche, the plain sense of Paul’s command is applicable only directly to those two people. Of course there are theological implications, but those are separate from the command itself. The vast majority of commands in 1 Corinthians or 1 Timothy are only directly applicable to the the Corinthians or Timothy’s immediate situation. And for that reason, we’re safer building application from Paul’s statements about theology than on his commands to the original audience.

And it is for that reason that if I were to become a complimentarian again, I would have to be convinced by statements other than the commands of 1 Timothy 2:12.

14 thoughts on “The Plain Sense of Scripture

  1. We find it easy to ignore commands to Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 because their names are explicitly mentioned. But we fail to recognize that all of Paul’s letters are just as specific and occassional as that single command in Philippians 4:2…the plain sense of Paul’s command is applicable only directly to those two people. Of course there are theological implications, but those are separate from the command itself.

    Well said, Mike. I was going to write a reply along the same lines, but I think I’ll skip it now and just link to you.

  2. I disagreed with the premise of the complegalitarian post in another way. Each religious community effectively choses which parts of scripture to forefront.

    The group I was raised in only used 1 Cor. 14 to my knowledge with reference to women. Since women were silent in the assembly in almost every way, and excluded from the brothers meetings, they did not have to be reminded that they were under authority. 1 Tim. 2:12 was rarely cited. Just as well, since “usurp authority” implied only that women should not take authority away from men, and did not comment on whether a woman may rightfully lead.

    I am now convinced that proving any semantic content for the lexical item “authentein” has been abandoned, and this verse is merely a pawn in the game of exegesis.

    I was surprised to see that the this video also implies that 1 Tim. 2:12 has only “exegetical” meaning and perhaps lacks a “plain sense” meaning. It’s an interesting documentation of the reduction of the gospel to one verse. It used to be John 3:16 when I was a kid, but now it is clearly 1 Tim. 2:12. Schade!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Unless one grounds text written in the 1st century with meaning from the 1st century, one engages in teleportation, which may result in no alteration but may result in huge differences, so why take that chance?

    Also, with 1 Timothy, we are not Timothy, who was Paul’s spiritual son. As such, Timothy would have a large shared context with Paul that both could use to condense their letters, this is what everyone does. Trying to unpack such a letter is a challenge.

    P.S. How do you want your block referred to in English? In Ephesus?

  4. This is veering off course but what about plain sense readings of much of what Jesus says, for example, divorce? That may not be the best example, but certainly there must be a lot of plain sense in the Bible. ?
    Jeff

  5. I want to me it as clear as I possibly can that I was *not* supporting the idea of complementarians’ interpretive principle of using the plain sense of a passage. I was trying to *describe* that interpretive approach as I was taught it in church. Many conservative ministers who are complementarians claim that egalitarians are simply wrong because the Bible “plainly” teaches complementarianism. I tried to make that point clear in my original post, but because my post has been misinterpreted, I have revised it to make it clearer that I am not saying that “plain sense” interpretation of Scripture is the strongest support for complementarianism. I was, instead, *trying* to say that the complementarians with which I have been associated believe as they do because they believe that the “plain sense” of Scripture requires them to do so. I personally believe that an adequate hermeneutic Scripture must dig deeper, find out what the local situation was that was being addressed in a passage in the Bible, discover what the rhetorical intent of what was written was, etc.

    I don’t like to make news in the blog world by stating things in ways that are too easy to misunderstand. I prefer to make news with posts which accurately reflect what I’m actually thinking.

  6. Wayne,
    Thank you for clarifying things. I appreciate that, though my interest in writing this post didn’t so much arise from misunderstanding you as it did from the fact that this issue has been one at the forefront of my own thinking about hermeneutics for a number of years now.

    Jeff,
    I’m not against the “plain sense” of scripture, I merely believe that hermeneutics and interpretation are much more complicated than that.

  7. I agree.

    I’ve thought a good rule of thumb about plain sense is this: When Scripture’s context believes a proposition and Scripture stands in contrast, the Holy Spirit is speaking for every context. When Scripture agrees with that contextual proposition, the Holy Spirit does not necessarily speak for that proposition.

  8. Jon: Have you read Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All its Worth? It makes some similar points about this sort of thing – and in general is one of my favorite books on interpretation.

  9. But the complementarian argument is not simply that the plain sense of I Tim 2 teaches that we should now do what Paul says. It’s that the plain sense of scripture teaches that the principle behind Paul’s statement is one that isn’t just limited to Paul’s context. It’s that it’s grounded in creation order. Whether that’s correct is not the issue. There’s an actual argument that the plain sense of scripture is directly applicable. The appeal to the plain sense isn’t to show that. It’s to show what the principle is, not that it’s directly applicable. Some egalitarians don’t even agree that what complementarians say Paul was prohibiting was even what he was prohibiting, and the plain sense claim is supposed to be against that view.

  10. Jeremy, you’re right, it is more complicated than that, but unfortunately, many complementarians don’t get that far.

    My real contention on the passage itself is chiefly on the claim that αυθεντειν means “excercise authority.” We only have 8 relevant instances of the word and that meaning fits none of them.

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