For those who take the authority of Scripture seriously, a commonly stated principle is that one should understand it according to its “plain sense.” For example, a 1970 statement by David L Cooper, founder of the US Biblical Research Society is much quoted:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.
Now, in the context of origins this principle (sometimes elevated to a “law” of interpretation) is often used by “ordinary folks” to support the Young Earth Creationist position, but it is not unfamiliar to academics either. I read recently one respected Evangelical scholar who returned from a “Framework” view of Genesis 1 to a “literal” 7-day creation (though not necessarily a young earth) because the plain sense of “a day” is a 24-hour period.
Now even Cooper nuances his statement above by adding:
…therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.
Nevertheless, the basis for this rule about what is “primary”, “ordinary”, “usual” and “literal” is “common sense”. In fact, the rule has a clearly discernible pedigree from a particular historical setting: the “common sense realism” philosophy of the nineteenth century that began in Scotland but greatly influenced US Evangelical theology. I would suggest that it’s actually a rather poor way to approach Scripture, and is significantly at variance with the older hermeneutical revolution of the Reformation, which certainly stressed the centrality of the literal sense, but not by recourse to a rather intangible and protean concept like “common sense”.
First, one must realise that the religious context of the Reformers was very different from modern Western concerns. In late mediaeval/early modern Catholicism “spiritual” meanings of the Bible ruled supreme, the “literal” meaning always being downplayed as misleading or even unspiritual, in favour of the allegorical. As far as the Reformers were concerned, this was largely to keep the power of interpretation in priestly hands and away from the people. But it was an entirely arbitrary method, by our standards.
For example, let’s take a passage like the miracle of Elisha making an axe-head float in 2 Kings 6:
They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. “Oh no, my lord!” he cried out. “It was borrowed!”
The man of God asked, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. “Lift it out,” he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it.
Such a story would , in all likelihood, be taken as being symbolic of baptism, where by the power of God the believer sinks in the water but is raised to new life. The fact that a stick appears in the story adds value, because it can be seen to mean the cross of our Lord. The interpretation can then be padded out by saying our lives are only borrowed from God, and so on. Only the unspiritual man would think much about the meaning of these events in Elisha’s own space-time setting.
The arbitrariness of the method comes into relief when one considers that the story could equally be indicative of Noah’s Flood, the water representing judgement rather than baptism and the axe-head God’s preservation of the righteous. Or it could represent God’s secret counsel in creation emerging from the primaeval waters as reality… But in fact, once one is thoroughly immersed (sorry!) in viewing the Bible as a set of texts with trigger words for key Christian themes, “common sense” makes such interpretations far “plainer” than thinking hard about wider issues of context or culture.
You shall understand, therefore, that the Scripture has but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, the anchor that never fails, which if you cling to it, you can never err or go out of the way. And if you leave the literal sense, you cannot but go out of the way.
He, and the other Reformers, sought that “literal meaning” not from common sense, but by full exploration of the passage in context and, over all, by the comparison of text with text to find the overall message of Scripture, into which a particular passage might fit.
In modern terms this would mean actually forming ones worldview – one’s common sense – from the constant study of the whole Scripture. Tom Wright (for example), in The New Testament and the People of God, argues how the whole worldview of 1st century Jews was moulded by Torah, the Covenant and the history of their people interpreted by them. That made their understanding of Scripture’s “plain sense” utterly different from that of an American Fundamentalist in a dominant capitalist democracy. But the literal sense of Scripture remains the same, for in essence it is the meaning intended by the author (including the Divine Author). I discount the Postmodernists’ conceit that no objective meaning in a text is possible, but they are right to say that a culturally-conditioned thing like “common sense” cannot reveal it.
The Reformers recognised that one must work hard, and must use every tool available, to get inside the mind of the author, and the first step, as Tyndale wrote, is to realise that human authors often do not write “plain sense”:
Nevertheless, the Scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but what the proverb, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifies, is always the literal sense, which you must seek out diligently. In English we borrow words and sentences from one thing, and apply them to another, and give them new meanings. We say, ‘Let the sea swell and rise as high as he will, yet God has appointed how far he shall go’ – meaning that the tyrants shall not do what they would, but only what God has appointed them to do. ‘Look before you leap:’ whose literal sense is, ‘Do nothing suddenly, or without advisement.’ ‘Do not cut the bough that you stand on:’ whose literal sense is, ‘Do not oppress the commoners;’ and is borrowed from hewers…
Tyndale had much less understanding of “worldviews”, or of ancient history, and certainly of genre, than we do now. Yet how he would respnd to the modern situation is hinted by one sentence as he discusses allegory:
The Apocalypse or Revelations of John, are allegories whose literal sense is hard to find in many places.
Revelation, he says, has a literal meaning, but it’s often hard to find. The reason is, one can now say, not that the meaning is intrinsically dark and hidden, but that it mainly speaks in the language of Jewish apocalyptic, which would have been “plain sense” to initiated readers of the first century – and that would have included many, because apocalytic was a familiar genre in both Jewish and Christian circles, and its workings were as conventional as, say, science-fiction’s are to us. Tyndale would have been hesitant to interpret the beasts in Revelation in their “plain, commonsense” meaning – had he been coversant with 1 Enoch or 4 Ezra he would have confidently said the literal meaning was symbolic and representational, and even made a good fist of pinning down the symbols.
Notice that including symbolism within the literal meaning makes it perfectly valid to seek such a meaning in a passage like the miracle of the axe-head, so long as it is the author’s meaning, not our own. Indeed, it is far more likely that a sophisticated author would include only events relevant to his overall message, rather than simply recording spectacular happenings, just as Jesus’s recorded miracles relate closely to his juxtaposed teaching. Such an interpretation would take into account such things as the enormous value of an iron artifact in the early Iron Age, and the overal purpose of Elisha’s ministry to God’s covenant people.
I suggest that the “plain meaning” rule is dodgy as a principle. To assume that Genesis 1 is “literally historical” in its meaning, without exploring the worldview of the author and his culture, is as lazy and dangerous as to read Christian symbols into floating axeheads. But that’s not the only danger. Genesis is misread just as much when someone who sees evolution as “common sense” starts reading it into the command to the earth to “bring forth” flora or fauna, though that’s one stage better than the person who takes the meaning literally according to their “common sense” and then dismisses it as obsolete theology – that, of course, is a spiritual issue.
Seeking the literal meaning also excludes (as Tom Wright points out) the private and arbitrary interpretations of believers. If it’s invalid to make the floating axehead point to baptism, it’s equally invalid to read it in your quiet time and take it as the Lord telling you, say, that an item you borrowed and lost is going to turn up soon through prayer. Tyndale says that the Catholic allegories would have been just as (in)valid if they came from Homer or the Sybilline oracles rather than the Bible, and the same is true of individual guidance. Wilkie Collins’ novel, The Moonstone has a wonderful character who is satirically represented as being guided in every situation by what he reads in that astonishing book, Robinson Crusoe.
Yet, paradoxically, Tyndale does not exclude the legitimacy of taking things from the Bible that go beyond its literal meaning, provided we are under no illusions that we are using it illustratively, and not to guide doctrine. For example, he describes how he himself might use the cutting off of Malthus’ ear by Peter, in a sermon, to illustrate graphically and symbolically:
Just as Peter’s sword cuts off the ear, so does the law: the law damns, the law kills, and it mangles the conscience. There is no ear so righteous that it can abide hearing the law. There is no deed so good that the law does not damn it. But Christ, that is to say, the gospel, which is the promises and testament that God has made in Christ, heals the ear and conscience which the law has hurt. The gospel is life, mercy, and forgiveness freely given, and it is altogether a healing plaster.
He both justifies and limits such an illustration thus:
This allegory proves nothing, nor can it do anything. For it is not the Scripture, but an example or likeness borrowed from the Scripture to declare a text, or to declare a conclusion of the Scripture more expressly, and to root it and engrave it in the heart. For a similitude or example, imprints a thing much deeper in the wits of a man than plain speaking does; and it leaves behind him, as it were, a sting to prick him forward, and to awake him with. Moreover, if I could not prove with a clear text what the allegory expresses, then the allegory would be a thing to jest at, and of no greater value than a tale of Robin Hood… These allegories are not the sense of the Scripture, but free things beside the Scripture, and altogether in the liberty of the Spirit to use. I may not at all turn these allegories into wild adventures; but I must keep myself within the compass of the faith, and ever apply my allegory to Christ, and to the faith.
Interestingly, he points to Paul using just such a technique when he allegorises the story of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians – a truly “commonsense” understanding that bypasses some of the knots academics have got into when they tut-tut Paul’s “arbitrary interpretation” of Genesis there. To “borrow a similitude” is not the same as to demonstrate a meaning.
In summary, then, I agree with Tyndale that all Scripture has a literal meaning, which is the one we should seek, which accords with the intentions of both the human author and the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit, and which endorses the message of the whole canon of the Bible. I don’t believe, however, that it is to be sought in the “plain commonsense understanding” of the Fundamentalist, of the contemporary scientist or for that matter of the nineteenth century source critic, the secular critical historian or the Postmodernist who says the meaning is “my meaning” or “no meaning”. My own “plain commonsense understanding” is tarred by the same brush.
But that literal meaning can be closely approached, aided by every tool of literary criticism, history and other knowledge, by the common sense of the person thoroughly steeped in the whole worldview of Scripture, who seeks understanding through faith in Christ by the Holy Spirit. But that’s scarcely “common”, is it?