The Plain Meaning of the Bible

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

 If there is one thing that this verse from Nehemiah 8 has highlighted to me this week it is this: the term “hermeneutic” is being used in the church today to fog meaning rather than unpack it. In light of the furore surrounding the Prime Minister and his remark about the Bible’s understanding of slavery – as an aside on the issue of same-sex-marriage – there have been any number of interesting responses that attempt to show that the Prime Minister’s hermeneutic was consistent.

Perhaps the most disturbing for me is how fractured the Protestant church now is, not on the issues of SSM, but on the issue of biblical hermeneutics.  The differences on SSM simply highlight radically different ways of reading the Bible. Unfortunately the world “hermeneutic” is now the acceptable way of saying that any reading of the text is valid.  Slap the word “hermeneutic” alongside your interpretation – no matter how extreme it may be – and your hermeneutic is suddenly “hermetic”: sealed away from criticism. This sounds more like a return to the scholasticism of the pre-Reformation medieval church when the contortion and sheer scale of meanings in a text rendered it next to useless in determining the church’s unified faith and practice.

For those who would challenge the PM’s hermeneutic, along with those who excuse it, I would say to you: Have nothing to fear from ad fontes: there is a plain meaning to be found and the source will provide it.

The problem I have with the hermeneutical conundrum is that the text itself never treats itself that way.  The range of meanings of the Biblical text within the Biblical text is vastly narrower than the many meanings it apparently throws up. And the situation in Nehemiah 8 is a great example.  Coming as it does, when the returnees from exile are most likely to be lacking in theological unity, confused by their recent experiences, and cowered by the predominant Persian culture, Nehemiah 8 has a refreshing clarity to it.

The chapter recounts the situation in Israel in which, after returning from exile, Ezra the scribe and Nehemiah the governor gather all of the people into Jerusalem to teach them the Law of the Lord. A number of verses in that chapter are instructive to us in regards to how we understand the text of the Bible, and whether there is a meaning in a text rather than simply meanings.

1. Verse two says that Ezra brought together everyone “men and women and all who could understand what they heard.”  It’s an acknowledgement that common understanding is possible among diverse people, but not only possible, probable. Ezra brought the people together, even in light of the Babylonian exile and its aftermath, and assumed that a common understanding of the text could be reached.

2. The people approached the Law underneath it – both literally and figuratively.  Era stood on a raised platform (v4), and the people stood, announced God’s Word as true, then bowed their heads and worshipped God prior to the reading. They were under no illusions that they stood above it or were charged with the task of critiquing it, but rather they were being called to obey it.

3. Thirteen named men, plus unnamed Levites were tasked with helping the people get the sense of the meaning, so that the people understood it (v8). There is no sense that multiple readers and multiple listeners resulted in a plethora of meanings depending on your hermeneutical grid.  There was a sense to the text that unified the people.

4. It sobered the people.  We are told that the people wept when they heard the Law read to them and the understanding was given (v9).  There was no sense of flippancy about it, and certainly no sense that the Law was designed to confirm what they believed and how they behaved, but rather to challenge it.

5. The Word simultaneously wounded and healed them. When Nehemiah and Ezra see the people weeping they tell them to rejoice!  The very act of the Law being read is a cause for rejoicing, because it is the signal that God has not changed in his dealings with Israel.  He is still their LORD, He is still their strength (vv9-12).  The emotional response – wounding and healing – is a common factor throughout the Bible, especially in times when repentance is called for (see Psalm 51). The distance in time between the Exodus and the return from exile is huge, but there is a confidence that despite the passage of time, and the huge cultural, sociological and religious shifts, a clear, unified, and unifying meaning is still possible.

6. The Word transformed their hearts and their actions.  After the reading of the Law, the people discover that God had called them to keep The Feast of Tabernacles, the building of leafy shelters on their roofs to highlight their desert wanderings, people without a homeland.  At the very time that the newly returned exiles would want to be putting down roots – to be reminding themselves of their permanence in the land – they are reminded, through the Word, that they are totally reliant on God, that their security comes not from their city, nor their houses, but from their God. God’s Word does not confirm their natural desire, but challenges it.

Nehemiah 8 is a great chapter.  It shows us how the Word of God comes to us not as something which is foggy in meaning, but which, when unpacked has a unifying sense to it, and a plain meaning.  This week I have heard the word “hermeneutic” used to lend credibility to meanings that are the opposite of what the church down through time and space has, uniformly, understood the Word to mean.  I have heard people begin sentences with “I like to think that when Paul wrote this he meant…“, and I have encountered people who had maximised  minor, incidental and often historically discredited meanings while minimising long-held, plain and cumulative meanings. And every time I challenge this the word “hermeneutic” comes up.

I am no scholar, but perhaps that’s the point.  Neither were the people of God standing in the square in Jerusalem listening to Ezra reading the Law.  God’s isn’t trying to hide meaning from us, He isn’t trying to fog the perspicuous nature of Scripture.  He is, by his Spirit, sobering us and making us rejoice, simultaneously wounding and healing us, transforming our desires and shaping our actions.  But, and it’s an important “but”, only if we, like the people, express a desire to stand under the word like God’s people all those years ago.

Don’t be afraid of saying that the text has a plain meaning for the text says that about itself.


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