Sola Scriptura and the Interpretation of Scripture: Confusion Over the “Plain Meaning”

As part of my response to the General Assembly agenda items on women serving on the General Council and on the names of God, I want to deal with the use of scripture. We need to clarify the Protestant understanding of sola scriptura (by scripture alone) as well as how the Church of God seeks to apply that understanding. One of the key issues is over the “plain meaning” of the text. I get it that some Church of God ministers think that scholars like to keep things messy, so let me offer some clear points.

First, as used by magisterial Reformers, sola scriptura never meant “only scripture,” but always referred to the primacy of scripture.

The purpose of the slogan was to uphold the primacy of scripture in the face of specific traditions from the medieval Catholic church. At the same time, men like Calvin and Luther understood that scripture must be interpreted through the tradition of the church, particularly, the patristic tradition of the first five centuries. For this reason, it never meant that scripture is the only authority. In fact, to see scripture as the only authority would be anathema for Calvin and Luther. They attributed such views to fanatics.

The Church of God maintained a role for tradition on interpreting scripture. A. J. Tomlinson was an avid reader of patristic writers, particularly from the second and third centuries. He modeled the position of the General Overseer on James in Acts 15. Tomlinson became convinced by reading selections from Hegessipus that James was the “bishop of bishops.” In other words, Tomlinson understood Acts 15 and the role of James through the lens of tradition. Scripture held primacy, but it was understood through the tradition of the church.

The Church of God was against the production of confessions, but not the tradition as understood through its primary interpreters like Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo, and others. This is because of the denomination’s strong doctrine of the church. The Church of God has always held that the General Assembly is a judicial body led by the Spirit to interpret and apply the scriptures. There is a place for the teaching of the church within the context of the primacy of scripture.

This means that all private interpretations of scripture should be filtered through the lens of church teaching even as we seek to remain faithful to scripture by our teaching. It’s a dance that must be maintained.

Second, the Church of God operates with two basic principles of interpretation: the whole Bible rightly divided with the New Testament as the rule of faith.

The first principle is that a doctrine must be woven into the whole of scripture like a thread that goes through a garment. Let’s call this the intertextual principle of interpretation. It’s not enough to stop at a single text as though the entirety of scripture must be interpreted through that one text. To anchor our doctrines, we must examine the whole counsel of God. We must find the thread that binds the whole. Why were concordances so popular? Because individuals used them to get a sense of how the whole of scripture was using a term or an idea.

Closely related is what I call the perspicuity principle. Perspicuity is about clarity. Protestant Reformers embraced the idea that clearer passages should guide our understanding of the more obscure passages. It’s a principle first articulated by Augustine and other early Christian writers. But, this does not mean that we find a proof text and then use it to interpret everything else.

When the Church of God claims that the New Testament is our only rule of faith, we are essentially articulating a commitment to this principle. We see Christ as the center of scripture and the New Testament writers as providing a vision of Christ that helps unlock the Old Testament and the entire biblical witness. This approach is found in all New Testament authors who reinterpret the Old Testament through Christ. We may find Christ “hidden” in types and shadows in the Old Testament as we follow Paul and Hebrews both of whom talk about types.

Third, the plain meaning of any text must be found in the historical and grammatical contexts.

This Reformation principle of historical-grammatical exegesis is implicit in all forms of Protestantism. There are several important qualifiers. The first is that this does not relate to the plain meaning of a translation of scripture. We make a mistake when we think that our doctrine should be rooted in the plain meaning of an English translation. The Protestant Reformers started translating the Bible into common languages because they rejected the Latin Vulgate as an inadequate translation.

You might ask: what if I don’t know Greek or Hebrew? The best way to proceed is to read multiple translations along with other helps like commentaries. One can even use software packages that help unpack the original. The bottom line, however, is that a Greek or Hebrew term may have several meanings never conveyed by the English. This is why you must dig below the surface of the translation.

To take an example, some persons talk about the plain meaning of 1 Tim. 2:12 (“I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”). If you read the KJV translation, the Greek verb authenteō means “usurp authority.” The English Standard Version follows the New American Standard in rendering it “exercise authority.” These are subtle but important differences. To usurp denotes an active intention to overthrow as opposed to exercise. It makes all the difference in the conclusions one draws from the text.

Why these differences? Because the Greek verb Paul uses is only found in this text in the entire New Testament. It’s an extremely rare Greek verb. The plain meaning is not so plain.

Finally, our understanding of the plain meaning of an individual text must give way to the full meaning of the whole counsel of God.

What I mean is that we must always test what we think is the plain meaning against the whole. By doing so, we may end up changing our views. Notice that I explicitly said, “our understanding” of the plain meaning.

In the early debate over whether the Son was fully God, defenders of the faith like Athanasius came against the way Arius interpreted “only-begotten” in John 1:1-18 to mean “brought into existence.” The plain meaning of to beget is to be born or made. Yet, this meaning cannot be in view when applied to the Son.

There are other scriptures in which the Son is the one through whom God made all things (John 1:1-18; Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-3). Only God can create and yet scripture declares that the Son creates. Thus, the Son must be God. This means that “only-begotten” must be understood in a non-literal way to mean that the Son comes forth from the Father eternally like a star always emits a ray of light.

In addition, we must ask why the Father begets a Son when normally it is women who give birth. This is to rule out any pagan notion of physical birthing in divinity. The Son is the Word of the Father and the Image of the Father. The Son comes forth as the Father’s own Word and Image, not like any creature. This is yet another reason why the Father is not male or masculine. God transcends all.

Much of the division in the denomination resides over how we interpret scripture. I believe this is because there is confusion over what counts as the plain meaning of a text. There is also confusion over whether you should ground a doctrine in a translation or in the original languages. It’s always the latter. Translations of scripture are always human products. They are never inspired. It’s one reason why I prefer literal translations. I want to know that the English is close to the Greek or Hebrew and not simply a theological interpretation by the translator.