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The Plain Sense of Scripture
Daniel H. King, Sr.


In a final handout to the preachers and other invited guests assembled at Florida College this summer, brother Phil Roberts, under the heading Do You Accept the Literal Sense?, persisted in his argument against believing the Genesis account of creation is to be taken literally. Regarding Genesis 1:7 and Joshua 10:12-13, he wrote, "What would a person who knew nothing about modern astronomy assume that the passages were saying? What is the "plain sense" of the passages? Would somebody who rejected the "plain sense" in favor of an interpretation adjusted to fit modern knowledge of astronomy be a false teacher?"

Three observations are appropriate here. First, we all understand that Holy Scripture, since it is inspired by the Holy Spirit of the Omniscient God, is perfectly capable of looking beyond the "pre-scientific" perspectives of its ancient writers. If those writers penned their words without the aid of God’s Holy Spirit, then they would have been the unwitting victims of their pre-scientific world-view. Since God was the Caretaker who superintended this process, he did not permit this to happen. In fact, scientific foreknowledge is often evident in the Bible, after human discovery has allowed man to "think God’s thoughts after Him." Matthew Maury discovered the "paths of the sea" by reading Psalm 8:8. The "recesses of the deep" (Job 38:16b) and the "springs of the sea" (Job 38:16a), were alluded to in the Bible long before deep-sea discovery made these facts evident. Isaiah said that God "sitteth upon the circle of the earth" (40:22) when the people of his day thought the world was flat! Many other comparable facts could be cited; they fill the pages of many books on Christian Evidences. Far from being the ignorant slaves of their pre-scientific world-view, the biblical writers were led by God to speak beyond what their own human limitations would naturally have permitted.

Second, if the "plain sense" of a text is viewed as having been mistaken because of the pre-scientific world-view of its author, then this has important repercussions upon our way of understanding inspiration, revelation, and biblical inerrancy. Jesus said, "Thy word is truth" (John 17:17b). If something can be found in the Bible which is not scientifically accurate, then it is not true. And if it is not true, then the rest of the Bible falls apart like a house of cards. Modernists know this, and this is the reason they set forth the arguments which they do. They do not believe in plenary, or "full" inspiration of Scripture, and they are anxious to find fodder for their cannons. "Pre-scientific world-view" arguments are therefore common in their writings.

Third, a passage of Scripture may be subjected to the erroneous predilections of befuddled interpreters in any age. This does not mean that their predilections are to be identified in any way with the "plain sense" of a biblical text. The text means what God intended for it to mean at the time of writing. The "plain sense" of that passage is what God meant to communicate when he inspired its composition. We must never commit the fatal blunder of confusing the prejudices of a particular set of interpreters at a given time in history with the "plain sense" of the Word of God. To do so is to surrender the inerrancy of Holy Scripture to its detractors! Sadly, I fear that this is precisely what our brother is willing to do in order to justify this false theory of the days of creation! I hope that he has not fully thought through the implications of his remarks and that he will recant them before they are forever associated with his name, but this is nevertheless the force of what he has argued — as the reader will plainly see in the lines that follow.

With these observations in mind, let us examine the two proof texts which brother Phil offers to "explode the myth of the plain sense of Scripture" (my words for his enterprise). We shall take them in the reverse order from that which he dealt with them, since the Joshua text may be quickly dispatched, while the Genesis passage will take considerably more space.

Joshua 10:12-13

From the book of Joshua, brother Roberts cites 10:12-13 to assert "This passage was the primary proof-text against Copernicus and his theory that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth. Copernicus was condemned as a heretic" (Phil Roberts, Do You Accept the Literal Sense?). Well, let us simply ask of our brother: Do you believe that those who condemned Copernicus were correct in their manner of interpreting Joshua 10:12-13? I will be plain and say that I do not. As I mentioned above, a passage of Scripture can be the victim of the predilections and prejudices of the interpreters of a certain period of human history. Joshua 10:12-13 is such a passage.

What is disconcerting for us as we read this line of argument, is the fact that our brother sets forward his case in this fashion. Why would he argue thus if he did not believe that the "literal sense" of Joshua 10:12-13 justified the approach taken by those who condemned Copernicus as a heretic? On the other hand, if he does accept this view, then how can he maintain the position that Holy Scripture is devoid of error in its original autographs (cf. John 10:35)?

If his point is that the passage makes use of some poetic and figurative language, that aspect is probably safely beyond dispute. His notes do not contain further elucidation of his argument, so we must take it as it stands. In the Hebrew Bible, Joshua’s prayer is set out in poetic form, as it is in most modern English versions. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, and assuming this is what he means, we are left only with the following question: How would this have anything to do with the narrative found in Genesis 1? There is no evidence whatsoever for poetic form or figurative language in that chapter, as we have argued extensively elsewhere. Furthermore, our brother has made no effort to controvert that material, so how can he hope to gain support from this text and apply it to Genesis 1?

Genesis 1:7

Brother Roberts quotes Genesis 1:7, "And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament." Regarding this text he promulgates an extensive argument which we shall attempt to summarize. He says that "Flood geologists generally, and at least one brother who has written extensively and prominently on the necessity of interpreting the days of Genesis literally, say that this verse may be describing a vast blanket of water vapor encompassing the earth prior to the flood. But that is not at all what the Bible says, at least not in the plain-sense natural interpretation of the words. The Bible says that the firmament was something that separated between bodies of water, with water below and water above (Genesis 1:7). Furthermore, the Bible says that the sun, moon, and stars are located in that firmament (Genesis 1:14, 15, 17)" (Phil Roberts, Further Notes on the Firmament).

The word for “firmament” in Genesis 1:7 is raqia which elicits from the Hebrew root raqa’. This term in its original context was used to describe the process whereby metal was "hammered out" or "beaten out" by metal smiths into thin plates for use in a variety of circumstances (cf. Jeremiah 10:9 where the plural form meruqa' appears). Consequently, it also took the meaning "to spread out," since that is what the metal smith did with the metal bars from whence the final product of his workmanship were produced. When Moses used the word in Genesis 1, he described the "expanse" of heaven, that is "that which is spread out" above the earth. In Ezekiel 1:22 it speaks of "the firmament above, stretched out over their heads." This passage reveals both the nature of the firmament itself and a hint of its history. In its simplest form it means "the atmosphere."

Modernists have attempted to equate the word’s derivation and etymology with the description of the firmament itself. Several lexicons which were written by modernists have attempted to make this equation. It is their conviction that this is a simple illustration of a pre-scientific, and therefore outdated, world-view. For example, in William Holladay’s summarization of the Koehler-Baumgartner Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, he defines the word as "beaten metal plate, firmament (i.e. vault of heaven, understood as a solid dome)." Many other liberal critics could be quoted, and brother Phil does so at length to establish this connection. He goes on to say, "But almost all Bible believers today (myself included) would reject that interpretation." Yes, all of us do reject it, because it is patently false and totally without textual support. It involves a connection with word derivation which is not made in the text of Genesis, or anywhere else for that matter. And, it is absurd to contend that the use of a word in a given context carries with it the entire history of the word’s derivation and etymology!

Take the word "Hebrew" as an example. The word from which we derive 'ibri is 'abar "to pass from one side (or end) to the other", presumably. So, whenever we see that word in the Old Testament, are we to conclude that the person(s) so described are wandering pilgrims? That may have been what it first meant (in the case of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), but in its later usages it meant only a racial and ethnic identification — regardless of their status as wandering nomads, settled agrarians, or city dwellers. The etymology has little to do with the final usage of the word. The same can also be said for many words in the Bible, and "firmament" is one of them. It simply denotes the "expanse of heaven." One aspect of it may have been a vapor canopy, comparable to a greatly exaggerated version of cloud-cover today, but the "firmament" itself is merely "that which is stretched out" above us, i.e. "the atmosphere."

Brother Roberts continues, "Flood geologists and the brother cited above reject that interpretation for an explanation that, according to the evidence we have, would never have occurred to anyone prior to the time of the Copernican revolution in astronomy. Only since the time of Copernicus have people generally understood (some ancient Greeks excepted) that the sun and stars stand at such a great distance from the earth, and that there is no vault holding back some reservoir of waters beyond. Indeed this understanding of the firmament as a domed vault holding back the waters above was the standard interpretation right down to just before modern times." After offering a few illustrations of this point, he persists: "No doubt someone who proposed that there was no reservoir of waters out beyond the sun, moon, and stars would have been denounced as a heretic who just refused to accept the plain sense of the Bible. But the discoveries of modern science have ruled that possibility out for those of us who believe that the Bible is the word of God" (Phil Roberts, Further Notes on the Firmament).

Does brother Roberts intend us to believe that "the plain sense of the Bible" is that "the firmament was something that separated between bodies of water," "that the sun, moon, and stars are located in that firmament," "that the sun, moon, and stars were relatively close to the earth -- somewhere up in the sky just beyond the clouds," that it was "a domed vault holding back the waters above," and "that there is a reservoir of waters out beyond the sun, moon, and stars"? Are we to believe that "All these people were accepting the text in its plain-sense, natural meaning, at least as they understood it" when they believed these gross scientific errors? Please do not accuse me of misrepresenting our brother, for each of these is a quotation of his own words!

Now, all of us are aware, I am sure, that there is not one thing in the Word of God which suggests that the firmament of Genesis 1:7 "separated between bodies of water." There was water below in the oceans, rivers, lakes, etc., and there was water above in the form of rain, dew, snow and hail. There is nothing in Genesis 1 about "bodies" of water above the firmament. That is Phil’s terminology. Further, there is no suggestion whatever in the Bible that "the sun, moon, and stars were relatively close to the earth." Those are Phil’s words, not the words of the Bible. In addition, you would look in vain in the narrative of Genesis 1 for a suggestion or implication that "there is a reservoir of waters out beyond the sun, moon, and stars." Those also are the words of Phil Roberts and not of Genesis 1. None of these things is the "plain-sense, natural meaning" of Scripture -- even if it was the way "they understood it" in another time. If someone believed a lie about the meaning of Scripture, it was not the "plain-sense, natural meaning" of the text, or else the text itself is in error!

Now, as to the allegation that "the sun, moon, and stars are located in that firmament," it surprises us to hear our brother make such an absurd contention. When God "set them in the firmament of the heaven, to give light upon the earth" (Genesis 1:17), he did so by placing them in their positions relative to the earth physically precisely where we today know them to be, in order to make them a part of the firmament visually. When a human being looks up from the earth into the firmament of the heavens, that is exactly where he sees them, i.e. "in the firmament." However, the Bible does not say that the stars are "located in that firmament" as our brother contends. Once more, that is brother Roberts’ language, not the language of Holy Scripture. In his zeal to make his case, Phil Roberts has helped the language along, so to speak, in each instance where he has attempted to argue his point. This is not an admirable trait.

As a conclusion to this section, he asks (in bold print), "Do you always accept the plain literal sense of a passage of Scripture, or do you sometimes adjust your interpretation to fit what you have learned from modern science?" To this we must reply, "No, brother Roberts, we must never, ever, adjust our interpretation of the Bible, and thereby reject the plain literal sense of a passage, in order to make it coincide with what we have learned from modern science!"

Phil has struggled in vain to provide examples of this from the Bible and in our own writing. Of course all of us have learned a great many things from science which have been helpful in our understanding of Scripture. That we have not denied. A few passages which have appeared difficult for many years have had the light of truth shown upon them by later scientific discovery. Archaeology, history, comparative linguistics, and many of the physical sciences have provided helpful information about texts which previously had seemed problematical. But science does not aid us in setting aside the "plain literal sense of a passage of Scripture" unless we have been caught up in scientific theorizing about things like the evolutionary development of the universe, or of life itself in the case of more radical theistic evolutionists.

If a text appears in a narrative portion of the Word of God, as Genesis 1 does, then we have no basis upon which to view it as anything other than literal, and thus to read it literally. But it is the context and the type of literature which determines, not external factors like science. If a text appears in poetry, where poetic license has ever abounded, then the material must be treated as such. Science may help us to understand the literal truth which lies behind the imagery. But, again, Genesis 1 is narrative, not poetry.

History and Scripture

History may also be helpful to us in understanding narrative portions of God’s Word, in fact, often has thrown helpful light upon the Old Testament in particular. But if something from historical studies is viewed as denying even one iota of what God’s Word proclaims, then that point of historical research should be seen as dubious. It must be looked at again by Bible believers, and perhaps rejected altogether as valid evidence, perhaps only reinterpreted (viewed from a different angle). We cannot throw out the plain and obvious sense of Scripture in order to honor history above Sacred Writ.

There are many instances of conflict between sources in the study of history. For example, on the Mesha Inscription found on the Moabite Stone, dated around 830 B.C., the king of Moab commemorates his victories over Israel (cf. 2 Kings 3:4, 5). He boasts that “I saw my desire upon him (Omri) and upon his house, when Israel perished utterly for ever.” This outlandish case of self-approbation is not taken seriously by anyone. It is shown false by all of subsequent Israelite history recorded in the Bible, as well as by secular history. Not all instances are this clear, however. The point is, that historical references may not always seem to support the Bible, and if they do not, then that does not mean we must alter our view of Scripture. Remember that historical references can be altogether wrong. So can scientific theories.

 

Conclusion

As we conclude this series of articles, we would like to reiterate a few points which we made in the course of these essays. First, it is important to realize that with his public presentation of these materials, brother Phil Roberts has joined the ranks of those who deny that the miracles of the Genesis 1 creation account were the instantaneous result of God’s spoken Word. Along with his brother, he apparently wishes us to believe that a process of natural development over millions or billions of years, after an initial Big Bang, brought about the physical earth which became the home of man. In our view, this is nothing other than theistic evolution of the physical cosmos. Second, Phil repeats the same two arguments which Shane Scott has made to justify his view of long creative days (the Day-Age Theory). Therefore, he is convinced that the days of the Genesis account represent long periods of time, and not 24 hour days. Third, the Florida College Bible department is not free of this error simply because Shane Scott has left the school. Phil Roberts apparently believes the same thing about the creation days that Shane Scott did.

It is difficult for this writer to communicate the inner turmoil which we felt in having to write these articles. I have no ill will toward either of these men. It breaks my heart to hear that Phil Roberts, a man whom I have long considered a good friend, has cast his lot with those who deny the Genesis account of creation is literal. Further, since Phil is a member of the Bible Faculty at Florida College, it casts a pall upon the school for him publicly to endorse this position. Since I taught at the school for several years, and love the people there, I wish this whole thing could just "go away." I could wish that I would wake up some morning and find out that it was all just a bad dream. Unfortunately, it is not going to go away, and even though it certainly is a bad dream, it is not "just a bad dream." It is very real, and none of us is going to wake up from it.

We call upon these brethren, one and all, to return to simple faith in the Word of God regarding the Genesis account of the creation. Cease this unwholesome speculation about what "might have been" or "could have been," and come back to the ageless practice of "speaking where the Bible speaks, and being silent where it is silent." "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11). This is the only true route to an understanding of God’s Word and of His will for us, and the only reliable road to Christian unity on this or any other issue which confronts the Lord‘s people.

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