The Plain Interpretation of Scripture

     We live our lives on the assumption that language—whether written or spoken—serves as a reliable vehicle for the expression of ideas.  Our survival and success depends on the plain use of language whether we’re reading the words on highway signs, food packages, or work documents.  A nonliteral reading of the instructions on a medicine bottle could be fatal and we could suffer greatly if we failed to take plainly the words on tax documents, legal papers, or instructions on how to use a chain saw. 

     The Bible is a collection of sixty six books written by nearly forty human authors spanning approximately sixteen hundred years.  The authors originally wrote in Hebrew and Koine Greek (some chapters in Daniel were written in Aramaic).  Behind each human author was the divine Author who communicated His thoughts through them and superintended their writings (2 Pet. 1:20-21) so that what they wrote reveals His mind, His work in creation, His will for mankind, His plan for history, and His provision of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.  The Bible is written in propositional terms and understood and accepted by those whom the Holy Spirit illumines (1 Cor. 2:14-16; 2 Cor. 3:14-16; 4:3-4).  

     The Bible is divinely inspired.  Though there are different views of inspiration, verbal plenary inspiration best fits what Scripture says about itself.  Verbal plenary inspiration teaches that Scripture originates with God (inspired – 1 Cor. 2:12-13; 2 Pet. 1:21), pertains to the very words themselves (verbal – Matt. 5:17-18; cf. Gal. 3:16), and extends to all of Scripture (plenary – 2 Tim. 3:16).  The apostle Paul regarded his letters as divinely inspired when he wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica, saying, “when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). 

     Several English translations accurately communicate the original meaning of the biblical author (such as the ESV, HCSB, KJV, NKJV, NET, NAS, RSV), and most people read the Bible plainly as they would any other book, understanding the words and phrases according to their contextual usage.  There are some passages in the Bible that are difficult to comprehend, but most of it is simple to understand.  The Bible consists mostly of historical narrative which reveals how God acted in the lives of people.  Other biblical genres include law, prophecy, psalms, proverbs, poetry, parables, and epistles.  These literary genres require a literal reading in order to identify how the author is communicating so we can know what he is saying.  Liberal teachers advocate a nonliteral, non-grammatical, non-historical reading of the Bible, which opens the floodgates of speculation and allows the imagination of the reader to make the Bible say whatever he/she wants it to say.  Ironically, those who advocate a nonliteral reading of the Bible expect their words to be taken literally.  A plain reading of Scripture protects the reader from fanciful interpretations.  “If one does not use the plain, normal, or literal method of interpretation, all objectivity is lost.”[1]  

When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, and literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, clearly indicate otherwise.[2]

    A normal reading of the Bible is commonly called the grammatical-historical method of interpretation.  The grammatical-historical method of interpretation means the Christian reads the Bible in a plain manner, paying attention to the normal rules of grammar and the meaning of words as they were commonly used in their historical setting.[3]  A normal reading also considers each word and verse in the light of its immediate context, as well as the larger context of the book, and the whole Bible.  

     In summary, the Bible is God’s inerrant and enduring written revelation that tells us who He is and what He’s accomplished in time and space.  It was written by approximately forty human authors spanning nearly sixteen hundred years.  The human authors—without forfeiting their personal literary style—wrote under the direction (Ex. 17:14; 34:27; Isa. 30:8; Jer. 30:2; 1 Cor. 14:37; Rev. 1:11) and superintending care of God the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20-21), so that what is written is the inerrant and infallible “word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. Ps. 12:6-7; Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 2:13-14; 2 Tim. 3:16).  Some of the various literary styles include historical narrative, law, poetry, psalms, proverbs, parables, epistles, and apocalypse.  It is best to read the Bible plainly, literally, according to the grammatical-historical approach in which the reader pays attention to the normal meaning of words as they were commonly used in their historical setting.  

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, Ill. Moody Press, 1995), 82.

[2] David L. Cooper, The God of Israel (Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1945), iii.

[3] For further reading on the subject of hermeneutics, I recommend Basic Biblical Interpretation by Roy B. Zuck, and Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm.