Is, “If the scripture makes plain sense, seek no other sense” a good Bible hermeneutic to use in study?

I have come across several variations of the concept of ‘plain sense’ interpretation, such as “if the scripture makes plain sense, you should seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense” – sometimes with exceptions for immediate context given. Is this a good rule of thumb for interpreting scripture?

Clarify Share Report Asked February 09 2017 Mini Anonymous

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Closeup Jennifer Rothnie Supporter Housewife, Artist, Perpetually Curious
David L Cooper came up with what he called the ‘golden rule of interpretation’ in the early 20th century: 
“When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at it’s primary, ordinary, usual meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”

This ‘rule’ is often shortened and taught by modern pastors, commentaries, etc. As the best way to interpret the Bible – usually with the end goal of getting the listener to interpret prophetic imagery literally, to support dispensationalism or a pre-tribulation rapture, or to read modern technology into old testament prophecy. Often a scare tactic is thrown in that if the hermeneutic is not used, it will lead to 'nonsense' or the extreme of letting every verse have a ‘personal’ meaning just for the reader.

However, is this really the best and only way to read all of scripture? Scripture itself directly contradicts the idea that the ‘plain sense’ is the only sense in several instances:

- Jesus often spoke in parables, so that in ‘hearing they will not hear’ (Matt 13:10-15). most of the parables made a lot of sense on the surface (don’t build something without calculating the costs first, don’t be a bad servant, a new patch on an old garment will rip, etc.), but they all spoke to deeper spiritual truths. Not all of these parables had immediate explanations.

- Jesus had to open the disciples’ hearts that they might understand prophecy (Luke 24:44-45). The Jews had access to the same prophecy, having learned and studied it from youth. Yet to understand the 'sense' took Jesus’ revelation.

- I Cor 2:13-14/II Cor 3, etc. Advocates a ‘spirit sense,’ not a plain-sense, reading of scripture. The spirit is required to understand the spiritual truths of scripture and grow in Christ – not just a plain-sense understanding of what a passage says.

- Scripture uses many devices such as metaphor, allegory, types, hyperbole, figurative language, idioms, prophetic imagery, and apocalyptic imagery that are not always announced as such in the immediate context. For an example of a few of these: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_idioms.html While sometimes these literary devices are apparent from immediate context, they aren’t always. 


It is good to first seek the plain sense of a passage and treat it as important. The problem comes in with the 'seek no other sense' part of the rule which seeks to stop people from searching for any other sense.

The Jews saw up to four different senses in scripture using their study method PRDS. You can read an overview about it here: http://paulproblem.faithweb.com/pardes.htm 
In short, ‘P’ is the ‘plain sense’ interpretation of a passage and is viewed as the primary layer of any scripture. Every scripture has at least the Pashat layer. ‘R’ is the study of implied applications or spiritual truths based on a passage. ‘D’ is the study of allegories, types, and other applications by cross-referencing other scripture. 'S' deals with underlying truths hinted at or hidden in the text by Hebrew numerology or word use, such as the number of the beast being ‘666.'

In a similar fashion, Catholics view more than one sense to scripture. They see the ‘literal sense’ (which encompasses plain sense, grammatical sense, the historical sense, author intention, etc.) as well as the spiritual sense (basically, the scriptures as read under the influence of the Holy Spirit.)

Many protestants see 'Christ on every page' as well revealed in scripture.

Unfortunately, many advocates of ‘plain sense only’ interpretation teach it because it conforms to their views on eschatology. For an example, a ‘plain sense’ teacher of Rev 9:2-11 would claim it must refer to literal locusts or modern tech - but ignore the Joel 1:1-6 imagery that it could refer to an invading nation.

Let your main study-aid be the spirit, not man-made rules.

February 09 2017 9 responses Vote Up Share Report

Mini John Brooks
No, it is not a good Bible hermeneutic. I have tried to find the origin of this rule, but have been unsuccessful. One thing I know is that it does not originate from the Bible, so must come from the fallible mind of man. In fact, the Bible itself tells us how to interpret scripture and since the scripture is the word of God, this interpretive direction trumps whatever 'golden rules' man comes up with.

In 1 Corinthians 2:13-16, we read: These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

The natural man does not understand God's truths because he can only interpret the truths of God in the natural sense, i.e. literally. If God's truths are meant to be interpreted literally, then even the natural man could understand them. However, the natural man cannot understand the truths of God because they are meant to be interpreted by the Spirit of God, i.e. in the spiritual sense.

So, when others accuse me of interpreting the Bible spiritually instead of literally, I say, "You bet I do, because the Bible tells me to."

February 16 2018 1 response Vote Up Share Report

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