Thursday, September 17, 2009

The plain reading of Scripture

A little dip of the toe into the deep waters of 'plain reading' of Scripture ...

I take the 'plain reading' of Scripture to be the reading which feels natural, obvious, and common sensical, one sign of which could be that, with nine others in the room, on most readings, 9/10 of the group understand the reading the same way as I do.

One feels bounds these days to state the obvious point prior to the obvious criticism being made: Yes, words such as 'natural', 'obvious', and 'common sense' are fraught with difficulty!

Applying this, I suggest that when we read Scripture today, some things about yesterday (i.e. the time when Scripture was written) yield a ready 'plain reading' for today. Thus when we read a passage such as Ephesians 6:5-9 we understand the passage to plainly speak to the situation of bosses and workers today (there being, at least in these parts and thereabouts, neither slaves nor masters). We certainly do not read the passage 'plainly' as either having no meaning for us in an era without slaves, and even less so, meaning there ought to be slaves and masters today.

But, if you run with my argument to this point, what might this mean for how we plainly read a Scripture close at hand, Ephesians 5:21-33. Do we, as we do with Ephesians 6:5-9, make any natural shifts in understanding because the social situation today for men and women is different to yesterday?

Of course there is an obvious difference between the two passages: we do not still have slaves and masters but we still have husbands and wives. Nevertheless, life has changed: even employees and employers in the post-slavery era applying Ephesians 6:5-9 will do so in a social environment which (say) gives workers more rights and employers more responsibilities than (say) pertained in 1859. In respect of marriage, men and women become husbands and wives in a different manner to (say) 1859. There is, for instance, a quite different set of understandings about the nature of 'property' in relation to the establishment of a marriage, including no remaining sense that a daughter is something to be 'given' away by her father. There are also differences in the way the law provides for husbands and wives to exert their respective wills in a marriage (e.g. wife-beating and forced sex is intolerable under the law today).

Is it then appropriate to understand the instruction "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord" differently to former times, just as we now understand "Slaves, give single-minded obedience to your earthly masters with fear and trembling, as if to Christ"?

Will stop there for now!


  1. Hi Peter,

    Is it then appropriate to understand the instruction "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord" differently to former times, just as we now understand "Slaves, give single-minded obedience to your earthly masters with fear and trembling, as if to Christ"?

    I think that, among women who want to be faithful to Christ, changed social circumstances have highlighted the fact that we don't really know what the words meant to the original hearers and that translators can also be interpreters. What's the difference between "subject" (RSV) and "submit" (NKJV)? To my ears the difference is huge. I'm happy to submit myself but I refuse to be subjected. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and it didn't fit.

    And why does the RSV say, "to your husbands" instead of "to your own husbands"? Idios is in the Greek so why does the RSV leave it out?

    Then there are historical matters about which few of us know much, and even those who do can't say with certainty what those matters mean with regard to these verses. I came across an article titled, "Eusebeia: Roman Imperial Family Values and the Sexual politics of 4 Maccabees and the Pastorals," by Mary R. D'Angelo of the University of Notre Dame, (Biblical Interpretation 11, 2 - sorry, can't provide a link), which suggests that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were written in response to "'family values' campaigns mounted by successive emperors from Augustus and Hadrian." Women were expected to demonstrate, "duty and devotion not only to the divine, but also to those of one's household and family," where, of course, the father was paterfamilias.

    Who knows to what extent rules for female behaviour were governed by considerations as to who would be watching (1 Cor 11:9?) and what might come of that if they were? Not me. What I do know is that I've experienced being treated, under the law, as a chattel. That was in 1972 and it shocked me to my core that I could be regarded as property. The men who explained to me how that affected my circumstances just took it for granted. It wasn't their problem.

    I can't help feeling as though the whole women's rights movements has been, in some fashion, a movement of the Spirit, giving women freedom to believe that they can be free to serve Him as He has called them to serve and to act on that. It makes me think of the way that Brueggemann speaks of God's freedom to do surprising things and His determination to free His people so that through their freedom they will bring Him glory.

  2. How much I have enjoyed the last two posts from Janice on this and the previous evolutionary thread.

    It reminds me Peter, of the conversation I've had with you before, with regard to 'freedom' in Christ being freedom FOR and not freedom from .. which is where it differs from secular feminism.

  3. Thank you, Janice and Rosemary, for both your comments!