This is probably an apocryphal tale… but, dear reader, bear with me.
All swans are white. So went the conventional wisdom in 18th century France. The great and the good of the scientific community in the giddy rush of enlightenment progress were making observations and pronouncements on all manner of things. And one such announcement was that all swans were white.
Except they weren’t. A black swan was discovered. In Australia. It may have been the solitary black swan in a world of millions of white swans, but its solitary and singular existence made the statement false.
As Einstein reportedly said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
“Truth” is like that. Things are or they are not. There is no “maybe.” You cannot be a vegetarian who eats chicken every now and again. That would not be a vegetarian. That would be someone who tries to be a vegetarian or has vegetarian tendencies. Neither of which actually are a vegetarian.
But this article isn’t really about black swans or vegetarians. It’s about hermeneutics. Or, as my dictionary says, “the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially that of scriptural text.”
In the current existential dispute in the church — the ordination of women — the anti-ordination camp frequently uses a particular hermeneutic to underpin their argument. A hermeneutic that goes “the Bible says X, and I believe the Bible, so let’s do X.” Or, as the old song puts it, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” Let’s call this the “plain reader” approach. God has given us the Bible which contains advice and instructions as to how to conduct life. If an instruction is given in the Bible, then we need to do it. Essentially the simplest reading of the actual words on the page is most likely to be the correct reading.
Unfortunately for the pro-women’s ordination camp, the Bible has a number of fairly clear statements on the subject. “Women should remain silent in the churches… it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Cor 14). “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man, she must be quiet” (1 Tim 2) and, as we all know by now, there are others.
Let’s say that you consider yourself a plain reader. In those quotes above, Paul speaks plainly and you have no choice but to obey. Women have to be quiet in church and not instruct men or tell them what to do. Thus, women cannot be ordained. The discussion is over, the problem is solved. A plain reader hermeneutic has delivered the goods.
But what about those places in the Bible where a plain reading of the text doesn’t deliver the goods? Where, if we were to enact the actions dictated by the words on the page, we would quite possibly end up in jail?
If you claim to be a “plain reading” Adventist then let me ask you the following questions:
When did you last take part in a stoning of an adulterous person?
Do you check your clothing to ensure that you’re not mixing two threads?
If you are male do you shave your beard?
If you are female do you take yourself to a tent in the garden once a month?
Can you really rape a woman and pay her father 50 pieces of silver to make everything alright?
If you claim to be a “plain reader” and you don’t do, or permit, the above, then you are not a plain reader. It’s that simple. And thus, you need to explain why a plain reading of Paul’s words on the role of women is appropriate, whereas a plain reading of Moses’ instructions regarding rape isn’t.
I’m about to celebrate my 60th birthday and I’ve been an Adventist all my life. I’ve never met a “plain reader” Adventist. I’ve met “plain reader” Jews and “plain reader” Muslims, but the current count of practicing “plain reader” Adventists in my life is zero.
Let us return to the singular case of The Black Swan.
All the swans in the world are white. A black swan is found. Thus, all the swans in the world are no longer white. The truth of “all swans are white” tolerates no exceptions.
You are a plain reader and follow all plain biblical instructions. A text is found that, read plainly, you do not follow. Thus, you do not follow all plain biblical instructions. The truth of “I follow all plain biblical instructions” tolerates no exceptions.
The best you can say about your hermeneutic is that you have “plain reading tendencies” or “when in doubt I go for the plain reading.” But, like the vegetarian who eats the chicken, you lose the right to claim the term “vegetarian.” You are practicing a different hermeneutic from the one you assert. And you really do need to be honest with yourself about that. You are not a plain reader; you are something else.
At this point in a typical discussion, dear reader, you’d expect me to go on to propose a “New! Improved!” hermeneutic that allows me to believe whatever it is that I want to believe. And you would then attack that new hermeneutic and miss my point. This article isn’t about inconsistencies in what I think (many and varied though those inconsistencies may be), it’s about inconsistencies in what you think.
Let me leave you with a straightforward accusation!
If you claim to be a plain reader and don’t do, promote, or permit all those baffling things in the Old Testament, then you are telling yourself a lie.
Notes & References:
 I’m ignoring all the arguments about “ordination” being anti-biblical in the first place, or in any nuanced discussion on what it means to be “ordained.” Let’s just accept that ordination is a thing within Adventism and is currently reserved for men and that Paul’s words apply directly to the women’s ordination issue. A plain reading.
Steve Logan, PhD, is an engineering consultant specializing in fluid mechanics software. He is a member of the Crieff Adventist Church in rural Scotland and a trustee of ADRA-UK.
Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash
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