How Many Meanings Can a Biblical Text Have?


How many meanings can a biblical text have? Here is a good question—and a pertinent one. In Sunday school classes from coast to coast, in small group Bible studies, in house groups and house churches, this principle question is tested week after week.

Text hermeneutics single meaningIs it not quite common for a group of believers to sit around and say in turn, “To me, this text means…?” Some house churches even pride themselves on an equal meaning principle which says that no one is to be viewed as an authoritative preacher or teacher. All share equally in interpretations. But there are good reasons such careless language needs to be clarified and avoided.

A biblical text can have only one meaning, except in the rare cases in which the author uses double entendre (an intentional double meaning).[1],[2] If a text is able to mean different things to different people, then, ultimately, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Here is the correction that is needed: Texts mean what the author intended them to mean.

So meaning is bound by authorial intent. Such a bound meaning means that our work is to dig through the author’s writings to determine how he uses words and phrases, thus discovering what he intended to say when he put ink to parchment. This differs from common practice in three ways.

First, it obviously differs from the practice of “Reader Response,” in which the reader gets to decide the meaning for him(or her)self. Second, it differs from locating the meaning in the text itself, as though the text has a life of its own, morphing and changing from generation to generation. Third, it differs from many forms of “theological” interpretation which often include allegorical interpretations. What I have in mind here is laying some “higher” meaning over the text, saying things like, “We believe in the Scriptures as interpreted by Jesus.” The end result of this thinking is to free us (as Christ’s representatives) to believe—or not believe—whatever we wish from the Scriptures, justifying our belief by saying “What Jesus really meant was….”

The real work of a preacher or teacher begins with digging into the Scriptures to determine what the author meant for the reader to understand when he wrote the text. Obviously, a myriad of mitigating circumstances can make this task quite difficult. Our culture is not like David’s culture from 3,000 years ago. Our languages are different, too; and language differences always cause problems. Yet, there is a meaning the author willed, and that meaning is our original exegetical task.

At this point, we need some clarification. Usually, when our Christian brothers and sisters sit in a circle saying “to me, this text means,” they are not actually speaking of the meaning of the text; rather, they are speaking of their understanding of the text. So, technically, they might say, “My understanding of this text is….” Of course, our understanding could be wrong. We might misunderstand. The meaning itself is unaffected by our error. It is our understanding which must be corrected.

Another helpful clarification is that a text may have many applications, even if it has only one meaning. Take, for example, Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:18:

“And do not get drunk with win, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”

What is the clear meaning? Be wise. Don’t drink yourself to drunkenness. Rather, seek to fill yourself with God’s Spirit for Bible hermeneutics interpretation single meaningthe good of God’s people. (See vv. 15-21 for the reason that I added wisdom and fellowship to my interpretation of v. 18).

Ephesians 5:18 has a single meaning. My interpretation above represents my attempt to put into words Paul’s meaning. Like my understanding, my interpretation could also be wrong. Still, Paul’s meaning stands. Assuming that I am right about my interpretation, I can then move to an application from this text. The point of the verse is to practice wisdom, being filled with the Spirit for the good of others, while avoiding drunkenness. So, I could apply this to my own life and say that I will not get drunk on any alcoholic beverage (beer, bourbon, or wine). Others might realize that for them this would apply to their need of avoiding marijuana or narcotics. Paul’s meaning stands, even while the application to our lives differs.

These clarifications may seem like a nit-picking of words. But there is an enormous cost to saying that a text has many different meanings. If a text can mean different things to different people, then who can say that the cult leader David Koresh was not the Lamb of Revelation 5?  Koresh believed that Revelation 5 spoke of him and his ability to open the scrolls (see here).  Hmmm… I think he was wrong—fatally wrong—and guilty of distorting the Scriptures to his own destruction (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). There is a right way to interpret Scripture and a wrong way.  And the right way is to begin with the author’s intended meaning.

Let’s be helpful to our brothers and sisters in our small groups and Bible studies. Let’s encourage each other to share interpretations of the Scripture together and to tell how the Holy Spirit is leading us to apply those Scriptures in our own lives, but let us all agree that God led these authors to write certain things with single meaning and purpose. Our work is to pursue that meaning and purpose and obey it joyfully, while honoring our pastors and teachers who pay extra close attention to such things.


Definitions Needed for Persecuted Christians in Nigeria

Why Definitions Matter

[1] See for instance John 2:19-22, in which Jesus speaks of the temple of his body, but the disciples obviously understand the temple to be in Jerusalem—but realize the full meaning of Christ’s teaching after his resurrection.

[2] The principle of single meaning was affirmed in Article VII by the 1982 International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.

From Conversation to Revelation


Deutsch: Apokalypse aus Lutherbibelexemplar in...

Deutsch: Apokalypse aus Lutherbibelexemplar in Schweden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Several years ago, when I was first contemplating a Ph.D., I did what most judicious students would do. I visited different seminaries and universities and thought through all my options. On one of my visits, I ran across an older, seasoned sage of academic endeavors. Our conversation turned out to be most refreshing.

 

The school I was visiting was not known for its biblical and theological acumen. Rather, it was well known for its program in Christian leadership. This professor, however, had a remarkable thirst for Scripture. He told me of his habit of choosing a book of the Bible and reading that book every day for a month. If one were to pick Jude, Philemon, or Habakkuk, that would be an easy task. But this professor was picking “real” books like Luke, John, and Revelation. It was, in fact, to Revelation that our conversation turned.

 

He had just finished reading the book of Revelation 30 times (day after day for a month). I asked him if he had figured it out. Surprisingly, he said, “Yes! The entire book opened up for me when I realized this was written to and for persecuted Christians in the first century.” Realizing the context of the book (first century) and the focus of the book (perseverance through suffering persecution) changed everything for this professor.

 

His testimony leaves us with a couple of helpful principles pertaining to Revelation in particular and to all of Scripture more generally.  First, context is significant. It is important to know as much about the original author and the original audience as possible. This information is gathered primarily from the text itself. John says in Rev 1:1 that he received a vision from Christ, and he was sharing it with the bond-servants of Christ so they would know what to expect in the near future.

 

John wrote the book to communicate to living Christians what God had shown him. Reading the book of Revelation with the idea that it is supposed to encourage Christians who are suffering persecution leads to strong words of encouragement for any suffering Christian. It also eliminates the need of deciphering cryptic codes to divine a road map for end times apocalyptic events. Jesus already told us no one knows the day or the hour. Revelation is not about that as much as it is about strengthening suffering saints. Knowing the context from the text makes the meaning of the text more clear.

 

A second principle easily deduced from this doctor’s discovery is that persecution is a significant theme in the New Testament. In fact, every writer (with the possible exception of Jude) touches on the subject. Almost every New Testament book contains instructions for believers about why they will suffer persecution and how they can respond well to it. Reading the New Testament on its own terms and using its own language and its own expectations—rather than injecting into it our 21st Century expectations and formulating truncated doctrines to support our conclusions—is really a refreshing way to explore God’s Word.

 

I am thankful for the simple, yet profound, conversation I was able to have with this aging academic. He was pious and genuine in his zeal and sound in his approach to the Bible and his consequent interpretation of it. These are but two of the helpful implications of that one conversation. Consider speaking to others about your Bible reading (and theirs) and see if similarly profound results do not occur.