Does Scripture have many meanings?

Discussion in 'Exegetical Forum' started by AThornquist, Jan 22, 2011.

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  1. AThornquist

    AThornquist Puritan Board Doctor

    Does any given Bible passage have many meanings?

    Some say that each text has one meaning but multiple applications. Others say that texts can mean many things, and that meaning and application aren't so different. Yet others say that texts have multiple meanings because of both a grammatical-historical approach to the text and then a redemptive-historical meaning, etc.

    Can anyone lend me a hand here, please? I think one difficulty is that "meaning" needs to be clearly defined.
  2. louis_jp

    louis_jp Puritan Board Freshman

    Not sure if it would help, but Whitaker discusses the topic starting on p.402 of his Disputations on Holy Scripture." His conclusion: "We affirm that there is but one true, proper, and genuine sense of scripture, arising from the words rightly understood.... When we proceed from the sign to the thing signified, we bring no new sense, but only bring out into light what was before concealed in the sign...." etc.
  3. Phil D.

    Phil D. Puritan Board Sophomore

    WCF 1.9

    The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.​
  4. jogri17

    jogri17 Puritan Board Junior

    one meaning, many implications.
  5. AThornquist

    AThornquist Puritan Board Doctor

    Thanks, all, but let's get deeper. Why is there only one meaning? What defense is there for that statement? Someone else may easily say, "There are many meanings to a text actually." That doesn't prove anything, nor does simply saying the opposite.
  6. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    The question has to do with specific meaning and authorial (or Authorial) intent. As Ames says, "...because that which means many things means nothing." If Scripture is succeptible to pious but fanciful interpretation, then leverage is lost to rebuke a Scripture-twister for forcing a "helpful" meaning to a text of his choice.
  7. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    A virgin shall conceive and bear a son?

    Restoring the fallen tent of David?

    It appears that the OT prophets did not even fully understand the things of which they spoke, and many prophecies seem to have a near and a far application. Not sure if some here would call that one meaning or more, or perhaps the one meaning applied in the near context on a small scale and blown up large on the far scale (one meaning with multiple applications).

    Here is a link which quotes Augustine's defense of multiple meanings, but I don't buy it: St. Augustine: The Principle of Charity, The Gift of Multiple Meanings, and Scriptura ex Scriptura explicanda est | Per Caritatem

    The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics says:

    And then further explains:

  8. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    One of the difficulties with "one meaning" is in fact defining "Bible passage." We could start with an arbitrary unit, such as the sentence. If Sentence 1 has a meaning and Sentence 2 has a meaning, then when I read both, don't I get two separate meanings? Or, to put it the opposite way, if I affirm that a paragraph of four sentences has a single meaning, then does each sentence carry 1/4 meaning? There are limitations to applying a mathematical model to interpretation. It's not really helpful to think of the Bible as composed of discrete sentences that simply add their meanings together mathematically.

    The difficulty is compounded by acknowledging multiple legitimate "perspectives" of interpretation. For example, one may examine Romans 3:23-28 in its context of the argument in the book of Romans. If so, certain features will come to the fore. On the other hand, one may set it parallel to other Pauline passages and compare them. Other features may stand out. One could trace the development of "justification" language throughout the Bible, locating that passage's place in that theme. Perhaps other features would be most prominent in that examination. Which of the three is "the" meaning of the passage? Or, perhaps, do we somehow add all of those together? But, is it really possible to do so? The fact that there is no book entitled An Exegetica-Biblical-Systematic Theology of the Bible suggests that it's not so easy to approach a topic from all angles at once.

    I do believe in the basic premise of "one meaning," especially in its polemical context against Roman quadriga. But, as soon as you say it, you realize you have quite an issue on your hands.
  9. InSlaveryToChrist

    InSlaveryToChrist Puritan Board Junior

    It really depends on how you define 'meaning'. If by 'meaning' you mean what one person tries to communicate to another, then in the Bible, that is, in God's Word, there is only ONE meaning, namely God's glory. The meaning/intention/purpose behind God's Word is that we would behold His glory, which is revealed most fully in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
  10. Eoghan

    Eoghan Puritan Board Junior

    It is tempting to say that you are challenging the WCF and jump all over you.

    I think you are working through some of the issues which led to the WCF 1.9. So keep discussing it and look for the scriptural proofs for WCF 1.9
  11. AThornquist

    AThornquist Puritan Board Doctor

    I'm willing to accept that if I can learn more of the truth, which has been the case so far from the responses to this thread. Thanks, y'all, for your input. It's been very helpful. Please provide more as you think of it.

  12. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Andrew, there are two books I'd recommend, both of which make the point that Protestant hermeneutics have more continuity with late medieval approaches than either side has sometimes been willing to see. These books are difficult to find, but a good inter-library loan department should be able to acquire them.

    From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament interpretation from Augustine to the young Luther / James Samuel Preus

    Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought / Heiko Augustinus Oberman

    One limitation to both these books is that they terminate with Luther, who is not entirely representative of later Protestant hermeneutics. Nevertheless, it's useful to see how the centuries before the Reformation were working through exactly what was meant by these senses and how they relate to each other.
  13. AThornquist

    AThornquist Puritan Board Doctor

    Thank you, brother.
  14. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    I like this blog, but it doesn't tell the whole story about Augustine. He too had concerns about authorial intent, if not as much as we do.

    “Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is certainly not a liar.” (De doctrina Christiana 1.86, CSEL)

    That seems pretty loose, but add to it this statement from a few lines down: “Anyone with an interpretation of the scriptures that differs from that of the writer is misled, but not because the scriptures are lying. If, as I began by saying, he is misled by an idea of the kind that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field. But he must be put right and shown how it is more useful not to leave the path, in case the habit of deviating should force him to go astray or even adrift.” (1.88)

    So, Augustine had his limits as well, and he's concerned with the author's (authors' ?) intent. I can't find the reference right now, but I'm pretty sure he also declared that the literal sense alone is permissible in theological argumentation. Aquinas certainly founds interpretation on the literal sense and sees the others as growing out of it, perhaps not much differently than Protestants with their "one meaning, many applications."
  15. proregno

    proregno Puritan Board Freshman

    A related question: I would appreciate the recommendation of any articles on the specific questions on when a passage is seen only as 'descriptive' and when it is seen as 'prescriptive' ?

    Yes, the easy example is Ex.20 is prescriptive and 2 Sam.11 is descriptive (and thus not normative today).

    More difficult example: Acts 2 is seen as descriptive for a once off event, but Acts 15 is seen as prescriptive for what is is called today a 'synod' ?

    Another example: The Lord going to the synogue on the OT Sabbath day (Luke 4:16) is used by many as a proof text for sabbath observance today, but that passage is descriptive and not prescriptive ?

    In summary: when do we use a descriptive passage also in a normative/prescriptive way, and when do we say, no, that is only descriptive ?

    I will appreciate any sources that discuss this theological/hermeneutical/ethical issues in depth. Thanks
  16. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Acts 2 is an unrepeatable event, almost by definition. It has supernatural characteristics; the people involved had no catalytic involvement in it; it fulfilled specific Scripture. Other similar episodes are progressively less-publicly spectacular. Paul's entire ministry records only one analogous episode, Act.19:6. Once the Spirit is poured out on "all flesh," He's OUT. The bucket is empty.

    Acts 15, on the other hand, follows an "ordinary providence" model of procedure. No miracles are recorded; no supernatural revelations are given; Scripture is sought, the Spirit's aid also; the Apostles are present, but do not take the most significant leadership role, had by James, a sub-apostolic minister. Problems of doctrine and practice continue to beset the church. We have need to return time and again to find a common confession on this and that. So when we have a similar situation, we look back to see whether Scripture ever spoke to something like our own need.

    We don't try to imitate or invoke the miraculous. We operate by God's promise made effective in ordinary operation.

    As a rule, descriptive texts must be handled with care, although it is a fact that we may appeal to "approved example" for a practice. But it may be better used as corroborative to a stronger theological argument. I would not use Lk.4:16 to prove a modern sabbath-day. There are more powerful, theological arguments. You are correct to observe that this text is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Furthermore, Jesus' goes to synagogue on Saturday (not Sunday), so this "example" is open to many lines of criticism.
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