How many meanings are there in a Biblical Text?

As a general rule, every statement in a piece of literature can be understood in only one way. Author Milton Terry once wrote, “A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection.” This was included in his book Biblical Hermeneutics. If we ignore this rule, we will soon be lost in a sea of speculation and unpredictability.

Whether it’s the Bible, a Supreme Court decision, or a letter from a friend to a colleague, the meaning of any given text is the meaning the author intended. However, it’s up to the reader to make sense of the text. Correct interpretation occurs only when the interpreter establishes a connection between his interpretation and the author’s intended meaning.

Confusion over the number of possible interpretations of a text arises in part from a failure to distinguish between meaning, interpretation, and significance. Perhaps you have participated in a Bible study where the facilitator had everyone read a verse from the passage under discussion and share their thoughts on it. That’s the wrong way to look at it. One cannot know the full significance of a passage until they learn what the author intended.

First, we must decipher the author’s intended meaning based on the words he used and the circumstances in which he wrote them. No one has the right to reinterpret the work of a creative genius. Once we understand what the passage means, we move on to consider how it applies to our individual circumstances. These inquiries concern the ramifications of the author’s intended meaning. In order to be accurate and faithful in our interpretation of God’s Word, we must avoid putting the cart before the horse, which means considering possible implications or applications before determining the actual meaning. The term “application” doesn’t seem to apply. We mean by this the application of the text’s meaning to a real-world scenario where that meaning would make sense. In light of this, it is imperative that the interpretation adhere strictly to the author’s intended meaning in the source text.

Categories: Theology

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