One Interpretation, Many Applications

It has been said that for any given Scripture passage, there is “one interpretation, many applications”. Anyone who’s been educated in proper hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) will recognise the truth stated here.

However, like a great many pithy summary statements, we must be careful that we are not getting the wrong end of the stick.

Let me illustrate with a personal story.

Several years back I was discussing the meaning of a particular Bible passage with someone. I can’t remember which one, but I can remember that I thought the other person’s take on the passage was odd. I said something like “Well, I don’t interpret that passage that way.” That’s when he came out with this wonderful chestnut.

This effectively closed out the discussion. He was basically saying “you are wrong because you disagree with me.”

It may be true that you have it right and that where I disagree with you I’m wrong. But if you’re right and I’m wrong, you ought to be able to show why, not just close the discussion with a misapplied truism.

It rankled at the time, but for the sake of our relationship I let it go, merely asking him where he got that idea.

He pointed to 2 Peter 1:20 and quoted the unfamiliarly-worded King James Bible (I grew up on the NIV), saying that “Scripture is not of any private interpretation”.

I let the matter drop. I was not on familiar ground, and what the NIV said didn’t seem to help much. In the version I was familiar with, it seemed pretty clear that this was talking about not making the Bible say any weird old thing you like. I didn’t think that’s what I had been doing, butwhen you’ve just been told you are wrong simply through disagreeing, you’re never quite sure what the other person’s perspective is going to be. I let the matter drop. It wasn’t a central tenet of the faith, anyway.

But his line of argument niggled at me for years. I always felt there was something wrong with it, but for the life of me I couldn’t identify what.

Then finally I did what I ought to have done much sooner. I did an internet search for “one interpretation, many applications”.

Imagine my surprise to discover that, far from being some weird quasi-heretical notion, it’s actually one of the foundational ideas of sound Bible interpretation.

Properly used, the idea of “one interpretation, many applications” is what prevents cults and doctrinally off-beam groups from “reinterpreting” the Bible in ways that make it say what is contrary to the plain sense of the text. There is only one correct interpretation: that which accords with the writer’s original intent in writing what he did. “One interpretation” may not be used as a bludgeon to bully people into accepting a particular view of a passage based on any one individual’s say-so. Nor may it be used to quash those you disagree with or win arguments simply by declaring yourself right.

Likewise, “many applications” prevents people justifying misbehaviour based on Scriptural omissions. Just because the commandment “Do not covet” does not list cars and houses is not justification for coveting those things. In the same way, just because the command to “love your neighbour” does not specifically mention bosses is no reason to exclude them from the list of people we’re supposed to love and do good to. It’s designed to stop people giving themselves a personal exemption clause on Scriptural commands. It may not be used to allow you to pull in any random Scripture and say it applies to any and all situations. There may be “many applications”, but those applications must be consistent with the interpretation of the text. Pretty obvious, really.

The scary thing is how much of the American church seems prey to this idea that “you are wrong because you disagree with me“. Pick an issue, any issue, and I guarantee you’ll find Christians making dogmatic statements about it and slanging anyone who disagrees with them as either wrong or evil, without taking the time to explain why.

We can no longer afford to assume that the truth is obvious. We aren’t going to move anyone in the direction of faith simply by telling them they need to stop disagreeing with us.

We need to build our case, take time to really engage people where they are, treat them like reasoning and reasonable adults rather than contrary two-year-olds. Two sentences on a Facebook picture may make you feel smug about the superiority of your position, but they don’t actually help bring anyone to your side.

People don’t just suddenly decide to believe something irrational. Apparent irrationality is never irrational to the one who believes it; it always follows logically from something else they hold true.

Actually taking the time to find out why the other person believes x, y or z rather than just saying “I disagree, therefore you are wrong” may reveal more common ground than we thought existed. And even if it doesn’t, at least now we know what the real dividing issue is, and probably have a bit more respect for those we disagree with.

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4 thoughts on “One Interpretation, Many Applications

  1. Is there really only one interpretation of scripture – that of what it meant to its first audience? When you read the prophecy in Isaiah 7, for instance, it was clearly meant to be seen as fulfilled in Isaiah 8… and yet that one verse of Isaiah 7.13, out of context and through Greek mistranslation becomes “A virgin will conceive and bear a son and his name shall be “God with us”” – a prophecy, as Matthew says, fulfilled in Jesus. Again and again I find the (human) author intending to give one message to his immediate audience and God slipping in there another message as well that tells of a deeper, longer lasting truth. Even with Jesus there are two meanings (at least) in his prophecies of the fall of the Temple – not just a warning of the events of 70 CE or of the Crucifixion but both.

    • “One Interpretation, Many Applications” is a principle of hermeneutics which may perhaps be better stated as “you can’t make Scripture say what it doesn’t”. Particularly with prophecy, it’s fairly clear that there may be more than one level of meaning within “one interpretation”, but the idea encapsulated by the saying is more that you can’t put a bizarre “interpretation” onto a verse which contradicts the original meaning. For example, you can’t make Isaiah 7 refer to Alexander the Great. The “multiple fulfilments” idea is one I can argue both ways. I lean toward the idea myself, but I can see where it gives some people problems.
      The point I was more trying to make was that “One interpretation” doesn’t mean what I’d kind of gathered that it did – that once you’d found a meaning for a Biblical text that you could stop looking at it and assume that was all there was to know.

  2. Notice too, Andrew, that what I said was “the original meaning intended by the author”. Within the literary genres of the Bible, prophecy has a much more immediate connection between its human and Divine authors. The idea that God might have the prophet say and write things with more than one layer of meaning, that apply both in the immediate and Messianic senses, is not really the same as looking for hidden meanings in a Bible passage in the genre of history. “One interpretation…” is only one of a number of hermeneutical principles that clarify and inform one another. I focused in on it because of its connection to “you are wrong because you disagree”. Others are respect for genre, interpreting difficult passages in the light of clear ones and interpreting the Old Testament in the light of the New, along with still others. I was half afraid my focus in on the “one interpretation” idea would be a little misleading, and in addition I really didn’t want to go into all the ins and outs right there. I guess you might say prophecy is a bit of a special case. Or that respect for genre helps to determine how you apply “One interpretation”.
    Hope that’s more clear.

  3. Pingback: You Are Wrong Because I Disagree | The Word Forge

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