When I started this blog, one of my very early posts was on the subject “One Interpretation, Many Applications“. I’ve modified my perspective quite a lot since then (or rather, decided that my initial read on the subject was correct after all), and as I’ve been having some discussions with my wife in which the subject came up, I thought I might revisit it.
Some of what I have to say is going to rehash that earlier post, but I’d like to do it anyway because the conclusions are different.
Some time in the past I was having a disagreement with a fellow-believer in which he (naturally) turned to Scripture to support his position. I still forget what the issue was; it’s irrelevant. This is about process.
I said that I didn’t interpret that Bible passage in that way. In my world, this is a fair comment. We can’t always be as sure as we’d like to be of precisely what the Bible means in particular controversial passages; that, after all, is why they are controversial to begin with. Different commentators have different opinions, and that’s ok.
To my surprise, he responded in a way that I found shockingly alien. He said, as if it were an established and incontrovertible truth, that “there’s only one interpretation of Scripture”. Later discussions with him revealed this to be the first half of what in his head is a paired couplet: “there’s one interpretation, but many applications”.
Note that the effect of this is to shut down discussion. There’s no give-and-take here; no debate over historical context and how we can be reasonably certain that we’re reading the author’s probable meaning correctly. No; in essence this was you are wrong because you disagree with me.
I was unprepared for this line of attack and it flummoxed me into giving up the argument. But I fretted over it for years. I got to know him well enough to know that he’s as honest as they come. If he says something, usually you can take it to the bank. In addition, he’s had at least part of a seminary education and been a follower of Jesus for longer than I’ve been alive. He ought to know what he’s talking about, right?
But it didn’t sit well with me. For a start, I didn’t think his way of shutting down the discussion was a valid or helpful way of arguing a point, and in addition the idea itself just seemed wrong.
So some time last spring I actually looked up the phrase “one interpretation, many applications” to see what some more knowledgeable commentators online had to say about it.
Imagine my surprise when I found almost without exception that those who mentioned the phrase defended it to a man as a principle of sound Bible interpretation.
This was basically where I had got to when I posted last time. But then I began to think some more.
Wait a minute. I may not have a seminary education, but I’ve been around theology and Bible study long enough that I’m not exactly Mr. Ignorance here. If it’s such a big, important hermeneutical principle, how come I’d never heard of it until this person trotted it out as his personal Ultimate Debating Weapon?
As far as I can tell from reading around online, the main thrust of “one interpretation, many applications” is that it is not permissible to interpret Scripture however the heck you like. The words in the original languages may have several distinct, overlapping meanings, but it’s usually fairly straightforward to tell which meaning is correct in the sentence. It’s like the English sentence “he polished off his Polish sausage”. In addition, there is a real historical context which affects the meaning of the text, and you can get yourself into trouble it you don’t pay attention to the difference between First Century Jewish culture and Twenty-First Century America. As a silly example, when Jesus tells the disciples “you are my friends” it has nothing to do with Facebook.
Every cult or sect in existence that actually uses the Bible at all almost invariably uses strange, unorthodox interpretations of key passages to bolster their doctrine. This is what “one interpretation, many applications” addresses.
I get this, and up to a point I agree.
But I’ve decided that, just as I originally thought after I first ran into the phrase, there is a substantive difference between “you can’t make the Bible say something it doesn’t” and there only ever being one single permissible interpretation of a given passage.
As my brother-in-law rightly challenged me, what about prophecy? More to the point, what about the interpretations that the Apostles made of key Old Testament passages that they saw as being fulfilled in the life of Christ?
If there is only one interpretation of “the virgin shall be with child”, then according to standard usage of “one interpretation”, it ought to be referring to a child born in Isaiah’s day, in whose infancy the land of the two kings dreaded by Judah (ie Aram and the northern apostate kingdom of Israel) would be laid waste by the Assyrians.
And yet the Apostles clearly interpreted the passage as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. Evidently there is more to it than just “there’s only one interpretation”.
Certainly there are unorthodox doctrines that you can only get to by twisting of the meaning of the Scriptures. There is such a thing as a poor hermeneutical system, such a thing as a deviant interpretation. If the consensus among respected Bible scholars is that this verse probably means X, it takes a courageous (in the British political sense of “suicidally stupid”) person to insist that it means Q. There are reasons why it probably means X, and those same reasons also mean that it categorically cannot mean Q unless we remove or radically re-interpret passages 1-12 of Scripture.
If your interpretation of a passage relies on secondary meanings of a word that are at odds with its plain meaning, or pays no attention to the historic cultural context, you probably have the wrong end of the stick, and we can show you why.
And here is the crux of my problem with “one interpretation”. There’s no reasoning beyond this point. No “the cultural context being like this doesn’t really lend weight to that interpretation”, just, as I said, you are wrong because you disagree with me. At best, “one interpretation” seems overly simplistic, or perhaps reliant on very narrow technical definitions of what constitutes an “application” as opposed to an “interpretation”. At worst it becomes a way to say “you are wrong” without backing up your claim with anything substantial.
Perhaps my response should have been something along the lines of “Ok, but how do you know that yours is the “one interpretation” that is valid?”