Do All Bible Texts Allow Only One Interpretation But Maybe Many Applications?

JesusTwelveApostlesThis question depends, first of all, on the meaning of the words “interpretation” and “application.” Some Bible scholars define them with distinctly different meanings whereas others allow for some overlap in meaning. Yet other scholars assert there should be no distinction between them.

There has been a recent change in biblical scholarship about this subject. Throughout much of church history, most authorities on the Bible advocated the principle, “one interpretation, many applications.” But almost every book written by scholars recently on biblical hermeneutics advocates merging interpretation and application, thus not distinguishing them. These include books written by such evangelical scholars as Clark Pinnock, Gordon Fee, Grant Osborne (he endorsed my Solving the Samaritan Riddle), Klein-Blomberg-Hubbard, and somewhat Darrell Bock-Craig Blaising. Therefore, scholars nowadays generally insist that there can be different methods of interpreting a certain Bible text.

I think these scholars would say that the large majority of biblical texts were intended to have one interpretation, which usually is literal, and that it may be appropriate to make multiple applications of them. But these scholars also would say there are many biblical texts that can legitimately be interpreted with more than one interpretation, that is, meaning. (Interpretation is also called “exegesis.”) I am convinced this is indeed the case. In what follows, I will cite a few biblical examples and explain them.

Jesus’ Twelve Apostles: Matthew relates, “Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter,” etc. (Matt. 10.1-2; cf. 19.28; 1 Cor 15.5). This text has two different meanings: literal and symbolic. Concerning literal, this actually happened, that Jesus chose exactly twelve men who he would teach and then send out. The noun “apostle” means “(one) sent out.” Of course, Judas later betrayed Jesus, and his apostleship was given to another (Acts 1.15-26). Jesus choosing twelve apostles also has a symbolic meaning. That is, the twelve apostles symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in choosing these twelve men, Jesus indicated his aim was to spiritually restore the twelve tribes of Israel, that is, the Jewish people as a nation. However, E. P. Sanders–who is recognized along with Jewish scholar Geza Vermes for launching the so-called Third Quest of the Historical Jesus–in his much heralded book, Jesus and Judaism (1985, pp. 98-106), asserts twelve apostles is not literal, but only symbolical. Most scholars agree that it is both.

Jesus’ Institution of Communion: Jesus really did institute communion with his disciples when they ate the Last Supper. I believe it was the Passover meal. The Jews’ Feast of Passover symbolized two things. First, it looked back in history to the Hebrews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, when the Angel of Death “passed over” (thus Passover) their houses without bringing death to their firstborn since each family slaughtered a lamb and swiped its blood on the two doorposts and lintel (Exodus 12) of their homes. Second, from the Christian perspective, Passover looked forward as a symbol of Jesus’ death on the cross as God’s sacrificial offering for our sins.

So, Jesus’ institution of communion has both a literal meaning and at least two symbolical meanings. But does it also have another meaning? For, Jesus also said as he instituted the cup of wine in that eucharist, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14.24-25; cf. Matt. 26.28-29). Only Luke adds, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22.19). Here, Jesus refers to his second coming and subsequent banqueting in the consummated kingdom of God on earth (e.g., Matt. 8.11-12). The Apostle Paul further explains that in taking communion, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11.26).

Typological Interpretation: Just as a Bible text can have a literal and a symbolical meaning, it can also have a literal and a typological meaning. In the past, some scholars did not distinguish between symbol and type, but that is hardly the case nowadays.

Types are peculiar to the Judeo-Christian faith. I wrote an entire book about certain types in the Bible. The book is entitled The Third Day Bible Code (2006). It is about the many third-day motifs in the Bible, which I deem types. They are historical events, thus they literally happened, and they point to Jesus’ future resurrection from the dead on the third day.

For example, Jesus cited one such type–Jonah in the belly of a big fish “three days and three nights” (Matt. 12.40; cf. Jonah 1.17). Jesus called it “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (v. 39). It prefigured Jesus’ impending death and his resurrection on the third day. (“Three days” and “three days and three nights” can be Semitic idioms indicating “third day,” thus regarding part of a day as a “day.”) Other third-day types in the Bible include Genesis 22.4; Exodus 19.11; Joshua 1.11; Esther 5.1; Hosea 6.2; Luke 2.46.

Another example of Jesus interpreting a Bible text typologically regards the incident in the wilderness when the Hebrews’ complained against God (Numbers 21.4-5). “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents [snakes] among the people; and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (v. 6). The people repented, and Moses prayed. Then “the LORD said to Moses,’Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (vv. 8-9).

Jesus used this snake-on-a-pole image to explain the new birth to Nicodemus (John 3.1-13). He said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” v. 14). Jesus often identified himself as “the Son of Man.” And him being “lifted up” refers to his death on the cross. So, Jesus therein interpreted that Moses experience as a type.

One biblical example actually states that it is “a type.” The Apostle Paul writes about “Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come,” referring to Jesus (Romans 5.14). Paul elsewhere writes, “Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being;’ the last Adam became a life-giving spirit,” which refers to Jesus’ resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.45; cf. Genesis 2.7).

In my Third Day book I explain (p. 34), “a type is a person, historical event, or institution that represents, symbolizes, or prefigures something else, often of like nature, that usually happens in the future, called an antitype. So, a type is often regarded as a symbol, emblem, token, or sign.” While a type can be a symbol, it often has a wider meaning than that. All types refer to literal, historical events. They are like prophecies in that they graphically foreshadow, or forecast, something in the future.

Allegorical Interpretation: Some biblical texts have both a literal and an allegorical interpretation. Philo of Alexandria–a Jewish scholar and contemporary of Jesus–often interpreted the Jewish Bible allegorically by merging its teachings with Platonic philosophy. He also claimed the rabbinical schools in Israel did likewise. Before that, Greek philosophers had coined the word allegoreo, from which we derive our word “allegory,” by joining the Greek words alla, meaning “other,” and argoreuo, meaning “to proclaim.” So, allegoreo means to proclaim another meaning.

Church fathers interpreted many historical events recorded in the Bible allegorically by viewing a hidden, spiritual, and perhaps mystical, meaning in them that often depicted a moral lesson. Third century church fathers St. Clement of Alexandria and his disciple Origen used this hermeneutic to excess. That is, they so emphasized the allegorical interpretation that they deemphasized its literalness. Their school of Alexandria, Egypt, was known for its emphasis on the allegorical interpretation of the Bible, and the school of Antioch, Syria, was known in the fourth and fifth centuries for its reaction to the allegorical interpretation by its emphasis on the literal interpretation of the Bible.

A prominent example of a Bible text that clearly has both a literal and an allegorical interpretation is the only Bible text that has the world “allegory” in it. Paul writes, “it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman” (Galatians 4.22). Paul refers to actual history recorded in Genesis 15 and 21. These texts tell of Hagar, the slave woman, bearing Ishmael and Sarah, Abraham’s wife, bearing Isaac. Then Paul explains, “One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother…. So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman” (vv. 23-26, 31). Thus, Paul means these things literally happened, that they are historical events, yet they have a hidden meaning. Rather than being types that forecast the future, they possess a hidden, spiritual meaning. Some biblical texts might overlap with a typological and allegorical interpretation, but usually they don’t.

Evangelical Scholars Who Insist a Scripture Can Have Multiple Meanings: Open Theist leader Clark Pinnock claimed some Bible texts have multiple meanings. He insisted this was especially true of Bible prophecy. A similar question arises at to whether or not a biblical prophecy can refer to more than one future event, which some scholars regard as two different meanings, and I think it can.

In contrast, Robert L. Thomas advocates the age-old method of interpretation often described as, “one meaning, many applications.” He calls it “traditional hermeneutics.” Yet he observes in his article, “The Principle of Single Meaning” (The Masters Seminary Journal 12/1 [Spring 2001] 33-47), “Almost every recent work on hermeneutics advocates merging the two disciplines of interpretation and application which were formerly kept quite distinct. With that policy advocated, the transformation of some of the many applications into multiple interpretations is inescapable” (p. 39). More specifically, Thomas (p. 47) tells about contemporary “Roman Catholic scholars advocating multiple meanings for the same passage.”

So, this is where modern biblical scholarship has been going recently–moving from traditional hermeneutics to recognizing that some Bible texts have a double meaning or more. As a non-professional, but a somewhat scholarly layman, I think that is biblical.

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