Hermeneutics and Single Meaning

What does the text mean?

In a recent post entitled Hermeneutics Matters I made a statement: “It [the context was a biblical passage] cannot mean what it never meant.” Future generations cannot reinterpret and give the ancient text a contemporary meaning.

That is a strong statement to make and one that is not nearly as popular as it was even 25 years ago. In the early days of hermeneutical textbooks (books written by men such as Milton Terry and Bernard Ramm), the principle of single meaning was rarely debated.

Today, I am introducing at least a two-part blog that is not directly related to Dispensationalism, a topic that I love to discuss! My goals are simple for these next two blogs.

In this post, my goal is to provide a defense and a rationale for why I believe this principle of hermeneutics should be maintained.

In the next post (slightly delayed because of two posts celebrating the Resurrection), my goal is to wrestle with how the NT writers quote the OT passages.

Would Matthew, if he were here today, adhere to this principle of single meaning? Would Paul? To put it another way – did the OT audience really understand the revelation given to them?

So, Part 1 is the foundation – the rationale. Part 2 is the practical application. Does the theory work in practice. Let’s dig in!

A Starting Definition

The single meaning is that which is derived from a consistent use of the historical-grammatical approach to a text. It is determined to keep a passage in its context, seeking to understand what did the writer mean and what did the audience understand.

In short, a single meaning principle states that a passage cannot change meaning over-time. Future audiences cannot jettison the past interpretation. The meaning is static; not dynamic.

Three Reasons for this Principle

Milton Terry, in his classic Biblical Hermeneutics, stated “A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one signification in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.”

William Ames, in The Marrow of Theology, agreed: …there is only one meaning for every place in Scripture. Otherwise the meaning of Scripture would not only be unclear and uncertain, but there would be no meaning at all – for anything which does not mean one thing surely means nothing.

Strong statements…But why did early generations contend for this principle?

We desire to hear the text speak

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Not this kind of text!

First and foremost, we are giving priority to the inspired penman delivering God’s message in that historical context. This type of hermeneutic is important for biblical theology.

We want to know: Has God spoken and did His words have any objective meaning? We want the text – and not the commentator – to speak!

Biblical theology, in contrast to systematic theology, takes into account progressive revelation. It sees the parts where systematic theology sees the whole. This basic distinction is part of our process of interpreting the Bible.

Biblical theology looks at primarily two thoughts. 1) How much revelation did the audience have at their disposal, and 2) What else did this same writer say on the same or similar topics?

The single-meaning principle, resting solidly upon the historical-grammatical approach, seeks to understand what the writer / speaker was saying and how his audience would have understood it.

While we advocate for a single meaning as we listen to the text speak, we do not limit the applicational principles derived from a text.

We desire objectivity

If meaning can change, there is a danger in which we can be drawn into subjectivity. We may begin asking the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” rather than “What does this passage mean?”

In medieval theology, Scripture had a four-fold sense for most of the commentators: a Literal sense, an Allegorical sense, a Moral sense, and an Anagogical sense.

Reading the “exposition” of Scripture from some of these sincere Christians makes the dangers of this approach readily apparent.

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Interesting enough, in Pentecost’s classic book, Things to Come, before he ever speaks about last things and future events – he writes for nearly 100 pages or so on the proper hermeneutical method.

If Scripture can have multiple meanings for whomever and whatever generation, then objective, declarative “Thus saith the LORD” preaching is compromised. In short, if Scripture can mean anything, it really means nothing.

We desire a community interpretation

No Scripture is of any private interpretation. When it comes to finding the meaning, the interpretation, it is not privately held by any denomination, church, group, or person.

From this reality, a principle is derived: God wants His people to be able to

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An old country church

understand His Word. A corollary of that would be: Thus, He has provided His Word in a way that His people will understand it.

Cooper’s Golden Rule is applicable here: If the plain sense makes common sense, seek no other sense (for it will just be nonsense). This principle of a single meaning attempts to understand a passage in its historical setting.


OK – these reasons may not convince everyone! And, to be fair, sometimes the NT writers’ use of the OT would call this principle into question. For now, we at least have some practical reasons to reconsider allowing a text to have a dynamic meaning.

Even readers who may not be sold on the idea of a single meaning for each text perhaps would agree that at least generally speaking, this principle is true. But in cases of prophetic fulfillment and apostolic hermeneutics – perhaps single meaning is insufficient?

Stay tuned for Part 2 as we wrestle with the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament.

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