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Perspicuity and single meaning of scripture9 min read

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From my hermeneutics class:

Q: How is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture related to the Hermeneutic principle of single meaning?

My Answer: The principle of single meaning simplifies the task of the biblical interpreter by narrowing possible interpretations to one, and in so doing, lends itself towards agreement on the public understanding of the objective meaning of scripture.  This, in turn, means that we can more clearly proclaim with assurance the perspicuity of scripture.  However, single meaning is not a prerequisite for perspicuity, and perspicuity can be declared, though perhaps with less assurance, even if we do not hold to single meaning.

1. Single meaning simplifies the task of biblical interpretation and in so doing, lends itself towards agreement on the public understanding of the objective meaning of scripture.

When we declare that scripture has a single meaning, we instantly negate the possibility that multiple, subjective interpretations are possible, and we demand that a single, objective meaning exists.

2. This, in turn, means that we can more clearly proclaim with assurance the perspicuity of scripture.

We also further affirm that, by applying the principles of hermeneutics, including the principle of illumination, we should be able to arrive at a public agreement on the meaning of the most central passages and doctrines of the scriptures.

In a practical sense, once we open the door to multiple meanings, we
suddenly introduce perhaps an infinite number of other possibilities,
and we would then have to create rules for prioritizing and limiting
what those interpretations are.  In principle, this is possible, but in
practice, it becomes nearly impossible to limit the plethora of
possible interpretations.  In so doing, we lose the idea of perspicuity
almost entirely.

3. Question:  What scenarios might require or allow scripture to have more than one sense, or more than one meaning?

In affirming single meaning, we may appear to be unnecessarily limiting scripture.  The following scenarios may be allowed, and in fact, perhaps MUST be allowed if we are to fully and properly understand scripture.

(NOTE:  I have not fully researched these yet, but they may have validity, and may lead to either a more robust and nuanced definition of single meaning, one that includes understanding literary types that require dual or prioritized meaning.)

a. OT messianic passages

On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), after his resurrection, Jesus “expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” – that is, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets,” Jesus explained to them how the OT predicted his coming and the events of His life.

We must ask the question, did passages like Psalm 45:6-7 have any meaning to the author or in the author’s day, or were they merely prophetic (as single meaning would demand), with a future meaning only really known by God?

Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.

As another example, when Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 (Matthew 2:15), is he denying that this passage originally refers to Moses coming out of Egypt, not merely the Messiah?  Does this passage not have an original historical meaning AND a messianic one?

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son.

Singular meaning must address such texts, by making exception for them, or be considered invalid as a global hermeneutic.


We may convincingly argue that such passages ONLY had a future messianic meaning, and that the meaning may have been veiled for a period of time, perhaps even veiled to the human author.  Or, we may say that the author had one purpose, but the Holy Spirit had another, but ONLY as it relates to foreshadowing the Messiah.

A more thorough examination of messianic passages, including the foreshadowing role of the ceremonial and dietary laws, needs to be performed and explained by the single-meaning hermeneutic.  At the very least, we will produce a more robust, delineated, and exact view of single meaning, if we do not end up rejecting it because we feel it does not reflect the nature of all scripture.

We can suggest a limiting principle here, which can allow for such multiple meanings without opening up the drawbridge to total subjectivity. We can limit our re-interpretation of the Old Testament by only proclaiming it’s NT significance as clearly defined by NT writers – that is, if the NT writer quotes the OT and re-interprets it, perhaps revealing the Holy Spirit’s meaning for that passage, that we can proclaim.

But any speculating on other possible messianic passages, if they have obvious historical OT meaning, is probably risky. However, such meanings may actually exist – everything that Jesus related on the road to Emmaus about Himself in the OT is not recorded, but is still there.

b. Reading meaning into OT passages from the NT

One of the most interesting of these passages is Peter’s use of Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 to justify choosing a new 12th Apostle after the death of Judas (Acts 1:20):

For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’;


“‘Let another take his office.’


Was Peter abusing scripture here?  Was he merely applying scripture (since sole meaning allows for one meaning but many applications), or are we really playing semantics here, when Peter may actually be saying that these Psalms predicted Judas’ betrayal (Acts 1:16)?  I am undecided, but I do not think that this can be easily explained away as an application (of which there can be many) rather than an interpretation (of which singular meaning requires only one). 

4. Some final thoughts on limiting meaning if we allow for more than single meaning

Klein et al., who don’t take a firm stand on single meaning, but do a decent job at explaining the possible variants, express a sentiment that captures well the approach that anyone who wants to go beyond a strict single-meaning approach:

Apart from clear clues in the context or the genre employed, we must expect that authors intend single meanings. (Klein at al. p 176).

In other words, if it is not obvious and clear that there is more than one meaning to a passage, we should default to the single, grammatico-historical meaning, lest we get ourselves into dangerous, if not fruitless debates.

5. Single meaning is not a prerequisite for perspicuity, and perspicuity can be declared, though perhaps with less assurance, even if we do not hold to single meaning.

While single meaning certainly nails the door shut on more complex arguments about the meaning of passages, it does not eliminate wrangling over the meaning of passages – indeed, our falleness and incomplte sanctification almost ensure that we will have such disputes, esp. over less central doctrines and passages.

But opening the door to multiple meanings can be done with some meaningful (pun intended) limits on what that entails – such as limiting dual meaning to obvious cases, i.e. messianic passages, and clear re-applications or re-approriations of OT scripture by NT writers.  With such clarifications, we may even proclaim that single-meaning is still a valid and true hermeneutic.

While some might argue that this is tantamount to opening pandora’s box, and can not keep subjective opinions out, I find that such objetions to be merely slippery slope arguments that take the place of being willing to do the intellectual work required in order to prevent such a slide, while allowing for the obvious cases of double, multiple, or fuller meaning that may be in many scriptural passages.

If we have such meaningful and objective rules and limits for interpretation, we can still proclaim that the intent and meaning of the passages is knowable (perspicuity) even if there is (perhaps rarely) more than one.  While the possibility of multiple meanings does make arriving at agreement more difficult and complex, it does not make it impossible, because we still have principles that LIMIT the meaning, but not limiting it narrowly to one.

As Klein et al. observe:

Interpreters who remain committed to the Bible as divine revelation may allow only a limited range of possibilities for interpretation.  The sky is not the limit for possible meanings, and here we must set ourselves clearly apart from [those who insist upon unlimited meanings]. (p. 193)