“One Meaning Per Verse, Please”: The Failure of Modern Interpretation

As conservative Christians exegetes, we have spent the past century making our own bed, now we are being laid to rest in it. We have taught and advocated a strict grammatical-historical approach that boils Biblical interpretation down to a scientific method. Input a Scripture, run it through the schema–(1) exegete, (2) interpret, (3) apply–and output one specific meaning. Politely, we have insisted: “Only one meaning per verse, please.”

This hermeneutical method became the standard of conservative protestant preaching. A preacher’s objective was to determine the one meaning of any text and to preach that specific meaning. If a preacher saw something quite clearly in the words of a text, the burden of proof lie with him to prove that the original author would have intended that meaning. Otherwise it was off-limits, no matter how obvious it might be.

Besides producing a paralyzing fear of missing the one glaring main point of a text, it also resulted in a whole lot of digging behind the text. There was a great need to determine the psychology of an author and the context of his audience. Only after a heavy investigation of the “behind the text” history could a preacher or interpreter then read the actual words of the Bible correctly.

Conservatives insisted upon the grammatical-historical approach in response to the historical-critical approach–which assumed the Bible was a jumble of poorly stitched together folklore. More recently, they have clung to it to resist the post-modern reader-response hermeneutic.

As I said in the opening, conservatives have made their bed, now we are being laid to rest in it. In the past ten years, several writers and pastors have employed these very methods arguing contra orthodoxy–using a grammatical-historical approach to interpretation.

How can this be, one might ask? Consider Rob Bell’s writings. He is nothing if not grammatical-historical. He does a great job explaining the historical context behind Scripture passages (as he’s sussed it out). He’s also adept at explaining the context that shaped the meaning of key words in Scripture–how they would have sounded to the original audience. Evangelicals have had a difficult time explaining to common Christians why Bell’s interpretative methods are wrong–because he largely does the same thing they do, just with a different end result.

duck-rabbit-amber-aleEven more troubling to evangelicals are writers like Matthew Vines. Many of them also employ a grammatical historical approach. Using the scientific hermeneutical method–(1) exegete, (2) interpret, (3) apply–they input one text and output one specific meaning. The problem is that the one meaning they output does not jibe with orthodoxy or conservative Evangelicals. What results is two camps fighting over which one meaning is actually intended by the author.

For example, in interpreting the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, they will revisit the cultural context and structure of the story, interpret the passage accordingly, and find that the main point is about the devaluing of human life, not the condemnation of homosexuality. They champion this one meaning while most evangelicals cling to their approved orthodox interpretation.

It’s a fools game. We’ve set ourselves up. If every text has only one author-intended meaning, all that anyone has to do is prove that that one meaning is something different. Vines et al win when we insist that every passage has only one meaning. All that anyone must do to unravel orthodoxy is provide and prove one alternative meaning to supplant the commonly accepted meaning. When it’s your one interpretation vs. my one interpretation, everyone loses.

What we must realize is that no passage of Scripture can be boiled down to one meaning. God did not multiply words for simple rhetorical flourish. If a passage could be completely summarized in one sentence, that sentence would be Scripture and not the passage. When we insist that a story has only one meaning, we flatten Scripture, and we limit the Spirit. Here’s a novel thought: why can’t Sodom and Gomorrah be about homosexuality…and about the the devaluing of human life? Could it be that a story has two meanings? Three meanings? Four?

The thing about narrative is that it resists rigid summation. There is a reason 75% of the Bible is in narrative form. Stories are necessarily thick. The way to honor God’s Word is not to insist on a one passage/one meaning approach. It is to celebrate all of the meanings that arise from a careful reading of the actual words of Scripture. We must resist treating interpretation like a scientific method. The Spirit is not quantifiable. He worked in guiding the pens of the authors of Scripture (2 Peter 1:20-21), and he works in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples to guide them to find God’s truth in those words (John 16:13-14).

As we read the words of Scripture, our objective is not to enter the mind of the original audience or the author, but to hear the authors as God speaks to us through them. We must allow the Spirit to fill our hearts and minds. Through the Word he works to incorporate us into that great cloud of witnesses. God is uniting all things to himself through Christ, and he knits together the body of Christ by allowing them to give and receive the Word of God with one another. Our main objective is not to mine a meaning from Scripture but to be drawn into the New Creation where the Spirit is magnifying the Risen Son to the glory of God the Father.

Orthodoxy is not about protecting long held interpretations, but about communing with saints of old. These saints beckon us through the Spirit to hold out hope for the day when faith will become sight and our Savior will return to unite all of his people with all of the heavens and earth forever.

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

5 thoughts on ““One Meaning Per Verse, Please”: The Failure of Modern Interpretation

  1. Hi Chad,

    Thank you for your post. I am a GCC class of 08 grad and was pointed to your blog by another 08 GCC grad. I am a member in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination.

    I agree with your arguments against just one limited meaning of a text or passage. There is much that can be drawn from one text. I remember hearing recently of a Puritan minister who spent approximately 47 sermons on less than one chapter of Colossians! How marvelous is the Word of the Lord – though we mine it our whole lives we will still have only scratched the surface of the riches of Scripture.

    I had two questions while reading that I am hoping you may have time to think about and respond to:

    First, Who is the final authority on the interpretation or interpretations of a text? Vines and Bell seem to come up with a hermeneutic where they interpret based on what the Holy Spirit tells them (subjectivity alert) the text means. No surprise, the holy spirit they speak of tells them things contrary to the truth quite regularly. But who are we to question the holy spirit…so the argument seems to go.

    When I was a student at GCC, I attended a Bible study with about 8 other students. The leader had us all read the same passage out loud and than tell everyone what the passage meant to us. There were eight different ideas. I asked the group this same question: “Who is the final authority on interpretation of the text?

    Second, what do you mean by the first sentence in the last paragraph? “Orthodoxy is not about protecting long held interpretations, but about communing with saints of old.” Perhaps a sub-question, is how do you define “orthodoxy”?

    I appreciate your time Chad and thank you for your thoughts on these topics.


    1. B, thanks so much for your thoughtful engagement. I expect nothing less from a GCC grad! I attended Covenant OPC while at the Grove, so we have more than you think in common! With regards to your two questions, I do think that the Spirit governs the interpretation of Scripture. However, the same spirit dwells in me that has dwelled in every other believer and saint in the history of the church. Far be it from me that I should deny the testimony of the Spirit through my brothers and sisters down through history. This is where orthodoxy comes into play. My closing statement is meant to drive at the fact that what God is forming is a people, not a tract of doctrines. This doesn’t mean there are no tracts of doctrines. However, our objective should be to see how we fit into the cloud of witnesses–learning from brothers and sisters who went before us. This comes about through the infallible Word, which is mediated by saints of old, but it also comes to us through the Spirit’s work to illuminate Christ’s truth in the lives of the saints. I believe the problem with Vines, Bell, etc., besides their minimalistic hermeneutic–is their chronological snobbery. They do not accept the testimony of brothers and sisters from church history whom the Spirit has spoken to for our benefit. Additionally, I simply believe they bend texts so that they contradict other parts of Scripture–in these instances the analogy of faith must obviously come into play (which is hard to do if you don’t read the Bible a ton).

      I would also point out this statement: “[We are] to celebrate all of the meanings that arise from a careful reading of the actual words of Scripture.” One major problem I have with the grammatical-historical approach is that it pays lip-service to the words of Scripture, but spends most of its time looking elsewhere. A careful reader of Scripture reads and reads and reads and reads…*surprise!* the Bible. Believers whose lives are immersed in the Spirit-inspired word surrounded by the local church and the testimony of the Church at large can trust the Spirit’s guidance in interpretation.

      Hope this helps!

      1. Dear Chad,

        I attended Covenant several times while at GCC and know the current pastor fairly well.

        I appreciate the dialogue here. I agree with you that we ought not to ignore our church history. I think we would both agree that we should not take an interpretation as our own purely on the basis of how our forefathers interpreted certain Scripture passages. If we were to take such an approach to interpretation wouldn’t we quickly fall towards Roman Catholicism?

        Rather, than rely on the interpretation of others, we ought to rely on the Scripture itself which interprets itself. The Holy Spirit is of course the supreme judge of all controversies of interpretation and the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Scripture.

        As I write, I think where I am getting to is a clarification question: Should we see where we fit into a great cloud of witnesses? Or, should we rather see how the great cloud of witnesses fits with the Word of God?

        I like how the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes Scripture in WCF Chapter 1 Paragraph 5: “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture…yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”

        Vines and Bell could likely find some liberal theologians or sects in history that interpret Scripture in such a flawed manner as they do. They could make an argument from the teaching of past saints. Rome certainly does this with many of its doctrines. The faith, our faith should never “rest” on the testimony of past Christians but must rest wholly upon God, the author of Scripture itself.

        1JO 5:9 “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.” 1 TH 2:13 “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.”

        So then, what is orthodox? Is it authorized doctrine of the church? Is it communing with the doctrine of past professed Christians? Or, is orthodox the correct doctrine given to us by God in Scripture? I would urge the latter.

        Hopefully this is helpful and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

        Take care,


      2. B,

        I think we are sort of talking past each other. I whole-heartedly agree with what you have said. Certainly, the Spirit-inspired Word of God is the highest authority, the supreme rule of faith. The authority of Scripture was a foregone conclusion in this article, which was more directed at how we interpret Scripture. My closing comments about orthodoxy were more meant to acknowledge that our common beliefs draw us into communion with God the Father and Jesus–and one another (i.e., the saints). Perhaps John would sum it up this way: “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). When I receive John’s testimony, I enter into fellowship with the Father and the Son–and the apostle John(!), who is out there somewhere rejoicing in the presence of the Lord.

        If you are interested in what I believe about the authority of Scripture, here are some places I’ve written more clearly about that:


        Great conversing with you!


  2. Chad, interesting perspective on the debate here (I would argue that folks like Rob Bell don’t do grammatico-historical exegesis well at all, but isogetes later contexts in the Gospel narratives). I’d love to grab a beer with you talk more about it. I’m more of the school of thought that each text does have one meaning, but innumerable summaries and applications.

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