At my seminary, there is a great pressure to come to the one meaning of every passage. This is from a preaching textbook:
applications may vary, but interpretations of a text’s core principles should not.
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 3rd ed. (Baker, 2018), 61.
Yet, as the title reveals, the goal of Bryan Chapell’s interpretation of any passage of Scripture is to get to Jesus Christ. One of my favorite preachers once said,
Leave Christ out? O my brethren, better leave the pulpit out altogether. If a man can preach one sermon without mentioning Christ’s name in it, it ought to be his last, certainly the last that any Christian ought to go to hear him preach.
Amen to that. The problem, however, is that to interpret every passage through the way it points to Jesus will get us in trouble if we try to say that this is the only way of reading the text.
For example, we have Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Which is cited by the Apostle Paul in both 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18 as being about paying an elder a salary for his preaching duty. Paul goes so far in his commentary on this Deuteronomy passage:
“Is it for oxen that God is concerned?10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?”1 Corinthians 9:9-11 (ESV)
Clearly, there are at least two meanings in this passage. It would be ridiculous to say that an Israelite could read this passage and say, “oh I need to give offerings to the Levites but I can ignore the part about my ox eating the grain when it’s plowing.” It means both.
I would say that there are probably at least three meanings here because, in order to preach this about Jesus, you have to do some theological maneuvering beyond the naked meaning in both the Old and New Testament interpretations. NOTE: It doesn’t mean that this passage cannot be about redemption. That’s my argument. The problem is the hardcore Reformed folks are so committed to the idea of this passage is about “one thing, and one thing only” that you have to change the meaning of what “one thing” means in order to make sense. It’s usually definitely more than one.
I can prove this. How can a passage written by one author, in one time, to a specific audience possibly mean more than one thing? Authorial intent is important. If a doctor calls out to her RN coworker for “blood” on a dying patient in an ER Trauma Bay, for goodness sakes, she doesn’t mean anything but a bag of O-Negative blood. The patient’s life depends on the other nurse interpreting the doctor’s request in the one and only way she means it. Isn’t Scripture any different? Yes, it is.
The problem with this approach is there are always two authors to any text of Scripture. There is a human author, whom, most of the time (it seems), is just writing using his own personality to a particular audience without direct dictation from the Spirit. The other author is the Holy Spirit.
A professor at my seminary remarked, “if I get at what the author is saying by parsing the grammar and interpreting him correctly, I get at what God is saying.” It’s true enough as far as it goes. But that’s only the author’s meaning. The Spirit could have a meaning far beyond that. For instance, John Piper helpfully compares Old Testament prophets’ prophecies to looking at a mountain range. If you’re far enough away, the range just looks like one mountain. The Old Testament prophets made predictions, like Joel 2:28-29. That is the famous prophecy which is partially fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2). How do I know it’s only a partial fulfillment? Because right after the promise of an outpouring of the Spirit in Joel 2 is a promise of judgment:
And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lordcomes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.Joel 2:30-32, ESV.
Furthermore, even the prophets didn’t know the meaning of some of the things which would happen. Peter writes,
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.1 Peter 1:10-11, ESV.
So even though there were and are partial fulfillments – even to this day – of prophecies made in the Old Testament, there are multiple meanings.
A lesson to conclude this study is we never want to read meanings into a text. We never want to take Scripture and make it say what we want it to say. That’s blasphemy (Proverbs 30:6). We do, though, have a scriptural warrant to say there is often more than one meaning to any Scripture.