Can there be more than one correct meaning of any biblical text?

In the course of theological discussions we often encounter the subjectivism in biblical interpretation. Many times after discussing a passage, you may have heard people saying, “Well, that’s your opinion.” What could such a remark mean? It is possible that what most people mean: “That’s your interpretation, and that’s fine for you. I don’t agree with it, but my interpretation is equally valid. Though our interpretations are contrary and contradictory, they can both be true. Whatever you like is true for you, and whatever I like is true for me.” This is subjectivism. Subjectivism takes place when we distort the objective meaning of terms to suit our own interests.

There is only one correct meaning of any biblical text, but there may be a multitude of personal applications. Truth is not contradictory. The Truth of God cannot go against it. Truth refers to objective truth and not the subjective truth.

A single passage has one meaning and one meaning only has been a long-established principle of biblical interpretation. Among evangelicals, recent violations of that principle have multiplied. The single-meaning principle is of foundational importance in understanding God’s communication with mankind, just as it has been since the creation of the human race. The entrance of sin in Genesis 3 brought a confusion in this area that has continued ever since. – Dr. R. L. Thomas

There are two technical terms in biblical studies:

  1. Exegesis – Reading out of the text: seeking to understand what it actually tells us in its context
  2. Eisegesis – Reading into the text: reading into text something that isn’t there at all. Or drawing out from the text something that’s not there.

Exegesis is an objective enterprise. Eisegesis involves an exercise in subjectivism. All of us have to struggle with the problem of subjectivism. The Bible often says things we do not want to hear. We can put earmuffs on our ears and blinders on our eyes. It is much easier and far less painful to criticize the Bible than to allow the Bible to criticize us.

Subjectivism not only produces error and distortion, but it breeds arrogance as well. To believe what I believe simply because I believe it or to argue that my opinion is true simply because it is my opinion is the epitome of arrogance. If my views cannot stand the test of objective analysis and verification, humility demands that I abandon them. But the subjectivist has the arrogance to maintain his or her position with no objective support or corroboration. To say to someone “If you like to believe what you want to believe, that’s fine; I’ll believe what I want to believe” only sounds humble on the surface.

Sure, I can study the Bible on my own and I can interpret it on my own and it is theoretically possible that I can understand it in a way that everyone else in the church has missed for two thousand years. But, that is very unlikely. That’s why it is wise to consult the interpretation of the church, consult the best commentaries, and consult the other great minds and scholars in history. We should be humble enough to seek the truth.

Private views must be evaluated in light of outside evidence and opinion because we bring excess baggage to the Bible. No one on the face of this earth has a perfectly pure understanding of Scripture. We all hold some views and entertain some ideas that are not of God. Perhaps if we knew precisely which of our views were contrary to God, we would abandon them. But sorting them out is very difficult. Thus our views need the sounding boards and honing steel of other people’s research and expertise.

Additional Reading:
Dr. R. C. Sproul – Knowing Scripture
Robert L. Thomas, Professor of New Testament, Master’s Seminary – The Principle of Single Meaning