We started a church in Madrid called Oasis some years ago. In 2006, we completed a document that formed the basis of the church. Among other things, this document aimed to give those interested in joining the church a sense of "who we are" and a good idea of the convictions that make Oasis unique.
One of the themes presented in the document dealt with convictions about the Bible and our view of the authority of the Scriptures. Part of that statement reads like so:
"...the Scriptures possess a depth characterized by God’s infinite nature. Therefore, we need not say that each text of Scripture carries one meaning and only one meaning. We believe much can be gained through the application of different interpretive techniques, wrestling with the different “senses” of Scripture (its historical, literal, typological, allegorical, spiritual and moral/ethical sense). We believe each of these are valid, but should be used in humility, knowing that, though Scripture may carry many meanings, some interpretive viewpoints clearly lie outside the domain of orthodox belief. Once again, the community of Christian believers (both present and past) can guide us in ascertaining those interpretations which build true faith and those which contribute to the destruction of faith."
Well...I knew that portions of that would raise a few eyebrows, particularly the sentence which states that certain Scripture verses may carry more than one meaning at the same time. (Someone once told me: "You're the most orthodox heretic I've ever met!" Thanks, Victoria.)
Sure enough: someone asked about it just today. Here was my email response:
"Perhaps it's easiest to begin with an example:
Psalm 22 is both a psalm that meant one thing when David wrote it and another thing in reference to Jesus (when he quoted from it on the cross). Both meanings are equally true.
In fact, most of the psalms serve not only as prayers that apply directly to the situation from which they sprang but also as prophecies regarding the Christ who was to come. I encourage you to read Psalm 23 as a prophetic psalm referencing Jesus. It changes the way you view it. What's more, you discover that both meanings (non-prophetic and prophetic) can be equally true. So we needn't choose between one meaning and the other.
Christian historians talk about the various meanings of Scripture in these terms:
1. Its historic sense: what the Scripture meant to those it first addressed.
2. Its ethical sense: what we may derive from the text regarding how we should live.
3. Its theological sense: what we may derive from the text about God, his nature and work.
4. Its spiritual sense: what does this Scripture mean to me, spiritually speaking? For example, the story of David and Bathsheba warns me against the dangers of being idle (David should have been at war) but it also reminds me of what lust does to me if left unchecked. See how this one Scripture carries multiple meanings? And I haven't even yet got into the "theological meaning" concerning what the text says about God! All those meanings are equally true.
Some historic Christians also included an "allegorical" sense in Scripture. For example, Augustine looked at Scriptures that referenced an "ox" or "oxen" as allegories of Jesus, since one of the images of Christ as the Suffering Servant is the image of an ox--see Revelation 4:6-7. Here we see four living creatures:
-Lion = King of the Jews = Matthew's gospel.
-Ox = Suffering Servant = Mark's gospel.
-Man = Son of Man = Luke's gospel.
-Eagle = Son of God = John's gospel.
The point is: many times a literal piece of Scripture also has an allegorical meaning. Another example:
The Song of Solomon may be taken literally as a love poem between two human lovers or it may be taken allegorically as referring to Christ's relationship to the Church. Both meanings can be equally true. We needn't pick between one or the other.
Another example: if I say "apples are red" and you say "apples are green" both statements are true in that they complement one another. Some scriptures are like that: you can say one thing about a verse and another thing about that same verse and both things will be equally true.
(Not all things, mind you, are this way. For example, I couldn’t say: "This verse says 'Jesus is God'" and at the same time say, "This verse says 'Jesus is not God.'" Clearly one of those statements would have to be false according to the law of non-contradiction.)
In order to determine when a Scripture may have more than one meaning, the law of non-contradiction is a good law to employ. Beyond that, however, a good guide should be rules of faith (for example, the Apostle's Creed). The testimony of the historic body of believers keeps one from stepping into interpretations that are outside the bounds of orthodoxy. See below for some more guidelines.
When Jesus preaches the parable of the sower is it possible for both the seed and the sower to represent Jesus? Yes, it's possible.
When Jesus preaches the parable of the mustard seed, is it possible that he is both the tree that grows and the seed that was buried? Yes, it's possible. And we needn't quibble about which one is "right" or "wrong".
Most Scriptures have "layers" of meaning that can be explored year after year after year. This is why reading the Bible never gets boring. It is a book that reflects the very wisdom of God which, of course, is without limit. So we should never merely remain content with saying, "This is what that means and nothing else." We should, on the contrary, be studying Scripture such that we discover meanings we never saw before. If we say the Scriptures are "rich" we cannot also say we know that each verse means one thing and only one thing.
As a guide to keep one from error:
-All suggested meanings should be explored by the community of faith and, in particular, those with gifts of discernment. It is the body of believers (both historic and present) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that speak into possible "new" meanings and determine if such a meaning is orthodox or not. We see this modeled for us in the book of Acts when the apostles met to discern whether the gospel was for Gentiles or for Jews only.
-Scripture should be interpreted in light of other Scripture. For example, when Jesus says "Do not judge" how may we understand the judgment he pronounces on the Pharisees? Is he contradicting himself? Of course not! We do well, therefore, to ask "How may 'thus and such' be true while also 'this-over-here' may be true? In what way may we understand this rightly?"
-No teaching may contradict the summary of Christian faith as contained in the Apostle's Creed and call itself Christian. Use the creed as a guide.
-Augustine suggests also using "faith, hope and love" as a guide in determining the meaning of Scripture. If an interpretation contradicts the rule of faith, hope or love, it is not a Christian interpretation.
That said, I can interpret a verse one way and interpret it another way and still uphold the Apostle's Creed, the rules of faith, hope and love--and edify the church.
If you want to dig in further take a look at the packet I wrote called "Feeding on God's Word".
Hope this helps.
Let me know if you have any other questions, okay?
Sorry if the vision doc gets you all into trouble every once in a while. But not too sorry. :-) Honestly, it was written hoping that it would stir up discussion and raise a few eyebrows. If it ever stops doing that, rewrite it so as to prompt deeper thinking. :-)
Grace and peace,