“A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one signification in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture. It is commonly assumed by the universal sense of mankind that unless one designedly put forth a riddle, he will so speak as to convey his meaning as clearly as possible to others."1
Is it time to move our feet To an introspective beat, It ain’t the speakers that bump hearts, It’s our hearts that make the beat."2
“We are ALL CAPS”3
“καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν."4
“εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί."5
Many conservative evangelicals claim that words and phrases only have one meaning (at least all of the words/phrases in the Bible).6 For example, while addressing the hermeneutics of the New Perspective on Paul, Robert Thomas states “In assigning more than one meaning to a word, phrase, or sentence, the [New Perspective] clearly places itself into the camp of the extreme subjectivism of the new evangelical hermeneutics”7. I disagree with the claim that every word in the Bible must have one meaning and I present my case for this thesis below. First, however, I would like to add a few notes of clarification.
First, I would like to make it clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that paragraphs or books in the bible have multiple meanings. I am not affirming that scripture is to be understood with different ‘levels’ or ‘kinds’ of interpretation (as Augustine suggested his four levels of meaning8).
Second, I am not commenting on the frequency with which words in the Bible have multiple meanings; I am simply claiming it is possible. I’m not trying to say it is necessarily common.
I am arguing that words and phrases may have multiple (usually double) meanings which contribute to the over-all meaning of the text. In other words, I do not object to the claim that ‘larger’9 portions of scripture (like paragraphs and books) have one meaning; I simply cannot accept the argument that every word and phrase must have only one meaning for the reasons I will present below.
I have three objections to the claim that words/phrases in the Bible only have one meaning. My first objection to the evangelical claim is that there is very little philosophical or biblical basis for believing this claim is true. The second objection supports the first objection and is based on secular literature, art, music, and poetry. There are numerous examples where an author uses a word or symbol in a way that clearly demonstrates that he or she intended multiple meanings. Thus, it seems to be philosophically possible for language to contain words and phrases which have multiple meanings. The third objection is that the Bible appears to contain statements in which there are two, intended meanings.
I address each of these objections below.
Objection from Lack of Philosophical/Biblical Evidence
As I mentioned, my first objection is that there is little philosophical or biblical basis for believing that words/phrases must, always have one meaning. Terry Milton, quoted at the beginning of this essay, substantiates the claim that every word or phrase has only one meaning in two ways when he writes:
“A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one signification in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture. It is commonly assumed by the universal sense of mankind that unless one designedly put forth a riddle, he will so speak as to convey his meaning as clearly as possible to others. Hence that meaning of a sentence which most readily suggests itself to a reader or hearer, is, in general, to be received as the true meaning, and that alone."10
In response, let me point out that the first argument, namely that neglecting this principle would set us adrift “upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture”10 is not sufficient proof for the principle. A distaste for the consequences of a premise is not sufficient ground for denying the premise11. I see no justification for denying a premise, like the premise that words can have multiple meanings, simply because we would prefer not to endure the results it produces. To his second argument about the nature of language (that it is “commonly assumed… that unless one designedly put forth a riddle, he will so speak as to convey his meaning as clearly as possible to others”), this argument assumes that multiple meanings of a single word are unclear; in the next sections of this essay, I will show that words/phrases with multiple meanings are all around us and we are perfectly comfortable interpreting them. They do not necessarily make a text unclear and are not outside of the norm for thoughtful, artistic modes of communication.
In his book Evangelical Hermeneutics, Robert Thomas attempts to provide biblical support to this claim by arguing that the departure from the standard of words having one meaning first occurs in Genesis 3:1-7 where Satan tempts Eve.12 When Mr. Thomas reads Satan say “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."13, he reads this as Satan attributing multiple meanings to God’s statements. He claims that “The serpent knew better than to suggest that God would lie in the perfect environment of the Garden of Eden. He simply suggested that Eve had misinterpreted God’s statement, or by limiting her understanding to the plain sense of God’s words, she had missed a second intended meaning”12. I think this understanding of the text is absolutely false. I see no indication that Satan is attributing multiple meanings to what God said; he is, contrary to Mr. Thomas' claim, explicitly asserting that God lied. To say that “the serpent knew better than to suggest that God would lie”12 miss the entire thrust of Genesis 3:4-5 where Satan directly contradicts what God said in Genesis 2:17 and what Eve repeated in Genesis 3:3. Unless I am incorrect in my understanding of Genesis 3:1-7, I believe Mr. Thomas' understanding of this passage is incorrect and that it lends no support to his claim that words/phrases must absolutely have only one meaning.
To be clear, I agree it is normally the case that words and phrases only have meaning, I’m simply pointing out that I see no biblical or philosophical reason why this must, always be the case. To show that multiple meanings can be intended within one word/phrase, consider the following thought experiment:
Let’s pretend it actually started to rain cats and dogs; it’s a bit strange, I know, but let’s assume animals of the feline and canine variety were actually falling from the sky in a furry form of pawed precipitation. Now, let’s pretend Alice and Bob have just parked at their apartment complex and are walking from their car to their apartment when the tailed tempest begins. After running for the cover of their apartment building, Alice exclaims “Whew, that was close. It is really raining cats and dogs!” Being a man who eschews ambiguity and noticing that Alice’s statement could be interpreted in at least two, different ways, Bob asks for clarification: “Alice, do you mean that there are literally animals commonly used as house-pets falling from the sky or do you mean that it is ‘raining’ very hard?”. In this situation, I see no reason why Alice could not respond: “Both!”. It is perfectly reasonable for Alice to have intended multiple meanings. Assuming that words and phrases only have one meaning may be convenient, but examples like this (albeit far-fetched) ought to give us paws pause before we affirm that words and phrase must, always have one meaning. I see no philosophical, theological, or biblical basis for this.
Objection from Secular Works
I’m going to cite just a few secular works where a word/phrase has multiple meanings. I hasten to point out that it is neither uncommon nor confusing to use words with multiple meanings; secular artists do this quite regularly. Many puns and plays-on-words are based on the multiple, possible meanings of words. Poets and novelists love to use words which have multiple meanings. Song-writers use words with multiple meanings. My point in citing a few examples below is to drive home the point that it is well within the bounds of human language for a word/phrase to have multiple, intended meanings. This section does not prove that words with multiple meanings exist in the Bible (that is the task of the next section), but it shows that words with multiple meanings are not as rare as they are often characterized and they do not set us adrift “upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture”10.
One of the clearest examples of a phrase that has multiple meanings, both of which are intended by the author, is a recent marketing campaign by the Washington Capitals (a hockey team in America). This marketing campaign centered around the slogan “ALL CAPS” (sometimes written as “We are ALL CAPS”). Clearly this has two, intended meanings: passion and unity. Passion because something written in ALL CAPS communicates emotion and unity because “ALL CAPS” can be interpreted as a reference to all of the Capital’s players and even fans. In fact, both of these meanings are affirmed by the spokespeople involved in the creation of the slogan. One spokesperson noted that the slogan refers to passion when he said “When you hear it or say it, it just makes sense and speaks to the passion that exists for the Capitals”14. Another spokesperson highlighted the unity communicated by the slogan when he said “At its core, ALL CAPS is a juxtaposition between fan and player sentiment, binding the two and telling a story beyond just what happens on the ice to evoke a deeper connection between fan, player and team”14. Clearly, this one phrase has multiple, intended meanings. But the same thing occurs in other places as well.
Words and phrases with multiple intended meanings can be found in literature and music as well. I could produce a number of examples, but one will suffice for the time being. A band named “Twenty One Pilots” has a song named “Holding on to You”. In this song, they say:
Is it time to move our feet To an introspective beat, It ain’t the speakers that bump hearts, It’s our hearts that make the beat."2
Look at the last line; not only does the last word (“beat”) parallel the last word in the second line of the stanza, but it is also a play on words because “beat” can refer to the palpitations made by the heart in our chest or the rhythm of a song. Which one is intended here? I think both are intended; that’s why the word “beat” works so well. The intentional use of a word with two meanings, both of which fit in the context, increases the profundity and power of this stanza.
I’m going to refrain from citing more examples because I do not want to lose the forest because of the trees. My objective in citing these examples is to further substantiate my claim that words can have multiple meanings in human creations. Not only is there no philosophical or biblical reason why this should not be the case, but there are plenty of examples in culture which demonstrate the possibility of using words with multiple meanings. Now, I hasten to note that one could still argue that words and phrases can be used outside of the Bible in ways that have multiple meanings, but they are never used this way in the Bible. I have examples to the contrary which I will present in the next section, but for now I would like to briefly respond to this objection with two questions. If you are going to create a distinction between secular works and the biblical works (claiming that secular works can use words/phrases in ways that have multiple meanings, but the Bible never would), I would ask:
- How do you know this distinction is valid and true?
- Does this not undermine the evangelical claim that the Bible is to be understood using normal, literal, grammatical means (that is, means of interpretation which affirm that the Bible )?
It seems to me that such a distinction between secular and Biblical works is arbitrary and undermines the classic evangelical claim that the Bible should be understood using normal, literal, grammatical means.
Objection from the Bible
I object to the statement that every word and phrase in the Bible only has one meaning because I believe there are examples of statements in the Bible which have multiple meanings. I’ll present two of them.
For example, consider John 8:58:
“εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί.”
From my understanding of this passage, Jesus is using the phrase “ἐγὼ εἰμί” (“I am”) as both an affirmation of His eternality (at least His preexistence of Abraham) and as demonstration of His divinity (“ἐγὼ εἰμί” is the same phrase used for God’s revealed name in Exodus 3:14 in the Septuagint15). Thus, the phrase “ἐγὼ εἰμί” has two meanings. It is a normal, emphatic statement of existence showing that Jesus preexisted Abraham and is therefore more authoritative than him (to answer the question posed in John 8:53); it is also referring to the proper name of God - implying that Jesus is claiming to be God16. In the narrative, notice how the double meaning of Jesus' response is able to profoundly answer both of the questions that the Jews asked in John 8:53. I believe this is an example of a phrase with double meaning. I also think that the revealed name of God in Exodus 3:14 has multiple meanings, but that is for another time.
Now, consider John 1:5:
“καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.”
There are conservative evangelicals who argue that the word “κατέλαβεν” (which could mean “comprehend” or “overcome”) has a double meaning here.17
There are others who disagree, but there seems to be no textual, linguistic, theological, or philosophical limitation preventing that word from having multiple, intended meanings.
My goal in all of this is to raise some questions about the way we interpret. I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and, therefore, infallible, inerrant, and a sufficient guide for how human creatures must relate with their creator. With this much at stake, I have boldly written what is on my mind and humbly accept feedback, questions, or comments.
Here are a few articles/journal articles on the subject of whether or not words have multiple meanings. They are from various perspectives and I don’t agree with all of them, but they may be helpful to further the discussion:
- The Use of Equivocal Words in the First Speech of Eliphaz (Job IV-V)
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
~ John 1:1-5
I write these things humbly hoping I am not described by the statement below or at least hoping to be corrected by my wiser brethren if I am found reckless and incompetent.
“Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”
~ St. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram