Sometimes you may hear a person voice something like this, say, in a Bible study or Sunday School class: ‘Let me tell you what this passage means to me.’ Often times such people are well intentioned. And some of them would agree with everything I am about to write. They just aren’t being careful with their wording – using the word means when perhaps they really mean to say applies (see below).
But there is a danger, when we use ill-advised words like the above, that we could communicate (or even believe), that a given biblical passage might actually mean one thing to you, and something slightly different to me. And that is a danger, I say! Because, under this style of interpretation, the biblical text, and the vision of God and His world that flows from it, become just a piece of clay in the reader’s hand … reshaped according to his or her own background, and beliefs, and sometimes fancy. And the reader may not even realize that’s what he or she is doing! Because we all have biases and preconceived notions that we bring to any given situation. But if we give credence to the idea that the Bible might just mean something different to one person than to another … we won’t feel nearly as much need to look past our biases, and to discover what the author actually meant by what he wrote. For, since we believe the Bible might have different meanings for different people, we’re already defaulting to looking for ‘what this passage means to me.’ And that’s no way to read anyone’s book, let alone God’s!
The meaning of a given piece of text belongs with the author, not the reader! That’s why Paul tells Timothy, not to discover what the text means to him, but to “be diligent” about “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The whole idea of handling the text of the Bible “accurately” lets us know that it has a definite meaning that we must strive to get right!
Now, are there passages over which godly people have come to two (or more) very different interpretations of the text? Absolutely. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that, if you think passage X means this, and I think it means that … well then, one (or both) of us will someday discover that we were incorrect! Because, while we may not agree on the meaning of passage X, we do agree that it has a definite meaning. And so we understand and accept the fact that our divergence is one of our interpretation, not of the Bible’s actual meaning.
We also recognize that a given biblical passage might have a different application for one person than another, given that person’s circumstances. So that, for instance, an American Christian and a North Korean Christian might read the same psalm about persecution, and yet put it into immediate practice in different ways – the American (rightly) turning it into prayer for his persecuted brothers in places like North Korea, and into preparation for the suffering that may be ahead in this land; and the North Korean (also rightly) praying the words of David directly about his own very present suffering. But the meaning of the words on the page are the same for both readers. They are, in either case, a description of how David prayed in a time of suffering, and an example of how Christians should pray in the same situations. And so the difference between the American and the North Korean has to do with their application of the text, not with the text’s actual meaning.
In short, the Bible means what the Author intended it to mean – always. The meaning of any given book, chapter, sentence, or individual biblical word does not change, has not changed, and will not change … no matter who reads it, or when, or under what circumstances. And so no passage of scripture can mean one thing to you, and another to me. One or both of us may interpret it incorrectly, so as to think it means something different than what it really means. But that doesn’t change the actual meaning. And, when we have the meaning correct, we may rightly apply the same truth in different ways, given our circumstances. But the words on the page still mean what they mean – always.
So let’s be careful about how we talk about the meaning of the Bible. Let’s learn to say: ‘This is how I believe this passage applies in my life’ rather than ‘this is what this passage means to me.’ Or, ‘This is what I believe this passage means (period)’ instead of ‘This is what this passage means to me.’
And let’s also be okay with admitting, when two of us have differing interpretations of a given text, that at least one of us is wrong. We don’t have to battle it to the death, of course! And, if the difference is not over a cardinal doctrine of the faith, we need not part ways over our different interpretations. But neither must we go to the opposite (21st century Western) extreme of saying: ‘Well, you have your truth, and I have mine. And we can both be right.’ It’s okay, in other words, to agree that the text has a definite meaning, and that we are not agreed on what that meaning is! But it’s not okay to talk as though any given Bible passage may mean different things to different people.