The Principle Of Single Meaning -- By: Robert L. Thomas

Journal: Masters Seminary Journal
Volume: TMSJ 12:1 (Spring 2001)
Article: The Principle Of Single Meaning
Author: Robert L. Thomas


The Principle Of Single Meaning

Robert L. Thomas

Professor of New Testament

That 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. Violations have included those by Clark Pinnock with his insistence on adding “future” meanings to historical meanings of a text, Mikel Neumann and his expansion of the role of contextualization, Greg Beale and Grant Osborne and their views about certain features of Revelation 11, recent works on hermeneutics and their advocacy of multiple meanings for a single passage, Kenneth Gentry and his preterist views on Revelation, and Progressive Dispensationalism with its promotion of “complementary” hermeneutics. 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.

* * * * *

Many years ago Milton S. Terry laid down a basic hermeneutical principle that contemporary evangelicals have difficulty observing. That is the principle of single meaning:

A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.1

Not quite as many years ago, Bernard Ramm advocated the same principle in different words: “But here we must remember the old adage: ‘Interpretation is one, application is many.’ This means that there is only one meaning to a passage

of Scripture which is determined by careful study.”2 Summit II of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy concurred with this principle: “We affirm that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed. We deny that the recognition of this single meaning eliminates the variety of its application.”3

Current Status of the Single-Meaning Principle

Almost anywhere one turns these days, he finds violations of this principle, however. As a consequence, evangelicals have drifted out “upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture,” as Terry predicted about a hundred years ago.You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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