The One and Only Interpretation
In many sectors of American religion, the worst accusation that one can level against an opponent is to allege that he believes his is "the one and only interpretation of the Bible." Such a person, the rhetoric goes, is the epitome of hubris, putting himself in the place of God. It's a great line of argumentation to play toward a people incredulous of metanarratives.
Unfortunately, it is an argument that reinforces a deadly evil in contemporary American thought rather than correcting it. The concept of "the one and only interpretation of the Bible" is itself soundly biblical:
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (II Peter 1:20-21, NASB)
So, to deny the existence of "the one and only interpretation of the Bible" or to run away from "the one and only interpretation of the Bible" is to contradict the Bible. Every passage of the Bible means precisely what God intended for it to mean—nothing more and nothing less. Although I believe that the "book" in view here is the Book of Revelation, surely the concluding words of the Bible give us some impression of how God feels about the addition to or subtraction from what God has spoken:
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19, NASB)
From that passage I deduce at least this: God does care whether we subtract from His message or add to it. Does this apply only to manipulation of the words of the text, or does it not also apply to the denial that those words actually, objectively, mean anything?
In the task of biblical interpretation, "the one and only interpretation" of a passage is a foundational concept. Indeed, it is the mission. The ten-dollar seminary word for the task of interpreting the Bible is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the quest for "the one and only interpretation" of the passage. Any time that it does not result in "the one and only interpretation" of a passage, hermeneutics has failed. The Bible is not about our diversity; it is about God's singular revealed truth.
"The one and only interpretation" of the Bible or of a biblical passage does not mean that every passage is monolithic. God is capable of metaphor, subtlety, and even double-entendre. It means not that any passage can have only one meaning (Isaiah 7:10-16, for example), but that there is one and only one right opinion, however complex it might be, as to what any given passage means—God's opinion of what He intended to say.
Next segment: Hermeneutics and the phrase "I don't know."