5 common objections to “it cannot mean what it never meant”

It’s not the case that we have an understanding of the text without knowing the cultural context, rather we already have enough historical knowledge to forget that we need it!

Ancient text

Hermeneutics are the principles and methods by which we interpret the Bible, the foundation of our beliefs and practice. Sometimes we don’t spend enough time considering their importance, or we deny their relevance altogether. As Richard Beck once quipped: “a fundamentalist is a person who doesn’t think they have a hermeneutic”.

I discovered hermeneutics late in life, and soon realised my principles of interpretation were inconsistent. Once I began researching the subject I stumbled upon a principle that took me a long time to come to terms with: “the text cannot mean what it never meant”.1

This phrase is a key part of the historical-grammatical approach, and neatly captures the idea that in order to interpret the Bible for a modern audience, we must first understand what it meant to the original audience.

In this post I wanted to share five of my initial objections to this principle, and the reasons that I eventually came to agree with it. I’ve also experienced similar reactions from others who encounter the idea for the first time; hopefully this material will help accelerate us toward a fuller understanding of the subject.

Objection 1 – The Bible must be accessible to all

This objection is based in the idea that “anyone can pick up a Bible and just read it”. The implication is that people don’t need to know anything about historical context to understand the gospel.

I’m not really sure where this idea comes from because it’s demonstrably untrue, even from the pages of scripture itself (Acts 8:30-31). For a start, the Bible was originally written in (ancient) Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, meaning that hardly anyone can pick up a Bible and just read it.

Once the Bible has been translated into our own language we rely on vast amounts of historical knowledge to “fill in the gaps” in the narrative. After all, who are these “Romans”? Why are they in Israel? Where is Israel?

A broad education answers questions we didn’t even realise we were asking, and generally gets us to a point where we can appreciate the narrative arcs and allusions to piece together a basic picture of “what is going on”. It’s not the case that we have an understanding of the text without knowing the cultural context, rather we already have enough historical knowledge to forget that we need it!

Objection 2 – You don’t need an education to understand the Bible

My second objection was that “we don’t need to rely on so-called experts”.

For me this objection was borne out of pride, laziness, and fear. Pride, because I didn’t want to acknowledge that I’m reliant on others to understand the Bible. Laziness, because it’s hard graft to engage with the text honestly, seriously, and with an open mind. And fear: because an open mind means we must be vulnerable to being wrong, and reassessing what we believe if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

I’ve already noted that the Bible was originally written in a different language. We rely on experts to bridge that language gap for us, but it is only the first step in interpretation.2 We need experts to explain Bible history in the same way too: contemporary events, politics, economics, culture, social norms all help us to read the Bible in full-colour. Once we know what it meant, we can bridge that historical distance and appreciate what it means to us now.

Objection 3 – Things the prophets sought to understand

Some objections appear to be taken straight out of scripture:

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” – 1 Peter 1:10-12 [CEB]

Here Peter makes it clear that the prophets themselves didn’t know who they were prophesying about when they were speaking of messiah. Therefore, there’s no benefit in studying the ancient context to understand the passage.

Frankly, I needed to read what Peter said more carefully: the prophets were speaking of a future Messiah, and they knew it. When Nathan (a prophet) spoke to David of his heir to inherit the Kingdom (2 Sam 7:12-14), the ancient context was a prophecy about Jesus. Doubtless Nathan and David spent many hours searching to understand this prophecy more fully, just as Peter writes.

Objection 4 – Daniel’s sealed prophecy

A similar argument can be made based on the book of Daniel:

“I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, ‘O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?’ He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.'” – Daniel 12:8-9 [CEB]

Again, if the author in the original context didn’t know what the passage meant, understanding it in its original context isn’t likely to help us much.

Except that it does. The ancient context tells us that the prophecy relates to a distant future time, that the relevance is being withheld, and that the appropriate response was to “go your way”. This is a perfectly good interpretation, and one which adds useful “original context” to later passages like Revelation 5:1-5, where the unsealing of a scroll reveals future events.

Objection 5 – God’s word didn’t come by the will of man

There’s one more scriptural reference I’d like to cover:

“Most important, you must know that no prophecy of scripture represents the prophet’s own understanding of things, because no prophecy ever came by human will. Instead, men and women led by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” – 2 Peter 1:20-21

The substance of this objection is the idea that if the Bible is written by God then it must transcend the limits of human culture and communication, and there is therefore no reason to constrain it to an ancient context.

But this is not what Peter is saying. Peter is not speaking about how God transcends the limits of human communication, but rather how God is the prime motivator, communicating through humans in terms that other humans can understand.

The deeper issue at play is the fact that this passage is a standard proof-text of Biblical inerrancy. For some, respect for historical context is seen as the “thin end of the wedge”; a slippery slope that implies God spoke to people in the language of their day, rather than delivering universal transcendent messages.3

“It cannot mean what it never meant” is a simple but powerful hermeneutic that opens up the world of the Bible. Allowing it to challenge some of our preconceived ideas may seem daunting at first, but in time helps us develop a robust approach to the Bible – one man’s slippery slope is another man’s logical conclusion!

Footnotes

  1. I first encountered this phrase in “How to read the Bible for all its worth” (Third Edition). G Fee & D Stuart. Zondervan, 2003.
  2. For an exhaustive treatment of hermeneutics, see “The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation”. G R Osborne. IVP Academic, 2007.
  3. For an accessible introduction to this subject, see “The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority”, D B Sandy & J Walton. IVP Academic, 2013.

Author: Nathan Kitchen

Nathan lives in England with his wife, three children, and a range of unfinished projects. He enjoys his tea with eschatology, apologetics, and plenty of good hermeneutics. He does not have any spare time.