In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew explains how different aspects of Jesus’ life fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, upon examinations, some of these prophecies bring up interesting questions.
Yesterday I addressed one such question: Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth? – based on Matthew’s claim in 2:23 that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.
The Issues: Authorial Intent and Multiple Meanings
Another verse in Matthew chapter 2 brings up a different issue: In Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew describes the flight to Egypt, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for several years because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. (See also: Advent Meditations: Jesus Was a Refugee) In Matthew 2:15, Matthew says that when Jesus returned from Egypt, it was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Here’s why this is interesting: When Hosea wrote these words, he was speaking of Israel as God’s “son” whom he brought out of Egypt in the Exodus. Hosea’s intention was not to speak of the Messiah. However, what Matthew is saying, assumedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that even though Hosea’s intent was merely to refer to Israel, he was also writing (by the inspiration of the Spirit) about the Son of God, i.e. the Messiah, whom we now know to be Jesus of Nazareth – even though he did not realize it at the time.
Furthermore, this means that there are two meanings and interpretations of this passage which are both correct: historically it speaks about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and prophetically it foretells that the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a time.
Polysemy and Multivalence
There are several Old Testament prophecies which are used in the Old Testament in this way: while they have a historical meaning, which corresponds to the authorial intent of the original writer, they also have a prophetic meaning, which the author was unaware of, which found (or still will find) its fulfillment in the future.
For example, several passages in the prophetic books warn of an exile which is to come, but then conclude with a promise of the regathering of the people of both Israel and Judah to the land, as well as a time of peace and prosperity to follow. The return of the people to the land was fulfilled in the time following the Babylonian exile. It could also be said that this was fulfilled again through the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, both of these were only partial fulfillments, since the ultimate fulfillment of promised kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness will only see its complete fulfillment after the return of Jesus.
What this means is that many biblical texts are polysemic and multivalent.
- Polysemic: “multiple meanings”
- Multivalence: “many appeals or values”
Scholars of textual hermeneutics, like Paul Ricoeur and Hans G. Gadamer explain the polysemy of biblical texts by saying that, unlike scientific formulas and computer codes, the texts of Scripture sometimes contain “surpluses of meaning.” 
This is why some texts in the Bible are not entirely controlled in their interpretation by their original human writers (i.e. authorial intent). The Hosea passage cited in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this. What is notable here is that the different meanings do not contradict each other.
John Goldingay explains, “An element of polyvalence or irreducible ambiguity characterizes parts of scripture.” 
Thus, Scripture cannot be used to say anything we want it to, but we would be contradicting Scripture itself to claim that there can only be one correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture. What is important is that the different interpretations do not have contradictory meanings.
Above all, this should leave us in awe of the rich complexity and beauty of the Word of God, and it should leave us all the more convinced of its divine inspiration.
Multivalence and Multivocality
Multivalence means different appeals or values, and Multivocality means that Scripture speaks to different listeners in different voices that say different (but, again, not conflicting) things.
Christian Smith illustrates this by compiling a list of different lessons and applications which can be faithfully gleaned from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:
- Christians would do well to “get out of their comfort zones” in order to preach the gospel to those who are culturally different or who live in foreign lands, but are “ripe for the harvest”
- A person who drinks of “the living water” that Jesus offers will never again “thirst” for the unsatisfying “waters” of “the world”
- Jesus knows every detail about our personal lives, and loves us enough to confront us with hard questions in order to lead us to repentance
- Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and still loves us and stands ready to forgive us
- An effective strategy for evangelism is to build relationships, ask questions, and point people to Jesus
- Those who have truly encountered Jesus and repented will naturally respond by telling others, i.e. evangelizing
- The fact that Jesus was physically tired shows that he was fully human
- The fact that the woman left her water jar to go and tell people in town about Jesus models the kind of priorities we ought to have in regard to possessions and the mission of God
- By speaking to this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals that he has come as the Savior of people from all the nations
- Jesus’ reply to his disciples about hunger and food shows us the proper outlook on doing God’s will and God’s work 
Again, this is not to say that we can make Scripture say whatever we want; we certainly cannot. Yet any of these above messages – and more – would be faithful interpretations and applications of this text.
Considering Inspirational Intent
We must not only consider authorial intent, we must also consider the intent of the inspirer: God. To do this, we consider canonical, or biblical theology: i.e. the message and narrative of the Bible as a whole.
This is what Matthew is doing in several instances where he re-interprets Old Testament passages and applies them to Jesus; he is considering the grand narrative and message of the Bible as a whole, as a story which – in all of its “sub-stories” – is about Jesus. He applies a Christo-centric hermeneutic, in other words; one that he likely learned from Jesus himself after the resurrection when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
May God help us to understand, interpret, and apply His Word faithfully and accurately – according to His intent!
4 thoughts on “Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?”
I’ve held this for many years….it’s also true more locally in some scriptures such as Isaiah 7 when it speaks is child to be born soon to the Prophet and the Messianic Son in chapter 9.
Right. I think that’s important to remember lest we too quickly “jump over hedge and ditch” to get to Jesus. We must first travel the whole of the High Street before we take the road that leads to “the great metropolis of the Scriptures.”