For example, take a Bible passage X, which is in debate about how literally it should be applied.

Say we have person A and person B—in completely different life situations.

Is it possible that the intent of the Bible is for passage X to actually be taken literal for person B in his situation but not A in their situation?

Is it legitimate for interpretations to change over the years or to be different for different people?

  • sort of....but it is more than just meaning...or more like there is wisdom here or life changing power for one person in this text and not for someone else. or this text is dead to someone, won't mean anything to them, they are blind to it even if they read it and to someone else it can open a new world...it is hard to explain. I'll try to think of an example. (it makes sense in my head! haha) Mar 14 '12 at 17:17
  • I've updated my answer to define historical horizon, but I'm still not sure what the question should be. Perhaps you are asking if the Bible insists on a single meaning and application for all people at all times OR if the Bible allows (or even intends) more personal interpretations and applications. But I think it best to focus on whether the Bible intends one or many interpretations, since few people will disagree that different people should apply the texts individually and diversely. (Plus, application is generally off-topic.)
    – Jon Ericson
    Mar 14 '12 at 18:09
  • thanks for updating with a definition of historical horizon. However, I disagree that the Bible can not address new things. Some go to the point of showing that they are supported by the Bible, for example Neuroplasticity and faith or the metaphysical world and the spiritual world. Mar 14 '12 at 18:50
  • original intended meaning should ALWAYS be the foundation for any "new" insight. great point, jon.
    – swasheck
    Mar 14 '12 at 22:22
  • Since you accepted my answer, I've reworded the question to be what I think you asked. Feel free to edit if I't not quite right.
    – Jon Ericson
    Mar 15 '12 at 18:51

I've been reading up on the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer who said:

"The projecting of the historical horizon, then, is only a phase in the process of understanding, and does not become solidified into the self-alienation of a past consciousness, but is overtaken by our own present horizon of understanding. In the process of understanding there takes place a real fusing of horizons, which means that as the historical horizon is projected, it is simultaneously removed." (Gadamer 1975: 273)

What that means is that as we look back into the past, we shouldn't abandon our current worldview, but try to fuse the ancient paradigm with our own. Cornelius Holtorf's commentary on Gadamer points out, "The horizon includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point, and nothing more." So the "historical horizon" must be limited to the particular time and place in which a text was originally produced. It's not possible for the historical interpretation of the Bible to include concepts such as helicopters, the Laws of Thermodynamics, or moral relativism since they did not exist at the time. Not that the Bible can't address those things, but rather that the "historical horizon" can't. We can read the Scriptures in light of new things (but remember Ecclesiastes 1:9!), but can't ignore the original intended meaning. A proper understanding fuses the author's meaning with our current situation(s).

So when, for instance, Jesus says:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’—Mark 9:43-48 (ESV)

we need to understand what Jesus was communicating to his original disciples. But we also need to reconcile his teachings with our own preconceptions. Some have taken this passage quite seriously and "literally", but in the last two millenia we have few examples of self-mutilation based on this passage. So our instinct is to find an allegorical or symbolic meaning.

One of the hermeneutical challenges for texts, such as the Bible, that have been infused in our Western culture is that over time the historical horizon fades and blurs. We lose track of what the text actually says and substitute some traditional interpretation—almost without knowing what we are doing. For that reason, a great deal of exegesis is devoted to recovering the "original meaning" or intention of the author. Only after that has been accomplished can we propose interpretations informed by modern conceptualizations.

But as Gadamer suggests, that's just one step in the process. The subsequent steps involve integrating the historical meaning into the tradition of interpretation and ultimately into our web of understanding. In that sense, X can mean different, even opposite, things for A and for B. However, there is some hope that we can recover one historical (or original) meaning that is fairly objective.

(As a side note, this site primarily focuses on the defining of the historical horizon, since that's the most objective portion of the process. The next most objective portion is to recover the history of interpretation: how did previous commentators understand the text? The final step, integrating with individual worldviews, is left as an exercise for the reader.)

  • wow, very eye opening! this is more along the lines with what I am trying to get at, thank you. I wonder if there is really anything objective in the Bible except for a view of it in history. btw what is a definition of "historical horizon"? can't seem to find one...thank you. Mar 14 '12 at 17:47
  • 2
    Also, check out Kevin Vanhoozer speaks to the concept of the "narrative arc." How the contextual setting of the passage in question influences how the hearers would have understood what was going on, and the trajectory upon which the author seems to be heading, can help inform how to go about developing a contemporary parallel conception of the situation under consideration.
    – swasheck
    Mar 14 '12 at 18:57

What you're describing is an application of what is called Reader Response Criticism and it has found some traction in Biblical Studies - especially in the more post-modern forms of biblical criticism.

Your question brings up the interesting distinction between meaning, interpretation, and application. The "Hermeneutical Spiral" is such that for any text there is one "meaning" (what the author intended to convey), and there can be a set of interpretations surrounding the locus of that meaning. Finally, surrounding those interpretations, are applications.

So to answer your first question, yes, it is entirely valid for persons A and B to have varying applications as long as they are essentially focused on the same meaning.

This gets into the second part of your question which is more of an interpretation question. Interpretations tend to be more tightly focused on the meaning than applications, but it is imperative that the intepretation be understood in light of the meaning.

Thus, I'm not sure that interpretations or applications that are not focused on the actual meaning of the passage in question are equally valid.

  • ok, very good points brought up here. Helps me clarify things. Mar 14 '12 at 17:39

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