How Many Meanings Does a Sentence Have?


A declarative sentence is said to express a proposition. Propositions have truth-values: they are either true or false.[4] Furthermore, the truth-value of a proposition is objective. It is true or false whether or not it is believed by anyone. The alternative to thinking that propositions have objective truth-value is self-refuting. This is clear from the following dilemma:

Either propositions have objective truth values or the proposition expressed by the statement, “no propositions have objective truth values,” has no objective truth value. 

Clearly, the proposition expressed by the statement "no propositions have objective truth values," has an objective truth value. It cannot be both true and false, something in between or neither true or false.[5] Therefore, propositions have objective truth values.

Sentences in natural languages are said to express propositions. Propositions, then, are the primary meanings of sentences. Things get complicated at this point because in order for a sentence to express a proposition someone has to use the sentence with the intent of expressing that proposition. If sentences can express multiple propositions the only determining factor for which proposition the sentence expresses is the intent of the one who uses it. Consequently, sentences that are communicated by a person with an intended meaning are intended to communicate a single primary meaning.

Some object to this point and suggest that no sentences have primary meanings. However, this leads to a self-refuting conclusion. Either sentences have single primary meanings or the sentence, “sentences have no primary meaning,” has no primary meaning.[6] However, the sentence, “sentences have no primary meaning,” clearly carries a primary meaning. Therefore, sentences that are communicated by authors with intended meanings are intended to communicate single primary meanings.[7] In other words, sentences carry primary meanings. Someone might utter a sentence in the midst of some absent minded moment (perhaps he or she is extremely tired) and intend no meaning. Perhaps some sentences are uttered by people who have failed to engage the brain before operating the mouth (see twitter for examples aplenty).

There is a significant complication with what I have said that arises from the nature of biblical authorship: the Bible has both a human and a divine author. If there are two authors, which one should we pay attention to? Could it be possible that the authors might intend two different propositions? While there appear to be a set of examples in scripture that suggest a text can have multiple non-primary meanings, I will argue that this conclusion is mistaken. One such example is found in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew’s gospel the author quotes Hosea and appears to provide a meaning to the prophet’s statement that was not originally intended.

Hosea writes, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). It is commonly said that the meaning of Hosea’s utterance is that God called his son, the people of Israel, out of Egypt but that Matthew writes the same sentence, “Out of Egypt I called my Son,” (Matt 2:15) yet means something different. Matthew’s sentence means that God has called his Son, Jesus, out of Egypt where he had been in hiding with is parents. Complicating the matter is the fact that Matthew says that this event fulfills the words of the prophet, Hosea.

There are at least two options for how to interpret the use of the sentence by Hosea and Matthew. First, since there are multiple authors—God and human—there could be an intended primary meaning of the human author and an intended primary meaning of the divine author.[8] Second, Hosea’s text might have a single primary meaning, but is used typologically by Matthew and applied to Jesus. On this view, Israel is a type of Christ, foreshadowing the future Christ. Can we hold that Hosea’s statement is capable of two meanings in virtue of its dual authorship or should we consider the meaning to be typological?

The first task is to understand the function of the sentence both authors used.[9] There is an important distinction to be made when interpreting the meaning of a given statement. The sentence, “out of Egypt I called my son,” contains terms with a sense and a referent. The sense of a word is thought to be what it means. The sense of “my son,” is of a strong intimate relation to the Father. One can understand the sense of the term even if one does not know to whom it refers. Reference, on the other hand, is how a term attaches or picks out a particular entity. In Hosea’s case, “my son” refers to the people of Israel. In Matthew’s case, though, “my Son” carries the same sense, but the referent is not Israel but Jesus of Nazareth. Though there is a single sense, there are two referents. Both Israel and Jesus of Nazareth fulfill the meaning of “my son.” Both are intimately related to the Father. This does not entail identifying Jesus with Israel.

What, then, does Matthew mean by fulfillment? If Jesus fulfills the prophecy then does that not entail that there was an additional referential meaning in the original prophecy unbeknownst to Hosea at the time? There are two answers to this question. The first is to concede that there are indeed two referents for the sentence, “out of Egypt I called my son [or Son],” but when Hosea used the sentence he used it to refer to Israel not a future Messiah. On this view, God knew about a future referent given to us through Matthew, but that a fuller meaning need not invoke a dual referent intended by God in the Hosea text. Why should we think that a hidden meaning is required? Surely God knew, at the time Hosea wrote, that one day Matthew would use the verse to compare Israel and Jesus. This does not entail that we add to Hosea’s original text the additional referent of the Messiah as a fuller meaning.[10] Crucially, it also means we do not have to add to the meaning in Hosea’s utterance of the sentence.

The second, supplied by Michael Rydelnik, is to suggest that Hosea did indeed have a secondary future referent in mind. Based on an examination of parallel passages in Leviticus (Num 23:18-24; 24: 7-9), Rydelnik suggests that Hosea’s intention was about the referent Israel, but that he knew about a coming son of God of whom Israel was a type.[11] In other words, Hosea knew that there was a coming Son of God that would be a particular, singular person. His intended communication, therefore, included the referent of Israel and the coming Son of God in the future. Does this breach the single primary meaning principle? I don’t see why it should. There is no problem with a sentence referring to one entity—Israel—while knowing that a future referent will come to whom the term will one day refer.

[4] I am aware that some philosophers think that propositions can be neither true nor false. There are also philosophers who think that propositions do not exist. This latter concern will not matter for the my purposes since even for those who think there are no entities that answer to the term “propositions” they do think that propositions are at least useful fictions. However, propositions are abandoned at a high cost. They ensure objectivity, an intersubjectively accessible object that the mind is capable of “grasping.” 
[5] Jason Lisle, Understanding Genesis (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2015), 16. 
[6] Ibid., 18. 
[7] Walter Kaiser, “The Single Intent of Scripture,” in Rightly Divided: Readings in Biblical Hermeneutics ed. Roy Zuck (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1996),158-170. Cf. Paul Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Wheaton: Crossway, 1988), 115. 
[8] Dual referent interpretations usually call on sensus plenior in order to make their point. 
[9] Paul Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Wheaton: Crossway, 1988), 
[10] Part of this debate hinges on what we think “fulfill” means. My view is that it does not have to mean a hidden meaning of a sentence in the Old Testament revealed in the New. 
[11] Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 99-104. 

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