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Hermeneutics 4 – The Author’s Intended Meaning

October 28, 2012

In my estimation if we can speak of one general principle of hermeneutics that should drive all others, or that must transcend all other principles, it is that we must have a passion and a desire to learn what the text was intended to mean as written by the author.  A few qualifying remarks are necessary in order to continue this discussion.

It is proper to speak of the Bible as a divine-human book.  God is the ultimate Author of the Scriptures.  However, it is important that we recognize that God did not dictate the words of Scripture to a certain person who then merely wrote them down as secretaries might transcribe a letter being dictated to them by their bosses.  Although certain portions of Scripture (i.e. the Prophets) quote verbatim messages given by God, the vast majority of Scripture was not given by dictation.  God employed the personalities of the human authors, who were writing to certain people for specific reasons.

Let’s look at a few examples.  In the beginning of his Gospel, Luke essentially says, “Many people have tried to put together a report about all that took place concerning Christ, but I decided to speak with the eyewitnesses and servants myself and write to you what I found, so that you may be sure of the things you have been taught,” (Luke 1:1-4, my own paraphrase based on the NIV).  Luke told Theophilus that he had a specific intention for writing what he did.  In 1 John 5:13 John says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life,” (NIV).  Again, John tells us that he had a specific purpose for writing this epistle.  God did not override the human authors’ personalities or intentions but rather employed them.  This is the reason we recognize that each author does not write with the same style.  Think through the way God’s message is conveyed through Isaiah compared to Jeremiah.  Are both books written in the same style?  What about how the epistles of John read compared to the epistles of Paul.  Without even thinking too deeply about these things, we recognize the different styles and personalities of each human author of Scripture.  Being that we know that they were “carried along by God” (2 Pet 1:21, NIV) in writing what they did and that the Scriptures are “God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16, NIV), the end result was that the words that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Luke, John and Paul wrote were precisely the words of God.  But the point is that they were not robots who did not think and feel as they wrote Scripture.  The end result however, was that their words were also God’s words.  So then, it is proper to speak of John or Paul’s intention in writing their letters.  They had specific purposes in mind when they choose to use certain words and phrases.

Although this may seem obvious to those reading this post, it is not so obvious to everyone.  Some people believe that what the author intended to say is not important to determining what the text means.  They say that the written text may say something other than what the author meant to convey.  Others say that it doesn’t matter what the author intended his material to mean, all that matters is what it means to us.  They say, “if that is what it means to you then that is what it means.”  A silly example would be that I write on my Facebook status, “I like the zoo.”  Now when I say that I mean that I enjoy a certain venue where I can go and see all sorts of wild and exotic animals.  Some people who maintain the latter mentioned principle of interpretation would say that it doesn’t matter what I meant by the phrase, “I like the zoo.”  If you understand the word “like” to mean “hate” and the word “zoo” to mean “tomatoes” then what I actually said in my Facebook status was not “I like the zoo” but “I hate tomatoes.”  Although applying such a principle of interpretation to my Facebook status seems absurd, some people think it a perfectly legitimate way to interpret the Bible.  They would say, “It doesn’t matter what Paul meant by the phrase ‘justified through faith,’ (Romans 5:1) it only matters what that phrase means to you.

All of this establishes the point that it is proper to say that we must seek what the author meant by his words if we are to understand Scripture properly.  Because the Bible is a divine-human book when we are seeking out Luke, John or Paul’s meaning we are ultimately seeking out God’s meaning.  Paul’s intention in writing to the Galatians was God’s intention.  What God moved the human authors to say is what God said.  Their words are God’s words.

So then, in conclusion, let us seek out what the original authors intended to say in their writings, understanding that they were “carried along by God” and that their words are God’s very Word to us.  I plan to build off of this concept in the next post on Thursday.

What dangers do you think can result if we believe that the Bible means whatever it means to us?  How does our belief that God did not dictate Scripture through “robots” differ from the beliefs in other religions about how they got their “scriptures”?  How does this effect they way we read our Bible?

From → Hermeneutics

  1. Just the idea that anyone would believe that they have the “freedom” for lack of a better, word to interpret scripture to mean whatever it means to them personally is terrible. It shows they don’t understand the nature of God and His will not only for our individual lives, but for this world as a whole. If a person can be so fast and loose with what particular scripture verses mean, or even the Bible as a whole, you can essentially conform the Bible to say whatever you want it to say, whatever you like best. You make yourself god. I don’t mean to be offensive to anyone, but an example I can see of this practice today would be The Message Bible.

    I recently listened to part of an Alistair Begg lesson on Revelation and I found it fascinating. Dave recently finished a 9 month study of Revelation and taught it to the youth. It was so wonderful, and in that I learned so much more about the book. But Alistair’s lesson was so unique and different that any I had ever heard and the point he was trying to make what that we often read that book believing that John was writing that book to us for our time, but he really wasn’t. Alistair points out that he was writing to the believers of that day, and yes, we can learn from it and use it for ourselves today, but that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that John wasn’t writing to believers of his time. It was really really interesting.

    • Yes, good stuff! To quote D.A. Carson relating to your first paragraph; “we cannot lightly accept a … laxity in the interpretation of Scripture. We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly,” (Exegetical Fallacies, 15).

      The point about considering to whom the writers were writing is another principle in hermeneutics. It is referred to as determining the intended audience of the letter. This can help us not “make” Scripture mean something that it was not intended to mean. We can often read the Bible thinking that the authors and the initial readers were 21st century Americans which of course they were not. It is important to remember that the authors were trying to communicate to people of their day. The message they wrote was intended to impact and be understood by the people to whom it was written. Of course we can take application from what they wrote, like Alistair Begg said, but that application must be grounded in what the message was intended to mean by the author for those to whom he was writing.

      Great stuff! thanks you!

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