The Author Determines the Meaning: Now, What Do I Do About It?

The previous post describes why we should not just read the Bible for how it makes us feel or “what it says to me.” If that is true, how should I read the Bible, what do I do about it?

Commit to an Author-Determined Approach to Meaning

We do not read the Bible to see a reflection of ourselves in the text; we read the Bible as a window through which we discover God’s truth about the universe, ourselves, and Him. “[When reading the Bible] the goal is to arrive at the creative intention of the original author contained in the words of the text…the meaning of the text is what the author consciously intended to say by his text. Thus, the meaning of Romans is what Paul intended to communicate to his readers in Rome when he wrote his letter.”[1]

Who is the Author of the Bible?  God is the ultimate author; and He appointed human authors.

God inspired a variety of human authors over a period of approximately 1500 years who wrote as thinking, feeling human beings to convey His message. God superintended over the process so that as the human author expressed God’s inspiration in their own words and thoughts, every word that was written was also the exact word he wanted to be written—free from all error. This dual authorship is evident in Scripture.[2]

“When writing a letter to the Corinthians, Paul did not enter an ecstatic state, recite the letter to a secretary, and then, when finished, pick up the completed composition and say, ‘Let’s see what God wrote!’ Yet, as an apostle, Paul expected his teaching to be fully obeyed and believed—received, in fact, as the very word of God (1 Cor. 7:40; 14:36-37; 2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2; Col. 1:25; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Thess. 3:14).”[3] The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews recognizes the inspired quality in the Old Testament when the author of Hebrews introduces Psalm 95 saying, “The Holy Spirit says” (Heb. 3:7).[4] Robert Plummer provides some guidelines for interpreting the Bible in light of the dual-authorship of the Bible:

  1. The clear purpose of the human author is a good place to start in understanding the Bible. The Scripture cannot mean less than the human authors consciously intended. Admittedly, there are a few places where the human author confesses his ignorance of the revelation given to him (e.g., Dan. 12:8-9), but these are exceptions. The human authors usually seem acutely aware of conveying timely messages to their current audiences.
  2. God, as the Lord of history and revelation, included patterns or foreshadowing of which the human authors were not fully aware. Under God’s sovereign hand, his prior historical interventions were in themselves prophetic—pointing forward to Christ. (e.g., the comment on Old Testament laws in Heb. 10:1) Similarly, Paul notes that the inclusion of the Gentiles and Jews together under the saving work of Christ was a “mystery” present in the Scriptures but not fully revealed until the Spirit declared this truth through the New Testament prophets and apostles (Eph. 3:3-6). We should seek explicit statements in later revelation to clarify any such divine intentionality. One should be forewarned against finding symbolic or prophetic details in the Old Testament when no New Testament author has provided authoritative interpretation of the text.
  3. In general, the Bible can’t mean something that the human author did not consciously intend to communicate. That is to say that broadly, an author only intends one meaning. That meaning can be the foundation for numerous implications (of which the author may or may not be aware). If that is confusing, it might help to consider adopting a vocabulary for Bible interpretation.[5]

Start with the Right Vocabulary for Bible Interpretation

“One of the major problems encountered in interpreting and discussing written texts is the use of imprecise terminology. If in the process of interpretation, terms are used inaccurately, confusion will result.”[6] Here’s a vocabulary set from Robert Stein to add clarity:

Meaning: The meaning of a text is the principle that an author consciously willed to convey by the words (shareable symbols) used. It is the biblical author who is the determiner of the text’s meaning. Since the principle originated in the past when the text was written, the meaning of a text can never change (locked in history)…Even the author cannot change the meaning of a text because he cannot change the past. [For example: an author can issue a revised edition of a book, they can even recant of the original edition, but they can never make the old text mean something different than what it meant.]

Implications: Are those inferences in a text of which an author may or may not have been aware but that nevertheless legitimately fall within the principle he willed. For instance…in Ephesians 5:18 (“do not get drunk with wine”), [note that] Paul was prohibiting drunkenness that results from drinking any alcoholic beverage, not just wine. The command not to be drunk with wine is part of that principle, of course, but that principle also involves all later alcoholic beverages, as well as drugs used for non-medical purposes. Although Paul was thinking primarily of drinking wine, he also meant by implication becoming drunk by consuming alcoholic beverages or by taking drugs intravenously, even though he had no idea of how such substances could enter the body in this manner. There is just one meaning of a text, but there can be numerous implications of that meaning.

Significance: Refers to how a reader responds to the meaning of a text. For Christians there is a close relationship between the significance and the implications of a biblical text. The reason is that Christians attribute positive significance to the implications of such text. But a non-Christian might agree that X and Y are legitimate implications of a biblical text and simply say, “I don’t believe this!” or “So what! I don’t care!” A note about application: “Application,” in popular use can refer to both implications (when one applies the meaning [principle] of a passage to generate implications for present day) and significance (seeing the implications of the Bible as something that we should be obedient to, we apply those implications to our lives by seeing their significance—we apply the implications by doing/following them).

Subject matter: Refers to the content, or “stuff,” talked about in a text, without regard to how it is used by the author to convey meaning.[7]

Commit to a “Literal” Interpretation of the Bible

A “literal” interpretation of the Bible may not mean what you think it means. In recommending a literal interpretation of the Bible, this refers to an approach that takes the text at face value without assuming or seeking a true, hidden meaning underneath, behind, or beyond the text. Interpreting the Bible literally is agreeing that it is what it purports to be: the inspired Word of God, given to man. A literal interpretation doesn’t deny the use of symbolism in the biblical text; the Bible should be understood according to its literary context.  There are many literary contexts or genres contained in the Bible: poetry, narrative, parables, prophecy, letters, etc. Other terms commonly used to describe a literal interpretation of Bible are plain sense, normal reading, or straightforward.[8]

It is true that we have to put a bit of effort into discerning whether a particular text is intended to be interpreted literally or symbolically—but that is far from an impossible task. As Henry A. Virkler writes, “if the author meant [the particular biblical text] to be interpreted literally, we err if we interpret them symbolically. If the author meant them to be interpreted symbolically, we err equally if we interpret them literally.”[9]

Understand the Impact of the Inerrancy of Scripture

A Summary Statement from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

  1. “God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.
  2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
  3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
  4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
  5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.”[10]

Henry Virkler makes a helpful case for why the Christian should be convinced of the inerrancy of Scripture: “If Jesus Christ is, in fact, the Son of God, then his attitude toward Scripture will provide the best answer to the question of inerrancy…

First, Jesus consistently treated the historical narratives of the Old Testament as straightforward records of fact.

Second, Jesus often chose as the basis of his teaching those very stories that most modern critics find unacceptable (e.g., Noah and the flood—Matt. 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-27; Sodom and Gomorrah—Matt. 10:15; 11:23-24; the story of Jonah—Matt. 12:39-41; Luke 11:29-32).

Third, Jesus consistently adduced the Old Testament Scriptures as the authoritative court of appeal in his controversies with the scribes and the Pharisees. His complaint with them was not that they gave too much credence to Scripture, but that they had, by their rabbinic casuistry (misleading technical distinctions), managed to circumvent the clear and authoritative teachings to be found in it.

Fourth, Jesus taught that nothing could pass from the law until all had been fulfilled (Matt. 5:17-20) and that Scripture could not be broken (John 10:35).

Finally, Jesus used Scripture in his rebuttal to each of Satan’s temptations.”[11]

Virkler also provides a pointed quote from J. I. Packer: “The fact we have to face is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, who claimed divine authority for all that He did and taught, both confirmed the absolute authority of the Old Testament for others and submitted to it unreservedly Himself…If we accept Christ’s claims, therefore, we commit ourselves to believe all that He taught—on His authority. If we refuse to believe some part of what He taught, we are in effect denying Him to be the divine Messiah—on our own authority.”[12]

Recognize the Impact and the Limits of the Spirit’s Illumination

Robert Plummer notes that “most Protestant theologians affirm that the Holy Spirit illumines the believer. That is, the Spirit brings to the Christian greater cognitive understanding of the biblical text. Theologians also affirm the Spirit’s related work of bringing conviction, that is impressing upon the believer’s conscience that the teachings of Scripture are in fact true, applicable, and incumbent upon the reader. It is also important to note what illumination is not.”[13] Plummer also provides a relevant quote from Grant Osborne regarding what illumination is not:

“The Spirit does not whisper to us special reasons which are not otherwise available; rather, he opens our eyes to acknowledge those reasons which are available.” (1986:234) In other words, the Spirit makes it possible for the reader to use every faculty to discern the Word and apply it How does this explain the fact that equally spiritual scholars interpret the same passage quite differently? The Spirit makes it possible to overcome our preunderstanding in order to discern the Word, but he does not guarantee that we will do so. On difficult passages we must use every tool we can muster and still will often read a text the way our experience and theological proclivities dictate…Some passages are so ambiguous that more than one interpretation is possible. We must make our hermeneutical choice but remain open to further leading from the Spirit and challenge from our peers. The Spirit enables us to free our minds to the text but does not whisper to us the correct answer.[14]

Select a Good English Translation of the Bible for Study

“A study Bible will not only give you a helpful overview of each book but also provide verse notes to help you understand doctrinal biases of the persons writing those notes. For that reason, I recommend the Zondervan NIV Study Bible and the ESV Study Bible (Crossway). Both are respected works whose notes represent broad consensus of evangelical scholarship.”

Study the Bible to Understand What it Communicates to Believe it and to Do it

The process of studying the Bible according to what it originally meant is what we are referring to as interpreting the Bible literally. “In modern times, evangelicals have spoken of literal interpretation as grammatical-historical interpretation to indicate that there exists both a grammatical-language context as well as a historical context which must be taken into account to read a passage.”[15]

“A word that is used to describe Bible interpretation is “hermeneutics.” That term—hermeneutics—“is from a Greek word, hermeneuo which means to interpret or to translate, to give the meaning. It is giving the sense of what something says. It would be used of anything that needed to be interpreted. And, of course, we’re used to this. We communicate with one another and we very often say, ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’ That’s a very common expression to something you don’t understand…So hermeneutics, which is an English transliteration of this Greek verb, hermeneutics is the science of Bible interpretation. And I want you to identify it as a science because it is a science. That is, it operates under fixed rules. That’s very important to establish. It is the crucial science behind all accurate doctrine, all sound doctrine that is faithful to the Word of God. Where you have a deviation from sound doctrine, inevitably you have a failure to stay by the science of hermeneutics. Or you have a flat-out denial of the veracity and authenticity of the text itself.”[16]


Footnotes:

  1. Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 11.
  2. Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010), 32.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 33.
  5. Ibid., 34, Points 1 and 2 are quoted from Plummer. Point 3 is an adaptation.
  6. Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 30.
  7. Ibid., 31-42. The entire vocabulary set is a quote from Stein. It should be noted that this selection lists only a portion of the terms; Stein’s vocabulary is larger than what is presented here.
  8. Mike Stallard,“Literal Interpretation: The Key to Understanding the Bible,” Journal of Ministry and  Theology 04:1 (2000): 14-34, accessed February 8, 2016, https://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.summitu.edu/article/jmat04-1-02/print.
  9. Henry A. Virkler and Karelynne Gerber Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 27.
  10. Dallas Theological Seminary, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf.
  11. Henry A. Virkler and Karelynne Gerber Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 30-31.
  12. Ibid., 32-33
  13. Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010), 144.
  14. Ibid., 144-145.
  15. Mike Stallard,“Literal Interpretation: The Key to Understanding the Bible,” Journal of Ministry and  Theology 04:1 (2000): 14-34, accessed February 8, 2016, https://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.summitu.edu/article/jmat04-1-02/print.
  16. John MacArthur, “How Should We Interpret the Bible?” sermon transcript, August 25, 2013, (http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/90-463/How-Should-We-Interpret-the-Bible).

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