Given the inevitable presuppositions and subjectivity of the exegete, is it really possible to establish the intended meaning of the original Bible authors?
Exegesis: the science and art of interpreting a text, so to bring out its meaning. However, who or what is the depository of meaning: the author, the text or the reader? We shall seek to determine whether authorial intent is where meaning indeed resides, and whether it can in fact be established by the exegete; and we shall embark on this journey as we look at closely related matters, such as the nature of Scripture, hermeneutics, the role of the text according to Scripture, dual authorship in light of the divine inspiration, and the reader’s presuppositions.
Before New Criticism, the idea that a text embodied the intentions of its author was generally accepted (Suarez & Woudhuysen, 2010). This position is known as authorial intent, which argues that an author possesses a privileged understanding of their creations, and consequently any interpretation that contradicts that understanding must defer to the author’s intent (Chandler & Munday, 2011). New Criticism argued for textual autonomy (Harker, 1988), according to which meaning is an inherent property of the text apart from the author. Wimsatt & Beardsley (1946) claimed it was fallacious (“intentional fallacy”) to include an author’s intention as basis to determine the meaning of their work: texts are to be considered as having “semantic autonomy”. New Critics also deemed fallacious the reader response view (“affective fallacy”); yet this has seen a rise in popularity since the late 1960s (Chandler & Munday, 2011). Such view locates meaning in how the reader ‘feels’ about what they read; thus, the interpreter is “able to ‘roam at large in the trackless fields of their own imaginations’” (Woods, 2004, p. 80). This view may seem a good complement for the neo-orthodox view of revelation (Erickson, 1985), but the conservative will deem it as dangerous (Woods, 2004), because it undermines the biblical stance that truth is absolute.
Textual autonomy also seems unacceptable, because it severs the text from the author, who is necessary to validate our interpretations as we appeal to their semantic domain to do so. (Compton, 2008).
We agree with Harker when he says that “authorial intent subsumes the text” (p. 6): a literary work is the act of “one person talking to another” (Elliot, 1956 as in Harker, 1988), so the text represents the outcome of the author’s desire to communicate a reality that the reader would not have recognised apart from the revelation provided by the text (Harker, 1988). Hays (2009) explains how this model is essentially the speech-act theory that Vanhoozer (2009) sees as that which ‘gave the author their voice back’.
Thus, “authorial meaning is textual meaning” (Köstenberger, 2008, p. 39), which arises from the contextual bounds of the culture, the knowledge, and the language of both the author and their audience at the time the text was produced (Schwartz, 1994). Unconscious and unintended social elements of the text may also be considered (Wilkins, 2005). Therefore, Sitz im Leben is crucial to the exegete’s task: what shaped the author’s thinking must become our “exegetical key”.
The nature of Scripture
Inspiration and necessity are two distinctive characteristics of Scripture. The ontological divide between God and man required a divinely-authored written revelation (Zuck, 1991) to preserve all we need to know in order to relate properly to God (Erickson, 1985). “[God’s] very nature supplied a moral necessity for inscripturating His Word” (Barrick, 2004, p. 163). Revelation is God’s communication act to mankind, thus speech-act theory would have us locate the meaning of Scripture in its ultimate Author’s intent; and it would appear reasonable to conclude—on the basis of the Author’s revealed character—that His intent must be knowable. This seems to be also implied by the exhortation found in Mark 13:14—“let the reader understand”—which brings us to another distinctive characteristic of Scripture: its inherent perspicuity (Pettegrew, 2004).
Post-reformation biblical interpretation tends to employ historical-grammatical hermeneutics, which “is designed to arrive at authorial intent” (Woods, 2004, p. 77), by considering the Sitz im Leben(McCartney & Clayton, 2012). Many of its adherents do not believe any passage of Scripture has (or has ever had) more than a single meaning (Vanhoozer, 2009). Nevertheless, the principle of single meaning has been challenged, and so the sufficiency of the historical-grammatical method for bringing out the full meaning of the biblical text. This has led to concepts like Inspired Sensus Plenior Application (ISPA) (Thomas, 2002) as a possible solution to the problem of how New Testament (NT) authors were able to arrive at non-literal meanings of passages from the Old Testament (OT) without giving licence to modern interpretations that eschew the historical-grammatical method.
Others have argued that exclusive commitment to the latter methodology is unnecessary. Sequeira (2017) affirms that biblical-theological hermeneutics is just as viable and that the “exegetical logic of the NT authors demonstrates that types are historical, authorially-intended, textually rooted” (p. 12). Beale (2012), too, includes it into the exegete’s toolbox, together with corporate heremeneutics.
Interestingly, both methodologies are typical of early Jewish Christianity, and together with methods like peshat, midrash, and pesher, constitute a large part of rabbinical hermenutics (Longenecker, 1970).
Ash (1987) argues that there is correspondence between rabbinical hermeneutics and New Criticism; likewise, Yadin-Israel (2017) tries to demonstrate that forms of textual autonomy and authorial intent were already present in rabbinical commentaries. Yet, not even the high transcendentalism of Rabbi Ishamel’s hermeneutics completely severs the author from the text (Yadin-Israel, 2017), and only the Kabbalists went that far (Ash, 1987).
What does the Bible say?
“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim 1:8 NASB). The implication is that one can misuse the Law (Greek nomos). Furthermore, the right way to use it is “lawfully”, Greek nomimōs, that is “conformable to law” (Thomas, 1998). Interestingly, the Complete Jewish Bible (Sterne, 1998) renders this same verse as “We know that the Torah is good, provided one uses it in the way the Torah itself intends”. The teachers Paul is addressing are accused of speculation (1:4), i.e. teaching the text not as “the Torah itself intends”.
Scripture is divinely inspired and inherently perspicuous; the latter requires a “relationship between the words of the text and the cognition of the human agent” (Compton, 2008, p. 24). Thus, we can state that Scripture does have dual authorship. The question, therefore, is: were the human authors of the Bible always aware of the full meaning of their texts? Some find it difficult to believe, for instance, that Moses was conscious of all the messianic predictions embedded in the Pentateuch (Bray, 2000). And “Old Testament prophets sometimes admitted that they did not understand their utterances” (Bock, 1985b, p. 308).
Yet, Compton explains how one is at risk of “hermeneutical docetism” if they suggest that, by virtue of inspiration, God could have intended more than what the human author did. Similarly, the risk of “hermeneutical nihilism” is real if we suggest that interpretation does not require that God and man have the same intentions. Nonetheless, Compton is quick to add that theologians past and present (Bock included) have allowed for divided intentions, in light also of the complexity of the term ‘meaning’ which encompasses sense, referent, significance, and implication.
Once we accept that divine meaning may not be coextensive with the human author’s intentions, the question remains whether, in such an instance, criteria still exist to validate interpretation objectively; what else may prevent arbitrary and anachronistic readings if not the human author and their context? (Compton, 2008).
The reader’s presuppositions
Nobody is presuppositionally neutral (Bahnsen, 1996). A reader will inevitably be affected by their own schemata (Harker, 1988) or presuppositions. When these are left unchecked, the interpreter could make the text say what it never meant, as the exegetical process begins with a preunderstanding that is likely to obstruct the communication of the original meaning from the author to the reader (Thomas, 2004).
Just as a text is the product of an author influenced by their Sitz im Leben, so a reader participates in the process of acquiring the meaning by bringing their schemata to the text, which could encompass anything from the “features of individual letters through […] the general meaning of the text as a whole” (Harker, 1988, p. 11).
Presuppositions are the product of past experience and can be broadly categorised in two sets (McCartney & Clayton, 2012): worldview presuppositions, the core beliefs that influence the way we think about everything else; and presuppositions about the text. Whilst presuppositions play a role for any reader of any text, Thomas affirms that fallen man is especially prone to impose his own subjective opinions onto the Bible. This is because Scripture directly challenges the reader’s worldview; when this happens, a cognitive dissonance occurs, and a person’s instinctive reaction is to reprocess the information acquired in such a manner as to protect their current worldview (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 2008). Another fundamental part is played by the temporal, geographical, cultural, societal, and linguistic distance that separates the reader from the author (Fee & Stuart, 2014). The greater this distance (e.g. the more ancient the text), the harder is for the interpreter to understand the Sitz im Leben that shaped the author’s intent. One last major factor is any pre-existing knowledge the exegete may have, which could inform their understanding of meaning, hermeneutics, nature of Scripture, and dual authorship.
Nonetheless, we must be mindful of not throwing off our presuppositions entirely, because they help us relate to the original meaning of the text in a personal way (Hirsch, 1967 as in Poggemiller, 1998).
Establishing authorial intent
Our thesis is that sound exegesis is the result of establishing authorial intent, a task we believe can be accomplished by overcoming the archenemy of the exegete: their presuppositions.
For example, Schwartz (1994) speaks of dogmatic and exclusive commitment to peshat as the way to establish authorial intent. Unsurprisingly, Kaiser (1984) believes the same about the grammatical-historical method and the principle of single meaning. There is, however, little evidence that the NT authors exclusively chosen one hermeneutic over another (Longenecker, 1970); as we already mentioned, they employed a variety of methodologies, with pesher seeming to be the closest contemporary parallel for most of NT authors, except Paul, who appears to have retained the midrashtypical of the Pharisaic school of Hillel where he studied (Longenecker, 1970).
Therefore, the question is not whether Scripture can have more than one correct interpretation of the author’s intent, but rather whether the fullness of the original intent can be revealed by a single interpretative methodology. Oss (1989) rightly observes that problems arise if we insist—anachronistically—that the NT writers exclusively used a twentieth-century-style historical-grammatical exegesis and only sought a single one-dimensional meaning. Clearly, the Church did not see the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15 by means of such hermeneutic, and it is challenging to believe a passage like Paul’s allegory in Galatians 4:21-31 was in the mind of Moses. Yet, Fee & Stuart (2014) say that a text cannot mean what it never meant; it would therefore seem reasonable to conclude that whilst Moses did not intend it that way, God always did. But what do we do when God’s intentions extend beyond those of the human author? Compton (2008) suggests the idea of “canon as control”, which is what Bock (1985b) calls “progressive hermeneutics”: through the gradual progress of revelation, God introduces new promises and connections that unfold Scripture’s full meaning.
It is therefore vital to be actively self-critical with our presuppositions, whilst remembering that we cannot start without any presupposition at all (McCartney & Clayton, 2012); and that is fine: once the interpretative process begins with a self-critical stance, our presuppositions are challenged and modified in a “hermeneutical spiral” (Osborne, 2010). Of course, the reader must be honestly open to this process, not seeking to confirm their preunderstanding (Osborne, 2010) but to follow the text where it leads (Vanhoozer, 2009).
There are also other, less ‘scientific’ principles that can help the exegete to reach authorial intent. For example, the Christocentric Principle, used—and sometimes abused (Woods, 2004)—by Luther, but just as evident in the approach of the NT authors (Longenecker, 1970), and advocated by Eastern Orthodox Church, too. The Roman Catholic’s teaching that interpretation must begin with a spirit of reverence and prayer (Pius XII, 1943) also seems noteworthy advice. The same holds for the Eastern Orthodox’s teaching that Scripture must be approached with humility. Finally, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church support the idea of studying other interpreters (Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard, 2004), by encouraging all to learn from the apostolic and church fathers, and to submit oneself to the community of faith.
Given the exegete’s presuppositions, is it possible to establish the intended meaning of the original Bible authors? In light of our discussion, we are confident to answer the question in the affirmative. Whilst full objectivity is impossible, sound interpretation is certainly not doomed to failure, and determining authorial intent remains an academically defensible and legitimate strategy (Köstenberger, 2008).
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 These rules were not used to depart from the “plain sense of the verse (peshat)” (Maori & Bernstein, 1984).
 Regarding origin, morality, purpose, one’s own relevance, etc.