Authorial Intent

One of the hallmarks of Biblical interpretation, at least how it is employed by historically orthodox Christians, is role that authorial intent plays in grounding the meaning of a passage. Scholars like to say that “Texts speak.” But the reality is, as one scholar nicely put it, “Texts don’t speak, people do!”

Authorial intent essentially means that the meaning of the passage is tied to what the creator of the writing wanted to convey.   For example, when Nahum speaks of chariots rushing to and fro in Nineveh. He wasn’t prophesying the coming of automobiles. Yes, I know of Christians who claim that he was.

Of course, liberals hate to be so “constricted” by authorial intent.  They argue that almost every book of the Bible has sustained the hands of multiple authors, be they editorial comments or full fledged reworks. So in their mind, one has to consider multiple intents. The Bible is a sort of onion that must be peeled in successive layers to learn what every author said for that given time period.  As can be readily recognized, this makes the Bible an essentially worthless piece of authoritarian work to be used to guide our lives because it becomes not God’s Word to mankind but a repository of generational reflection on divine encounter of multiple individuals.  I hope this explains why Liberals come up with meaning so foreign to the plain reading of the text. They just ignore authorial intent because for them the question is which author of say Deuteronomy should we listen to. This allows them to cherry pick the passages they like and ignore the ones they don’t. At least President Jefferson had the courage to make his own bible so those of us who aren’t as smart of the liberals can read it plainly.

While it is always fun to delve into the arcane world of Liberal exegesis, there are genuine debates among Christians about authorial intent.  For example, when Matthew writes that such and such a prophecy was fulfilled, what exactly did he mean? Is he asserting that Isaiah or some other prophet actually had this or that action in mind that Jesus had to fulfill? In other words, did the prophet himself know that he was predicting an event in the Messiah’s life? Now clearly, some passages were known to the prophet to be prophecies of Christ. But did he know all of them? Could he speak God’s words and not himself know their significance?

One of the ways, that Christians resolve this issue, is to rely on double intention. That is every passage of the Bible ultimately has two authors, the human and God. In this view, the prophet didn’t have to know the prophecy’s true meaning because God did. Not all Christians are happy with that. Walter Kaiser is one of them. He argues that if we go down this route, we can essentially make any passage say what we want it to say because God’s intention is our trump card. He says, each passage has one intention in that God and the prophet together agreed on that intention. There is no sensus plenior that is not tied to original intent.

I am not going to give you the answer here. I just raise it so you can begin thinking about it as you work on understanding the relationship between the Testaments. So when the N.T. appeals the old, ask yourself, did the N.T. writer misread the original O.T. author? Or was it God’s intent? Or did I not properly understand the significance of the O.T. passage?

Copyright 2007.  Stephen Vantassel

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