Authorial intent and application


Last week, I began thinking about the role of authorial intent in theology.  The history of British conservative
evangelicalism is in some sense a history of hermeneutics. You can listen here
to Dick Lucas tell the story of how we moved from hanging ‘a ragbag of holy
thoughts’, as my Dad calls it, on a verse extracted from its context; to paying
careful attention to how the original author has structured his material to
achieve his particular purpose. We now look for ‘the melodic line’ in each
book, seeing how all the parts of a letter like, for instance, 1 Corinthians
which initially seem so disparate actually cohere into a single argument. All
this was catalysed by a renew focus on the purpose and artistry of the original
author in his own historic context.

It’s hard to over-estimate how big an
advance this was, and is. Suddenly, texts that seemed to be just one pious
statement after another fit together like the inner workings of an expertly engineered
mechanism delivering God’s message with power and precision. I was taught
to read the Bible in this way and I certainly have no desire to leave it behind.

Having discovered the power of this
approach, though, might we be in danger of over-emphasis in the other
direction? The benefits of this exegetical approach have sprung from a renewed
attention to the original, human, author. However, as I said in the last post,
this can lead us to, unconsciously for the most part, equate the meaning of the
text entirely with the original author’s purpose in writing it. Why might this
be a problem?

Well, it becomes a
problem when we want the Bible to speak to issues that the human author of a
text could not possibly have anticipated. To take two examples from Romans,
when Paul wrote about governing authorities in Rom 13, he would naturally have
had the Roman political scenario in mind. Now, that means that if the Holy
Spirit’s intent is identical to the human author’s intent then that
passage is relevant to the political situation of the mid-first century and
nothing more. What would Paul have written about governing authorities in
Nazi Germany or a secular democracy? Was Bonhoeffer acting in line with Romans
13 when he plotted to kill Hitler? What would Paul have said about paying taxes
that fund abortions? We don’t know. We do know that Paul did not intend
his word in Romans 13 to apply to those situations and if the human authors
intent exhausts the Holy Spirit’s intent then neither does the Holy Spirit. Or
similarly, take justification. If we’re wondering whether the Roman Catholic or
Protestant view of justification is correct, and if human author’s intent
is the same as the divine author’s intent, then since Paul did not write with
that question in mind then neither he nor the Holy Spirit intended his
words to be applied to it. 

We’re left then saying
that Romans applies neither to our cultural context nor our theological
questions because Paul did not and could not have anticipated either. We might
guess what he would have thought, and what the Holy Spirit thinks, about them
but the key thing is that we won’t find the answer to either question in the
text of Romans, or indeed the New Testament since none of the human authors
anticipated fully the situation we find ourselves in today. 

It seems to me,
therefore, that if the text of the New Testament is to be
authoritative then we must believe in a divine author whose purpose goes beyond
the human author’s so that what He writes is fully applicable and
authoritative in all situations. Perhaps that’s why Paul ties the
comprehensive usefulness of Scripture to its God-breathed nature in 2
Tim 3:16? 

Of course, all
evangelical pastors do apply Romans or Luke or 2 Peter to situations that Paul,
Luke or Peter could not have foreseen. The question is whether, when we do so,
we’re consistent with our hermeneutical foundations. If the human author’s
intent is not exhaustive in determining legitimate application, perhaps it is
not exhaustive in determining the legitimate theological, apologetic and cultural
implications a text. If that is the case, then could it be that the Bible
speaks more fully and more widely than we currently imagine?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s