In the last couple of posts I’ve been putting some thoughts down on the issue of whether the purpose of the human authors of the Bible are exhaustive of the meaning of the Biblical text. The issue is not whether the human author’s meaning is important, or whether it’s possible to discover it, but whether it exhausts the meaning of the text. You can find a fiercely-put argument to this effect in a paper called ‘The Single Intent of Scripture’ by Walter Kaiser Jr (which can be found in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? ed. Greg Beale) who argues, ‘Nowhere, then, does Scripture support the view that the Bible has a multi-track concept of meaning. If the human author did not receive by revelation the meaning in question, then exegetes and readers have no right to identify their meanings with God.’ (p.69). Perhaps we could summarise Kaiser’s view as, ‘The Scriptures only teach what the human authors intended to teach.’ (henceforth, SOTWTHAITT)
Is that, though, correct? What if we turn the burden of proof round and ask does the Bible teach “that there is only one meaning to any text, the meaning intended by the human author”? What does the Bible teach on this issue? I want to argue that it’s very unlikely that the Bible does teach SOTWTHAITT because it’s difficult to defend that statement without slipping into self-contradiction.
Most would agree that for a statement to be true, you need to be able to make it without contradicting yourself. For instance, the statement, ‘what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know’, cannot be true because it asserts science to be the only source of truth – but is itself underived from science. This means that, on its own terms, we should not believe it.
What about the statement, ‘The Scriptures only teach what the human authors intended to teach’? Imagine for a moment that we defend that statement by saying that it’s implied by verses like Hebrews 4:12, 2 Peter 1:20 or 2 Tim 3:16. Now, perhaps it is; but notice the method here. We’re not saying that the writer to the Hebrews or Peter or Paul intended to teach SOTWTHAITT but that we can derive it from the implications of other statements. But at this point our method refutes our conclusion. If SOTWTHAITT can be derived from implications of verses, beyond the original intent of the human authors, then surely other things can be too? Our method of arriving at our conclusion shows that the Scriptures, in fact, can teach more than the human author’s intend. In this sense, ‘The Scriptures only teach what the human authors intended to teach’ is like ‘what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know’; a statement that cannot support itself consistently, unless the human authors intended to teach it explicitly.
Now at this point we have three options. First, we could argue that there is a place in the Scriptures where the human author did intend to teach SOTWTHAITT. Perhaps I have missed, or misread, a verse that does that. But since very little, if any, of the Bible is focused on hermeneutical theory, this seems unlikely.
A second approach would be to say that while the Scriptures don’t teach SOTWTHAITT they don’t teach anything else either. We could then say that this is because they don’t need to teach it, because common sense tells us that all language has one meaning, and that meaning is the one that the author intended it to have. There is, however, a problem here: this has not seemed like common sense across church history. Most pre-modern biblical interpreters, especially those biblical interpreters closest in time and space to the Biblical authors, have assumed that the Scriptures have a sensus plenior, a meaning goes beyond the intent of the human author. This does not mean that they were correct; it does, though, mean that SOTWTHAITT is not a common sense assumption that could be left unstated. In fact, we might wonder if the fact we think it is shows our assumptions are shaped more by late-enlightenment modernity than they are by the Bible.
The third response would be to say, of course we don’t believe that ‘The Scriptures only teach what the human authors intended to teach’ we simply believe that the Scriptures are focused or emphasise what the human authors intended to teach. Now, at this point, I doubt many would disagree. Remember, the issue is not whether the human author’s purpose is important or significant in understanding the meaning of the text but whether it exhausts the meaning the of the text. If we’re all agreed that the Scriptures can teach something beyond the specific purpose of the human author, then there’s no debate to be had.
But where, then, does contemporary conservative evangelical apathy, or even antipathy, to systematic theology, apologetics and cultural engagement come from? Doesn’t that apathy show that, at least tacitly, we believe that the human author’s intent exhausts the meaning of the text? For once we concede the principle that the Scriptures can teach more than the human author’s direct purpose, why shouldn’t we think about the implications of Biblical statements in other areas? For instance, in regard to the nature of God, or the extent of the atonement, or in response to the apologetic questions of the day, or in regard to the cultural and political questions of the day? Many of us have been taught that Scripture doesn’t really speak to these issues. But doesn’t that implicitly teach that human authorial intent exhausts the meaning of Scripture? Hopefully, I’ve shown that it is very unlikely that this is true. In which case, why don’t we follow through the implications of that, and find out all that the Bible teaches ‘by good and necessary consequence’? Perhaps we’ll find that the Bible speaks with a richer and deeper voice than we previously imagined.