This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Students will say things to an English professor in the cafeteria that they would not say on their hermeneutics exam to their Bible professor. This student maintained that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture was meaningless because once revelation is inscripturated, it becomes language, which is open to interpretation. Since interpretation is an endlessly open-ended process, one can never finally specify what the propositions are whose truth we claim inspiration guarantees. So we should just let the Holy Spirit change people’s hearts without worrying about what is happening in their heads or how they might formulate it into ideas and doctrines. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder anyway, so we really don’t have any other choice.
I replied: Just because it isn’t always easy to tell what a text means, it doesn’t follow that it has no objectively determinable meaning. Paul makes the graphe of Scripture our touchstone of meaning and truth by saying that the graphe are what is inspired and thus profitable for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16). The Greek word graphe means literally writings — ink on parchment, words on paper. The actual words written by the biblical authors are what Paul says were inspired, theopneustos — breathed out by God. In inspiration, the Holy Spirit guided the human authors to choose those particular words, in those precise grammatical constructions, in those specific literary and historical contexts, as those that could convey His message accurately. Therefore, when we interpret the biblical writings accurately by those specific clues, we can have confidence that we know what God says, and that it is true. To Paul, the text as written, precisely because it consists of all those specific details, is perfectly capable of functioning as the touchstone of meaning.
Obviously, I continued, we are influenced by our assumptions, our backgrounds, our experiences. That is why you think we cannot get into the mind of the author, because ours are different from his. But an influence is not a determinism. We also can step out of our own assumptions to see what the world would look like without them — try on another pair of glasses. When you’re in the back of the classroom, my eyes would tell me you have only a pink blob instead of a face. My glasses tell me you do have a face. Which view is correct? Well, I can test both visions by other senses and by comparing them to what other people see. I then can judge whether my glasses let me see the world more as it really is. That is what I’m doing when I use diction, grammar, and context to discern what the author meant; they let me get past my preconceived notions to get in touch with reality.
The Chasm. To my chagrin, I discovered that the idea of “text as touchstone” was completely foreign to this student’s thinking. To her, and to many of her contemporaries, a text has no meaning until it is interpreted. None. The meaning is not in the text waiting for the reader to discover it; rather, it is up to the reader to confer the meaning onto the text. Meaning is purely in the eye of the beholder; it exists nowhere else. So since we cannot discuss truth until we have ascertained meaning, and the text means something different to each reader…you begin to see the problem.
No recital of objective features of the text (grammar, lexicography, context) could budge this student from this conviction. To her, it simply was self-evident, and any other way of thinking was incomprehensible. She made no attempt to counter my use of 2 Timothy 3:16. She had no alternative interpretation; she didn’t think she needed one. The verse was lumped into the category of the meaningless because, whatever it says, it has to be interpreted, and that’s the end of that.
This girl had not read any postmodern theory, but she had absorbed its radical subjectivism from her culture so thoroughly that she didn’t need to. We can be sophisticated and say with postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida that meaning is endlessly deferred in the free-play of language; we can be erudite and question with American literary theorist Stanley Fish whether there is a text in this class; or we can be naïve and object, “Well, that’s just your interpretation!” It makes no difference. The French sophist, the American critic, and the sophomoric student are all in the same place, on one side of a watershed that separates them from the Christian tradition. Does the text have authority over the interpreter, or does the interpreter have authority over the text? Does the text, through its diction, grammar, structure, and contexts, make demands on the interpreter to which he is obligated to submit, or is it just a convenient playing field for his own intellectual gymnastics? That is the watershed choice that faces us. And my student rightly intuited that on the postmodern side of it, the inspiration and authority of Scripture are not so much false as meaningless.
This is the choice we all must make. But our students increasingly have already made it without knowing or understanding why. Why wouldn’t my student read Scripture this way? It is how her culture has taught her implicitly (and secular English departments teach their students explicitly) to read all texts. But it would be different in a Christian school, right? Her required classes in Bible, hermeneutics, and theology had not confronted this student with the awareness that there was a choice to be made. They thought they had, but it had not come through. Students can take those classes in a conservative Christian college, believe inerrancy is meaningless, say the opposite on the test to please their professors, and not even be aware of, much less concerned about, the contradiction. That should concern us greatly.
At the Bottom of the Chasm. Why does it matter? Unless meaning resides in the text, unless the reader is obligated to make a good-faith effort to find the meaning put there by the author, then authority is inevitably transferred from the text to the reader. Someone other than the author — either the reader herself or some expert to whom she defers — must now tell us what the text is saying. And a text that cannot reach across the gap between the author’s mind and mine leaves me trapped inside my own head. A text that can be interpreted only by my preconceived notions cannot correct them. This hermeneutic returns us to the chaos of the Book of Judges, where everyone does (i.e., reads into or out of the text) what is right in his or her own eyes.
I don’t blame my colleagues. I happen to know that they are teaching correct procedures with a good foundation. They were teaching the right stuff but had perhaps underestimated the depths of the chasm they were trying to bridge. I am reminded every time I give a test that what is said in class and what is heard, what is heard and what is remembered, what is remembered and what is understood, and what is understood and what is communicated back can be very different things. That does not mean there was no discernible meaning there in the first place! It is a category mistake to conclude that potential difficulties in communication make it impossible. The bottom line is that we who teach and preach must become more aware of this divide. We must make sure we are not on the wrong side of it ourselves and become much more proactive in trying to overcome it.
Crossing the Chasm. How can we overcome it? First, we must not become discouraged about making logical arguments. They are no longer popular, but that is simply because sound thinking is not popular. It is still necessary! We serve a God of reason who cannot lie, and our speech on His behalf should reflect His character. Besides, logical arguments winsomely delivered still can work beneath the surface in people who ostensibly reject their validity, building the cognitive dissonance that might one day bring them to rethink their mindset.
Then we can reflect our speech partner’s statements back in ways that are obviously inaccurate. “So, you say that texts have an objectively determinable meaning discernibly present in them whether a given reader gets it or not?”
“No, that is what I deny!” If the speaker is to be allowed to make that denial, then her statement does mean what she wanted it to mean. It really had a meaning of its own prior to and independent of my interpretation. Otherwise there could be no objection to my deliberate misconstrual of it. Critics who tell you that authors cannot communicate their intended meaning are doing quite effectively in their own texts the very thing they claim is impossible for everyone else! Even people who do not believe that logical contradictions indicate false claims may be able to realize the practical contradiction they have created for themselves. They cannot live by their subjectivist hermeneutic without painting themselves into an intolerable corner. They may want to put you in such a corner, but they will not be willing to live there themselves.
From this realization may come an appreciation for the hermeneutical Golden Rule: interpret others as you would have them interpret you. Do you care about what you are trying to say? Do you want people to care too and try to get it right? Of course you do. If you say you don’t, you are lying. You would not be trying to communicate at all otherwise. Well, then, we have to give the same courtesy to other communicators, including authors, living or dead. We may not have to reduce meaning to authorial intention, but we had better make it foundational to whatever meaning we find, or else we should just keep quiet.
At least, that’s my interpretation. —Donald T. Williams
Donald T. Williams is Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College. He is the author of eleven books, most recently An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Christian Publishing House, 2018).