In discovering the meaning of Scripture we must approach the sacred text with respect and awe because it is the word of God. If this is done then the interpretation of the text will be what the text says, not what one thinks the text says. Most everyone struggles with discerning the meaning of many Scriptures. Theologian, Robert L. Plummer agrees with this when he wrote, “If all these Bible scholars can’t even agree…then what makes me think I can figure it out?!” (40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, 175). This is the question that many ask, and desire to know the answer to. Is there a way to grasp and understand what Scripture says and means? I believe that we most certainly can.
I believe that it is completely possible to know what the Bible means if one approaches the text correctly. But that is the key, approaching the text correctly. Too many people fail to do this. Too many of them hold to what is called the reader-response view. Which means they bring the meaning to the text, rather than the text having the meaning within itself. The problem with the reader-response view is that Scripture, like any other writing, was written with a certain purpose and meaning in it. This is called the authorial intent.
Authorial intent means that the author had a meaning and intention for what was written. This means the text has a meaning in itself, we do not bring meaning to the text. This approach is the appropriate one to take if one desires to understand the meaning of the text. If one follows the reader response method, then any text written is up for grabs and can be made to mean anything the reader wants it to mean. This interpretation method takes away from the Bible being God’s word to us and makes the Bible anything one wants it to be.
This method of interpretation tends to make God’s truth subjective truth, to be altered how one sees fit, rather than objective. Now, subjective truth has a place along with objective truth, but one should not replace objectivity with subjectivity. We should always seek to find both but in their proper context.
Jim Leffel and Dennis McCallum speak of such when they wrote, “As Christians, we accept the reality of both subjective and objective truth, and we believe we can discover both through a combination of our own reason and revelation” (“The Postmodern Challenge.” Christian Research Institute, 2). An example can be, if someone says vanilla ice cream is the best flavor, that is true to them but not to everyone else.
That is subjective truth. But, if one was to say the earth orbits the sun, this is objective whether people reject it or not. This is the same with the Bible and interpreting it. The truth of Scripture is in Scripture, not what the reader wants from it. This means that a passage of Scripture has one meaning and one meaning only, and this is an interpretation practice that has long been held. This means that authorial intent is the way to find the true meaning of Scripture and that the reader response method may be terribly wrong.
If one practices the reader-response technique they are bordering on, if not crossing, the line of postmodernism. This view believes, among many other things, that if anyone claims to have the truth–especially with religious truth, they will repress those who don’t agree. This can then, lead to one making the text mean what they want so they do not offend anyone. This does not do justice to what the text says.
Those holding this view will say if you only have fifty dollars in the bank but want to withdraw two hundred thousand dollars, that you should be able to draw the larger amount. That is a reader response to what your bank statement says. It says you have a much smaller amount than you want but under this view, that should not matter. Yet, the truth of the matter is you only have fifty dollars and that’s it.
The Bible can, and does, have great amounts of deep and completely true meaning. One can find the true meaning behind all the texts if they will practice following the authorial intent. The texts of the Bible have one interpretation, but many applications and one needs to be careful to never mix the two. One would never bring their own meaning to the newspaper or any other writing of past or present. So, then, why does one think that they must do so with the Bible?
The Bible, just like any other writing, has its meaning, and this is what must be sought out. One must keep in mind that the words and sentences have meanings and the author used them in a specific way for a reason. This means that the meaning is the same now as when it was written and can only be found or determined by careful study. There is meaning to every text of the Bible, and one must never inject their own meaning into the text no matter how difficult the meaning is to find.
This analogy is a bit out there but it fits. If one, brings their own meaning to the biblical text, or any other text, then the text can mean anything. This is not a good way to interpret Scripture at all. In this view, one can, and will, spiritualize the text to mean what they want. They will look to a text that says one thing, and make it mean a totally different thing than what was written. It would be like one taking the David and Goliath narrative and making every challenge their Goliath and themselves David. This does not work nor does it comport with what Scripture is teaching there. This view can be avoided if the reader will follow the rules of authorial intent.
Seek to learn and understand Scripture, but always seek to understand what the text says not what you think it says. Always ask, what does this mean? What did the author try to convey here? But do not ask, what does this text mean to me? That will lead you into very dangerous interpretative waters. Waters where you are swimming well, but do not see the waterfall you are about to plunge over.