The Problem of Intent

Vern Poythress, in Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God, discusses problems relating to authorship in interpreting the Scripture. Questions of authorial intent are not new, but do seem to be arresting the world of biblical scholarship in the last number of years. Ask a Bible scholar what a passage means, and he will respond by telling you what the author meant when he wrote said passage. This isn’t wrong; in fact, I think it’s a lot better than the cage-match, anarchist approach to interpretation found in some Bible study groups.

Nevertheless, authorial intent doesn’t solve everything, and it isn’t intended to. As an approach to Scripture, I think there are weaknesses to this approach which are not always taken into consideration. Take the following statement as an example:

Our way forward is only found in death.

Let’s imagine you saw this on Facebook as is, with no surrounding context. Before seeing the name of the person posting this status update, what would you think? You might assume it’s one of those goth/emo kids that wound up on your feed, roll your eyes, and scroll on. Or, let’s say that you saw the statement attributed to Augustine or Calvin, you would probably think he meant spiritual death, death to self. You would probably wholeheartedly agree. You might even “like” the status. Now what if the same statement was attributed to Chairman Mao? No longer cool. No longer cringe-worthy, even. The connotations are wholly sinister. Why would anyone post this? Here is where a “dislike” button would come in handy. Finally, let’s imagine that the quotation was attributed to Jim Jones. Still sinister, but in a more creepy, sad way.

In both writing and speaking, that which is said or written derives its meaning in part from the author/speaker, and knowing who the author/speaker is can contribute meaning or context to that which is communicated. Not knowing the author of the statement above, we would be left speculating about a wide range of meanings.

When we read the Scripture, we read from a two authorial perspectives. We believe that the human authors of the text wrote from their contexts with their concerns and in their own styles, expressing their personalities. We also believe that the Holy Spirit inspired and superintended every word of what was written, so that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Knowing the human author means we can point out from time to time how this shapes the text: Luke pays more attention to details in healing miracles because he is a doctor, Mark records Peter’s sins more openly because he likely got his information from Peter, etc.

This is well and good, but what when the author is not known, or chooses not to reveal himself beyond what can be reasonably inferred from his writing? We do not know when Judges was written, nor who the author was. Any guesses at the intent behind the words written are exactly that– guesses.

One thing we do not need to guess at is the intent or identity of the divine author of Scripture. He has not revealed all his purpose, or all his purpose in a specific text, but God has made himself known, and his reasons for writing Scripture known. He wrote “concerning this salvation,” indicating “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:10, 11). He caused these things to be written for our instruction and so that we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

I’m not saying the specific burdens of the human author are unimportant, rather that the concerns of the divine author are maximally important, and when we cannot ascertain the former, we can always know the latter.

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