Have you ever been in a Bible Study where the leader carelessly asks, “So, what does this passage mean to you?” What kind of question is that? Perhaps it is an innocent, albeit poorly worded, call for personal application. But often the answers that follow touch on meanings that have nothing to do with the words being interpreted. Is meaning person relative? Can we make the text mean whatever we want it to mean? One of the most important questions being asked today is, “Do authors exist?” At first glance, it seems like an inane question. Of course authors exist. We have books, magazine articles, newspaper stories, notes, blogs, tweets, and the like. They did not just magically appear. Someone wrote them.
But that does not get to the crux of the question as it is asked in philosophy and interpretation today. In our postmodern world, “Do authors exist?” is not a question regarding the reality of an originator of a text (an ontological question). Rather, “Do authors exist?” asks whether the meaning of a text is controlled by the author who wrote it. Once words are on paper, who controls meaning, the author or the reader? If the author controls meaning, how can the reader be sure what the meaning is? Is it ever legitimate to say, “That is a wrong interpretation” with any conviction? As such, “Do authors exist?” is an epistemological question, a question of authority, and, ultimately, an ethical question.
We see this played out in our current context any time there is a discussion of the right interpretation of the United State constitution. Conservatives will typically argue that we must pay attention to authorial intent (the right interpretation and understanding of the constitution is what the framers were thinking when they wrote it), while progressives will typically argue that our current context determines the legitimate reading (the right interpretation and understanding of the constitution is driven by our contextual need and circumstances).
Does meaning exist to be discovered by the reader OR does the reader create meaning when he or she reads? Is the reader beholden to the author? Must the reader submit creative rights to the author when interpreting? Who are authors to tell me that my interpretation is wrong? Why should an author have that sort of authority? Who are authors that they can have such power over me and my interpretive liberties? You get the point.
Pomo interpreters are highly skeptical that the author should exercise any sort of authority over the reader with regard to meaning. For many today, the exercise of authority is always coercively authoritarian. And that goes especially for authors. Authors have biases and presuppositions. Worst of all, authors have agendas. In fact, an entire literary theory and philosophy of language has evolved in the last 40+ years called Deconstruction. Though definitions vary, practically speaking, Deconstruction is the attempt to expose the ulterior motives of the author. If the hidden agenda of the author can be brought to light, then the truth claims of the author can be exposed for the violent sham that they are. The result is a mound of verbal rubble. Nothing of objective value is built to replace it, but at least the coercive power-grab has been destroyed. The reader, an autonomous agent, is then free to use the text, beholden to no one, creating meaning as he or she sees fit. No author ought to be able to control how a one interprets a text. Likewise, no Author ought to be able to control how one interprets reality. “Who is an author to tell me how to interpret a text?” is really the same question, to pomo philosophers, as “Who is God to tell me how to live?” It is for this reason that Deconstruction has been called, “The Death of God put into writing.”
So we see, how one thinks about God is inextricably linked to how one thinks about interpretation. Which is another reason I teach my students, Interpretation is first and foremost a theological endeavor.
Christians have historically been committed to the idea that the meaning of a text resides in that which the author intended to convey. This implies two controversial affirmations (at least by today’s standards).
First, Christians are (or ought to be) what are sometimes called “hermeneutical realists.” That is, we believe that a text is used to convey meaning. That meaning existed in the mind of the author and has been communicated through writing. I am a realist in the sense that when I read a text, the meaning exists even before I go about interpreting. Interpretation is all about discovering meaning, not creating it.
Second, Christians believe (or ought to) that meaning is recoverable. If interpretation is a matter of discovery, not creation, then there must be some hope that the author’s intended meaning can be located and understood. This does not mean that meaning-discovery is easy or uncomplicated; it just means that it is possible.
To some today, those two affirmations are hopelessly false. To them, meaning does not exist out there to be discovered. Meaning is a function of all that the reader brings to the text (goals, categories, perspectives, presuppositions, etc.). The argument goes that we bring so much to the text that it is impossible for any two readers to have completely unified understanding of “what an author meant.” To make it even more difficult for Bible interpreters, we are separated from the authors by 2,000 to 4,000 years, geography, culture, and language. We have the text, but in what sense do we have access to the author?
Answer: We have the author’s words. The biblical authors were good writers. They were completely capable of communicating that which they intended to convey. They provided necessary context and used literary genres specifically chosen to make their point. We also have the Holy Spirit, the Divine Author, who inspired the text. The Spirit who inspired the text is the very same who illuminates the text. But more on that another time. . . .
We may not be able to have completely unified understanding. We might not have exhaustive understanding of all that an author meant by his words. But just because we do not have exhaustive knowledge does not mean that we cannot have true knowledge. I can have true understanding of a text without understanding everything that an author meant.
Christians will often disagree over what a biblical passage means. That is OK! Disagree, respectfully argue, correct, reprove, and attempt to persuade. Such things absolutely belong in Christian Bible Study. What does not belong in honest Bible Study is complete surrender to pomo forces that would tell us that disagreement is proof that meaning does not exist to be discovered, and that the text can mean whatever we want it to mean. There is a meaning in the biblical text, and it is waiting to be discovered. It is the meaning intended by the author.
About Todd Miles
Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).