Who’s meaning counts?

Consider the following scenario:

After a brief study of a passage from the Bible, the leader of the Bible study asks those present to reflect on what the text means for them. The first person to speak reiterates what they understood the passage to be mean but goes no further. The next speaks of the passage with direct reference to her present circumstances, but this is quickly met with criticism by the first. He objects, ‘that isn’t what the text means at all’. ‘But that wasn’t the question’ she replies, ‘the question was what does it mean for me?’ He replies, ‘That’s not the problem, my problem is that what you claim it means to you has little connection with what the author was trying to communicate to his original readers. It simply couldn’t have meant anything like that to them.’ A third speaks up in defence of the accused, ‘What the text meant is irrelevant, all that matters is that as living the Word speaks to us in our context.’ Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, the accused directs a question to the leader of the study, ‘what’s wrong with my answer? This is what it means to me!’ The third interrupts, ‘why should you’, speaking to the first, ‘get to decide what it means anyway? You can interpret it how you like, but it doesn’t mean that for me or her.’ His response is quick and heated, ‘You can’t make the Scriptures mean what ever you like, that undermines the authority of the Bible Completely!’

How do we determine what a text ‘means’ and what it doesn’t mean? Can texts mean different things to different people? Do texts have a single fixed meaning or a plurality of meanings? Are there any ‘constraints’ on these readings at all or are readers free to take from texts what they wish?

This scenario illustrates some of what is at stake in the debate over meaning, a debate I hope it also shows is not merely a matter of academic interest or quibble, but one of direct relevance to every reader of the Scriptures.

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4 thoughts on “Who’s meaning counts?

  1. Though, except as a convenient linguistic shortcut, text don’t “mean”. Only people “mean” and they often use texts to do it. Therefore the first question is: Who is meaning this text?

    If we reword the leaders question inn the light of this we get three basic (and likely) options (of which we might select more than one):
    (1) What do you mean by this text? (Both answers were right if the speakers were honest.)
    (2) What did the writer mean by this text? (The second answer is trying to be right.)
    (3) What does God mean by this text? (Now we get into the interesting questions of hermeneutics :)
    But someone has to mean – texts can’t!

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  2. Hi Tim,

    Having pondered your comments your absolutely right in saying that we speak of texts “meaning” only as a convenient linguistic shortcut. This is very helpful.

    While texts obviously do not have intentions and do not act to mean, the author’s meaning is in a sense embodied in them, texts are carriers of meaning. But as you indicate, this meaning is not their meaning but the authors. And so when we ask what a text means, we typically want to understand what they were intended to communicate.

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  3. But then it gets more complicated for the Bible…

    Firstly we often do not know who the author was or even when, and even if we do the text has been given to us in a different form because it has become part of Scripture after the author’s death. (In the case of the OT it is even more complicated because it first became Jewish Scripture (e.g. Jesus’ “Law and Prophets” or “Law, Prophets & Psalms”) then later Christian Scripture with the NT.

    Second Christians afirm that Scripture is also God’s word, so in some sense God’s meaning is in the “mix” too!

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  4. In the absence of an identifiable author we still need to get as close to the text’s origin as we can in order to increase our chances of rightly interpreting it. The principle remains even where we lack the means to follow it as we would wish.

    We could really have some fun exploring the question of God’s meaning. In the end I have to side with Vanhoozer when he states that ‘The fundamental principle in reading Scripture to hear the word of God is to assume that the human discourse is the divinely authorized and appropriated discourse unless there is good reason to do otherwise.’

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