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.