Authorial Intention

The Goal of Interpretation and the Intention of the Author

The question of the goal of interpretation is not so much a question of what one is trying to achieve. Almost everyone agrees that the ultimate goal of interpretation is to obtain meaning. The question is, where is the meaning? When we ask, “Where is meaning?” we are asking about the locus of meaning—were is meaning located. If the goal of interpretation is meaning, we must know where the meaning is in order that we might head in that direction. There are three places meaning can be located—in the mind of the author, in the text, and in the mind of the interpreter. Now, at any given point, meaning may be located in all three places. However, from the point of view of the interpreter, the locus of meaning is one of two places. Either the locus of meaning is the mind of the author, or the text. It is, of course, obvious that before there is a meaningful text, there must be an author with a meaning he desires to communicate. However, from the point of view of the interpreter, the meaning in the mind of an author is totally inaccessible apart from some communicative act by that author in which he communicates that meaning from his mind to the mind of the interpreter. This communicative act is his text. A text can be either spoken or written. The meaning that is caused by the author is carried to the mind of the interpreter by means of a meaningful text. Consequently, from the point of view of the interpreter, it would seem that the locus of meaning is the text.

Therefore, it would seem that the goal of interpretation is to discover the meaning of the text. However, this is not a universally held position. Tremper Longman III, who was at the time of the publication of his book, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, was Associate Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, said, “Interpretation then has as its goal the recovery of the author’s purpose in writing” (Tremper Longman, III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 64–5.). In fact, Longman claims, “If literature is an act of communication, then meaning resides in the intention of the author” (Longman, Literary Approaches, 64.).

To consider the proposal that meaning is in the intention of the author, we should  first distinguish between various uses of the word ‘intent’ when we talk about the intention of the author. There are six causes of meaning, three of which relate to the idea of intent, or intention.

1) The efficient cause, the agent, that by which meaning is caused, namely, the mind of the author. This is the intent in the mind of the author: “I didn’t intend to say that.”

2) The final cause, the purpose, that for which meaning is caused, namely, to communicate. This is the intent of the author as to the purpose for his communication: “My intention (purpose) was to help you.”

3) Material cause, the material, that out of which meaning is caused, namely, words and symbols, language.

4) Formal cause, the form, that of which meaning is caused, namely, the meaning of the text. This is the intent of the author in the expressed meaning of the text.

5) Exemplar cause, the pattern, that after which meaning is caused, namely, the Logos, God, the Divine communicator.

6) Instrumental cause, the means, that through which meaning is caused, namely, logic, reason (Class notes on Semantics by Norman L. Geisler, 1987.).

If, by intention of the author, Longman is talking about the author as the efficient cause of the meaning, his proposal seems to present an insurmountable problem for the interpreter. If the meaning of any communication is in the intention of the author, then, in order to grasp the meaning of the author’s text, the interpreter must attempt to reconstruct the author’s intention. Now, after having gathered all relevant information, and after having developed what the interpreter believes to be the intention of the author, how does the interpreter then validate his hypothesis? The immediate problem, as has been observed by Grant Osborne, is that, “while the original authors had a definite meaning in mind when they wrote, that is now lost to us because they are no longer present to clarify and explain what they wrote” (Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 7.). Osborne unequivocally asserts that an author’s intention is “lost to us.” If it is lost to us, how can we then use it to tell us what the text means or how it should be received by us? But also, what Osborne’s statement implies is that if an author is available, then this would solve the problem. The interpreter could simply confront the author and question the author about his intention. However, let us assume that the author is present and, all I need to do is have the author critique my hypothesis about his intended meaning and correct my misunderstandings of his intention. This is illustrated in Figure 1.

This presents an additional problem, however. In order for the author to communicate his critique of my hypothesis about his intended meaning, he must do so by communicating with me, and this involves presenting me with another text, either oral or written. This is illustrated in Figure 2.

 

Now, in order to understand the meaning of his critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning in his original text, I must construct another hypothesis of his intention in communicating his critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning in his original text. However, before I can apply his critique to my original hypothesis of his original intention, I must validate my new hypothesis of the intention of the author in communicating the text of his critique of my original hypothesis. How can I do this? By having the author critique my hypothesis of his first critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning of his original text. Now, in order to understand the meaning of his subsequent critique about my subsequent hypothesis about his subsequent intention about his original critique of my original hypothesis of his original intention of his original text, I must construct an additional hypothesis . . . ad infinitum. The point is, if the meaning of any text, whether oral or written, is located in the intention of the author, then it is forever inaccessible to me as an interpreter. This is illustrated below in Figure 3. And what if the author is unavailable for comment?

Consequently, if the goal of interpretation is the intention of the author in writing, then our goal is unattainable and meaning can never be understood. But, this does not fit reality. The fact is, people have been communicating for many thousands of years and their communications have been understood by their audience(s), although often there is misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the fact that communication does occur indicates that it is possible to grasp the meaning of an author’s communication even if we do not have direct access to his intention.

The Goal of Interpretation and the Meaning for the Reader

Have you ever been to a small group Bible study in which the basic approach to a passage was, “What does this passage mean to you?” In these kinds of studies there are usually as many “meanings” to a passage as there are people in the group, and, often, the group pools its collective ignorance.

Just as there has been a history of actual communication, there has also been a history of misunderstanding. People have understood one another, and they have misunderstood one another. How many times have you read a text and did not grasp its meaning? Indeed, how often have you written a note, perhaps in the margin of your Bible, and when you later come to read it, you cannot remember what you intended? This fact has led many to propose that the goal of interpretation is the meaning for the reader. According to these proposals, meaning is something that resides in minds. Since a text is an inanimate object and not a “mind,” meaning cannot reside in the text. However, if there cannot be meaning in a text, and since the mind of the author is inaccessible to the interpreter, then the only place left for meaning is the reader. Radical reader-response theories propose that meaning is in the response of the reader to the text. The influence of Immanuel Kant is unmistakable in this perspective. Just as Kant held that the mind supplied the intelligibility (categories) of sensible experience, so for these theorists the mind supplies the meaning for the sensible text. Similarly, as sensible experience supplied the “stuff” of knowledge, so, roughly, the text, by virtue of the cultural parameters of the linguistic community, supplies the stuff of meaning and sets the broad limits of meaning, but the meaning of any text is supplied by the reader, not either the text or the author. The proponents of radical reader-response theories would say that everyone’s interpretation is valid. But this creates another insurmountable problem for the interpreter. As Aristotle put it, “not to have one meaning is to have no meaning, and if words have no meaning there is an end of discourse with others, and even, strictly speaking, with oneself” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980), 167, Book IV, Chapter iv. 1006 b.). In other words, if every reader supplies his own meaning to a text, then there is no determinate meaning communicated, and communication is at an end (strangely, those who propose a radical reader-response approach to meaning do not want their own readers to read into their texts a meaning other than the one they put into the text). Consequently, if the goal of interpretation is the meaning for the reader, and every reader’s interpretation is valid, then there is in fact no goal to interpretation, and no interpretation because there can be no communication.

The Goal of Interpretation and the Meaning in the Text

It would seem, then, that since the locus of meaning, from the point of view of the interpreter, is not the intention of the author, or the mind of the reader, that this leaves only one possible location, namely, the text. The locus of meaning, from the perspective of the reader, must be the text. The author is the efficient cause of meaning. The author has expressed his meaning in a text. The text is the location of the meaning. The text carries the meaning from the mind of the author to the mind of the interpreter. Consequently, the goal of interpretation is to discover the meaning of the text. Meaning can reside then, in all three places at the same time: it can be in the mind of the author as the meaner, it can reside in the text as meant, and it can reside in the reader as meaning. There is, of course, the possibility of misunderstanding on the part of the reader. This is caused by several factors. One factor can be the inadequate communication skills of the author. He simply did not adequately convey the meaning he intended. This can be judged only by the author and not by the reader, however. There are also the inadequate skills of the reader. The reader may not be skilled in the science and art of interpretation. That is why we study hermeneutics. Simply because someone has read a book or article, or a monograph or professional paper, etc., does not mean they have understood the meaning of the text. In the Licona/Geisler debate over inerrancy, this kind of problem is rampant. Many individuals who have offered observations and criticisms have failed to understand the issue, and consequently, they make proposals that completely miss the point.

Since the Bible is the Word of God, we can rest assured that God has not made some kind of mistake in communicating His Word. Consequently, when misunderstanding occurs, the error must be attributed to the reader, not either to the human author or the Divine Author. Also, since the intention of the author in the sense of what an author had in mind when he wrote his text, or the way he wanted his text to be received, is inaccessible to the reader apart from the text itself, we cannot go behind the text, or under the text, or over the text, or around the text, or in front of the text to the author’s mind to discover his intent. All we have is his text, and meaning must come from the text. Additionally, we cannot use what we suppose to be an author’s intent to tell us what a text means. Meaning comes from the text, and it is the text that tells us how we should read it, not some amorphous, unprovable speculation(s) about what was an author’s intention.

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About Tom Howe

Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary
This entry was posted in Inerrancy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Authorial Intention

  1. Pingback: The Folly of Trying to Find An Author’s Intent | Thomistic Bent

  2. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

  3. Paul K. says:

    Tom, great post that provides clarity to biblical interpretation. If I may refer the to Licona controversy, what you wrote is exactly the issue at hand and Licona as much admits such. In his response to Dr. Mohler, Licona notes, “Dr. Mohler asks, ‘What could one possibly find in the Greco-Roman literature that would either validate or invalidate the status of this report as historical fact?’ This is the wrong question. For it presupposes that Matthew intends the report of the raised saints to be understood as a historical event. So, the first question one should ask is how Matthew intended for his readers to understand this text. If he intended for us to regard the raised saints as apocalyptic symbols, then Drs. Mohler and Geisler are mistaken when regarding them as “historical fact.” It is only IF one can determine after an exhaustive study that Matthew intended for us to regard the raised saints as an event that occurred in space-time that Dr. Mohler could legitimately claim that the Greco-Roman literature offers nothing to assist us toward a correct interpretation of the text. Instead, Drs. Mohler and Geisler have pre-determined what the text means.” So, it would seem that Licona’s distinction that the issue is one of hermeneutics and not inerrancy does not follow in this case. It seems clear that his hermeneutic leads to a denial of a historic event.
    Second, as another point of interest, Licona uses the qualifier “if” in relation to the passage in Matthew. He notes that the “only” way we can possibly (“if”) know if Matthew intended the report to be space-time event is after an “exhaustive study” of Matthew. Now, though not quite an issue of inerrancy, but doesn’t this kind of thinking lead to the idea that the non-scholar Christian cannot really know what a text means (or author’s intent) unless he or she commit to an exhaustive study? Furthermore, what would an exhaustive study look like especially for the non-academically schooled Christian? Third, and finally, back to Licona’s methodology, do you think that Licona’s methodology does indeed offer the enemies of Christianity a powerful weapon as Dr. Mohler noted? If Licona can say, as noted above that Geisler/Mohler are wrong to come to the text as historical to begin with, then cannot theological liberals say the same about resurrection passages? They could claim, “you cannot begin by thinking that the resurrection narratives are historical. That is not how you should interpret the bible.” And, wasn’t that, in a way, that the conclusion of Bultmann (although, I don’t want to say Licona is a Bultmannian)? He noted that the resurrection of Jesus was not a historical event but that the resurrection does something for our faith? Sorry for length, but I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

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