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
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14 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.

  4. Clark Coleman says:

    I don’t have Jesus to consult about his intentions, but I infer from his words that he intended his parables to be non-historical stories that teach us. I make this inference because of various clues, such as the people in the parables generally not having names, and the existence of parables in rabbinic teachings, which in some cases might even be explicitly stated to be teaching stories (genre analysis). However, the name Lazarus is used of a beggar in one parable, which is an exception. Nevertheless, I think I have determined the intent of Jesus by inference from the text and by recognizing a genre that also exists outside the Bible, even though I cannot question Jesus about his intent.

    I do not think that you can properly understand the parables without understanding the intent of the speaker. I am interested in your feedback on this example.

    • Tom Howe says:

      Clark, Thanks for even reading my blog. Your observations are good. However, when you say, “I do not think that you can properly understand the parables without understanding the intent of the speaker,” how do you know what the author’s intent is unless first you “properly” interpret the parable? Do you not get the clues from the text in order to know that the text is a parable and what the text tells you about the author’s intent? If you “improperly” interpret the text you will certainly not know what the author’s intent was. But, if you must know the author’s intent before you can “properly” understand the parable, and you cannot know what the author’s intent is without discovering this from understanding something of the parable, then you are in a hopeless, vicious circle. Moses said, “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19). There have been many proposals about Moses’ intent — if by ‘intent’ you mean what an author had in mind when he wrote the text — but none of the proposals have been remotely convincing. Nevertheless, we know what the text means. It means, “Don’t do that.” We do not need to know an author’s intent to know what his text means. In fact, in order to divine an author’s intent one must infer this from his understanding of the meaning of the text. But, as inferences from the text about an author’s intent will always be, to some extent, subjective, and these inferences must arise from our understanding of the meaning of the text. This also holds true for genre analysis. If I must know the genre before I can properly understanding the meaning, then, again, I am in a hopeless and vicious circle. I surmise about the genre of a text by identifying and understanding the clues in the text. But, I identify and understand the clues only by understanding something of the meaning of the text. I am certainly not saying that we should reject genre analysis or even efforts to surmise about an author’s intent. What I am saying is that we need to realize that the meaning is in the text. Although this may sound self-serving, and it is meant to, I refer you to my book, Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation, at Amazon. Thanks again for your comment and the spirit in which it was given. I hope you do not take my reply to be harsh or combative. I very much enjoy the give and take of dialectic when given in the spirit and manner that you have done.
      Tom Howe

      • Clark Coleman says:

        Of course there is subjectivity in interpretation. We generally cannot prove what the meaning of a text is. We can make an argument about what the meaning is, and try to persuade others of the meaning. If our spiritual community reaches a consensus on the meaning, that is great, but it is still subjective to some extent.

        I am trying to stick to one example to avoid too much abstraction in this discussion. Tell me how you understand that a parable is not an historical event and we will have something concrete to discuss.

  5. Tom Howe says:

    Clark,
    I have certain issues with your claims: 1) How do you know one cannot prove the meaning of a text? If the meaning of the text is not provable in principle, then its meaning cannot be known. In order to know that any given interpretation is not proven, you would need to have a proven interpretation by which to judge or measure all other interpretations to show that they have not been proven. Are the meanings of your own statements provable? If not, then I can propose a meaning for your own statements that cannot be proven or disproved, and I can make your statements mean whatever I want. 2) Choosing a very infrequently used literary type, i.e., parables, is too obscure to be able to draw any universally applicable conclusions. A type that is much more commonly used, both inside and outside the Bible, would be more productive. 3) By identifying these as “parables” you have already stacked the deck. Whether they are parables, and what parables are, is part of the question to be discussed. But you have already decided what they are and stipulated that the discussion must follow the path you have already laid out.

    • Clark Coleman says:

      1) I know that there are many texts whose meaning is in dispute across various Christian denominations. I happen to believe that my interpretations are correct for these texts, but I do not claim to be able to prove their meaning. If you can prove the meaning of various texts that divide Christian denominations, why don’t you do so? That would be a great public service, much more so than continuing with rhetorical abstractions. Let’s take concrete examples. How about 1 Peter 4:6, which has the phrase about the gospel being preached to the dead that has provoked quite a bit of interpretive commentary over the years. Please determine the meaning of this verse, and PROVE it to us. Thanks in advance.

      2) OK, 1 Peter 4:6 is not a parable or any other odd literary type. Have at it.

      3) OK. Let’s start with a non-parable example: 1 Peter 4:6. As we succeed in proving what the meaning is, we can proceed to other examples.

      • Tom Howe says:

        Part of our issue may stem from the different ways we are using the term ‘prove.’ If by ‘prove’ you mean, ‘to convince someone or persuade someone to your point of view or to your conclusions,’ then proving something is very difficult. Many times people will cling to a perspective even though it has been demonstrated to be false, or they will reject a truth-claim even though it has been demonstrated to be true. If by ‘prove’ you mean to demonstrate the truth of a truth-claim, then a truth-claim can be demonstrated whether or not anyone is persuaded by the demonstration.
        If then we can agree to use the term ‘prove’ to signify the demonstration of the truth of a given truth-claim, then a truth-claim, or, in this case, an interpretation, can be demonstrated to be correct, at least theoretically, whether anyone is persuaded or convinced by the demonstration.
        Since you believe your interpretations of some biblical passage are correct, it must be the case that you have engaged in research that demonstrates the truth of your conclusion at least to yourself.
        So, when it comes to your statement about proving the meaning of texts that divide Christians, you seem to have shifted back to the use of the term ‘prove’ in the sense of convincing others that my conclusions are correct. Whether others are convinced or not does not determine the truth of any conclusions. Truth is a quality predicated of propositions, not of the assent of others.
        Also, simply because there are a multitude of passages concerning which there has been and is controversy, one cannot extrapolate from these instances to the universal conclusion that no interpretation can be demonstrated to be correct. That is the fallacy of composition. Just because every piece of glass in a mosaic is triangular does not mean the whole mosaic is a triangle.
        When you say, “PROVE it to us,” once again you have reverted to the use of ‘prove’ in the sense of ‘convince’ or ‘persuade.’ If I gave you an interpretation concerning which you were not persuaded or convinced of its truth, it does not follow that I have not thereby demonstrated or proven the truth of my interpretation. My interpretation could be proven without you being convinced; that you are not convinced may not be on the basis of intellectual stubbornness or any other ‘negative’ reaction. You may have reservations that are actual roadblocks or legitimate questions that must be addressed before you are willing to accept my conclusions (I am talking theoretically here).
        Why do you think 1 Pet. 4:6 is not a parable? Why do you think it is not an “odd literary type”? Once again you have set parameters which you expect me to meet without our having agreed on these parameters; stacking the deck. There is much historical and religious background to this statement that may be currently beyond our historical reach. Also, when you give the challenge, “Have at it,” you indicate that if I cannot convince you of my interpretation, then my interpretation has not been ‘proven.’ This could be both true and false. Let us assume for the sake of argument that my interpretation is actually correct. Your challenge could be true if by ‘prove’ you mean convince. If I had the correct interpretation, and you were not convinced, it would be true that my interpretation has not been proven to you. However, if my interpretation is correct, then your claim would be false since by ‘prove’ would mean to ‘demonstrate’ the truth of. If my interpretation were in fact correct, then I could demonstrate it, i.e., prove it, to be correct whether or not you are convinced by the demonstration. Also, you seem to have changed your attitude from the dialectic of mutually respectful inquirers to an adversarial approach. Is this correct? Can you prove that I have an incorrect interpretation of your statements?

      • Clark Coleman says:

        The problem is that I believe that there are two reasonable interpretations of 1 Peter 4:16. I don’t think that if a thousand people read the passage that they can come up with a thousand different reasonable interpretations (the post-modern/relativist approach), but I do believe that they can come up with two reasonable interpretations.

        I am happy to consider any argument you have concerning whether 1 Peter 4:16 is a parable or some other odd literary type, or not.

        Any frustration you sense in my tone is caused by your persistence in speaking in abstractions and your refusal, thus far, to show how we can arrive at the true interpretation of a particular passage. I look forward to a demonstration of how we should interpret 1 Peter 4:16.

  6. Clark Coleman says:

    I meant 1 Peter 4:6, obviously, not 4:16. Sorry for that.

    • Tom Howe says:

      First, the fact that I am speaking in “abstractions” is a necessary part of doing hermeneutics. Many people disagree about the interpretations of many passages, and sometimes this difference is the result of philosophical presuppositions that one party or the other, or perhaps even all parties, are unaware. Attempting to sort out the underlying philosophical assumptions is necessary because we might otherwise be talking past each other.

      Second, why do you wish to discuss 1 Pet. 4:6? This is a passage over which there have been centuries of debate and discussion. For the purposes of our discussion, why choose an obscure example? Why not rather choose a passage that can function as a basis upon which to consider any conclusions as applicable to a broader spectrum of genres? The verse you have chosen is opaque due to a lack of historical and cultural background information that might help. It is not clear what the practice was in the early church. There have been many proposals, but none has won the day, as far as I am aware. The interpretation I prefer is that new converts are being baptized to take the place of older Christians who are passing away. I hold this interpretation tentatively precisely because of the obscurity of this passage, and I am open to other views that might eliminate my own view and provide a more satisfying view.

      Third, it is not possible within the parameters of a blog to “show how we can arrive at the true interpretation of a particular passage.” One would need to consult a multitude of reference materials. This is one reason there are so many books on hermeneutics. In order to show how to interpret any particular passage, one would need to read several books on interpretation; a good one is Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral. It would not be possible to reproduce the bulk of material necessary to show how interpretation is done. By asking me to show how we can arrive at a true interpretation, you are basically asking me to write a book on hermeneutics and posting it on my blog. You demand is much to general.

      • Clark Coleman says:

        I chose 1 Peter 4:6 because it seems to me that there are two good interpretations of the text. One is that the gospel was preached to those who later died. The other is that the gospel was preached to those who were spiritually dead. Both interpretations have been hypothesized over the centuries by many different Christian commentators. To get back to the original posting in this blog entry, it seems that the correct interpretation is the one that Peter had in mind when he wrote.

        In the blog entry, you quote Grant Osborne to the effect that we would need to have the author available to consult about his intent. However, you dispute whether this would be sufficient by pointing out that the author would have to explain himself, orally or in writing, and then we would have to interpret his explanation, which leads to a possible infinite regress of interpreting what he means.

        That is very clever as an abstraction, but it fails to be convincing for particular concrete examples. For example, if I had Peter to consult, and I asked whether he meant “spiritually dead” or “alive when the gospel was preached, but have since passed away,” and Peter replied, “Ah! I see your confusion now! I meant that the gospel was preached to those who were spiritually dead,” then I think my interpretive quest would be at an end for this verse. I do not think that an infinite regress will occur. Similarly, for almost any other passage in scripture, I do not think that I would be approaching the author from a perspective of complete cluelessness. I think that if I did my utmost to interpret the passage, and then considered what interpretations other orthodox Christians had arrived at over the centuries, I would be able to reach closure in a conversation with the author fairly quickly.

        In short, I found the philosophical abstractions to be rhetorically clever but disconnected from reality, so I was attempting to connect them to reality via a concrete example that did not actually touch on sensitive denominational divisions (which might bring in the factor of intellectual stubbornness that you mentioned). If you prefer to take another passage besides 1 Peter 4:6, that would be fine. Let’s take a passage and discuss why having the author present would or would not lead to an infinite regress of trying to understand what he meant.

  7. Tom Howe says:

    Please forgive me for not responding as yet. I am attempting to prepare for the fall semester, and it takes me a log time. I will, nevertheless, respond as soon as I am able.

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