Reading the Text on Its Own Terms

By Mark Scott

“Good Bible interpretation is letting the text have its own voice.”

“True interpretation is what the author intended to say.”

“Always strive for the AIM (author’s intended meaning).”

“A text cannot mean what it never meant.”

“Meaning is singular; significance is plural.”

 

I heard and/or read all of the above statements in my Bible college days. Each one made sense to me. I trusted their sources. I embraced them. They served me well. I was good to go on interpreting the Scriptures.

But something happened along the way. The supposed plain talk of interpreting the Bible ended up not being so plain. Commonsense interpretation did not end up being so common. Someone said it this way, “Bible interpretation used to be so easy, and then someone called it hermeneutics.”

In this 400th anniversary year of the King James Version of the English Bible, Christian Standard has done a terrific job of publishing articles related to its yearlong emphasis on the Bible. But the very fact that the famous KJV is 400 years old underlines how tricky the interplay between the biblical writer, the text, and the reader can be. Things like textual criticism, time, and distance make coming “within an understanding distance” (Alexander Campbell’s phrase) a challenge. The shifting focus of meaning from the text to the reader has added to that challenge.

 

Too Much Is at Stake

I am not ready to abandon authorial intent in Bible interpretation as a hermeneutical construct. Too much is at stake. If an author has no sovereignty over what he or she produces and if there is absolutely no way to arrive at that, then I might as well not finish writing this article, and you should have quit reading several paragraphs back.

An example from the field of music might help show how meaning becomes all but indeterminate when an author’s intent is jettisoned. A few years ago my wife and I attended a classical concert at a church in Joplin, Missouri. Four students from the Juilliard School performed several pieces of wonderful chamber music. They played one piece composed by a musician associated with National Public Radio.

The composer was present in the audience and he stood and explained the context of the song. The song was about his brother learning he had cancer. The music progressed through four movements to represent the stages a person experiences upon receiving such news (e.g., shock, anxiety, anger, and acceptance). Even a neophyte like me could hear the angst in the various movements of the music.

If the author said it once he said it four times: “When I compose, I release the music so you can understand it any way you wish. However here is what I was trying to say.” As much as he wanted to allow the reader/hearer to determine the meaning of his musical composition, he still was not satisfied with not having some authority over what the music meant.

Indeed, too much is at stake to abandon the author’s intent in what he or she wrote. Yet years of study have made me qualify a few things and put a few extra disclaimers in the discussion when speaking of the interplay between the author, text, and reader. I would hope those disclaimers came from greater wisdom, discernment, and maturity—not just caving in to the literary culture around me.

So, and this is the $20 million question: “Is it possible to read a text (particularly a biblical text) on its own terms? How can the canon remain fixed and yet the document (the Bible) remain living in our work with it?”

 

What Makes It Harder

Several shifts make reading the text on its own terms more difficult.

Biblical studies shifts make it harder. One helpful thing about interpreting the Bible is that people have been working on its interpretation for thousands of years. One dangerous thing about interpreting the Bible is that people have been working on its interpretation for thousands of years.

We probably cannot unread biblical texts in light of what has happened to them through biblical studies. Higher biblical criticism in particular has affected our interpretation. Sources of the Pentateuch, the date of the book of Daniel, the forms of the Gospels, the authorship of the Epistles, and the whole genre-sensitive field of biblical poetics are just the beginning evidence to show how challenging it is to read the text on its own terms today.

Church history shifts make it harder. In 2011 we find ourselves covered with layers of church history. We cannot unread biblical texts in light of those developments either. I cannot think of an Evangelical commentator on the Gospel of Matthew who has not had to unpack some church history when he or she exegetes Matthew 16:18. What did Jesus mean by, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (emphasis added)? The typical Catholic understanding of that verse did not have to be handled in AD 100. Layers of meanings of texts were provided quite early in the history of the church in works by Origen, Augustine, and others.

Culture shifts make it harder. The Enlightenment, the embrace of existentialism, postmodernism, and the revolution in the phenomenology of language all took their toll on reading the Bible on its own terms. (By the way, let’s not make these cultural developments a whipping post. There are actually several redeeming aspects to these. At the very least they have made us more aware of the “stuff” we bring with us when we interpret the biblical text.)

James Strauss, of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary, was a cultural prophet when he said in class one day, “The next great challenge for the church won’t come from the science department but from the literature department.” Saying the words gay or slavery should give evidence of cultural shifts to underline that we cannot unread words.

 

What Makes It Easier

But all is not lost. Some aspects of biblical interpretation have been made easier by certain developments. Rules of hermeneutics remain rather fixed, and, for the most part, transcultural. Unpacking the meanings of words, fine points of grammar, parallel passages, and context (which remains king of the principles) still bear fruit. They get their authority from nowhere and everywhere. There is no proof text for them, but they seem to be quite universal.

Antiquity study has also made interpretation easier. I do not want to sound evolutionary in my approach, as if the ancient students were simpletons and we are sophisticated in our research skills. But the truth is that the Dead Sea Scrolls continue to bear fruit, as do other finds. Returning Jesus and Paul to their true Jewish roots has been a plus for more accurate interpretation.

Finally, more affinity to the text has helped. This has always been true, but greater openness to how the actual words of Scripture are received (1 Corinthians 2:10-16) makes interpreting the Bible easier. When we are on the same brain wave as God, our interpretation will be more on target.

 

Three Questions

To read the text on its own terms is challenging. People are naïve to say they do not interpret the Bible but just read it straight. We all interpret. We can’t help but interpret. And those interpretations are influenced by our time, culture, church tradition, gender, background, etc. No one can totally suspend one’s presuppositions in reading the Bible. But the more clearly a person identifies his or her stance in reading the biblical text, and the closer one stays to the original writer’s perspective, the more on-target the interpretation probably will be.

Through the years I have adjusted my thinking somewhat about a text’s meaning being singular. Maybe a text can mean more than one thing, and maybe a text can have a deeper meaning than the original writer gave.

But retaining some level of respect for the original writer’s meaning will help us answer three questions: (1) What must the text mean? (2) What might the text mean? (3) What can’t the text mean? We may not be able to answer the first one with 100 percent confidence, but the other two should be answerable by staying close to the AIM.

 

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day, the biblical text has survived all of our hermeneutical efforts (1 Peter 1:24, 25). At some point we trust the sovereignty of God to keep the accurate interpretation of the biblical text alive and well.

Robert Lowery, of Lincoln Christian Seminary, used to say that humility was the first principle of hermeneutics. Indeed. In a final chapel address before leaving Ozark Christian College (after 28 years), I said that “humility bookends the hermeneutical task.” In fact, I had to honestly admit that in all the years of studying the Bible, I could not remember a year I did not, at some point, say, “I guess I was wrong about that.”

Reading the text on its own terms is very challenging, but it is too important to surrender.

 

Mark Scott serves as exposition and leadership pastor at Mountainview Community Christian Church in Highland Ranch, Colorado.

 

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4 Comments

  1. L.V. Spencer
    November 22, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing these insights into how to read interpret the Bible.

  2. November 23, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Mark – Thank you for this timely clarion call back to Biblical interpretive sanity and the resulting Biblical literacy. It was insightful and articulate. In fact, I could not wait to finish reading it so I could reread it! Bible Colleges, Christian Universities and [especially] seminaries…. trustees and administrators….don’t miss the implications of this piece for your current faculty employed, your future faculty hires and your Biblical course content. Ken Idleman

  3. Jim Tune
    November 23, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    “Humility bookends the hermeneutical task” — bravo, Mark.

  4. November 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Echoing Jim Tune on humility, perhaps we should tweak that grand old slogan to read: “In essentials, humility; in opinions, humility; in all things, humility.”

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