The first term that needs defining is author. When discussing nonbiblical literature the term author refers to the person who wrote the literature. When we use the term author in conjunction with the Bible, however, we are referring to both the human author and the divine Author. Ultimately, when we study the Bible, we are looking for the meaning God intended.
However, although the biblical text is divinely inspired, it certainly has human fingerprints all over it. God chose to work through human writers to deliver his message to us. The languages he chose to use were human languages. The divine and the human elements in the Scriptures are frequently difficult to distinguish. Thus, we propose to lump them together under the term author.
At this juncture it is also important that we define the terms meaning and application. We will use the term meaning to refer to that which the author wishes to convey with his signs. Signs are simply the different conventions of written language—grammar, syntax, word meanings, and so on. Thus, in biblical interpretation meaning is not determined by the reader. Meaning is what the author intended to communicate when he wrote the text.
What the reader does with the meaning is application. Once we identify the meaning in the text that God is trying to communicate to us, then we must respond to that meaning. We use the term application to refer to the response of the reader to the meaning of the text. Thus, it would be incorrect for us to ask in a Bible study, “What does this passage mean to you?” The correct question sequence is, “What does this passage mean? How should you apply this meaning to your life?”
This may seem picky at this point, but you will see that this is an important distinction to maintain. Meaning is something we can validate. It is tied to the text and the intent of the author, not to the reader. Therefore, the meaning of the text is the same for all Christians. It is not subjective and does not change from reader to reader. Application, on the other hand, reflects the impact of the text on the reader’s life. It is much more subjective, and it reflects the specific life situation of the reader. The application of the meaning will vary from Christian to Christian, but it will still have some boundaries influenced by the author’s meaning (see unit 8).
How do these definitions fit into the Interpretive Journey we discussed earlier in the course? We have reproduced the sketch of the Journey below for your review:
Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the original audience?Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?
In the Interpretive Journey, both Steps 1 and 3 (the expression of meaning for the biblical audience and the theological principle) are part of the meaning of the text. Through Scripture God communicates to his people both the immediate concrete expression for the biblical audience and the theological principle for future audiences. As God directed the writers of Scripture to compose the biblical texts, certainly he was conscious of future audiences. When Paul penned his letter to the Romans, for example, certainly the Holy Spirit, working within him, intended for this letter to have meaning for future Christians as well. Paul himself, the human author, was probably aware of this; but without doubt, God, the divine Author, had future congregations in mind as well as the Romans when he directed Paul to write.
Thus, both the specific details of the letter and the theological principle underlying each text are intended by the author. This is the meaning we seek to find in our Bible study. After we have identified this meaning, then we can begin to ask what we should do about the text. How do we live out God’s Word? (i.e., the application phase.)