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Determining What the Author Meant

Our presuppositions about authorial intent will affect our approach of study. Meaning, remember, we defined as that which the author wishes to convey with his signs. The signs that we referred to are the conventions of language—syntax, grammar, word meaning, and so on. The author used these signs to communicate his message with us. Our goal is to use the signs as indicators for what the author was trying to convey. Contexts, both literary and historical-cultural, are also helpful indicators of what the signs meant for the author.

You will recall that meaning is tied to context and is not determined solely by grammar and dictionary definitions. That is, you cannot simply look up words in the dictionary and grammar in the grammar book and determine meaning. Meaning is tied to the one who produced the signs and to the context in which he produced them. Suppose, for example, that we ask a five-year-old what is under the hood of his or her parent’s car. Most five-year-olds could tell us that under the hood is the engine. However, what does the child envision by the term engine? The child probably uses the word to mean something big, noisy, and somewhat mysterious that makes the car go. We cannot determine the meaning of the word engine in the child’s dialogue by going to a dictionary. Likewise, if we ask a mechanic what is under the hood of the same car, he may also say “the engine,” but what he envisions is a 350-cubic-inch, V-8, 4-barrel carburetor Chevrolet engine with turbochargers. His use of the term engine has no connotations of being something mysterious. We would be misunderstanding the two people if we used the mechanic’s definition of engine to interpret the child’s statement or if we used the child’s definition of engine to understand the mechanic. For proper interpretation (communication) to take place, we must ask what the author meant by the word used.

For another example, consider a humorous story that an African evangelist from Liberia once shared with Danny. He was visiting the United States, speaking in several churches along the way as he traveled across the country. One Sunday night in Tennessee, as he was driving to his next speaking engagement, he reflected on how beautiful the big, full, harvest moon was. At the church later that evening, in the introduction to his sermon he commented on how much he liked the moonshine they had in that part of the country. He assumed that in English if you had sunshine during the day, then you should have moonshine at night. An easy mistake to make! No doubt he drew quite a few chuckles from the congregation in Tennessee.

This story provides us with a good illustration of authorial intent and meaning. Lexically, moonshine refers to an illegal, homemade, strong alcoholic beverage. Taken out of context, one could interpret the evangelist’s statement as reflecting his enjoyment of this alcoholic drink. But is that what he meant? Obviously not. If we examine the author and the context—a teetotaling African evangelist speaking English as a second language, preaching in the United States on a night with a full moon—then the meaning is clear. Furthermore, because of context, everyone in the congregation understood what he meant. Yet if we ignore the evangelist’s expression as a vehicle of communication and if we allow his statement to be an independent text that can be interpreted by detached readers, then it is unlikely that we would come up with the same meaning that the author intended. As we study Scripture, it is important for us to remember that meaning is determined by the intent of the author.

Authors cannot always express exactly what they want to say in literature. Language has its limitations, and some things, such as feelings, are difficult to convey accurately. Indeed, this limitation provides the basis for one of the arguments that is made against authorial intent. However, there is a vast range of reality, including many feelings, that is sharable with others, and we generally use language to express those concepts and feelings. It is not a perfect medium, but it is nonetheless effective for communicating meaning from one person to another. Both the speaker and the listener (author and reader) usually realize the limitations of language and, in good communication, they both work hard to overcome those limitations. Our languages are complex precisely because we need to express a variety of complex nuances to each other as clearly as possible. We use grammar, syntax, and word meaning to convey to others what we want to communicate. We also use figures of speech, idioms, direct quotations, and a host of other literary devices to get our meaning across.

The writers of the Bible (including both the human author and the divine Author) likewise have encoded their meaning into the normal conventions of the language they used. The writers used grammar, syntax, word meanings, literary context, historical context, and a host of literary devices to communicate God’s message to us. This is why we spent so much time in earlier stressing the importance of learning to read carefully and to observe, observe, and observe. If meaning lies within us—that is, if create the meaning—then casual reading and study may suffice. However, as we have argued above, this is not the case. Meaning is being conveyed to us through the text.

In other words, God has worked through human authors to convey his meaning through the conventions of language. Sometimes his meaning is simple and clear; sometimes it is complex or subtle. We will find it as we prayerfully dig into the text and search diligently for the meaning God has placed there.

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