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Thursday, February 10, 2022

Understanding the Meaning of God's Message

In previous posts, I have noted the similarities extant in the attitudes of Atheists and Fundamentalists regarding Scripture. Indeed, for both of these groups, Scripture is an either/or proposition. It's either true or false -there is no middle ground! Of course, the two groups come to opposite conclusions about Scripture, but they both accept the underlying premise that the presence of error would/does invalidate those writings. Likewise, both groups tend to view Scripture as a historical and scientific resource. Once again, one side embracing the information contained therein as the last word in science and history, and the other side rejecting it as superstitious nonsense. Finally, both of these groups have a tendency to be Scriptural Literalists - to believe that the text means exactly what it says it means.

Moreover, this literalism often manifests itself in statements like: "There is only one way to understand a text" or "A text can only mean what its author intended it to mean" or "Scripture interprets itself" or "This is a clear example of a failed prophecy." Obviously, these kinds of statements eliminate or significantly reduce the need for readers to interpret the text. From a practical standpoint, these kinds of statements present some obvious problems relative to the way that humans communicate with each other (especially in terms of a written text). In short, the receiver's interpretation of the sender's message is a given in all of our models of how communication is supposed to work. In other words, Fundamentalists and Atheists want to prescribe the way that Scripture is interpreted - to limit its meaning(s) to that which best suits their particular agenda. Never mind, that there are several instances within the writings of the Old and New Testaments where the human author or his initial audience did NOT comprehend the meaning that God intended for the message!

Nevertheless, before we explore some of those instances from Scripture, there is one further important observation to make about the limitations which Atheists and Fundamentalists place on the interpretation of Scripture. For both camps, the meaning intended by the actual author of the text is determinative (Fundamentalists would identify God as the author, and Atheists would say that the various humans who actually did the writing of the texts are the authors). For them, the reader plays little or no role in determining or deciphering the meaning of the text. However, most of us understand that there are a number of different schools of thought relative to interpretation.

In their article on "Art and Interpretation," the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy informs us that "Interpretation in art refers to the attribution of meaning to a work. A point on which people often disagree is whether the artist’s or author’s intention is relevant to the interpretation of the work. In the Anglo-American analytic philosophy of art, views about interpretation branch into two major camps: intentionalism and anti-intentionalism, with an initial focus on one art, namely literature." Oh, you mean that not everyone agrees that the author's intention is relevant to interpretation? According to the Encyclopedia, "The anti-intentionalist maintains that a work’s meaning is entirely determined by linguistic and literary conventions, thereby rejecting the relevance of the author’s intention. The underlying assumption of this position is that a work enjoys autonomy with respect to meaning and other aesthetically relevant properties. Extra-textual factors, such as the author’s intention, are neither necessary nor sufficient for meaning determination." 

Having explored the issue from a secular perspective, we turn to instances in scripture where the meaning of the original message was modified by subsequent events or explanations. For example, it is highly unlikely that the person who wrote Genesis 3:15 was thinking about Jesus Christ when he/she penned those words. Likewise, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus Christ made clear that the teaching on divorce which was attributed to Moses was inconsistent with God's view of the subject (Mark 10:2-12). The prophet Nathan once related a story to King David about a wealthy man who appropriated his poor neighbor's pet lamb for his own use to evoke remorse and repentance over the king's affair with Uriah's wife (II Samuel 12:1-13). God once gave the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar a dream which Daniel had to interpret for him (Daniel 2). Moreover, at the end of that same book we read that Daniel felt compelled to ask about the meaning of the message which had been committed to him (Daniel 12:8). How was his inquiry answered? "Go now, Daniel, for what I have said is kept secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, cleansed, and refined by these trials. But the wicked will continue in their wickedness, and none of them will understand. Only those who are wise will know what it means...As for you, go your way until the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days, you will rise again to receive the inheritance set aside for you.” (Daniel 12:9-13) In other words, you don't need to know what the message you just wrote down means!

We read in the Gospel of Matthew: "His disciples came and asked him, 'Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?' He replied, 'You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables, for they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand." (13:10-13) Then, we read that he went on to tell them that this explained the meaning of something that Isaiah had written in the distant past! (Verses 14-15) Christ finished with this thought: "But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but they didn’t see it. And they longed to hear what you hear, but they didn’t hear it." (Verses 16-17) So, here we have Christ explicitly saying that not everyone has or will understand his messages! Indeed, throughout all of the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) we see numerous instances where Old Testament prophecies are interpreted in the light of Christ's life, work and messaging.

In this regard, the second chapter of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians is particularly illuminating. He wrote: "When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified...my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God...the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began. But the rulers of this world have not understood it; if they had, they would not have crucified our glorious Lord. That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.' But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them, and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means." (Verses 1-14) Thus, from Paul's perspective, the meaning of the Christian message could only be comprehended and appreciated by those who had received God's Holy Spirit.

Moreover, Paul told the saints of Corinth that even Christians did NOT currently fully comprehend God's plans and messaging. He wrote: "Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely." (I Corinthians 13:9-12)

Hence, if we truly believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the value of Scripture, we must conclude that statements like: "There is only one way to understand a text" or "A text can only mean what its author intended it to mean" or "Scripture interprets itself" or "This is a clear example of a failed prophecy," must be regarded as inconsistent with the truth of the matter. In short, whether one believes that Scripture is an entirely human production or that God had some hand in the messages contained therein, the inescapable conclusion is that the full meaning of those texts can only be determined by the people who are reading them (and within the context of the circumstances in which they currently find themselves).


  1. Miller:

    A thought provoking essay. I do not typically think about intentionality being separate from the creative act of writing. But now and again I will become aware of this. I will get an uneasy feeling about something that I have written - that maybe I did not say what I intended to say. And even once I have written something and reviewed it and tried to correct the errors and am at internal peace about my intentions being mapped into what I have written, there is the external problem of person-to-person communication. People impart meaning to the communication they receive. And their meaning may not be my meaning. I sent something and they received it as something else.

    Then one can layer on top of this the issue of inspiration. Authors in the OT wrote things that had mundane meaning in their context and the NT authors used this writing to refer to Jesus. Given this highly complex train of communication, it is encouraging to know that Christ himself is the Logos - the word of reason.

    Insightful writing.

    -- Neo

    1. I appreciate your contributions here. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we have all had the experience where something we have said or written was interpreted by others in a completely different way than we had intended it. Likewise, I too have listened to a sermon I've delivered or reread an article I've written and been inspired in new/different directions. Our personal experience thus demonstrates the phenomenon. Once again, thank you for your contributions here!