Saturday, May 1, 2010

Authorial Intention

The following is a short paper I did in a PhD seminar. It won't resonate with everyone but perhaps some will find it helpful.

Is discovering the author’s intended meaning the only goal of interpretation?

Throughout the history of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible there have been many theories that have led to subjectivity, because they place the locus of meaning in the understanding of the reader, or impossibility, because of radical pessimistic philosophies of language. These have included the four level allegorical approach of the Medieval Church, the sensus plenior determined by the Catholic Church magesterium, the two horizons approach of Gadamer, Derrida’s deconstruction, reader response criticism, and post-structuralism. Nevertheless, despite the confusion prospered by these approaches, there are many reasons to contend for the author’s intended meaning as the goal of interpretation. Before erecting this defense, it is necessary to establish definitions.
By the “author”, we understand this question to mean “the person who originates the text in the particular language, words, genre and structure we find them in.” By “intention” we understand that his “communicative intention” is meant, not wishes, motives, or psychological experience, but what he actually communicates in the text. By “meaning” we understand “that which is communicated through language.” “Interpretation” is understood as discovering the meaning of the text. Finally, it is assumed that, while not stated, the above question relates to the interpretation of the text of Scripture.
Discovering the author’s meaning as the goal of interpretation is first contended for based upon the nature of Scripture as God’s revelation of Himself to man. This is a basic presupposition that demands that Scripture be approached as writing that is able to communicate truth through language. Further, God created man in His image as a communicative being, thus enabling him to receive and understand communication through the medium of language.
Second, there is no other criteria by which to distinguish valid from invalid interpretation other than the author’s intention. If the author “dies” in our interpretive process of his text then authors don’t really author, there is no real “truth” to be discovered, and any objective meaning is impossible. It is the author’s intention that makes his words count as a particular action rather than another. So, he must be considered as the one that fixes meaning.
Third, any meaning derived by any means other than seeking to understand the author’s intended meaning would necessarily make the one who derives that meaning the author. If the meaning is not set by the author of the text then it collapses into subjective relativism.
Now as to whether this is the “only” goal of interpretation depends upon what is meant by “goal.” Determining the author’s intended meaning is certainly the “first” task of interpretation, because any valid application or significance must be based upon it. However, the reasons a person would interpret a text should go beyond just knowledge of the author’s meaning. The purposes for which God gave the Scriptures should also be seen as reasons that we would interpret—that we would believe it, appropriate it to be lovers of Christ and our Church families, and spread His gospel to all nations.

Is it discoverable?

The author’s intended meaning in a text of Scripture is discoverable through a historical-grammatical process applied to it. However, if by “intention” someone means the author’s psychological experience, or his wish, desire, or purpose for which he wrote, then these would not be discoverable unless the author stated them. The Scriptures are plainly written in a way that the average person can understand the author’s meaning.

Are there any problems in discovering it?

While the Scriptures are perspicuous, there are challenges that face interpreters. These arise from the dual nature of Scripture. On the one hand the Bible is to be interpreted like any other human book. The fact is though that it is an ancient book and as such there are several gaps that must be bridged between the modern day reader and the ancient author.
These gaps include language, literature, history, culture, and geography. Through studying the historical background, original languages, culture, geography, and genres of the author’s time period the signification of his words can be arrived at with a high degree of certainty.
On the other hand, the Bible is also a divine book. Therefore, the divine author’s intention causes one to see the whole Bible as a context for the parts. Thus, typology, prophecy, and intertextuality will call for special considerations.
So, in summary, discovering the author’s communicative intention in the text of Scripture is the first task of interpretation, but not the only goal of it. It is discoverable through a grammatical-historical process even though the dual authorship and ancient date present challenges.

1 comment:

Jason Jarvis said...

Great article brother, thank you for your care for the truth. Jason