The Relation of Purpose and Meaning in Interpreting Scripture -- By: Norman L. Geisler

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 05:2 (Fall 1984)
Article: The Relation of Purpose and Meaning in Interpreting Scripture
Author: Norman L. Geisler


The Relation of Purpose and Meaning
in Interpreting Scripture

Norman L. Geisler

The central idea of this article is to show that the widely held hermeneutical practice of using the alleged purpose (why) of an author to determine the meaning (what) of a passage is wrong. First of all, we try to show how it is unfounded, since meaning can be known apart from purpose. Further, we point to ways in which this practice has led to unorthodox conclusions which undermine the authority of Scripture.

* * *

Does purpose determine meaning, or does meaning determine purpose? Which is the cart and which is the horse? It is common among evangelicals to appeal to the purpose of the author to determine the meaning of a passage. Is this legitimate? Are there any dangers in so doing?

In this study I propose two theses in answer to these important questions: (1) Purpose does not determine meaning. Rather, meaning determines purpose. (2) Using purpose to determine meaning sometimes leads to unorthodox conclusions, including a denial of the full verbal inspiration (inerrancy) of Scripture.

I. The Meaning of the Word Intention

A. Several Meanings of the Word Intention

Evangelicals often refer to the intention of the biblical author in order to determine the meaning of a passage. According to one meaning of the word intention, this is certainly important, for surely the meaning resides in what the author intended by the passage as opposed to what the readers may take it to mean to them.1 However, the word

intention, like most words, has several meanings. Not all of these usages are legitimate in this connection. The following sentences provide examples of four different meanings of the word intention. Intention may mean:

(1) plan, as in: “I intend to go tomorrow”;

(2) purpose, as in: “My intention was to help you”;

(3) thought in ones mind, as in: “I didn’t intend to say that”;

(4) expressed meaning, as in: “The truth intended in John 3:16 is clear.”

B. The Legitimate Sense of the Word Intention in the Context of Hermeneutics

First, evangelicals who believe in verbal2 inspiration of Scripture should not use intention in the third sense when referring to the meaning of Scripture, for the locus of meaning (and truth) is not in the author’s mind behind the text of Scripture...

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