The Fallacy Of Equating Meaning With The Human Author’s Intention -- By: Philip B. Payne

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 20:3 (Sep 1977)
Article: The Fallacy Of Equating Meaning With The Human Author’s Intention
Author: Philip B. Payne

The Fallacy Of Equating Meaning
With The Human Author’s Intention

Philip B. Payne*

I. The Importance Of Intention

A fundamental question behind most Biblical exegesis is and ought to be: “What was the intention of the human author?” Most of the meaning of the Biblical text is identical with the human author’s intention. The importance of his intention is highlighted when one considers that social context is an essential part of meaning. Often underlying the question of an author’s intention, however, is a misunderstanding of the word “intention” and of its proper significance for exegesis. Some of the various ways in which the word “intention” is used and the complexity of this idea will be considered below. It will be seen how difficult it can be to demonstrate what the original intention of a Biblical author was centuries ago.

But beyond specifying the problems related to the word “intention,” the thesis of this paper is that in spite of the crucial role the human author’s intention has for the meaning of a text his conscious intention does not necessarily exhaust the meaning of his statements, especially in more poetic and predictive writings. Ultimately God is the author of Scripture, and it is his intention alone that exhaustively determines its meaning. Therefore the exegete should not necessarily restrict the meaning of the text to what he feels can be demonstrated to be the intention of the human author.

Nonetheless, interpretation of any text should not obviate the intention of the human author. He does have the right to say that certain interpretations of his words are wrong. It should be remembered, though, that God can reveal more through the words of a writer of Scripture than he fully understood. An exegete can know that God has done this only when further revelation shows that he did.

Intention should guide exegesis only tentatively and as the text opens it up. Ultimately the text is the source from which the exegete draws meaning. In order to draw out this meaning, the text must be considered in the light of its total context, literary and historical. The literary context of a passage includes first and foremost its immediate literary setting, then the whole book, other books by the same author, the illumination given by the rest of Scripture, and all other documents that elucidate the meaning of the text. The historical context involves primarily the immediate configuration of the author (including his intention), his audience, and their situation, which may be elucidated by other social, cultural and historical factors.

*Philip Payne is an Evangelical Free Church missionary to Japan.

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