Does Purpose Determine Meaning? A Brief Response to Professor Silva -- By: Norman L. Geisler

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 51:1 (Spring 1989)
Article: Does Purpose Determine Meaning? A Brief Response to Professor Silva
Author: Norman L. Geisler

Does Purpose Determine Meaning? A Brief Response to Professor Silva

Norman L. Geisler

I read with interest Professor Silva’s article on inerrancy and interpretation.1 Since he interacted with my view,2 let me briefly comment. He rejects my position (that purpose does not determine meaning) because he thinks “determining the purpose of a text is one of the elements necessary to identify the context of the document.” It seems to me, however, that there is an equivocation of the word purpose in the discussion. I noted in my article that purpose can mean (a) overall purpose (i.e., to convey that meaning stated in the passage as understood by its context), or (b) specific purpose (namely, the application the author had in mind for his audience). In the first sense purpose does determine meaning, since here purpose is being used in the same sense as meaning. So to say purpose determines meaning in this sense is tautological. It amounts to no more than saying “meaning determines meaning.”

Furthermore, how can the specific purpose of a text be necessary to determine its meaning when everything we know about the purpose comes from what the text affirms properly understood in its context? If the specific purpose of a text is necessary to determine meaning, then we must know the meaning before we can determine the purpose and yet the purpose cannot be understood until we know the meaning. But this is a vicious circle.

When Calvin, Warfield, Hodge, and other inerrantists refer to purpose they are using purpose as the equivalent of “intended meaning.” And the only way we can know the “intended meaning” is by what is expressed in the text. And the proper way to understand a text is in its historical, grammatical context. Hence, we are right back to the fact that meaning is discovered by context, not by guessing the author’s specific purpose (i.e., application).

To use specific purpose (i.e., the author’s intended application) to determine meaning is to confuse meaning (what is affirmed) and significance (how it can be applied). But if meaning and significance are confused, then we

must conclude that the NT writers changed the meaning of many OT passages, since they obviously changed their significance.

For example, when Hos 11:1 declares, “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” he is obviously applying it to the nation Israel coming out of Egypt at the time of the exodus. However, when Matthew (2:15) u...

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