As a professor, I am constantly answering questions regarding assignments and course expectations. When I answer a student, “No, you cannot use study notes when you take the exam,” I mean it, and he understands.
When I tell a student, “No notes on the exam,” his first response is not to rearrange my words to create a meaning that satisfies his desire. Certainly, he could feel frustrated or disheartened at my response. He could seek an exception based on his circumstances. He could even acknowledge my answer but then secretly plan to circumvent my words. But his feelings and my intention are two distinct things.
This is the reality of everyday life. If I buy a house, I am bound to abide by the intent of the mortgage agreement. If I drive to the grocery store, I must adhere to the intent of the road signs and traffic laws. When I interact with my wife and children, I must respect the intent of their words if I desire a relationship with them. At the most basic levels, abiding by the intent of the communicator is what makes life work. Conversely, life falls apart when we disregard this intent.
But sometimes we are inconsistent in how we approach communication, especially when it comes to the Bible. It is not difficult to imagine the following scenario because many of us have experienced it. A group of people gather for food, fellowship, and Bible study. The initiator of the gathering thanks everyone for just “showing up.” He reads a verse and then asks the pivotal question, What does this verse mean to you? It takes a few moments but soon the responses flow. “To me, this verse means . . .” There is growing enthusiasm as the people offer their opinions. The initiator affirms each answer. After all, the Bible study is a safe zone—a venue for much-needed self-expression and acceptance. Anything goes (unless, of course, an answer critiques what someone else just said!).
But how can this be? We recognize that this approach wreaks havoc when applied in everyday life—whether teaching students, paying mortgage bills, driving on public highways, or building human relationships. We especially object when others treat our own words this way. Yet when it comes to the Bible, almost anything goes. Its language is treated as if it is exempt from the same laws of communication and understanding that apply in everyday life. Sadly, the Bible is the most abused book in human history.
This challenges us to consider several fundamental questions: What is meaning, and who has the authority to determine it?
The first question can be answered simply.
“Meaning” refers to the content of a communication which a writer or speaker
consciously willed to convey by the words and grammar he used
Stated negatively, meaning is not what a reader or listener feels; it is not what a reader or listener presupposes; and it is not what a reader or listener creates. The reader or listener does not contribute anything to meaning. Instead, the meaning of any kind of communication—oral speech, written text, or hand gestures—is centered in the communicator and not the recipient.
Once again, it is important to note that this definition is self-evident in everyday life. It explains why mortgages, driving on freeways, and marriages are possible. Those who reject this definition—particularly the preachers of postmodernism—undermine their whole case the moment they start to opine, and especially when they claim their opponents have misunderstood them! Their efforts are entirely self-serving. They wish to maintain the authority over their own words, but wrestle it away from anyone else participating in the discussion.
The same definition of meaning applies no less to the interpretation of the Bible. If we truly believe the Bible is what it says it is, the revelation of God, then it is nothing short of blasphemous to believe that we—its recipients—contribute to its meaning. As “revelation,” the Bible is the product of God’s activity to reveal knowledge to us—knowledge that we could otherwise never know. That is why Paul calls the Scriptures “the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2). They are God’s sermons to us. That is why Paul also describes the Scriptures as “inspired by God”—or more literally “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). Their message originates in God alone. The meaning of biblical texts is in no way dependent upon its readers. It exists whether readers recognize it or not.
This definition of meaning leads to several observations:
“Meaning” is the aim of interpretation.
In sum, the purpose of genuine Bible study is to discover in the biblical text the meaning God willed to convey by the words and grammar recorded by his chosen instrument, the biblical writer. Faithful Bible interpretation is not an act of creativity or self-expression. It is not an act of psychological self-analysis or spiritual sharing. The reader is never the aim or terminus of biblical interpretation. Rather, faithful Bible study focuses on the meaning of the text according to God. It requires the reader to reject his inherent self-centeredness which expects the biblical text to affirm his preunderstandings and intuition. It reminds the reader to be vigilant against the ever-present temptation to read himself into the text and then back out again.
“Meaning” is synonymous with authorial intent.
As noted above, “meaning” is what a writer or speaker consciously intended to convey by the words and grammar he chose. This requires that we understand meaning as synonymous with what is called authorial intent.
Meaning = Authorial Intent
Recognizing and respecting this equivalence is necessary for success in everyday life. Abandoning it leads to disaster. The secular literary critic E. D. Hirsch accurately described what is at stake when he wrote,
When critics deliberately banished the original author, they themselves usurped his place, and this led unerringly to some of our present-day theoretical confusions. When before there had been but one author, there now arose a multiplicity of them, each carrying as much authority as the next. To banish the original author as the determiner of meaning was to reject the only compelling normative principle that could lend validity to an interpretation. . . . For if the meaning of a text is not the author’s, then no interpretation can possibly correspond to the meaning of the text, since the text can have no determinate or determinable meaning.
The consequences of this discussion are no less pertinent to the realm of Bible interpretation. So much of the chaos and confusion that exists today within the church originates from the failure to equate the meaning of the biblical text with the intent of the biblical writer.
As readers wrestle meaning away from the divinely-inspired writers, they not only
usurp the writers’ authority, they destroy the concept of meaning itself
Therefore, the pivotal question in Bible study can never be, “What does this verse mean to me?” It must always be, “What did the writer intend by what he wrote?” If this real question is overlooked or ignored, meaning is rendered meaningless.
“Meaning” is the product of dual authorship.
Any discussion of authorial intent with respect to the biblical text must deal with the issue of dual authorship and the relationship between the divine and human intents in the recording of Scripture.
On the one hand, Scripture testifies from beginning to end that it is the word of God. This overwhelming testimony is summarized well by Paul: “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16). At the same time, Scripture also testifies that its contents were delivered through human instrumentality. It affirms that these writers did not record the word of God as robotic secretaries or in moments of irrational ecstasy. The writers were fully involved—heart, mind, and soul—in the inscripturation process.
Thus, the same Paul who contended that everything properly called “Scripture” was “breathed out by God” also stated that “by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief,” and that “by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:3-4). In other words, the meaning of Paul’s inspired writing (what he “wrote before in brief”—a reference to chapter 2 of Ephesians) was both the product of “revelation” and synonymous with his own “insight.”
Certainly, the issue of dual authorship touches on a host of issues which cannot be detailed here. But as a starting point it is important to understand the concept of what is called divine concursus, the belief that God superintended the mental processes of the biblical writers to such a degree that their intent for their words conforms directly to his intent for those same words.
The divine and human intents in the biblical text are so harmonious that they can be spoken of as one; no part of the text is more divine or more human than another
Benjamin Warfield summarized this well:
Why may we not believe that the God who brings his purposes to fruition in his providential government of the world, without violence to second causes or to the intelligent free agency of his creatures, so superintends the mental processes of his chosen instruments for making known his will, as to secure that they shall speak his words in speaking their own?
“Meaning” is singular, fixed, and objective.
The principle of authorial intent necessitates the principle of single meaning. Since the meaning of a text is synonymous with the divine-human intent and is not impacted by the response of the reader, there is always and only one meaning present in a text—the meaning intended when it was originally written.
Moreover, since the meaning of a text is inseparable from that divine-human intent as expressed in the original writing, the meaning of a biblical text never changes over time. Indeed, subsequent revelation may add to the quantity of knowledge revealed about a topic addressed in a given text. But subsequent revelation does not change the meaning of that text.
Furthermore, the meaning of that text is the same for all readers. It does not change from interpreter to interpreter, from culture to culture, or from generation to generation. It remains constant, objective, stable, and fixed on the pages of Scripture.
In sum, a text can never mean what it never meant, and it never meant what it does not now mean. This objective quality of the biblical text makes Bible study optimistic, profitable, and God-honoring. It encourages the reader to persevere. Although he may find it difficult to access the meaning of the text, he can be confident that the meaning nonetheless exists. It allows interpreters to have fruitful discussions as they recognize their subjective baggage and seek justification for their conclusions in the text itself. It is an important protection against the threats of cynicism and despair. It provides the foundation for true faith in what God has said—a faith that can be described boldly as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
“Meaning” is distinct from significance.
“Significance” is the relationship that exists between the meaning revealed in a text and some other context, concept, or entity. Thus, while a text’s meaning is singular and unchanging, the significance of that meaning is flexible and varies from reader to reader.
Even though there is just one meaning in a text, that meaning can have many applications—applications which the writer never even envisioned
For example, take the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” There is one definite meaning to these words, the meaning intended by Paul as he was moved by the Holy Spirit to write. When he recorded these words for the Ephesian church, Paul certainly was not thinking of the kinds of communication that exist today in the various forms of social media. He had in mind oral communication, the kind that proceeds “from your mouth” and benefits “those who hear.” Nevertheless, there is a relationship between the meaning of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:29 and the way in which Christians are today to engage in social media. We call this relationship significance, and it is here—not in meaning—where variations occur. But while variations occur in the realm of significance, this significance must still be anchored to the immutable, objective meaning of the text itself if it is to have authority.
Who Defines meaning?
These observations about meaning help us answer the second fundamental question posed above: Who has the authority to determine meaning? The answer is two-fold. On the one hand, the authority to determine meaning is located solely in the author himself. The author must be given the first and last word about the meaning of his text.
On the other hand, a derivative kind of authority also exists. Interpreters today derive authority from the author when they interpret his text consistent with his intent. Thus, to the extent that an interpreter refuses to lean on his own understanding and instead submits to the will of the author, he has authority to tell others “what the text means.”
To learn more about everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our guide: Handling Scripture.
To understand the implications of Bible interpretation upon preaching, read Should We Preach Christ From Every Text?
 E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 5-6.
 John E. Meeter, ed., Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), 676.