Saturday, February 18, 2012

The meaning of meaning

Dr. Paul Henebury and I have been debating the respective hermeneutics of dispensationalism and covenant theology. Henebury keeps appealing to the “plain sense” of the text. I’ve already indicated that Henebury needs to explicate the locus of meaning. That there are several potential candidates for the locus of meaning.

Since he hasn’t picked up on that as of yet, I’m going to do a separate post on the issue in which I go into a bit more detail.

1) Sense

2) Reference

i) In Frege’s classic example, the morning star and the evening star both denote the same referent (Venus), yet they don’t mean the same thing, for they signify Venus in two different respects.

So we need to distinguish between intension and extension.  Another example is the distinction between Clark Kent and Superman.

ii) This distinction is especially germane to prophecies and promises. For prophecies and promises have future referents. We must therefore distinguish between the meaning of the prophecy/promise and the future rewards or events to which they refer. 

3) Authorial meaning

If (3), then that breaks down into two respects:

a) The intention of the human author

b) The intention of the divine author

i) In the classic theory of inspiration, Scripture has dual authorship: God is the primary author while the human author is the secondary or instrumental author.

ii) This, in turn, raises the question of how divine and human authorial intent are coordinated. On the one hand, these cannot diverge. For God inspires the authorial intentions of the human author. The human author is the medium or vehicle, who says precisely what God intends for him to say.

iii) On the other hand, these do not coincide, for God, unlike the human author, is omniscient. God is conscious of textual implications which may escape the human author. God is conscious of how the audience will understand or misunderstand the text.  God is conscious of how this particular text will contribute to a larger picture.

In that respect, an inspired text has a kind of foresight than an uninspired text does not.

iv) Authorship also breaks down into two other respects:

c) The actual author

d) The implied author

The implied author is the authorial persona which the actual author presents or projects in the text. The text reveals something about the author who produces the text. In principle, the author can manipulate his image.

e) The editor

Some books of the Bible are anthologies. The Psalter is a good example. In that case, a given Psalm not only means whatever it meant to the individual Psalmist, but it also contributes to the collective meaning of the Psalter, based–in part–on how the editor(s) arrange the Psalms.

4) Audiencial meaning

If (4), then that breaks down into the following respects:

a) The actual audience

b) The implied audience

c) The intended audience

i) The implied audience is the audience whom the author has in mind. The imagined audience. He is writing with them in view. He takes their understanding into account. Writes in a way that ought to be meaningful to them. Communication is a two-way street inasmuch as the writer (or speaker) is trying to have an effect on the audience: make the listener/reader believe, feel, or do something. So that’s contingent on how he expects his words to be taken by the audience.

ii) A writer usually says less than he means because he relies on the cultural preunderstanding of the audience to fill in the gaps. It’s like watching a science fiction movie or a movie about vampires and werewolves. Because the director is working with a stock genre, the audience is expected to understand the conventions of the genre. Exposition is unnecessary.

Not “expected” in the sense that a viewer necessarily understands the conventions, but that he’s responsible for understanding the conventions. That’s up to him.

iii) The implied audience overlaps the actual audience. But the (human) author has no direct control over who will actually read the text. Although he targets the actual audience, he can’t determine who will or won’t read what he wrote.

iv) But over and above the actual or implied audience is the intended audience. In the case of uninspired writing, these are roughly synonymous–but in the case of inspired writing, they need to be distinguished. For instance, although Paul, in 1 Corinthians, is addressing his remarks to the Corinthian congregation, the truth of what he says isn’t relative to the Corinthian congregation. Much of what he says is true irrespective of who reads it. It isn’t bound to the specific circumstances of the Corinthian congregation.

v) This also figures in the divine authorship of Scripture. God inspires Scripture for the benefit of posterity. Not merely for the immediate audience, but the people of God in all generations.

vi) This raises the question of which audience supplies the interpretive frame of reference.  Although the text of Scripture must have some meaning for later generations that lack all the background knowledge of the implied audience, it’s incumbent on subsequent readers to make allowance for the difference in time. It’s their responsibility to hear the text as the implied audience first heard it. It wasn’t written specifically to the later generates, to folks in their particular time, place, and situation. When we read a text from the past, we must take that into account.

vii) When we speak of audiencial meaning, this isn’t to suggest that a reader creates or imposes meaning. The reader’s duty is to understand the text. However, audiencial meaning can be a way of accessing authorial intent. What the author meant it to mean is intertwined with what he thought the audience should take it to mean. 

viii) This is especially germane to threats and promise, viz. if you to this, then that will happen. Deut 28 is a good example. God can’t intend it to mean one thing to him, but something very different to the audience. The audience should be in a position to understand what’s expected of it.

5) The narrator

i) The narrator is the surrogate voice of the author. In Scripture, the narrator’s viewpoint is generally normative. The design of the narrative discloses the narrator’s perspective.  He’s a tour guide who shows the reader what the reader will see.

ii) His narrative is an implicit commentary on the events he relates. He can obliquely convey more than he overtly says through indirect clues like irony, symbolism, foreshadowing, backshadowing, foil characters, and normative characters.

When, for instance, a character (e.g. a foil) in the narrative misunderstands something which the narrator understands, that generates dramatic irony or tension. For the audience, via the narrator, is in a detached position to appreciate something which the character, in the thick of things, fails to appreciate.

A biblical example is the book of Job. The prologue represents the narrative viewpoint. The audience thereby knows something that the characters (Job and his friends) do not.

iii) Likewise, the narrator knows how the story ends, whereas a character within the story normally lacks foresight. The characters move forward in time, discovering the future through experience, whereas the narrator is writing with the benefit of hindsight.

iv) He interprets events by how he presents events, and thereby shapes the reader’s impression by how he dispenses information. He may dispense a little information at a time, withholding additional information, to thereby generate suspense. He may foster expectations, then seem to dash them. The Joseph narrative is a good example.

v) The narrator may sometimes function as a character within the narrative, like Moses, or the beloved disciple.

vi) You can have narratives within narratives, where a character in the narrative narrates a story. Gen 24, as well as Acts 10-11, alternate between direct and indirect discourse.

6) A normative character

A narrator may also express his interpretation through a normative character, who embodies the viewpoint of the narrator. He stands in contrast to the foil.

7) Canonical context

i) Books of the Bible have a cumulative, intertextual meaning. For instance, Genesis was meant to be read and understood in conjunction with the remainder of the Pentateuch. In that respect, backward reading is valid. That’s not just an issue of (allegedly) reading the NT back into the OT. Rather, we already have that built into certain sets of OT books. They form a literary unit.

This isn’t anachronistic. Rather, we have sets of books that were designed to be read together.  And even where the human author lacks that intertextual awareness, the divine author inspired the books of the Bible to go together. To form a larger semantic unit.

ii) It’s not that a later text changes the meaning of an earlier text; rather, a later text sharpens our understanding of an earlier text. Taken in isolation, an earlier text may seem to be pretty open-textured. It could develop in more than one direction.  But later texts eliminate these alternate constructions. It’s not so much that later texts expand or add to the original meaning, but–to the contrary–later texts narrow down the range of possibilities.  In that respect my position is the opposite of a sensus plenior. Reductive rather than ampliative.

iii) And it isn’t just textual, but historical, for the history of revelation tracks the history of redemption. When initially introduced, a text may seem to be an open text, using fairly generic imagery or terminology.  What pins it down is the future itself. Historical developments delimit the possible scope of the text. History itself has an interpretive role to play in spelling out the circumstances of a generally worded, future-oriented text. Fulfillment is the definitive interpreter, and as we draw closer to the destination, we retrospectively eliminate what appear, in advance, to be alternate routes. 

To take a comparison–the future may seem wide open from our present vantage point, but when we look back on the future as a thing of the past, we can better discern how its apparent open-endedness was illusory–a symptom of our shortsighted ignorance.  Because we couldn’t anticipate the chain of intervening events by which the future was going to be realized, it seemed to be indefinite.  But most of the forking paths were never in play. 

iv) In one respect, the original audience has a superior position, because it has more background information. In another respect, a later audience has a superior position, because it has more foreground information. 


  1. If we only had an infallible interpreter of Scripture to tell us what it means...

  2. And if only He communicated his message to its original recipients in an intelligible and truthful way...

  3. Jacob,

    If you're going to burn a straw man, take it outside for ventilation.