The Danger of the Human Author

Is the meaning of a biblical text determined by the mind of the human author, or the mind of the divine author, or both? For example, are the pieces to consider as possible connections that illuminate an Old Testament text only those known to the human author of that text and his audience? Should we set aside all the texts unknown to him? Can we make interpretative links ahead to the New Testament when the human author did not know them? Does the fact that the divine author knew more mean that we should in principle have a wider range of material in view as possibly relevant when we interpret the text? And is it even legitimate to distinguish two meanings, one intended by the divine and one by the human author? These questions have been raised in recent interactions over the work of Craig Carter who taught an excellent study day for us at the Pastors’ Academy last term. You can listen to his talks on our podcast here. And you can trace some of the to and fro at Graham Shearer’s blog here. The thoughts that follow are largely based on the work of Vern Poythress and on my second paper at our last conference, ‘Joseph the Technicolour Type: Dream of Nightmare?’ (also on the podcast).

Walter Kaiser rejects the idea of distinct double meanings for the biblical text. In a rigorous application of the grammatico-historical method he holds that the divine meaning is the meaning present to the human author and the original audience. The discernible human meaning is the control. Kaiser says that the relevant data for determining the meaning of a text is therefore only what preceded it ‘Only the doctrine and the theology prior to the time of the writer’s composition of his revelation […] may be legitimately used in the task of theological exegesis’ (in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text?, p. 68). Kaiser terms this the ‘analogy of Scripture’ and explains that it includes what the writer and an alert audience would have known. This and this alone God intends: ‘If the human author did not receive by revelation the meaning in question, then exegetes and readers have no right to identify their meanings with God.’ (p. 69)      

I believe that there is a serious problem with the claim that the meaning of a text is limited by the mind of its human author. Applied consistently, this approach would make the meaning of many texts impossible to determine. We need to ask the basic question: How well do we know the human author? We might think we have a pretty good idea about Paul since we have so many of his letters and more information about him in Acts, but Poythress rightly asks how much we know about someone like Zephaniah (‘Dispensing with the Human Author’, p. 481). The answer is summed up in the information in 1:1: ‘Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah’. If we are interested in the intent and mind of the writer to the Hebrews then we are on yet shakier ground since we do not even know his name.

My own theological education under the tutelage of historical critics left me with one thing: a confidence in the Bible’s own account of its authors. But, as Poythress points out, even with conservative views on a Mosaic Pentateuch and a single Isaiah the term ‘human author’ is potentially a complex one. Is the human author of Deuteronomy just Moses, or the writer who added the description of his death? Is the author of a Davidic Psalm just David, or the complier of the Psalms? Did the prophets generally have scribes like Baruch? What role did they play? Are the individual minor prophets the authors or is the putative compiler of the twelve the author? Maybe the editors just collected material, but even then they exercised intent and influenced meaning by selecting and arranging it. In such cases, which human’s intent determines the meaning?

If we can answer that then we can consider the setting, which is also difficult. Take Revelation for example: most recent commentators think it is late, from the time of Domitian. That places John at the end of the period in which the New Testament was written. But even if we knew for sure that John was the last to write a New Testament book, we could not know which other books he had access to by then that might be used to illuminate his meaning. And in the nineteenth century the conservative consensus was more that he wrote Revelation in the time of Nero. If that is true then it is hard to be sure which other texts existed as he wrote, let alone which he knew. We do not have just one question, ‘When did our author write?’. We also need to know when all the other biblical texts were written in relation to that date, and then we have to know which he himself knew. These are questions about who our author was, when he wrote, and what texts he knew. If the mind of the human author circumscribes the possible meaning, they must be answered to determine what could have been in his mind as he wrote.

But we may also wonder how well we know him at the time of his writing, and even, as Poythress asks, how well he knew himself when he wrote: ‘Maybe the human author was a peculiar or mentally odd person, who had strange ideas and expressed them in strange ways.’ (p. 484). We don’t need to be signed up to Jungian analytical psychology to think that our words are the product of deep, unconscious processes, that much of the heart lies hidden even to us. As Philip Barton Payne puts it: ‘Behind, and in some sense “causing,” every piece of literature is a reservoir of sensory and mental experiences. The mental process, of which intention is a part, is constantly developing as a work progresses. But this progression can never be known fully, nor need it be identified in order to understand and evaluate a given work’ (in Right Doctrine, p. 73). For Payne, this is what it means to be a human author: ‘The expression of the subconscious is so characteristic of human language that to say that the prophets could not speak better than they knew would be to consider them in this respect unhuman, unless “knew” were taken to include all their subconscious thought and perception’ (pp. 74–75; Poythress also speaks of the unconscious intent of, for example, Malachi; see ‘Divine Meaning of Scripture’, p. 247). There may be difficulties with discerning the author’s intent even for the author. In which case it would surely be even more unconscious to us than it was to them!

Things get even harder when we ask how much an author knew of what was to come. I believe that the Old Testament saints had a Messianic faith focused on the individual Messiah to come from Gen. 3:15 on, but many disagree with that, and even among those who agree there is disagreement about just how much they knew of him, his person and work. Note that I don’t mean whether they ‘knew Christ’ spiritually or not. That is not the issue: the issue here concerns the articulated knowledge they could employ in writing their text.

Maybe you think all these questions I have been raising are unnecessary, that I am multiplying problems unhelpfully. The answer is simple you say: we discover what the human author knew and what he means by looking at his words. From the words you can tell what other texts he knew. But that is not what the human meaning approach says or requires. It says this: the meaning of the words is limited by something outside the words, namely the range of possibilities in the mind of the human author given what he knew of revelation up to that point. This requires the reconstruction of the extra-textual mind of the human author, starting from the words but certainly not ending with them. It requires somehow determining a field of possibilities within which the words are to be interpreted. I believe that the motivation of the human meaning position is a healthy desire to constrain fanciful, outlandish interpretation and to focus attention on the text itself. It is at its best a confused manifestation of a right desire to tether us to the text, but it actually goes far beyond that and leaves us with the meaning depending on our speculative reconstruction of the states of unknown minds. As Poythress concludes, ‘focus on the human author does not help us reach a stable interpretation, but leaves us with unanswerable questions’ (‘Dispensing’, p. 484). Indeed, consistently applied it would leave us with no possible interpretation of many texts: we would have to admit upfront that we simply do not have the data required to access the mind of the human author. Staring longingly at the pages of our Bibles, pools of darkness would seep through and spread across the face of them, closing whole books to us.

In a subsequent post I will propose the advantages of prioritizing the divine meaning of the text, including the way in which this does not risk but actually stabilizes the meaning of any biblical passage.


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