Well, Couldn’t It Mean . . . ?

June 1, 2019

Often when you enter into a conversation with another person about a book you’ve read or a movie you’ve seen, when it comes to discussing a particular line in the movie or a paragraph in the book you might hear, “Well, what I understand that to mean is . . . ” or “Well, although I see what you’re saying but couldn’t it really mean . . . ?”

When it comes to good literature or films or plays, to have some healthy disagreements about what the author meant is not a bad thing. Nevertheless, good readers and attentive viewers should seek to “get” what the author intended. If we don’t anchor our thinking in what the author meant, then all bets are off for coming to a collective agreement about what truth or idea was being conveyed.

Unfortunately, that same kind of ambiguity about the author’s intention in communicating what he did is common when it comes to discussing Biblical texts. It’s as if there is some kind of unwritten rule that what matters most in reading a passage of Scripture is what I, the reader, feel the text must mean. How a particular text strikes me takes precedence over any real attention to what the author might have actually intended. Perhaps this approach to handling Biblical texts is rooted in a sense that the Bible is somehow different from all other books and needs to be read differently . . . more subjectively. Maybe the reason for adopting a “what it means to me” approach is because of our awareness that others might not see the meaning of the text the way we do . . . we don’t want to be argumentative nor come across as too self-assured.

But here’s the thing: Fundamentally, the Bible is a God-authored book. Paul wrote that Scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16); the idea is that God Himself “breathed out” the words. Peter explained that men wrote as they were carried along by the Spirit (2 Peter 1:21); they weren’t simply writing down their own best thoughts.

What are the implications of this for our reading Scripture? A few things come immediately to mind.

First, there really is an author who intended to communicate something. The Scriptures are not a collection of writings that we, as readers, get to do with whatever we want. We aren’t free to determine what a Bible text means. Seeing as the words were inspired by God, the texts mean what God intended them to mean. Second, this divine author didn’t mumble; God is capable of communicating in ways that “average people” can understand. We can read, explore, think, and understand what God intended to communicate in what He inspired.

I am not a perfect, infallible communicator. I don’t always think clearly or speak without ambiguity. But I do take offense when someone misconstrues what I said or wrote, reconfiguring my words with a “Well, what I understand he was really saying is . . . .” I don’t like it when someone uses my words to say something I did not intend to communicate. It wouldn’t surprise me if God doesn’t like it when we over-privilege what we are getting out of a text rather than placing the emphasis on what He actually said in the text.

Perhaps we need to be slower to run to the “what it means to me” approach when we read Scripture. Maybe it would be better to do some honest mental wrestling in order to grasp what the divine author was communicating.

It would be best to be more concerned with the meaning that is there, in the text, conveyed by the words the Spirit inspired, than to privilege what a passage “means to me.”

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