What is the “locus” of meaning of a biblical text? (In other words, where is the center and source of meaning?) There are three possibilities:

  1. The author
  2. The text
  3. The reader

Throughout most of history, the author was considered the locus of meaning. In other words, whatever an author intended to write was what the text meant. If a reader couldn’t understand what a text meant, he or she could ask the author—if the author was still alive—and the author could explain what he meant by what he wrote.

The breakdown of this consensus may have started in art, where Impressionistic artists began to relish interpretations of their art they had not intended. But Picasso probably should be viewed as a watershed artist; he seemed to intentionally(!) create art that thwarted attempts to appeal to the intentions of the artist (himself). The understanding that art contains a significance independent of the intention of the artist is now so ingrained in our culture that few bother to ask anymore what an artist intended when he or she produced a work of art. In literature, a move away from authorial intention to the text itself gained momentum through an article by Wimsatt and Beardsley (“The Intentional Fallacy”) and in authors/theorists such as T.S. Elliot. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur in the 1960s & 1970s reinforced the position that the locus of meaning is in the text rather than in the author.

But in recent decades it has progressed further than a focus on the text to the exclusion of the author. The postmodern move is that the locus of the meaning of a text is whatever a reader—or perhaps a reader in his or her community—makes it out to be. Trevor Hart some time ago described the situation this way: “Now we are advised that the question, What does the text mean? is insufficient, perhaps even entirely inappropriate…Now the existence of meaning as in any sense an objective commodity is frequently called into question. Meaning is defined by some as what the reader creates, or brings with her to the text, or the effect the text produces in the reader, or what the reader chooses to do with the text.”[1] The meaning of art is said to be however it makes you feel. The meaning of literature is said to be whatever you (or perhaps the community you live in) interprets it to mean. This is an additional step away from authorial intention.

But here is the central question for those of us who profess Christ. What does the Bible indicate is the locus of meaning? Answer: The Bible appears to anchor the meaning of any biblical text in the intention of its author—God as ultimate author—which is accurately and adequately (though non-omnisciently) represented by the human author (prophet/apostle) and thus is accurately represented in the text. The locus of meaning is not the reader.

Since this is a blog post and intended to be short, let me offer a few biblical texts in support of each assertion.

Assertion: The meaning of a biblical text is what God intended it to mean.[2]

  • 2 Tim. 3:16 “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.”
  • Num. 23:19 “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should repent; has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good?"

Assertion: The human author (prophet/apostle) accurately (though non-omnisciently) communicated God’s intention which is accurately represented in the biblical text.

  • 2 Pet. 1:21 “… for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
  • Prov. 30:5-6 “Every word of God is tested … Do not add to his words, lest he reprove you, and you be proved a liar.”
  • 1 Pet. 1:10 “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” Note that, according to this verse, the prophets did not always understand the full implications of their prophecies.

Assertion: The locus of meaning is not the reader.

  • 2 Pet. 1:20 “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” Somewhat ironically, this verse has been interpreted two different ways, either to mean that: 1) We are not free to interpret “prophecies” any way we want, or 2) The prophet himself did not just make up what he spoke. Either interpretation lends support to my contention that the meaning is not created by the reader.
  • 2 Pet. 3:16 (speaking of Paul’s letters) “…which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” If you can “distort” it then you the reader are not the maker of meaning.
  • 1 Cor. 5:9-11, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” This is a clarification text, which shows that there is a stable meaning that is not created by the reader.
  • Note also Matt. 15:15; John 7:35 and other such passages where the disciples misunderstand the teaching of Jesus and Jesus explains.

Conclusion: The meaning of a biblical text exists in the interplay between authorial intention and the text itself, a text that God made sure communicated his intention via the human authors who wrote it. This means that when it comes to trying to discover the meaning of any given biblical text, you are a detective, not an artist. Your goal should be to find the meaning, not create the meaning. The meaning of a text is not in the reader.

[1] Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 193-94.

[2] Jeannine Brown offers the following definition of “meaning” and in it clarifies what should be meant by “intention”: “meaning is the communicative intention of the author; which has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement. The author’s communicative act when writing a text is an act of intention. Because the concept of ‘authorial intention’ has been much maligned in recent years, I specify the kind of intention I mean: not simply what an author hopes to communicate (intention as wish or motive) but what an author actually does communicate by intention in a text (communicative intention).” She describes this definition as her “preliminary definition.” Later in her book, she includes her main definition: “the complex pattern of what an author intends to communicate with his or her audience for purposes of engagement, which is inscribed in the text and conveyed through use of both shareable language parameters and background-contextual assumptions.” Jeannine K. Brown, Scripture as Communication (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). See p. 22 for the first citation and p. 48 for the second.