The Theology Network has been involved in a wider Leadership Network project looking at some of the trickle-down effects that postmodern philosophy has had on academic theology and ‘ordinary’ practices of reading the Bible. Part of this has touched on the role of the author in determining the meaning of a given text. Below are some reflections on meaning in the Bible in the light of its dual authorship, human and divine.
When we think about issues of ‘authorship’ in the Bible, we often have in mind historical questions. ‘Who wrote a particular book?’ ‘Was the historical human author the same as the one to whom the book is traditionally attributed?’ ‘How does the historical author’s historical and geo-political location affect what they wrote?’ And so on…
But alongside these historical questions about the authorship of specific books of the Bible is a broader set of theological questions – questions about the nature of the authorship of the whole Bible and how that ought to shape the way that we read it.
How does inspiration, to take one aspect of the doctrine of Scripture, shape how we think about the author(s) of Scripture? Which dimension of authorship do we look at to determine meaning in the text? God, the human author, both?
If we are looking at the level of God’s authorship for determining meaning, what keeps that from becoming an exercise in making the Bible say whatever we want?
Who authored the Bible? – The relationship between the human author and God
It seems an obvious thing to state that there were human authors of the biblical books. And yet the emphasis that Christians (rightly and biblically) place on the divine inspiration of Scripture – Scripture as the word of God – can be misapprehended to minimise the human dimensions of biblical authorship.
Inspiration is not the same thing as dictation. The humans who wrote the books of the Bible were not merely scribes or empty vessels lending their pen to God, but genuine authors with their own turns of phrase, their own contexts that shaped what they wrote, and their own motivations when writing. In God’s providence, He chose, shaped, and worked through these people in their different contexts and time periods, with their different dispositions and levels of education. They were thoroughly human and rightly called authors.
Yet, these human authors did not write within their providential circumstances on their own, they wrote what God meant for them to write. David wrote “in the Spirit” (Matthew 22:43). The Prophets, ‘though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21). Apostles who pass on their teaching through the New Testament were led into all truth by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). This is not quite like artistic inspiration – they were not inspired by events about which they then wrote their own take, rather the words themselves are ‘breathed out’ by God (2 Timothy 3:16).
And we see God’s hand at work ‘authoring’ Scripture in other ways throughout the process. From the beginning before any writing took place – God revealing himself in history in acts of creation and salvation, speaking through prophets, directing history – to the very end through the editing, copying, and compiling that led us to have the text and canon that we do.
When we read the Bible, whose meaning are we looking for?
It follows then that we rightly read for God’s meaning in the Bible. We look for what God is saying to us, to the church today, the way that He communicates through the Bible as a whole, applied to us today. The Bible is not merely a record of past historical events, nor a collection of philosophical musings about God. God speaks more expansively and across generations more effectively through Scripture than an individual human author or an individual human book ever could.
We read Scripture as a canon, seeing threads in the unfolding of God’s salvation plan that go beyond the human authors’ citations of and allusions to other texts. Take for example the way that the understanding of the Old Testament is augmented by Jesus coming on the scene. Passages about God’s plan for salvation, the Messiah, and the heir of David (to name a few) gain specificity of meaning in the light of Jesus.
But it would be a false dichotomy to say that we are, therefore, not reading for the meaning intended by the human authors. God communicates through Scripture in the words and phrases that the human authors wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Even our canonical and Christological readings take their cue from the way that New Testament authors wrote about the light that Jesus sheds on the Old Testament.
So, a Christian interpretation of Scripture should never contend with less than what the human authors intended to communicate, but rarely will it stop there.
How do we read for what God is communicating beyond an individual human author’s intention without it becoming an exercise in making Scripture say whatever we want it to?
We must read with humility. Humility to listen carefully to both the text itself and the way that it has been read by faithful Christians down the centuries. It is unavoidable that our existing understanding of God and the world will shape the way that we read. Humility means having the patience to keep coming back to the text so that over time we are more and more shaped by Scripture.
We must pay careful attention to the text in context. This should be old hat, but words must be read in the context of verses, verses in the context of passages, and passages in the context of books. We also want to pay attention to the historical context of the authors, recognising the distance between us and the Bible of time, culture, and language. Finally, we must read in the context of the canon, allowing the whole to shed light on the parts.
We must also read with the tradition of the church through the ages. Of course, it does not stand above Scripture as an equal or greater authority, but attention to tradition guards against individualism in interpretation. The summaries of central truths of Scripture in ecumenical creeds and confessions provide a common basis to have discussion and freedom in interpretation that remains genuinely Christian rather than just having many conflicting, idiosyncratic interpretations.
Ultimately it is the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the other side of the coin to inspiration, that leads us to understand what God communicates through Scripture and keeps us from a mere reader-response approach. It is not the mind of pure reason of the enlightenment that can grasp the true meaning of Scripture. Neither is it the playful reader/author of postmodernity. It is only the regenerate heart in which the light of God shines (see Romans 1:16 and 1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
 Whether they in fact dictated their writings, or their authorship largely consisted of compiling and arranging prior material (as 'redactors') doesn’t detract from that point.