The Hanging Chad of Hermeneutics: Human Authorial Intent | Ben Carlson

by | Jul 14, 2022 | Hermeneutics

 

Introduction:

Some of you will remember the hanging chad debacle during the 2000 presidential election. In the state of Florida, some ballots were punched but still had little pieces of paper hanging from them. These ballots were considered incomplete and controversy erupted concerning how to properly count them.

Well, in the realm of biblical interpretation, I believe human authorial intent is the hanging chad of hermeneutics. Grounding the full meaning of any text of Scripture in the mind of the human author may seem like a sufficient method of interpretation but upon further investigation it is found lacking. The results lead to partial, truncated, and incomplete interpretations that do not fully “punch out” the teaching of the Word of God. Let me offer four reasons why I think this is so.

 

1.) Divine intent is higher than human intent.

The Bible is a theanthropic document. Men spoke and wrote down the words, but every jot and tittle originated with God and the whole process of inscripturation was supervised by God. He worked through the authors in various ways to write down exactly what He wanted to say. As such, there should be points of connection and continuity between human authorial intent and divine authorial intent. Man’s meaning and God’s meaning should not contradict each other. But who says they must be the exact same? Where in the Bible are we told that what the human author meant is entirely and exhaustively what God meant? And what makes us think this would be the case? What limits God from having deeper and higher meanings in His Word which were not tapped into by the original human authors?  Could God not disclose some meaning but leave other levels or layers of meaning hidden as a mystery either for no one to know or only for future generations to come to understand? I see nothing in the Bible that would tell me otherwise. In fact, the Bible’s teaching on the nature of God and the nature of man demand this!

The fact is, the divine Author of Scripture knows things and means things that the human authors of Scripture could never dream of or fully comprehend. God says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9) and “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Those who push to find the full meaning of any text in the mind of the human author are in danger of flattening this biblical teaching.

 

2.) The understanding of the biblical authors was limited.

If all we are trying to understand in biblical interpretation is what any human author meant by the words he wrote down, we are going to be left in the dark as to the full meaning of God’s Word. Why is this so? For one, it is impossible to dive into the minds of the human authors and figure out their exact intentions. What books of the Bible did they have access to? What passages did they consult? What verses did they have memorized? Why did they choose to use the specific words they spoke and wrote down? How did they understand the fulfillment of any of their prophecies? Unless we are explicitly told in their writings, we ultimately don’t know the answer to questions like these, and we should be careful about making assumptions or using non-inspired helps to figure them out. But secondly, even though their writings are inspired by God, they themselves were not omniscient and could not know everything God was communicating to them. They were creatures, and fallen creatures at that, and therefore we have no reason to conclude that their weak and warped minds could understand the full import of God’s revelation to them. But this is not some unprovable theory or conjecture; the biblical writers themselves confess their ignorance in their own writings. We have recorded for us times when the human authors of Scripture didn’t even understand (at least didn’t fully understand) what was being revealed to them by God.

This is true in the OT. On multiple occasions, the prophet Zechariah tells the angel that he did not know the meaning of the visions being revealed to him (Zechariah 1:9, 21; 2:1; 4:4-5, 13; 5:6; 6:4). Daniel asked to understand the true meaning of what had been revealed to him (Daniel 7:16) and on one occasion it was not given to him (Daniel 12:8-9). And the apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:10-12 that all the OT prophets had to intensely and diligently search out the full implications of their own prophecies. In other words, they spoke things that they themselves understood in part but did not fully comprehend.

But this is also true in the NT. Several times Jesus’ own disciples did not understand His teaching to them (Mark 9:10, 32; Luke 9:45; 18:34; John 10:6; 16:18) and on some occasions even misunderstood what He said (Matthew 16:5-12). Caiaphas, the wicked and murderous high priest, did not understand the full import of his own words when he unwittingly prophesied about the extent of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement (John 11:49-53). The crowd standing by Jesus who heard the voice of the Father as well as those who heard the voice of the risen Christ when He appeared to the apostle Paul heard sounds but did not discern any meaning from those sounds (John 12:28-29; Acts 9:7; 22:9). The apostle Peter was greatly perplexed about the meaning of the vision he saw (Acts 10:17). And the apostle John, in the book of Revelation, confesses on one occasion his own ignorance concerning what he sees (Revelation 7:14) and on another occasion needs to be told the meaning of the vision by an angel (Revelation 17:7).

The point is, why would our single aim be to determine what the biblical authors (or those who received divine revelation) understood when at times they didn’t even understand the meaning of the things they saw and the words they wrote down? If they confessed their own ignorance to God’s revelation, and if they had to seek out additional meaning from God or simply be content with not knowing because God would not disclose it to them, how is the full meaning of any text of Scripture based on their creaturely and limited understandings? Their ignorance proves that something more must be sought after than only what they knew and what they understood and what they meant.

 

3.) In the case of OT revelation, on its own its meaning is difficult to understand.

Numbers 12:6-8 describes to us the extraordinary relationship God had with the prophet Moses. But it also describes to us the ordinary way God’s revelation came to all the other prophets.

Numbers 12:6-8: 6And He said, “Hear My words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. 7Not so with My servant Moses. He is faithful in all My house. 8With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”

We are told here that the normal and ordinary way God revealed Himself to the prophets was in visions and dreams, not in a form or manifestation of His presence. And the normal and ordinary way God spoke to the prophets was in riddles or dark sayings,[1] not in clear statements.

Here’s the thing about visions, dreams, and dark sayings: although they are clear forms of God’s revelation, they are not clearly understood by people. God did not muddle any of His messages to the prophets, but He did shroud them in mystery. Meaning is embedded into them, but they are encoded. On the receiving end, these revelations were shadowy and mysterious and perplexing and difficult for any recipient to understand. Without God’s illuminating grace, all prophetic revelation was like a sealed book that no one could read (Isaiah 29:11-12).

This is not to say that the human authors had no understanding of God’s OT revelation. They had enough to be saved and to live lives pleasing to the Lord. But since OT revelation came to the prophets in the form of visions, dreams, and dark sayings, why would we expect them to have full comprehension of everything they saw, spoke about, and wrote down? Since the revelation of Christ and His gospel in the OT was a mystery which “lay hid in types and shadows, in obscure prophecies and short hints”,[2] why should we act like any OT writer had a plain and clear understanding of it? Compared to the bright daylight of the NT, they only had a little light in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19).[3] They knew in part, and if we end our quest for meaning with the human author, we will only know in part as well.

 

4.) The full meaning of the OT is found in the NT.

The original intent and meaning of the OT is not limited to the OT. In order to find the full meaning of the OT, we must look to the NT. I say this for at least two reasons.

 

First, the OT was incomplete and stood in need of fulfillment.

Although the Old Testament is the inspired and authoritative Word of God, God never intended it to stand on its own. By itself, it is an incomplete document. This can be shown in many ways, but in essence it is a prophetic book. It is a big book full of word and event prophecies. Peter calls the Old Testament Scriptures “the prophetic word” (2 Peter 1:19). Paul calls them “the prophetic writings” (Romans 16:26). Jesus says that all the Prophets and the Law, which are the two principal parts of the Old Testament, prophesied (Matthew 11:13). But here is the thing about prophecy: it is simply a sign pointing forward to its substance. Prophecy gives us a basic but shadowy outline of the thing it is describing but the fulfillment brings it into clear view. So, if we want to understand the full meaning of any prophecy, we must look to the substance. We must look to the fulfillment. We must look to the thing it is signifying.

And if we attempt to find the full meaning of the OT in the OT, we are cutting off its meaning from its fulfillment. The fact is, on its own the OT is an incomplete book. It ends with a question mark, not an exclamation point. It is like a half-built skyscraper or a road that abruptly ends. Sam Waldron elaborates,

We are so used to seeing the Old Testament bound in one book with the New that, I think, it is difficult for us to appreciate what a strange and abnormal thing the holy book of the Jews is by itself.  It is literally a book with an introduction, a plot, but no conclusion.  It is, read by itself, incomplete.  From beginning to end it promises a conclusion which is not contained within its borders.  It begins with the great promise of the seed of the woman which is through its pages further defined as the seed of Abraham, the seed of Judah, the seed of David, but ends still waiting in the words of Malachi, its last book, for God to send “the messenger of the covenant” (Mal. 3:1).

It is filled with ceremonies, ordinances, and orders which in themselves may be described as childish -unless they as shadows look to a future substance.  The Aaronic priests constantly engaged in complicated ritual with the blood and guts of special sacrifices -all this might be taken simply as the primitive superstitions of an ancient tribe, yet there is the prediction of one coming who would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek.  Yet more clearly there is the prediction in Isaiah 53 of the righteous servant of Jehovah who like a lamb and a sheep used in those Old Testament sacrifices would “render himself as a guilt offering.”  Thus, the Old Testament seems to self-consciously attribute a mysterious significance to its ceremonies which causes them clearly not to be primitive superstitions, but prophetic shadows.[4]

So, in order to completely comprehend and understand the meaning of the OT, we need to understand its fulfillment. We need to read its conclusion. We need to see its finished product. Proper exegesis cannot stop at considering the immediate context of an OT writer’s own words but must also take into account the larger context of the fulfillment of his words.

 

Second, the NT stands as the fulfillment of the OT.[5]

We are not still waiting for the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. We have its fulfillment. It is called the New Testament. The prophetic writings are fulfilled by the apostolic writings. What was written in former days is fulfilled by what was written in the last days. As such, the Old Testament is dependent on the New Testament. The Old Testament needs the New Testament. The Old Testament can’t stand without the New Testament. If the OT is the shadow, the NT is the substance. If the OT is the bud, the NT is the blossoming flower. If the OT is a lamp shining in a dark place, the NT is the blazing sun that dispels the darkness and brings in the light of day. If the OT is the riddle, the NT is the truth. If the OT is the child, the NT is the grown adult. This means a couple important things.

First, New Testament revelation is God’s fullest and final word to humanity. God has spoken His last and final word to us in the days of the Messiah and the age of the gospel. As Hebrews 1:1-2 states, “1Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son,”. This means that Christ did not just bring us another revelation from God that further develops the biblical story; He brought us the final conclusion.[6] The story ends with Him. Therefore, as Fred Malone says, “The New Testament is the last and clearest revelation of God to man, and men must not add to it by alleged further revelations.”[7]

Second, New Testament revelation is God’s final interpretation of OT revelation. The NT authoritatively comments on, interprets, explains, and shines light on the OT. It is the fulfillment of the prophetic Word which came before it, and it gives coherence and meaning to the OT Scriptures. Malone states,

Because “the Old is in the New revealed,” there must be a final dependence upon the New Testament revelation to determine how the Old Testament is fulfilled in it. . . . The New Testament has priority to teach how the Old is fulfilled in it as the inspired commentary on the Old Testament. . . . The priority of the New Testament for interpreting how the Old Testament is fulfilled is fundamental. The teachings of Jesus and His apostles are the standard of Old Testament interpretation (Ephesians 2:20).[8]

The things that Jesus and His apostles taught in the NT are not just inspired applications of OT texts. Although applications are made in some instances (i.e., 1 Corinthians 10:1-13), what they are doing is legitimate exegesis of OT texts. They are not reading new meanings into OT texts; instead, they are bringing out of OT texts their full meaning and implications. For instance, Matthew does not just apply OT texts to the life of Jesus but says they are fulfilled in Him (Matthew 1:21; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). Jesus thoroughly interprets[9] what the entirety of the OT said about Himself (Luke 24:27). Peter says Joel’s prophecy is not just similar to Pentecost but is speaking about Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21). In other words, this (what occurred in the NT) is that (what was prophesied in the OT). And he also tells us that all the OT prophets proclaimed the days of the gospel (Acts 3:24).

Jesus and His apostles saw the OT as fully revealed in the NT. They saw God’s NT revelation bringing out the full meaning and implications of God’s OT revelation. The promises made to Abraham and David, the calling of the nation of Israel, the function of animal sacrifices and the Levitical priesthood, and the fulfillment of the latter-day prophecies can only be properly understood in light of the NT.

So, contrary to what some assert, reading the Bible “backwards” is not an illegitimate method of interpretation. It is not imposing eisegesis on OT texts but instead it is doing exegesis on them. If the NT is the final and fullest revelation from God, it is the final interpreter of OT revelation. It gives us the final word on God’s previous words. It helps us understand everything that came before. It tells us with clarity and finality all that was mysteriously hidden and implied in OT texts. It is the answer key that solves all the puzzling questions of the OT. It is the conclusion that makes sense of the entire OT storyline.

 

Conclusion:

If we limit the meaning of any text to only what the biblical author knew and understood is in essence to be satisfied with eating crumbs under the table when we have a seat reserved for us at the banquet feast. Or we could liken it to being more interested in hearing a child’s description of an event when we have the full adult version for our perusal.

The facts are, even the human authors of the Bible had limited, creaturely knowledge of what they saw, heard, and wrote down from God. And especially in regards to OT revelation, it was by nature difficult to understand and incomplete in itself. So, human authorial intent is not the be-all and end-all of biblical interpretation. We must not end our search for the true and full meaning of Scripture with the human author. Instead, if we want to fully “punch out” God’s Word, we must remember that God is the ultimate author of Scripture, that the Bible is also (and ultimately) a divine product, that God’s thoughts are much higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9), and therefore in any text of Scripture we must seek to discern the revealed mind and will of God recorded for us in all of Scripture. Proper exegesis must employ a whole-counsel-of-God approach if we want to know what the Bible really teaches us. Dan McCartney sums it up best when he says,

if we believe God is the ultimate author of the whole of scripture, then the context of Christian interpretation ought to be the whole Bible, not just the immediate historical context of any particular text’s original author and audience. We are dealing with the intention of the divine Author as well as that of the human author, and though these will overlap they need not be identical. Indeed we would not expect a human author to exhaustively understand the implications of his divinely inspired words.[10]

 

 

[1] The specific Hebrew word used here is also used to refer to Samson’s unsolvable riddle (Judges 14) and the hard questions the queen of Sheba tested King Solomon with (1 Kings 10:1; 2 Chronicles 9:1).

[2] John Gill, comments on Ephesians 3:5.

[3] Matthew Poole says on this verse, “as Paul calls the times of the Old Testament a night . . . as being a time of darkness and shadows, in comparison of the light and knowledge of Christ under the New Testament; so Peter here compares the writings of the prophets to a candle, which gives some, but less light, and the preaching of the gospel to the dawning day, and day-star arising;”.

[4] Sam Waldron, “Prolegomena Apologetics I,” Lecture 16.

[5] Fred Malone states, “The New Testament is the final revelation of God and the final interpreter of fulfillment of the Old Testament in it” (http://www.tinysa.com/sermon/11160516169).

[6] Calvin in his commentary on Hebrews 1:1 says, “for it was not a word in part that Christ brought, but the final conclusion.”

[7] Fred Malone, “Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology” (PDF of lecture, Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, Owensboro, KY, January 2015), 5.

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] The verb that is used is διερμηνεύω, which comes from the word for “hermeneutics”. So, Jesus does not apply the OT Scriptures to Himself but He “thoroughly hermeneutic-izes” the OT Scriptures to show that their full and true meaning are found in Him.

[10] Dan G. McCartney, “Should We Employ the Hermeneutics of the New Testament Writers?”, Bible Research, accessed December 8, 2019, https://www.bible-researcher.com/mccartney1.html.

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