What scripture means to me
When Christians talk about the teaching of the Bible, we sometimes discuss a passage and say something like, “Well, this is what the passage means to me.” That kind of statement can be problematic, depending on what we are asserting.
The tricky part of the statement is the final two words—to me. That can imply that scripture is like Play-doh, and that meaning belongs to the reader. Some would contend that any teaching in scripture can have multiple meanings because each reader brings their own ideas to the text. They manufacture a fresh meaning built on their subjective thinking and their individual circumstances. The text becomes elastic and capable of teaching nearly anything. It’s bounded only by the imagination and creativity of the reader. We may be very sincere that our conclusions work for us, and so we claim a personal truth that need not apply to anyone else.
Let’s take an example. Suppose several people are discussing John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
- Wanda looks at the passage and concludes that it “means” that she should confront her Catholic neighbor who believes that she has access to the Father through Mary.
- Barry says that it “means” that every religion points to Jesus.
- Walt maintains that it “means” that we should work to demolish all denominations because Jesus wants everyone to focus on him.
- Gail believes it “means” that Jesus is setting himself up as a philosopher because he is using Hellenistic concepts like Socrates referring to abstract concepts like way, truth, and life.
- Mitch asserts it “means” that Jesus is claiming that he is the exclusive redeemer of mankind, the only one who provides access and reconciliation to God the Father.
Such diverse responses are impossible to mediate if meaning is owned by the reader. If truth is defined by “what it means to me,” then there is no way to arrive at understanding any truth or concept external to the reader. Most of us may recall an occasion when we drew a conclusion from an email we received that distorted our attitude toward the writer. We may have injected ideas into the worlds that were not in his or her mind. This led to unnecessary tension or conflict because we were acting on the basis of subjective things we brought to the email rather than the content itself.
When we are the author of the written or spoken words, we can become irate at those who would twist, distort, or misinterpret our words to mean something we did not intend. Parents learn to be careful around children who will hear, “I’ll think about taking you swimming today” and reinterpret it to mean, “Go get your swimsuit. I promise we’re going!” We want others to listen carefully so that they will know what we are saying and what we are not saying.
One of the key concepts essential to understanding language is that meaning is determined by the author. It comes from what he consciously intended to say. It is the will of the author that determines the meaning of the symbols (words) that he or she used to communicate truth. Our task is to seek to understand that meaning as clearly as possible. We are not at liberty to inject foreign ideas into the text or uncover hidden meanings that match our preference or prejudices.
The consequence of this reality is that every text of the Bible has only one meaning. And that meaning is determined by the author and not the reader. (We’ll discuss implications in the next blog.) Our job is to do our homework and seek to the best of our ability to understand what the author intended to say. God’s involvement in the process of inscripturation ensures that the original meaning is what He wanted. It does not change this dynamic. Our task is to use all the resources we have to understand what the author willfully intended to communicate when the words were recorded.
What about different conclusions? They reflect varying degrees of careful thought among the readers. Some inject their own “meaning” that is totally alien to the text. Others overlook the context, and miss out on the author’s intent. Others get closer, but perhaps overlook some principles for accurate interpretation. And some through careful reading and reflection capture the essence of what the words actually mean. It is that place we must seek to go as we accept Paul’s charge to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” (See 2 Timothy 2:15.)