John Piper delivers a little Hermeneutics 101

Many readers give very little thought to what they are aiming to do when they read a text. Most want to understand the meaning of the text, but very few could tell you what they mean by meaning. And that is a problem for a couple of reasons.

1. Some people define meaning as a reader’s response to what he is reading. Because there can be as many responses as there are readers, this theory implies that there can be as many different meanings of text as there are readers.

2. Some people define meaning as a property of the text without respect to the author who wrote it. This view believes that we can only learn the meaning of a text after we have learned the rules of the game–the norms of the language.

Neither one of these approaches is very helpful at the end of the day. To define meaning, we need to recognize that meaning is not a property of the text independently conceived. Nor is reading a property of the reader’s interaction with the text. Rather, meaning is defined as the message that the author intended to communicate at the time that he wrote.

That basic hermeneutical lesson is the one that John Piper explains so well in the video above. It’s Hermeneutics 101, and I commend it to you.


  • Christiane Smith

    Hi DENNY,
    thank you for sharing Piper’s speech on hermeneutics. I noticed your comment, this: ”
    ” . . . meaning is defined as the message that the author intended to communicate at the time that he wrote” And I thought about Albert Scweitzer’s work describing the examination of Our Lord hermeneutically as ‘a Stranger to our own time’ in His role as ‘the historical Jesus’.

    But Schweitzer was also able, using information from his hermeneutic about the ‘historical Jesus’ as his BASE, to show how ‘as of old’, we will encounter the same Christ as the Disciples did, if we also obey Him . . . . he writes of this as ‘an ineffable mystery’:

    “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside,
    He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word:
    ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our
    time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or
    simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which
    they shall pass through in His fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they
    shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (Albert Schweitzer)

  • Michael Pahl

    And then, in the end, what we have is not “the message that the author intended to communicate at the time that he wrote,” but *our understanding* of the message that the author intended to communicate at the time he wrote. However constrained meaning may be by the text, however diligently we work to get at the author’s intention, that “meaning” still resides in our (the reader’s) mind. That’s Hermeneutics 102. Or maybe even 100.

    • Denny Burk

      Michael, are you denying that readers can understand an author’s intent? Or are you just objecting to defining meaning as authorial intent? For me, the crux of the matter is whether authorial intent exists and whether we can know it.

  • Tim Keene

    When the text is holy scripture, can one posit two authors, a human author and a divine author? If so, can one posit two different meanings?

  • Beau

    Had the honor of attending a “Look at the Book” (LAB) conference under Piper’s teaching this previous weekend in Minneapolis. I’m learning to stop looking for “the me” in the Word…because intention of the message is far greater than I. We should be trained in good and right thinking from an early age as it applies to the reading of God’s Word. Then we wouldn’t need to be re-trained in our older years to see the right and true intention of meaning.

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