Who determines meaning? Author, text, or reader? Some thoughts on 1 Timothy 1:8.

How can you tell the difference between a good interpretation of a text and a bad interpretation? This is the fundamental question that every reader has to answer in trying to understand the message of scripture.

The traditional approach has been to recognize the author as the ground and the guide of textual meaning. If you want to know the meaning of the text, then you must discern the author’s intent in writing that text.

The “New Criticism” of the early twentieth century dethroned authorial intent and argued instead that meaning is a property of the text quite apart from the author. Texts have “semantic autonomy” as it were, and it is a fallacy to think that we can read the minds of authors.

From about the 1960’s until now, reader-focused methodologies have come to the fore. On this understanding, meaning cannot be identified with authorial intent or with a property that inheres in the text. Such approaches define meaning as the reader’s response to the text.

Which of these approaches is correct? Is meaning defined by the author, the text, or the reader? Recently as I was reading through 1 Timothy, I came across a text that seems to have a bearing on this question. In 1 Timothy 1:8, Paul writes, “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” Some observations:

1. Paul is talking about the reading of scripture. Paul’s reference to the “law” is not an appeal to some amorphous or vague moral law. His earlier references to “myths” and “genealogies” invoke narrative portions of Mosaic law (1 Tim. 1:4), so he clearly has the Mosaic corpus in view, not merely the portions that contain commands and prohibitions.

2. Paul is contrasting a valid reading strategy with an invalid reading strategy. As Paul affirms elsewhere, he views Moses’ writings as “good” (cf. Rom. 7:12). But that doesn’t mean that all interpretations of Mosaic scripture are good. Some are good, and some are bad. Obviously he views his own interpretive strategies as good and the false teachers’ as bad.

3. Paul says that the proper way to read the text is implied by the nature of the text itself. Paul says that “the law is good if one uses it properly” (NIV). Many commentators interpret the final phrase to mean “if one uses it appropriately.” In other words, Paul is distinguishing appropriate from inappropriate forms of interpretation. That is true so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Paul doesn’t merely say “appropriately” or “properly.” He uses an adverbial form of the word law. He insists that one must use the law lawfully. Thus the appropriate way to read the law is defined by the nature of the law itself. Proper interpretation, therefore, must be guided by properties that inhere within the text.

4. The inspiration of scripture puts a hermeneutical focus on authorial intent. As Howard Marshall has observed, Paul has “a concern to use it as law (i.e. as it is meant to be used) rather than as a source of speculative thinking” (The Pastoral Epistles, 376). To use the law lawfully then is to read it as it was “meant” to be read. “Meant” by whom? “Meant” by God as He influenced the human authors of scripture. Paul says elsewhere that the Holy Spirit ensures the total truthfulness of the author’s intent (1 Cor. 7:25; 2 Cor. 13:3; cf. 2 Pet. 1:21) and of the writings that convey that intent (2 Tim. 3:16). It’s no wonder, therefore, that Paul would offer the hermeneutical approach that he does. If the Holy Spirit influenced both the writers and the writings of scripture, then our hermeneutical focus should be directed there as well. We aim to know what God’s men said through the texts that they wrote. That is in part what it means to “use the law lawfully.”

5. Paul seems to draw a line between reader speculation and textual meaning. Paul describes the reading strategy of the false teachers as “speculation”β€”a hermeneutic that focuses on the misguided conjectures of the reader. So there is a bright contrast between the text itselfβ€”which Paul describes as inherently “good”β€”and the errors that readers read-into the text. This ought to give us pause about strategies which assign reader response the same hermeneutical authority as authorial intent.

The key implication of these observations is that Paul’s hermeneutical norms are derived from the nature of the text itself. To be sure, citing 1 Timothy 1:8 does not by itself establish an author-centered approach. Nor does it solve every issue raised by the use of the Old Testament in the New. Nevertheless, it is a piece of corroborating evidence that our ultimate hermeneutical focus should be on the text and its author, not on reader speculation.


  • John T. Jeffery

    Good stuff Denny! Thank you very much for posting this. I have passed it along to some fellow pastors. Unfortunately, it seems to me that much of modern linguistic theory and Biblical scholarship does not “get” what you have presented here. Libraries full of a subjective morass that dishonors the Word of God are the result.

  • Terry Lange

    If the reader were to be the determiner of truth, then truth would then shift from being absolute (i.e. – Thus saith the Lord or thou shalt not) to subjective, whereby the truth would be different for each person, etc. I always go back to what I was taught many years ago, one interpretation, several forms of application.

  • Steve Graves

    Good stuff, Denny! Here’s a helpful phrase one of my seminary professors often said: “scripture can never mean what it never meant.”
    We may make very different application of some passages than the author had in mind because of our different context, but the meaning can not be different than the author’s.

  • Don Johnson

    Since Paul was a practicing Jew all his life, I like to see how Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible translates this.

    CJB 1 Tim 1:8 We know that the Torah is good, provided one uses it in the way the Torah itself intends.

    I agree with this translation. I think the ref. in 1 Tim 1:4 is to Greek teaching, either Gnostic or proto-Gnostic, that Paul has concerns with.

  • Alastair Roberts

    It might be interesting to reflect upon this question in a Trinitarian manner. The Father is the ‘author’, the Son the Father’s Word or ‘text’. The Son is given and received through the Spirit, the one who conforms the reader to the ‘text’ and ‘fleshes out’ the ‘text’.

  • James Giordano

    Perhaps it would be helpful to take a step back and consider what is meant when we use the word “meaning”? “Meaning” implies intent (or intention). I don’t see how a text can have meaning on it’s own. People write in order to communicate. Communication requires a sender and a receiver. Successful communication occurs when the receiver understands what the sender meant in their message. The idea that the reader determines intent is absurd. I have an interest in both Biblical interpretation and Constitutional interpretation. In some respects, I think Biblical interpretation is easier because for any given passage, we’re typically dealing with one author (whether known or not). When it comes to the U.S. Constitution, we’re dealing with a bunch of people who wrote and ratified the Constitution. Did they all have the same intent and understanding? That is a more difficult question.

    • Chris Ryan

      When it comes to Law I think its impossible to cite authorial intent in a meaningful way. Legislators & voters have various (even contrary) motives at work in supporting legislation. In order to secure passage they frequently agree to text which is purposefully ambiguous even. The best example of this in modern times is the Terry Schiavo case where the legislation passed Congress with the expectation by the GOP that it would conclusively prevent Schiavo’s husband from deciding her care. However the judge ruled in the husband’s favor. The judge specifically cited a floor exchange between Sen. Majority Leader Frist & Sen. Levin. Levin asked Frist if the legislation would *necessarily* prevent Schiavo’s husband from stopping care. Needing Levin’s vote to secure passage Frist said that it would not *necessarily* do it, though it would *almost certainly* do it. Essentially what they did is intentionally insert ambiguous language & then punt to the court. If you Google Schiavo, Levin, Frist, and Liptak, you can read a great play-by-play of this the NY Times ran Mar 24, 2005.

  • Michael Karpf

    I’ve heard it said, “One interpretation, many applications.” The word of faith teaching is an example when the author’s intended meaning is not preached.

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