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”—a hermeneutic that focuses on the misguided conjectures of the reader. So there is a bright contrast between the text itself—which Paul describes as inherently “good”—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.