Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Respect the Author

Carrie Sandom opened her talk at The Gospel Coalition Women's Conference 2012 by mentioning a whodunit she recently read. As much as she enjoyed the book, it couldn't tell her how to bake a birthday cake for her sister or give her directions to the Orlando Airport. Why not? Because it wasn't written for that purpose.

Well, what about the Word of God?
In order to understand it, we need to know the purpose the authors' had in writing it. The Bible is not going to tell me how to bake a cake for my sister's birthday. It's not even going to help me get to the airport tomorrow. but what it does tell me is absolutely life-changing. In fact, it is more important than any novel, any recipe book, or any city map. We need to let the Bible speak to us and not come to it with the wrong kind of questions. 1 (emphasis mine)
Her statement gave me cause to ponder. I don't know about you, but for most of my life, I approached the Bible with wrong questions and wrong assumptions. My favorite method was this - read a passage which fits my current situation "perfectly", aided by the sacred shoe horn of allegorical interpretation, and then assume the outcome of the text is going to be paralleled in my life. But God did not ordain Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem with me in mind. Or the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. Or countless other narratives where I squeezed myself into the text like the step-sisters' feet into the glass slipper. I can laugh at myself in hindsight, but I completely misunderstood the point of the text. Rather than God being the central theme, I became the star of the show.

I was missing something in my interpretation of the Bible. I was missing the concept of authorial intent.
Every document has an author, and the resulting text is shaped by his or her intention. It is the authorial intention the interpreter must aim to recover. The text is not "just there," left to be interpreted any way the reader chooses...
There is, therefore, an important ethical dimension to interpretation. We should engage in interpretation responsibly, displaying respect for the text and its author. There is no excuse for interpretive arrogance that elevates the reader above the text and author. The "golden" rule of interpretation requires that we extend the same courtesy to any text or author that we would want others to extend to our statements and writings. This calls for respect not only for the intentions of the human authors of Scripture but ultimately for God who chose to reveal himself through the Bible by his Holy Spirit.2
We would never dream of playing fast and loose with the instructions for the 1040 tax form or an important memo from the boss. We know what the consequences would be if we interpreted those communications incorrectly. But if we treat an employer or the IRS this way, doesn't the Author of the Bible deserve better?

So if I'm going through a difficult time and happen to read the story of Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem in Isaiah 36-37, my task isn't to cast myself as Hezekiah and my troubles as the Assyrians. My task is to find out why Isaiah wrote what he wrote and what it would have meant to his original readers/hearers. There may be implications from the text that lead to personal application, but those should be drawn after discerning the author's intent. This isn't saying we won't derive personal comfort from passages like this. But the greatest comfort may not be from reading my situation into the text but from seeing who God is in his covenant-keeping faithfulness and knowing He is my God as well.

I will never be a preacher but that doesn't mean I shouldn't make an effort to interpret scripture correctly. There's a greater reason that should motivate all believers - our love for God, His Word, and His people. And this begins with giving the authors and the Author of the Word their due respect.
Why would we want to take the time and exert the effort to learn to interpret scripture correctly? First of all, we will want to do so because we are seekers of the truth and because we realize the truth sets free while error enslaves... There is an even more powerful motivation, however: embarking on the quest for accurate biblical interpretation out of our love for God, his Word, and his people. If you and I truly love God, we will want to get to know him better, and this involves serious study of his Word.
As seekers of truth and as lovers of God and others, then, we set out to discover revealed truth and to acquire biblical wisdom as one sets out to mine gold and precious stones.3 
1. Equipped for Every Good Work: Profitable Handling of the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:17), Carrie Sandom, TGW12.
2. Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, Andreas J. Kostenberger, Richard D. Patterson, Kregel, 2011, pp. 57-58.
3. Ibid. pg. 59.

(Based on a prior post from my blog.)


  1. Love this post, Persis! It's a lifelong pursuit to read and study the Bible.

  2. EXCELLENT!! Love this so much Persis!

  3. Such excellent thoughts for this day. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post! Blessings to you!

  4. Thanks for the encouraging comments, sisters.

    I'm thankful there are so many resources available to learn good interpretation. I also want to give a shouit-out to my pastor, Ryan Davidson, for teaching the hermeneutics to the women in the church.