From:  Silva, Moisés.  “Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation.” In New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, 107-124.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
Please note that some of the italicized words are English transliterations of Hebrew words; that the bold hot-link numbers in parenthesis are links to endnotes (click on the number to jump to the endnote page); and the numbers in red brackets refer to the upcoming page number of the article.  The latter will help for citation purposes. 

A. Introduction and Overview
B. Key Developments in the Twentieth Century
    1. Barth and Bultmann
    2. Literary Theory and Philosophy
C. The Historical-Critical Method 
    1. The Interpretive Triangle
    2. Structuralism
    3. Text versus History 
D. The Autonomy of the Text
E. The Role of the Reader
    1. Scientific Method and Hermeneutics
    2. Relativity in Interpretation
    3. The Theological Factor
    4. The Legitimacy of Reader Involvement
F. Is the Author Really Dead?
    1. Authorial Intent
    2. Respect for the Author
    3. The Character of Scripture 
G. Language and Meaning
    1. Historical Background
    2. Semantic Theories
H. Conclusion
[107]    The Jewish and the Christian traditions have always been characterized by a fervent interest in the proper ways to interpret the Bible. From the debates between Alexandrians and Antiochenes in the ancient period of the church to the heated discussion of the use of the Bible at the time of the Reformation, the meaning of Scripture has been a major - often the overriding - focus of concern. To scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when biblical criticism seemed to have fully matured, their own age must have seemed the triumphant culmination of that history. Had not the new historical approach to the Bible, informed by the principles of the Enlightenment, brought in a definitive, scientific method of interpretation?
        In fact, however, modern historical criticism was far from successful in putting an end to the debate. If anything, the second half of the twentieth century has been witness to a bewildering variety of interpretive theories, most of them developed in reaction to the standard critical approach. Even a cursory look at lists of recent publications makes clear not merely that the debate has continued but that it has reached a level of complexity and intensity unparalleled in the history of biblical study. The contemporary landscape is not easily described, but a brief 108] introductory overview of the major approaches will help to orient the reader to the issues discussed in this article. It should be noted, however, that the various theories listed here are not necessarily exclusive of one another; in some cases they are in fact so closely related that treating them separately is artificial.

    1. In the first place, we may use the term traditional to describe the general approach to biblical interpretation that characterized the Christian church prior to the development of modern scientific thought in the seventeenth century; with some qualifications, such an approach continues to be used by many readers of the Bible. This viewpoint affirms that the Bible is primarily a divine book, that, therefore, it is characterized by perfect unity and infallible teaching, and that recognizing this unique character is essential for proper interpretation. Thus, for example, any reading of Scripture that entails contradiction or error would seem to be precluded.
        Within this traditional approach, however, a variety of theories has been used. According to the allegorical method, which was especially prevalent during the ancient and medieval periods, the Bible as a divine book is characterized by multiple meanings. A competing viewpoint has emphasized the importance of the "literal sense" intended by the author (senses literalis), but many - especially Roman Catholic scholars - who are not satisfied with the allegorical approach have nevertheless argued for the validity of a "fuller sense" (senses plenior - that is, a meaning intended by God but not necessarily understood by the biblical author). Another important issue in dispute pertains to the role of the church and its tradition in the process of interpretation; the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century argued, in distinction from the teaching of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, that ultimate authority resides in Scripture alone (sola scriptura) and that, therefore, tradition must play a subservient role (1).
    2. A second major approach is the historical method, which arose in the context of the Age of Enlightenment and has dominated biblical scholarship even to this day (2). Of course, interest in the historical meaning of the Bible had characterized important groups of biblical interpreters for centuries, and much of what developed in the modern scientific period was clearly compatible with earlier approaches. Nevertheless, the new emphasis on human reason and on the task of "criticism" entailed treating the Bible as one would treat any other book. This principle meant different things to different thinkers; for some, though certainly not for all, it meant abandoning the traditional notion of biblical authority.
        In any case, belief in the divine character of the Bible, even when not rejected, became irrelevant to historical criticism, which insisted on using an approach that is not prejudiced by dogmatic assumptions. And since the Bible, like all other books, was subjected to the judgment of human reason, the historical-critical method normally assumed the existence of biblical errors and contradictions. As this approach matured in the nineteenth century, it made dramatic progress in textual and philological analysis, but at the same time the theological significance of the Bible receded more and more into the background.
        In addition, the desire to develop a method that was consistently historical led many biblical students to embrace the "history-of-religions" school (3). Because this method viewed Christianity as simply one among many religious phenomena of antiquity, a belief in the uniqueness and divine authority of the Bible seemed to be excluded. Consequently, biblical interpretation became dominated by the attempt to explain the text on strictly naturalistic grounds.
    3. In reaction to these developments, many influential thinkers began, soon after World War I, to argue for the importance of theological interpretation. Associated primarily with the name of Karl Barth (1886-1968), this approach denounces the sterility of the historical method (but not the method itself), seeks to restore confidence in the unity and authority of the Bible without abandoning the advances of historical-critical scholarship (hence the label neo-orthodox), and stresses the relevance of the Bible for today. The implications of this movement, which were considerable, will be examined below.
[109] 4. A fourth major approach takes us back to the beginnings of the nineteenth century. Mainly through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the concept of general or philosophical hermeneutics was introduced into the theological discussion but did not play a prominent role until the twentieth century. The term hermeneutics, at least in its earlier context, meant simply "the science [or art] of interpretation." The term general emphasizes the need to develop a broad theory of understanding that is applicable to any text, but to accomplish such a task we cannot dispense with philosophical tools and concepts. Almost by definition this approach involves a strongly interdisciplinary perspective. Indeed, one of the most influential figures in the development of general hermeneutics, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), was primarily concerned with the process of understanding in all of the humanities and the social sciences. More recently, as we shall see, this approach has been developed vigorously within the framework of existentialist philosophy.
    5. Quite a different perspective is that provided by modern linguistics. The scientific study of language made some extraordinary advances in the nineteenth century, and these were appropriated by biblical scholarship. At that time, however, the focus of linguistics was on the historical and comparative method: How have languages developed and how are they related to one another? A fundamental change in approach is usually credited to the Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who argued that linguistic study should be primarily synchronic in character, focusing not on the evolution of a language (diachronic perspective) but on its system or structure at a particular time. These and related ideas had a crucial impact on the development of so-called structural linguistics, but it was not until the 1960s that biblical scholarship began to appropriate those insights (4). (Saussure's work also served as a springboard for a broader and quite distinct movement known as structuralism, which in turn has influenced some aspects of biblical interpretation.)
    6. Interestingly, a parallel development known as linguistic analysis took place about the same time in the English-speaking world. Also known as analytic philosophy, it may be viewed as a reaction to certain speculative and abstract currents of thought that were popular at the turn of the century. According to the proponents of the new approach, the real task of philosophy should be the clarification of concepts, which requires a careful analysis of language. Later developments in this philosophical tradition - such as "speech act theory" - have strongly influenced the contemporary theological debates.
    7. Another discipline that has obvious contacts with biblical interpretation is literary criticism. Several approaches that emerged in the twentieth century will need to be taken into account below. The dominant tendency, however, has been one of minimizing the significance of the author so as to emphasize either the independent value of the text or the active role played by the reader.
        These seven major approaches do not constitute an exhaustive list, and readers of the Bible are often discouraged by the very complexity of the subject. Nevertheless, some overarching ideas can be identified that may help to isolate the most fundamental questions.

Barth and Bultmann. It is no exaggeration to say that the contemporary interest in hermeneutics signals a new epoch in the scientific study of the Bible. Observers commonly seethe beginning of that epoch in the work of Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of modern times. Barth had been trained by highly respected scholars in the classical liberal tradition. Nevertheless, as he left the academic world and took up a pastorate, he found that training of little value for the life of the church.
        Then in 1914 came the tragedy of World War I, which affected theological developments quite directly in Europe. Liberalism, believing that the proclamation of a "social gospel" would bring God's kingdom of peace to the earth, had relied heavily on an optimistic view of human nature. Those hopes were crushed by the war. Barth would, of course, have been personally affected by these events. But there was an additional element. He saw his revered teachers adopt political positions that, he felt, contradicted the very principles they had taught. The only course left open to him was to break with his theological past.
        Soon after the war, Barth published a commentary [110] on Paul's Epistle to the Romans that sent shock waves through academia. As someone said, it was as though a bomb had been dropped in the garden where the theologians were playing. Even today his book seems more than a little strange. It bears little resemblance to a typical exegetical commentary. Instead of focusing on the historical meaning of the text, Barth seemed to ignore that meaning because of his preoccupation with the relevance of the text for today's reader. Predictably, the commentary made no advance on Romans scholarship. His bold approach, however, set in motion a dramatic change in the way theologians view biblical interpretation.
        Enter Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), whose relationship with Barth was rather friendly at the beginning. Primarily a New Testament (NT) scholar with special interest in the history-of-religions school, Bultmann shared with Barth a deep concern about the relevance of Christianity. For a variety of reasons, however, they soon parted company. One important factor was Bultmann's adoption of existentialism, particularly as set forth by the philosopher Martin Heidegger.
        Among Bultmann's articles, few are more interesting than one entitled "Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?" (5) The answer to his own question was no. To be sure, Bultmann was not suggesting that readers of the Bible may decide ahead of time the specific meaning of a text: he always believed that objectivity (properly understood) is the aim of the exegete. His point, however, was that all of us bring a world view to the text and that suppressing that world view is out of the question. Boldly, Bultmann went on to argue as follows: Bultmann was quite right to argue that it is impossible to interpret the Bible (or any other text, for that matter) without presuppositions (7). The kind of neutral objectivity that earlier scholars had aimed for does not exist. It is another issue, however, whether Bultmann's own presuppositions were in line with those of the biblical writers. A genuine Christian commitment, one could argue, must be compatible with the faith of those through whom the Christian revelation came. The inevitable question is thus raised: Just what sense does it make to hold on to our Christian identity if our most basic assumptions (the question of God's so-called "interference" in this world) conflict with those of the Christian Scriptures?
        Bultmann's theological aims, like Barth's, were greatly affected by a concern for relevance. If we moderns cannot believe in miracles, he argued, then we must reclothe the primitive Christian message in terms that are understandable to us. This principle led Bultmann to develop a hermeneutical method known as demythologization (but perhaps more accurately described as remythologization). He believed that the early Christians used mythical categories to give expression to their Easter faith. One must not think of myths as fabrications intended to deceive. Bultmann's approach did not precisely involve rejecting the myths but translating them into modern myths. By the latter Bultmann meant primarily the categories of existentialist philosophy.
        Some of Bultmann's disciples, though dissatisfied by various elements in their teacher's ideas, sought to build on those ideas during the 1950s and 60s. For example, a movement that came to be known as "the new quest for the historical Jesus" attempted to bring the Jesus of history and later Christian faith closer together than Bultmann had allowed. More significant for our purposes was the development of the "New Hermeneutic." This movement had very little to do with the traditional concerns of hermeneutics, (8) except in the rather general sense that it [111] focused on the concept of understanding. Indeed, the scholars representative of the New Hermeneutic seldom discussed the methods by which we determine the historical meaning of the biblical text. Rather, they were interested in developing a theology that built on certain Continental views about language and thought, mainly the teachings of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. Because these ideas have broad implications, however, the movement has made a significant impact on subsequent discussions about biblical interpretation.

Literary Theory and Philosophy. Even as these developments were taking place in biblical and theological scholarship, a parallel set of ideas was coming to expression in the field of literary criticism. As early as the 1930s, important literary scholars were arguing that the traditional approach to criticism was unsatisfactory
- that the usual concern with the author was misguided. What a poet may have intended in writing a poem, for example, may be of some historical interest, but that has little relevance to our understanding of that poem. Known as the "New Criticism," this approach treated the text as an artifact independent of its author and thus reopened the question of textual meaning.
        The interrelationship among the disciplines of literary criticism, philosophy, and theology has deeply affected the debate during the past several decades. Perhaps the most prominent figure has been the German philosopher Hans-George Gadamer, whose name is usually (though not always fairly) associated with a relativistic approach to interpretation. Indeed, Gadamer went so far as to give the impression that truth in interpretation is a matter of personal taste (9).
        It is important to keep in mind, however, the context of his argument. What Gadamer was most concerned to refute was the claim that the scientific method alone is able to arrive at the truth. At the root of this method is doubt-that is, doubt about anything that has not been repeated and verified. Accordingly, tradition is "prejudice" and must be eliminated. But the humanities, and history in particular, are not subject to this kind of repetition and verification, so the inference might be drawn that the humanities cannot arrive at the truth.
        Over against that viewpoint, Gadamer argued that "prejudice" cannot be eliminated. Indeed, "prejudice" is essential for consciousness and understanding. His intent was to rehabilitate tradition (particularly the classics), which provides the presuppositions that can be tested as they are applied to the texts. Gadamer also placed much emphasis on the view that the past is not fixed, that prior events and texts change inasmuch as they are continually being understood. If so, it is not possible to identify the meaning of the text simply with the author's intention.
        Ironically, soon after the publication of Gadamer's work, modern science underwent some radical changes, largely as a result of the work of Thomas Kuhn (10). It is now generally recognized that the sciences are not so fundamentally different from the humanities; the former no less than the latter are deeply involved in hermeneutics, so that no field of study can escape some measure of relativity. Be that as it may, Gadamer's thought had a deep impact not only on philosophical discussion but also on the study of literature and, therefore, on theological and biblical scholarship.
        Particularly well-known in this connection is the work of Paul Ricoeur. Among his numerous suggestive ideas, we should take note of his emphasis on the distinction between the speaking-hearing and the writing-reading relation. In spoken discourse, the meaning overlaps the intention of the speaker. "With written discourse, however, the author's intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide .... The text's career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text means now matters more than what the author meant when he wrote it (11)." In written texts, there is a ``surplus of meaning" not intended by the author. While Ricoeur himself is not a biblical scholar, he is [112] deeply interested in religious thought, and so many theologians and biblical students have been affected by his work.
        J. S. Croatto is an especially interesting example, since his writings, which arose in the context of Latin American liberation theology, have become popular in the English-speaking world (12). According to Croatto, the Bible must not be viewed as a fixed deposit that has already said everything; it is not so much that the Bible "said" but that it "says." In committing their message to writing, the biblical authors themselves disappeared, but their absence means semantic richness. The "closure" of authorial meaning results in the "opening" of new meaning. Croatto even tells us that the reader's responsibility is not exegesis - bringing out a pure meaning the way one might take an object out of a treasure chest - but properly eisegesis, that is, we must "enter" the text with new questions so as to produce new meaning.
        One can hardly overemphasize the radical character of these developments. To a practitioner of the historical method, it is simply shocking to hear that eisegesis may be a permissible - let alone the preferable! - way to approach the text. For nineteen centuries the study of the Bible had been moving away from just such an approach (especially in the form of allegorical interpretation), so that with the maturing of the historical method a great victory for responsible exegesis had been won. But now we are told that historical interpretation is prise. And although no one is arguing that we should return to the uncontrolled allegorizing of some ancient and medieval interpreters, the search for a meaning other than that intended by the original author does seem, at first blush, as though one is giving up centuries of hermeneutical progress.
        But the situation is even more complicated. During the past several decades we have witnessed the arrival of a variety of more specialized, even esoteric, approaches, such as structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and so on (see below, "The Role of the Reader"). At their most extreme, some schools question the very foundations of Western thought and thus suggest the impossibility of interpreting texts.
        To be sure, there have been some eminent defenders of "authorial intention" in the contemporary scene, best known among them E. D. Hirsch. Arguing for a distinction between meaning (the invariable sense intended by the writer) and significance (the changeable application of a writing to different contexts), Hirsch believed he could preserve the crucial role of the original author against the attacks of thinkers like Gadamer (13). Moreover, the vast majority of books and articles dealing with the biblical text continue to place priority on its historical meaning. Especially puzzling is the fact that, from time to time, one may hear a scholar at a professional meeting who seems to adopt the newer approach theoretically but whose actual interpretive work does not appear substantially different from standard historical exegesis. The abandonment of authorial and historical interpretation would be difficult to document from the usual articles published in the recognized journals of biblical scholarship.
        Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to infer that the contemporary debates in hermeneutics are mere games. The challenges to traditional approaches are serious and need to be weighed carefully. In particular, these challenges have a direct bearing on the relevance of the Bible for the communities of faith. After all, whatever the scholars may be doing in their specialized publications, one must still ask what is the responsibility of preachers as they address their congregations and of individual believers as they approach their reading and study of Scripture.

Before looking in greater detail at the various aspects of the current debate, we must be clear as to what contemporary thinkers are reacting against. Unfortunately, the terminology is not always as precise as one might hope. Up to this point I have used phrases such as "historical interpretation" and [113] "biblical criticism" to represent the work done by the mainstream of biblical scholarship. Understood in a general way, this approach fairly characterizes the vast majority of scholars, even though their theological views about the character of the Bible may differ from each other in fundamental ways.
        At this general level, perhaps the best descriptor is "grammatical-historical exegesis." This is an old phrase that focuses attention on the detailed analysis of the text in conformity with the original language and the original historical situation. The approach was developed in self-conscious opposition both to allegorical interpretation and to the natural tendency we all have to interpret the text on the basis of English (or some other modern language) and in the light of our own customs and experiences. An important corollary of this approach was that before we could use, say, Romans 8 for our needs, we must first set aside our prejudices and ask what the original author meant. According to this viewpoint, only after we have figured out what Paul wished to communicate to the Roman Christians could we claim the right to apply that passage to our situation.
        Is this viewpoint, however, to be equated with the "historical-critical method"? Many students of the Bible have rejected this method on the grounds that it is incompatible with the divine character of Scripture. Here is where the confusion begins, since the label "historical-critical" is not used in precisely the same sense by everyone. Scholars who reject the method - usually referred to as "conservative" or "evangelical" scholars - certainly do not object to reading the Bible historically. Quite the contrary, they have been among the most vocal supporters of historical, authorial meaning in opposition to current trends. Moreover, there are many aspects of "critical" study in which they have participated without misgivings (14).
        Unfortunately, there is a deep ambiguity in the term criticism. Even apart from the negative associations the word has in popular usage, several meanings must be distinguished. In the fields of art and literature, it refers to the skill of evaluating the artistic quality of specific works. When used with reference to biblical scholarship, the primary idea is that of investigating in scientific fashion the historical origins, text, composition, and transmission of literary documents. For anyone who acknowledges that the Bible has human as well as divine characteristics, there can be no objection to such a study.
        The problem arises, however, because of the close ties between the critical method and the principles of the Enlightenment. The priority given to human reason during that period dictated that the Bible must be treated "like any other book," a phrase that need not be offensive to evangelicals as long as it is also recognized that the Bible is uniquely divine in origin and so, with respect to this factor, it must be treated unlike any other book. As far as the Age of Reason was concerned, however, such a qualification was unacceptable; obviously, it would have been destructive of the principle of human autonomy. Accordingly, "biblical criticism" came to mean not simply the scientific investigation of biblical documents, but a method that assumed from the start the critic's right to pass judgment on the truth claims of the Bible. Thus, for example, to interpret the Bible historically meant almost by definition to acknowledge that it contains contradictions; indeed, one of the standard textbooks on the subject simply assumes that any approach is unhistorical that does not accept those contradictions (15).  In short, assent to the view that the Bible was not totally reliable became one of the operating principles of the "historical-critical method."
        It goes without saying that anyone who was theologically committed to the traditional view of inspiration could not do "criticism" in this sense. Subsequent developments, however, created further complications. The formulations of so-called "higher criticism" (16) regarding the historical origins of biblical documents tended more and more to denigrate the religious value of the Bible. By the beginning of the twentieth century, conservative and liberal approaches had become almost totally polarized, though the former continued to make extensive use of critical studies insofar as these could be integrated into the framework of theological orthodoxy.
        The significance of these developments for the [114]  present article is fairly obvious, but two points need emphasis. In the first place, the fundamental antitheses between the conservative and critical schools must not obscure their common goal of discovering the historical meaning of the text. Committed to the priority of authorial intent, both sides assumed the need for an objective, unbiased, scientific approach, which was to be distinguished from the task of application.
        In the second place, ironically, this history also reminds us that theological commitments can hardly be separated from decisions about hermeneutical principles. Given the claims of the Bible and the religious expectations it places on its readers, theological neutrality is a mirage. This is not to deny that people with widely differing theological assumptions can come to the same conclusions on numerous points of detail and even on significant issues. But we fool ourselves if we think we can approach the text of Scripture with unprejudiced minds. Current emphasis on the role of the reader's "pre-understanding" is, therefore, a salutary development.
The Interpretive Triangle. Determining the meaning of a text is not a simple task. For interpretation to take place, there must be an author, a text, and an interpreter (reader or hearer), and it is precisely this three-pronged relationship that can create confusion. Even when we come across a statement whose meaning is "obvious," the truth is that an enormous amount of previous knowledge and experience has prepared our minds to handle the new information. However., there is no guarantee that our minds are quite ready to process the message.
        For example, in the process of determining the meaning of a specific word or sentence in the letters of Paul, interpreters often ask themselves: Would the original readers of the letter have grasped suchand-such a meaning? Not infrequently, a particular interpretation will be rejected precisely on the grounds that those readers could not have been expected to come up with it. On the other hand, however, probably all scholars acknowledge that some of the apostle's richer or subtler nuances would have been beyond the reach of his original audience.
        In the introduction to his famous dictionary of NT Greek, Walter Bauer raised:         While this quotation raises several interesting questions, we need only note at this point the recognition that an appeal to the original readers does not always work-that in itself such an appeal is not a satisfactory, solution to problems of interpretation. In other words, we have to cope with the possibility of a "disturbance" between two points of the interpretive triangle, the author and the reader.
        The moment we acknowledge this problem, however, we have also conceded that writing a text (and, in somewhat different ways, speaking an utterance) involves a risk. That text, as it were, has a life of its own. It is subject to being understood in ways different from those intended by the author. This complication increases the further that text moves (geographically, temporally, culturally) away from its author, particularly as one loses the possibility of asking the author for an explanation.
        Of course, biblical scholars interested in the original author's historical meaning have not been unaware of this problem, though one may wonder whether they fully realized its implications. For them, however, the problem was simply a challenge to be overcome. At times the definitive solution may be beyond the interpreter's reach, but one makes every effort to discover what the author meant.
        With the rise of the New Criticism, on the other hand, American students of literature began to see this phenomenon not as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity for interpretive creativity.         Freed from the constraints of authorial intent, critics could now proclaim the autonomy of the text. This perspective became dominant in American literary criticism through the 1940s and 50s although its impact on biblical scholarship was slow in coming. When finally it did come, other currents of thought were entering the picture as well.

Structuralism. One of these was French structuralism, a movement that derived its name - but little more than the name and some terminology - from modern linguistics. Even in linguistics, the term structuralism is not free of ambiguity. If all we mean is the recognition that language is a structured system (so that individual sounds and forms have value not simply in themselves but in relationship to the whole), then virtually all modern linguists are "structuralists." The term, however, is more often applied narrowly to several schools that dominated the linguistic landscape in the first half of this century (19).
        The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, finding some of the structuralist concepts helpful, borrowed them, possibly in an attempt to give scientific credibility to his cultural analyses. In the process, however, terms were stretched well beyond their use in linguistics. It was this watered-down terminology that became the source for key intellectual developments in France in the late 1960s. One historian has commented: "But the linguistics of French structuralism and poststructuralism was a mirage. Those who used its notions understood neither the technical aspects of linguistics nor the theoretical stakes involved (20)."
        In any case, these new ideas began to be applied to biblical literature in the 1970s, often under the rubric of "structural exegesis." Much use was also made of semiotics (the theory of signs), since the approach puts great emphasis on language as a network of symbols. The structuralist jargon was daunting, and many biblical scholars who expended the effort to learn the method were greatly disappointed with the results (though at the hands of some moderate practitioners the questions asked can shed new light on the text). Part of the reason was that structuralists focused their attention not on what a text means but on how it produces meaning; indeed, their concerns fall more easily under the category of epistemology (or even the study of culture) than that of traditional hermeneutics.
        The significance of this movement for the purposes of the present article lies in the fact that it embodies, sometimes in a radical way, the principle of the semantic autonomy of texts. In the view of structuralists, biblical criticism had been much too preoccupied with both the original author and the historical referent of the text. Instead, they proposed to examine the text independently of those considerations and to determine the self-contained value of narratives.
        At its most extreme, structuralism gives way to deconstruction, a point of view normally associated with the name of Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction is nothing less than an attack on some fundamental concepts of Western culture, since it appears to call into question the very possibility of literary communication by insisting on the absence of a fixed language. As applied to the parables of Jesus, for example, this approach emphasizes the polyvalence (multiple meanings) of metaphor. The reason a parable can mean numerous things, we are told, is not precisely that it has a "surplus of meaning" (Ricoeur's phrase) but that it has a "void of meaning at its core." Having made that point, and a few others, one will be drawn to accept

[116]    Many readers find this kind of language confusing and have little patience with it, but at the very least it serves to underline the almost incalculable distance that separates historical exegesis from some forms of the structuralist approach.

Text versus History. One of the more controversial elements in this modern emphasis on the autonomy of the text has been the tendency to play down the extraliterary, particularly the historical, reference of literary works. In other words, an emphasis on the text's autonomy means that the text is cut off not only from the author but also from the extralinguistic reality to which the text apparently refers. Earlier biblical scholarship (both liberal and conservative) is often criticized for paying too much attention to the question of historicity. If conservative scholars wonder what may have motivated a biblical character to act in a particular way, they are chastised for focusing on the historical event rather than on the literary skills of the biblical author. If liberal scholars take to task a conservative reading of some historical portion, they too are criticized for missing the point. In short, the very asking of historical questions is seen as basically irrelevant. One proponent of this point of view suggests that "the new literary criticism may be described as inherently ahistorical." He further comments: "Consideration of the Bible as literature is itself the beginning and end of scholarly endeavor. The Bible is taken first and finally as a literary object (22)."
        As is usually the case when a provocative new idea makes its appearance and is taken hold of by enthusiastic thinkers, the notion of the autonomy of the text has proven to be a mixed blessing. Both positive and negative results are clearly discernible. Predictably, formulations that appear extreme tend to prejudice our acceptance of the positive elements. Even the most objectionable views, however, are likely to reflect some important truth, and the effort must be made to do justice to it.
        Undoubtedly, historical exegesis - in spite of some notable exceptions - has tended to ignore the intrinsic literary quality of the biblical documents. The New Criticism and later developments related to it have taught us to pay attention to the "texture" of biblical literature. One need not view this quality as the beginning and end of our interest. To do so would be to undermine what traditionally has been recognized as a foundational element of biblical religion - namely, its essentially historical character.
        Nevertheless, biblical narrative, as well as other biblical genres that include historical reference, must not be treated as neutral in character, free of interpretive and theological "bias." (Belief in biblical inspiration and infallibility does not preclude-in fact, it intensifies-the importance of this interpretive element.) Now the theological perspective of the biblical authors is seldom expressed in explicit terms; rather, it is reflected in their composition of the text. Accordingly, close attention to the literary quality of narrative, even if considered in relative independence from its historical reference, can be of immense value in understanding the significance of the history that narrative presents.

Scientific Method and Hermeneutics. Throughout the centuries people have assumed without a second thought that our perception of data corresponds exactly with objective reality: If we see a black horse, it must be black - and it certainly must be a horse! After all, how could the work of science proceed without such assurance? Now what is true of the scientific observer is presumably true as well of someone interpreting literature, though it might be recognized that in this case there is more room for ambiguity and misunderstanding. Biblical interpreters prior to this century have, of course, been conscious of the role played by personal bias, but they have simply taken for granted that such a bias can be overcome.
        This is no longer true. If there is anything distinctive about contemporary hermeneutics it is precisely the emphasis on the subjectivity and relativity of interpretation. T he roots of this perspective maybe found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose work was undoubtedly a major turning point between modern thought and everything that preceded it. The effect of Kant's contribution was so broad and so fundamental in character that no intellectual discipline could escape its impactnot even biblical interpretation, though it took a while for exegetes to figure out what was happening.
[117]     In very simple terms, we may remind ourselves that Kant was deeply preoccupied with the unbearable tension that the Enlightenment had created between science and religion (this is, of course, the old philosophical problem of reason vs. faith in new dress). His own solution to the problem was to divorce the two by circumscribing their roles. Religion, for example, must recognize its limitations: The basic tenets of faith cannot be proved by theoretical reason. But science is also restricted: Observers never see things as they are in themselves, since the mind is no mere receptacle molded by physical sensations, but rather an active organ that brings order to the chaotic stream of data it confronts. One might as well admit that the world as we know it is one created by our own ordering of sensations.
        To be sure, most scientists went about their work in blissful ignorance, but the seed had been sown for fundamental changes in scientific outlook. Indeed, some of the most significant questions debated in twentieth-century philosophy of science have to do with the relativity of scientific thought. As already mentioned, the controversial writings of Thomas Kuhn have served to sensitize the scientific community to this issue. Kuhn's primary interest was to understand the human process by which major changes in our interpretation of the natural world have taken place. If we look carefully, for example, at the "scientific revolution" associated with the work of Galileo and Copernicus, we do not find a simple change of opinion based on the impartial investigation of objective data. Respectable scientists, in the face of newly discovered evidence, continued to hold on to traditional views of physics and astronomy. Whenever possible, they managed to integrate the new evidence into their general interpretation; otherwise, they temporarily set it aside as yet-to-be-explained-data ("anomalies").
        As part of his argument, Kuhn called attention to a fascinating psychological experiment. In it, the experimenters used a deck of playing cards that contained a few "anomalies," such as a red six of spades or a black four of hearts. The cards were quickly displayed one by one, and the subjects were asked to identify them. As a rule, the subjects did not even seem aware of the anomalies; they readily integrated the new facts into a system that was incompatible with those facts. With somewhat lengthier exposures, most of the subjects became aware of a problem but were unable to figure out the anomaly; it took even lengthier exposures for them to be able to identify the cards correctly. A few subjects, however, even after exposures many times longer than the others required, continued to experience difficulties and became very anxious; it was as though an interpretive inflexibility prevented them from accepting the new evidence (23).

Relativity in Interpretation. The old retort "I've made up my mind - don't bother me with the facts" is usually spoken tongue-in-cheek, but there is more truth to it than we realize or are willing to admit. And this is not necessarily a matter of willful obstinance or dishonesty. When someone misinterprets what we say, we may find solace in the fact that "people hear what they want to hear." Perhaps more accurately, we could say that people hear only what their minds are already prepared to hear. It is impossible for us to understand and assimilate new information except by relating it to what we already know - that is, by filtering it in a way that fits our "pre-understanding." A few wise individuals, however, seem able to identify an anomaly quickly, to recognize that they are unable to assimilate it, and to adjust their interpretive framework in a way that takes account of the new fact.
        Be that as it may, the point is that contemporary thinkers have learned to accept the role played by the subjectivity of the observer in scientific research (24). But now, if these things are true in the "hard sciences," where objective measurement lies at the core of research, what shall we say with regard to the humanities, and particularly the interpretation of literature, where the subjective factor seems so much more prominent? For one thing, these developments tell us that we probably have overestimated the differences between the sciences and the humanities. In both of these broad disciplines, the researcher is faced with a set of data that can be interpreted only in the light of previous commitments, in both cases, therefore, an interpreter comes-consciously or unconsciously-with a "theory" that seeks to account for as many facts as possible. Given the finite nature of every human interpreter, no explanation accounts for the data exhaustively. And in many, many cases, it is a set of [118] prior commitments, rather than the weight of the evidence, that determines the final conclusion.
        That much is widely agreed upon in our day. Some thinkers, however, will argue that, at least in the case of literary interpretation, we need to go further. It is even suggested that the role of the reader is and should be virtually the only thing that matters. For practitioners of both the historical method (which emphasized the original author's meaning) and the New Criticism (which disregarded any such authorial intention), the one thing that could be relied on was the objectivity of the text. For proponents of "reader-response theory," however - at least in its more extreme forms - there is no such thing as an objective text. Insofar as every reader brings an interpretive framework to the text, to that extent every reader generates a new meaning and thus creates a new text.
        This approach, moreover, does not stop at describing what happens when a text is read; after all, traditional interpreters might recognize that there is a sense in which that description may be accurate - just as long as an effort is made to control the tendency! The message of reader-response theorists, rather, is that this way of reading is legitimate and should be encouraged in all its many-splendored varieties. Accordingly, specific points of view become self-conscious hermeneutical strategies. Prominent in the last decade or two have been Marxist readings of the Bible, feminist approaches, and studies in African American hermeneutics; but in principle there should be no objection to taking any ideology as a point of departure (say, an explicitly capitalist approach to the prophecy of Amos, or a self-consciously racist reading of the Gospel of John).
        Edgar V. McKnight, a respected proponent of reader-response theory, suggests that, since we cannot completely break out of our self-validating systems, ultimate meaning is unreachable: All we can hope for is to discover and express truth "in terms that make sense within a particular universe of meaning." We may, therefore, continue to discover or create meaning, "which is satisfying for the present location of the reader (25)."
        A specific exegetical example helps to understand what all of this means for the actual interpretation of Scripture. In 2 Samuel 11 we are told that, after committing adultery with Bathsheba, David tried to get her husband, the soldier Uriah, to go home Uriah, however, refused to do so. Since the rest of the army was in the open fields, he protested, "How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife?" (see v. 11). Most readers, of course, will wonder whether Uriah had found out about the affair, but the Hebrew narrative, so often characterized by gaps of information, does not tell us. "The gap may be filled legitimately by both affirmative and negative answers .... The text demands that both hypotheses be utilized to shed their different light on details in the text; different plots must organized on the basis of the hypotheses. Moreover, the text requires the reader to maintain both hypotheses simultaneously (26)."
        Stated in that fashion, it is difficult to object to the approach, for it simply attempts to do justice to the literary power of the narrative. Behind this example, however, lies a commitment to the relativity of truth in human experience and, therefore, to the validity of multiple, perhaps even contradictory, meanings. While McKnight himself is care to deny that "anything goes" (27), it is not always easy to see how an extreme application can be logically avoided. In a famous essay that argues against the determinacy of meaning, Stanley Fish concludes by assuring us that we need not worry that such an approach leads to relativism; after all, in spite of indeterminacy of meaning, people continue to participate in communication with confidence because their beliefs are communal (28)." Yet, it remains unclear whether Fish's reassurance works out in practice

The Theological Factor. The application of this principle to biblical studies inevitably becomes embroiled in fundamental theological disputes. For most of their historical existence, both Jewish a Christian communities held - and substantial groups within them still hold - that the Bible does communicate and make accessible to us ultimate [119] truth. How is that commitment to be reconciled with the notion that conflicting interpretations of the Bible, since they have behind them the authority of their respective communities, are all valid?
        Is a Roman Catholic believer, for example, supposed to acknowledge the truthfulness of a Protestant doctrine even if that doctrine contradicts and thus undermines an important Roman Catholic tenet? And if an interpretive community decides that the reader-response approach is invalid, is that community's interpretation valid too? The term valid is seldom if ever defined in these contexts (29). According to what may be described as a "soft" approach, the point is that no community has a monopoly on the whole truth; therefore, diverse communities, recognizing that their respective traditions have emphasized different aspects of biblical truth, may prove mutually enriching. Given human finiteness, such an emphasis is unobjectionable. What remains unaddressed and troubling is whether any two views may be mutually exclusive and, if so, whether it is helpful to regard them both as valid.
        Unquestionably, current emphases on the role of the reader cover a wide variety of approaches. Included under the general category are profound insights into the process of interpretation as well as faddish ideas. The danger is that, troubled by what appear to be extreme formulations, we may close our eyes to the invaluable contributions made by this movement. Such an overreaction would be particularly unfortunate in view of the character of Scripture as a book that speaks to all generations. If there is anything demonstrable in the history of biblical study it is the vigor and consistency with which believers have "actualized" its teachings in their lives.
        This relevance is not the result of the Bible's "timelessness," if we mean by that a transcendent meaning totally unconditioned by historical factors. The very fact that the biblical message has proven relevant to remarkably diverse people living in different ages and different lands is itself evidence of its essentially historical character; it was given to people in the context of their life situation, and it has been readily contextualized by subsequent readers. (To me, the theological explanation is that the same Holy Spirit who authored the Scriptures - thus biblical inspiration - is the one who brings understanding to the reader.) It is worth pointing out, incidentally, that Stanley Fish, whatever other controversial things he may say, places a premium on the contextual aspect of communication (30).
        Some thinkers view the concept of contextualization as a relativizing of the Bible that deprives it of its authority. It may well be that the concept has been abused in specific instances, but biblical authority can just as easily be undermined by minimizing the reality of historical variation. The divine authority of Scripture comes to human beings in their concrete situations, which of course are susceptible to change. The absoluteness of God's commands thus would not be preserved but rather compromised if those commands were so general and vague that they were equally applicable to all situations.

The Legitimacy of Reader Involvement. Our discussion so far may be viewed as an acknowledgment of the intense involvement of the reader in the process of interpreting Scripture. We should not be misled by the apparent novelty, or even avant-garde quality, of reader-response theory. While it is true that the current preoccupation with the reader is very much a modern phenomenon, the newness in question has to do mainly with the self-conscious and explicit character of the descriptions. But there is unquestionably a reality to which those descriptions point, and that reality has always been there.
        Whether we like it or not, readers can - and routinely do - create meanings out of the texts they read. That being so, several options are available to us. At one extreme, we could legitimize all reader responses, or at least the ones that have the authority of some community behind them; it is doubtful, however, whether the integrity of Christianity can be preserved within such a framework. At the other extreme, we could attempt to suppress the reader's prejudice. In effect, this is what historical exegesis has had as its goal: total objectivity on the part of the interpreter. But such objectivity does not exist. And if it did exist, it would be of little use, because then we would simply be involved in a bare repetition [120] of the text that takes no account of its abiding value. Paradoxically, the success of modern biblical criticism was obtained at the great cost of losing biblical relevance.
        The historical method was not necessarily wrong in distinguishing what the Bible originally meant from what it means today. In practice, however, it also separated the two. The new approach teaches us, or rather reminds us, that if we do not know what the Bible means today, it is doubtful that we know what it meant then. At all stages of interpretation some human need is being met. None of those activities presents us with a "purely objective" truth that is removed from all human questions and concerns. Every request for "meaning" is a request for an application because whenever we ask for the "meaning" of a passage we are expressing a lack in ourselves, an ignorance, an inability to use the passage. Asking for "meaning" is asking for an application of Scripture to a need; we are asking Scripture to remedy that lack, that ignorance, that inability. Similarly, every request for an "application" is a request for meaning; the one who asks doesn't understand the passage well enough to use it (31).
        In short, it is not necessary to suppress our present context to understand the text. On the contrary, at times we need to approach Scripture with our problems and questions if we would truly appreciate what it says. And that is to recognize that in order to value the text, the reader must have a commitment to it. Commitment, however, entails pre-understanding, and such a "prejudice" is not only permissible - it is required.
        Users of The New Interpreter's Bible will note, in the very format for the commentaries, a deliberate attempt to avoid a false dichotomy between "what it meant" and "what it means." Although individual contributors reflect a variety of viewpoints with regard to reader-response theory, the project as a whole acknowledges, in contrast to the older method, the legitimacy of the interpreter's self-involvement.

Authorial Intent. It should be clear by now that modern hermeneutics has moved further and further away from an interest in the meaning of the original author. Other than for antiquarian purposes, authorial intent is regarded, at least by a number of prominent thinkers, as more or less irrelevant. This approach clashes with the "common sense" of the average reader. Moreover, as already noted, it is vigorously rejected by not a few scholars. We need to consider, therefore, whether reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated (32).
        There is undoubtedly a certain legitimacy to the claim that the meaning of a text should not be identified with the author's intention in an exclusive and absolute fashion. Every teacher, for example, has probably experienced the delight of having a student ask a question that rephrases, interprets, and expands points mentioned in a lecture. Although it would not be quite right to say that all of what the student says was part of the teacher's conscious intention, the instructor is happy to take credit for the "new" meaning insofar as it is a legitimate inference from the lecture.
        May we say that the student's interpretation was part of the meaning of the lecture? In some sense, yes, and we can confirm that by the very fact that the instructor accepts the interpretation. Now, if the same interpretation had arisen in a conversation among the students, with the instructor being absent and thus unable to confirm it, it would still have been part of the meaning. This potential for semantic expansion increases in the case of a written document, for now the text becomes widely available to a large and diverse number of people who are more and more removed from the original setting of the author. The apostle Paul, let us say, could not have possibly anticipated certain specific problems in twentieth-century Christian churches. Whether we admit it or not, the "application" of a Pauline statement to those problems entails a decision about the "meaning" of the text that certainly was not part of the original author's conscious intent.
        The matter becomes even more pressing for believers who regard God as the ultimate author of Scripture. This conviction of a dual authorship - both human and divine - has, of course, been the motivating factor behind many controversial uses of the Bible throughout the centuries. Whether we think of that strand of Jewish exegesis associated with Rabbi Akiba that saw a significant meaning in every detail, or the allegorical program of Origen of Alexandria, or the so-called typological approach of the Antiochenes, or the appeal to sensus plenior ("fuller meaning"; see above p. 108), or simply the common devotional reading of thousands of believers - all of these assume that there is "more" to the biblical message than is apparent on the surface. Indeed, anyone who believes that the primary origin of the Bible lies in an omniscient and foreseeing God can hardly doubt that there is considerable "meaning" in the biblical text that the human authors were not fully aware of (33).
        In short, we may concede, on both literary and theological grounds, that the meaning of a biblical passage need not be identified completely with the author's intention. It is quite a different question, however, to suggest that authorial meaning is dispensable or even secondary. The position I take (and presumably shared in a general way by most of the NIB contributors, who are expected to present a historical exegesis of the text) is that, while in certain cases the task of identifying what the biblical author meant is not the only legitimate way of proceeding; such a task is always legitimate and indeed must continue to function as an essential goal.

Respect for the Author. One could argue that this is the only honest way of proceeding before further considerations are brought to bear on the text. Our social interaction with one another is anchored on this principle. We all recognize that it is utterly unjust to take a conversation we have just heard and interpret the words of one of the speakers in a sense different from-let alone contradictory to-the sense meant by that speaker. Indeed, we routinely denounce that sort of thing as morally unacceptable behavior. The notion that such a principle can simply be suspended in the case of written documents cannot be justified.
        Consider, for example, liberation theologian Croatto's claims (summarized early in this article) that interpreters should read into the text their own meaning. One suspects that Croatto would be deeply offended (and rightly so) if we were to interpret his book to mean that the best kind of hermeneutics is the fundamentalist approach, or that his book sets forth a capitalist ethics on the basis of which the United States is justified in exerting imperialist pressures on Latin America. Such an interpretation of Croatto's work would be deplorable.
        In response, some may suggest that he was only referring to works that have become classics, whether religious or otherwise. There is no doubt a measure of truth in this argument: A classic work becomes part of a given community, whose members, by their very use of the work, put their own imprint on it. But to admit that much is a far cry from what some moderns are suggesting. Can it reasonably be argued that the more important a work is the greater liberties we may take with it? That the more we respect a text, the more justified we are to disregard its author? Whatever other functions a classic may have, it continues to be a historical document, requiring historical interpretation. It should be kept in mind, incidentally, that Bultmann's own emphasis on preunderstanding, far from removing the need for historical interpretation, was intended to do real justice to serious texts (34).
        Part of the difficulty arises from the role played by poetry in most societies. It is, of course, true that if someone composes a poem or produces a painting - that is, a purely artistic product - the creator is inviting us to "interpret" that work in a variety of ways. But the biblical texts are not art in this sense. Even the Hebrew poetry of the OT cannot be reduced to pure art. Whatever literary and artistic features we may find in Scripture, its primary purpose is to communicate an intelligible message that requires a response.

The Character of Scripture. Here, however, once again we come across a theological issue that has a history of vigorous controversy. Is God's revelation really propositional in character (that is, conveying information) or is it personal (establishing a relationship)? The so-called dialectical approach associated [122] with the theology of Karl Barth, concerned that orthodox Christianity downgraded the Bible to the level of a static document, emphasized the relational quality of the Word of God (this view, with some modifications, became the dominant position and continues to be widely held). Evangelical theology, on the other hand, concerned about the subjectivity implied in Barth's approach, has insisted that the biblical revelation is propositional.
        While I am committed to the latter perspective, one must be careful not to fall into indefensible disjunctions. The whole of the biblical text can hardly be reduced to a sourcebook of information - there is much more to Scripture than that (35). But neither can we suggest that God's revelation consists of a personal encounter void of content. Indeed, nothing is more basic to Scripture than the fact that it communicates to us God's good news. The question is, then, whether, by an appeal to the autonomy of the text or the role of the reader, we have the liberty to subvert that message.

Historical Background. At various points in this article, the significance and function of language have proven to be a central issue. Certainly, meaning is inextricably tied to language, and so it is only a mild exaggeration to say that the whole contemporary debate about interpretation is a discussion about language. A brief background on the history of this issue may help to place that debate in perspective.
        During the nineteenth century, which saw the flowering of linguistic science as a primarily historical discipline (comparative philology), language philosophy was largely dominated by so-called idealism. On the European continent, this general approach was tied to phenomenology and existentialism, which placed great emphasis on the fundamental significance of language. Not averse to the use of paradox, Continental philosophy has tended to express its ideas in, less than perfectly clear terms. The New Hermeneutic, for example, builds on Heidegger's ontology (language as the "house of being") and views speech not so much as human expression but as the self-speaking of language. Concerns of this sort are what lies behind the subsequent development of structuralism and related approaches.
        Quite a different point of view, however, has dominated Anglo-American language philosophy in recent times. Indeed, at the beginning of the twentieth century British thought experienced something of a revolution that came to be known as "the linguistic turn (37)." Tired of the abstract quality of the idealist tradition, such brilliant British thinkers as G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell decided that the real task of philosophy was to clarify our concepts and, therefore, our language. The Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein and other prominent philosophers took up this theme and generated a new subdiscipline known as analytic philosophy. (The question of "God-talk," incidentally, often emerged in this context and so ties in quite directly to the issue of meaning in biblical revelation.) Although working independently of twentieth-century linguistic science, these philosophers developed principles and methods that were very similar indeed to what linguists were doing. The isolation between linguists and philosophers has gradually given way to cooperation, and it is no longer unusual to find philosophers fully abreast of developments in linguistics or linguists who capably try their hand at philosophical investigation (38).
        One important consequence, out of many, is the [123] value attached to semantics in contemporary linguistics, a subject broached somewhat gingerly by earlier (structural) linguists. Already in 1951, Stephen Ullmann, a Hungarian-born scholar who eventually became professor of Romance languages and literature at Oxford, had published a foundational work on the question of meaning that was fully informed by developments in the scientific study of language (39). Within two decades, it was no longer unusual for linguists to deal extensively with problems of meaning; indeed, one of the major linguistic contributions of the 1970s, by John Lyons, was entitled Semantics (40). Drawing on advances in several disciplines, including philosophy (but not of the Continental variety) and psychology, Lyons produced an admirable synthesis that continues to serve as a base for further debate. Lyons appears to be innocent of the controversy regarding authorial intent in literary studies. He asserts without any hesitation that the speaker's intention is a necessary element in communication (41).

Semantic Theories. In any case, the careful empirical work of modern linguistics should provide a solid foundation for discussions about meaning (and, therefore, about the interpretation of texts). A variety of theories have been propounded; we need not identify them all, but several emphases deserve mention. One long-standing explanation - more or less discredited among professionals but unconsciously assumed by most speakers even today - is the reference or denotation theory of meaning. According to this view, words function like names - that is, labels attached to extralinguistic objects. As a comprehensive explanation, this theory is most inadequate. Even when applied to "names," the concept of reference is only part of the picture; both "New York City" and "The Big Apple" refer to, or stand for, the same extralinguistic entity, but it would be misleading to say that their meaning is identical. The problem is even more serious when we take into account words for which it is difficult to identify a referent (e.g., beautiful).
        A competing approach is the functional view of meaning, which stresses the contextual use of language. This explanation has been proposed in various forms by such philosophers as Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and J. L. Austin (42). The emphasis on context is congenial to scholars in the field of general linguistics. This approach can be easily integrated, for example, into a view of language as a structured system, in which value arises from the relationship that holds among the diverse linguistic elements. Thus the potential meaning of the word good depends on its relationship to words of similar meaning that could occupy the same context, such as nice and excellent, the actual meaning of the word in an utterance is determined by its relationship with the other words in that specific sentence (43).
        Although much more satisfying than the reference theory of meaning - at least when discussing the meaning of vocabulary items - the contextual approach cannot account for every semantic problem in language. Other perspectives and emphases can and should be used to shed greater light on the question of linguistic meaning. In particular, it is worth pointing out that to recognize the strong connection between meaning and usage does not do away with the concept of reference, especially in the case of whole utterances or propositions. Take the sentence Abraham Lincoln delivered a powerful speech at Gettysburg. The two proper names in that sentence certainly denote (that is, have a one-to-one correspondence with) extralinguistic realities. The terms delivered and speech are not totally devoid of reference, but their meaning is to a large extent determined by linguistic relationships. This is even more true of the adjective powerful, for its semantic value depends almost entirely on both the presence of other adjectives that could occupy that spot in the sentence and the specific combination of the adjective with the noun speech.
    Note, however, that the recognition of these facts does not in any way undermine the denotative character of the sentence as a whole. As a historical proposition, the meaning of that statement is inextricably tied to the referent to which it points. (Moreover, the referential character in view is independent of its truthfulness. If we replace Abraham Lincoln with Plato, the sentence, though false, would still denote something outside of language itself.) In sum, it is important to keep in mind that competing theories of meaning need not be mutually exclusive of each other. More important, one must not conclude that an emphasis on inner-linguistic semantics results in the destruction of objective meaning.

        Exposure to contemporary theories of meaning and interpretation can not only prove dizzying but they can also create personal angst about the uncertainty of human experience. We need to keep in mind, however, that the same scholars who challenge the determinacy and objectivity of meaning go on in their daily lives assuming that interpretation is both possible and essential. They engage in conversations with the clerk at the bank and believe that the money they were told had been deposited is really there. They read the newspaper account of a fire in another city and do not experience an emotional crisis, wondering whether the fire actually took place in the very house where they are reading the newspaper. They even write books about the death of the author and expect the reader to believe that they themselves are alive.
        The view that it is the reader who creates meaning calls to mind the old paradox of whether a tree falling in the forest produces a noise if no one is there to hear it. Suppose that I receive a letter, but afraid of what it might tell me, I decide to burn it without reading it. It could be argued that, since the very reader for whom the letter was intended never read it, there was no meaning at all. Yet the objective reality of the communication is not undone by my reaction - and it certainly would be folly to think that I am personally unaffected as a result of the decision not to read the letter (which happened to say, "You must come in for an operation this Friday or you will die").
        For those who believe what the Scriptures claim to be - God's very message to us - an additional consideration must be brought to bear. The Bible presents God as the Creator of all things, including human speech. In fact, the ability of men and women to speak appears to be closely related to their being created in the image of God, who made the world by speaking the word of command, "Let there be. . . ."
The reality and effectiveness of human communication is a reflection of God's own speaking. To be sure, human speech is finite and, more important, is deeply affected by the presence of sin. Not surprisingly, therefore, legitimate questions arise concerning the interpreter's subjectivity, the relative features of culture, and ambiguity in meaning. These problems must not be ignored or set aside by an appeal to theological considerations.
        Nevertheless, the purposes of the Creator, who is also the Savior, cannot be thwarted by human weakness. Indeed, just as the snow and the rain do not return to the sky without producing fruit on the earth, "so is my word that goes out from my mouth:/ It will not return to me empty,/but will accomplish what I desire/and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isa 55:11 NIV). For the Christian, the meaning of that revelation is inextricably bound to Christ, who came to "explain" or "interpret" the Father (John 1:18, exegeomai), and whose words, we are assured, will never pass away (Mark 13:31). (44)
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