Not long ago, my son and I were talking about the concept of “the death of the author.” If you’re not familiar with it, it says that the definitive meaning of a text can’t be understood from the intentions of the author. It argues that what a reader thinks a text means is at least as important, and maybe more so, than whatever meaning the original author intended.
To revisit a previous post with this in mind: even if the authors say they didn’t intend for Puff, the Magic Dragon to be about marijuana use, the idea of “the death of the author” would say that if a later hearer of the song took it that way, their interpretation is correct.
The idea comes from a 1967 essay by a French literary critic named Roland Barthes. He explains that it’s impossible to fully know the meaning an author intended, that all we can know with any kind of certainty is our response to it in the moment. He writes,"a text's unity lies not in its origins,” — its author — "but in its destination" — its reader.
I’ve said that the Bible can’t mean to us what it couldn’t have meant to its original authors. But if Barthes is right, then what the text meant to Paul or Matthew or Isaiah doesn’t matter.
And, in fact, biblical texts can be legitimately reinterpreted. The parable of the Good Samaritan has something to say about black - white relations in America, even though Jesus (and Luke) didn’t have had that in mind. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously reappropriated Amos’ call to justice and righteousness for his time. Joel’s promise that “sons and daughters” would prophesy was reappropriated by Peter (and Luke) in Acts 2 to describe what was happening in his day, and it can be legitimately pressed into service in our world, when injustice against women even in church is being finally brought into the light.
Preachers have long done this, “borrowing” texts to shed light on issues and questions in their own worlds. Preachers have always used (hopefully) sanctified imagination to let the text speak to the worlds in which they have preached. If you’ve ever heard (or preached) a sermon on Jesus stilling the storm, and made some point about Jesus stilling the “storms” in our own lives, then you know what I mean. In fact, that’s possibly the primary way we recognize a “good” sermon — it finds contemporary meaning in those old texts.
I’m preaching this week on a few verses from the first chapter of Revelation. Revelation is maybe the “death of the author” capital of the Bible. We’ve tended to imagine that John’s intended meaning is so deeply buried under an avalanche of figurative, symbolic language that there’s no point in even trying to recover it, and so throughout church history we’ve let our imaginations run wild. It makes for a vivid warning that a radical “death of the author” approach to the Bible can produce fanciful and even harmful interpretations.
In my sermon on Revelation 1, I’m zeroing in on something we know about John — that he was a political dissident, exiled to the island of Patmos. I’ll try to show from the text what a dissident looks like, and why as believers in Jesus we all should have a bit of dissident in us What John intended when he wrote Revelation matters. But I seriously doubt I’m in danger of being exiled or imprisoned for my faith. Still, there are certainly situations where faith might cause me to be on the outside looking in, so to speak. So we can put his words to work in our worlds, informed by what he intended to say to his world.
The Medieval church read the Bible according to four “senses”: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The last three together were known as “spiritual” senses. This kind of reading was one of the things Luther wanted to reform, but I think it was just a way to try to sort of standardize a way of reading the Bible that comes pretty naturally to us. So in the Medieval church you might read a text like Psalm 114:1, “When Israel went out of Egypt,” in this way:
Literal — a reference to the time when God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. This is the intended, historic meaning of the text. It’s important to note that Medieval theologians insisted that it was necessary to get this sense right, because it was the foundation for the other three senses.
Allegorical — The reader is looking for types that connect the text to other biblical ideas. In this text Moses would be a type of Christ, leading God’s people out of Egypt to the Promise Land, just like Jesus leads us out from sin and into grace and salvation. The Red Sea, which parted for Israel to walk through, might be a type of baptism, through which Christ leads us to salvation. It’s important to note that the allegorical sense often leads to the moral. (Paul thinks this way.)
Moral — This sense answers the question, “How should I act?” In this text, if Israel leaving the bondage of Egypt is like humanity being delivered by Christ, then we might ask how we can leave behind sin and pursue holiness.
Anagogical — This is probably the least familiar sense to modern Bible readers. It comes from the Greek word that means, “to lead.” The Medieval church wanted readers to ask , “Toward what does this text lead me?” In the case of Psalm 114, you might answer that the text in its anagogical sense is about the believer’s journey toward our own Promised Land, heaven. Many hymn writers have found just such a meaning in the story of the Exodus. The anagogical sense points us toward heaven.
I don’t think it’s all that important to know the terms for these senses. Here’s the point I’m trying to make; the author’s intent matters. But it should also lead us to discern what more a text might be saying to us.
In Acts 15, the church is gathered to discuss an important issue for their world — non-Jews coming to faith in Jesus in huge number. On what basis should these non-Jews be admitted? Are there behaviors they need to renounce? Should they be required to follow Jewish laws like circumcision?
James, Jesus’ brother, hears the arguments. And then he quotes Scripture, specifically Amos 9, in which the prophet looks forward to a time in which God will “return” and “rebuild” the “ruins” of “David’s fallen house.” He’ll do this, Amos says, “that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name.” Amos wasn’t imagining the situation Acts 15 precisely. He was speaking to his own time and place. But James was able to see the significance of Amos’ words for his own world: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Here’s why the death of the author doesn’t work for Scripture: its Author isn’t dead. God has revealed his intent to us clearly, and his intention to save human beings has never changed. It wasn’t fanciful for James to see in Amos’ words a God who was still committed to rebuilding his people and put his name on non-Jews as well. It isn’t fanciful for us to expect that God will still speak to us through those ancient texts about his intentions as well. In fact, it’s imperative that we read the Bible that way.
So, yes, what the authors of the biblical texts we read intended matters. But it doesn’t matter in an academic way. When we understand what the authors intended, we also understand how to read Scripture expecting to hear God’s word for our time and place, as well.
In the next post, though, I’d like to talk about how just “doing what the Bible says” can be problematic.