Whose Authority?

“We need to discover what the author’s original intentions were.” I hear this occasionally at Fuller Seminary where I’m attending school from both students and professors. and it always gets me thinking: What is the state of Biblical Studies in relation to other humanities disciplines?

This summer, I had the opportunity to take New Testament 1 (Gospels) with Craig Evans, a visiting scholar and professor from Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia. Dr. Evans is, as I understand him, a renowned scholar who speaks all over the world about issues regarding the historical documents that comprise our New Testament, their authenticity, their priority, their importance, etc. During the course of lectures in the first week, Dr. Evans touched on a number of approaches to hermeneutics which included redaction criticism, literary criticism methods, as well as just “opening the book and reading.” Since the vast majority of the class was focused on the texts that comprise the New Testament, their authenticity, the controversies surrounding them, etc., it was clear that Dr. Evans felt that redaction criticism was the best approach.

This was confirmed when he told us the purpose of redaction criticism was to attempt to come to the author’s original intentions and that other forms of criticism, particularly those of the literary variety, relied too heavily upon interpretation.


As someone coming from the field of literature, I have some issues with this, especially when it comes to the Bible. Leaving Dr. Evans out of it from here on in (since he really was a very nice guy), I’d like to make a few comments on “authorial intention.” This was not the first time I had encountered this phrase being used at Fuller as sort of the ultimate goal or endgame for Biblical Studies. I’ve had quite a number of conversations with other students who say that if we can’t rely on the Bible as our ultimate authority, our go-to, and if we can’t come to understand what authors originally intended, or at least come close, then how can we be sure about anything in our faith?

There are, in my mind, a number of contradictory words in that statement. We need to break this down in order to understand it better, but I’d like to preface that by mentioning that there will certainly be assumptions made below and things left unexplained that hopefully will be developed in future posts.

Can We Know an Author’s Original Intentions?

Communications 101: Speaker–>{{NOISE}}–>Listener

What this picture represents is something that is actually far more complicated than it seems at first glance. What it tells us is that in every communication, written or otherwise, something is interpreted. I use the word “know” in italics above because I want to emphasize the difference between understanding an author/speaker’s words in a way that may match their intentions generally and knowing exactly what those intentions are. In more philosophical terms, when we hear someone speak, or read something someone has written, we are encountering the Other, someone not Self, and unfortunately we can never put ourselves in the place of the Other because to do so would be to make that Other into Self. We can never know another person the way he knows himself. Everything we encounter is interpreted, or, to put it in the (in)famous words of Jacques Derrida, “There is nothing outside the text”–meaning there is not a single thing we encounter or know that can somehow be known, described, etc. outside of language. I’ll say it again–everything is interpreted. Sometimes, those interpretations happen so quickly, so intuitively, that we don’t ever think of them as interpretations at all. They’re automatic. If I say, to use a good friend’s example for this problem, “A cat ran across the street,” you would have a picture of what I meant by that. However, you wouldn’t necessarily picture exactly what I had seen. In fact, without more information, chances are you wouldn’t–especially if by cat, I meant a lion. Of course, once you have that information, you have an easier time picturing it. With all the information, there is no misunderstanding on a general level. I don’t need to describe the lion exactly, hair for hair, though that would bring the listener closer to what I had actually seen. And therein lies the problem. Even if one were standing right next to me, witnessing the events, one might have a different interpretation of the events. We’re two different people. We’re going to see things differently, and even if those differences are slight, even imperceptible, they’re still there. They will never have identity, and it is those differences that create the necessity for interpretation.

A Multitude of Interpretations

This absolutely applies to all texts, particularly when an author is deceased, but even when an author isn’t. For example, an author could say in an interview that he or she intended a certain message in a text he or she wrote. However, what if you read that text, saw what the author intended as stated in the interview, but also saw another message, another theme, perhaps unintended? Is that not a valid interpretation? Think about what a story is in the first place. All the very best novels convey some sort of subtextual message, theme, etc. that is never explicitly stated in the story (only the bad ones do that.) So if we take that text autonomously–which for now we’ll take as a given, though the autonomous nature of the text certainly could be debated–then the author is actually placing his or her own interpretation on the text. The author can justify the interpretation using textual elements from the story, perhaps contextual elements from the author’s time period or life. Another interpretation, different or even contradictory to the author’s may also be able to be justified using the exact same tools. This is why literary studies exists at all–and this is why Biblical studies exists. If we had discovered the “correct” interpretation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or Shakespeare’s The Tempest, English departments across the country would consist merely of fact checkers, trained to scientifically hash out the correct meaning of texts. The thought of such a thing should be ridiculous to us (or at least to me and my friends in literature departments across the country.) There are literally thousands of essays written on just one of any of Shakespeare’s plays, each offering a different, nuanced way of reading them. But this idea of hashing through the facts to get at the “actual” meaning, the one true meaning, of Biblical texts is not ridiculous at all to some. In fact, this is the purpose of Biblical studies in the minds of some.

Do We Need Authorial Intention to Speak with Authority?

Setting aside whether or not knowing an author’s intentions are possible or whether they equal the “correct” interpretation, I’d like to suggest that the term “authorial intention” does not add any authority to the reading of a text. Let’s return to my statement about the cat. Some would say that my original intent, whether that be to give a warning about an escaped lion or to inform someone about a lost house cat, is communicated once all the details are given to a satisfactory extent. The question, however, becomes this: In order for us to say we understand a statement, do we need the phrase, “The author’s/speaker’s intent is…” in order to say that our understanding is correct, best, authoritative? I say no. We can decide the purpose of the statement without knowing exactly what my intentions are given other context. Here’s an example from the Bible: Mark’s gospel begins, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Of particular interest in framing the text is the use of the phrase “the Son of God.” If we know anything about the history of the 1st century Near East, we know that it was under Roman imperial control. We know that the Roman Imperial Cult, the Roman religious order of the day, held that Caesar was the one true Son of God, and it required that all people citizen or not of the Roman Empire had to worship Caesar accordingly. We can then deduce that this text, because it was widely circulated, probably caused a political and social disturbance in the parts of the empire where it was circulated. Was it Mark’s intention to undermine the Imperial Cult? Probably. But does saying that it is add anything to our deduction that it most likely did undermine it? I would say no. What if we discovered, somehow, that this was not Mark’s intention? Would we suddenly say the statement that Jesus, not Caesar, is the Son of God did not undermine the Imperial Cult? I don’t think we would. We would perhaps call it an unintended consequence of that statement. Isn’t that familiar to us? Aren’t unintended consequences of communication a regular occurrence? In those cases, the consequences usually outweigh intentions. We gain nothing in terms of “correctness” nor do we come any closer to the “best” or “actual” interpretation when we claim an interpretation is what the author intended a reader to understand. Instead, statements about authorial intention become plays for power and authority over the text.

Whose Authority?

I think all of this is driving at one particular point–the purpose of using authorial intention. Scholars past and present have tried to arrive objectively at authorial intention because they believe that if they can, they’ll know the one true meaning of the text. In other words, it’s about gaining authority over a text–to be the one to disseminate the “Truth” of a text to others. The problem, as I see it, is that people who search for this and claim to find it, mistakenly see their interpretation as objective, authoritative truth, not realizing that it is another interpretation–and perhaps even a valid one! This maybe isn’t a problem for a historian or someone in an empirical, secular field, but it should be a huge problem for Christians. Is the goal of Biblical studies to be able to lay claim to the authoritative reading of the text? What are we really saying when we claim that authority? I don’t know about you, but I understand “the authoritative reading” to be the one that God would get upon reading the text. Are we really so bold as to claim that we can “see over God’s shoulder” as Merold Westphal puts it? I think that’s a dangerous game to play. It’s what leads individuals and groups to metaphysical violence (rather violence over metaphysics) as I wrote about in my last post (Violence). In that post, I mention people who carry signs declaring the doom of sinners. Some of their protests (such as the ones put on Westboro Baptist Church) are really horrifying. Yet, they’re acting on the belief that their understanding of the Biblical text is the understanding. They’re attempting to disseminate that understanding. We can make excuses for them and say, well they obviously don’t have the correct understanding. They’re misguided. They haven’t thought about it enough. They’re not willing to look at the facts. All of that may be true, but the point is that their bottom line is their belief that they posses the author’s true intentions, and all who oppose them will burn. Now, I don’t want to make a direct comparison between peers at Fuller who think authorial intention is a worthwhile endeavor and the hate mongering perpetrated by the members of Westboro. I haven’t encountered anyone at Fuller, student or professor, who hasn’t wanted to discuss this issue or others when disagreements arise. I merely want to point out how easily the quest for or claim to authorial intention can slide into fundamentalism.

A Familiar Worldview

The source of the use of the intentional fallacy in Biblical studies is right in front of us. It’s the same thing that fuels the fires of New Atheism, Young Earth creationists, and astrophysicists: Enlightenment science. Many Christians don’t necessarily see this connection, but it’s there. The basic, underlying assumption of the Enlightenment is that human beings have the capacity and capability to discover, either through scientific or philosophical inquiry, absolute truth. As Christians, we believe we have an idea of what that truth is. Notice I didn’t use the word know. By the requirements of the scientific method, we don’t know a lot of things. This is why so many Christians find it necessary to prove their faith through empirical means. We base what we believe upon the requirements of science. Science says we need empirical evidence to know something. We try to produce that through what many call pseudo-science, some real science, and examination and redaction of historical texts. These are tangibles that are supposed to point us in the right direction. But is it really necessary to “prove” the Bible is… what? True? Inspired by God? Many Christians aren’t entirely sure what those terms mean. And if we do somehow prove these things empirically, then what? Do we somehow know any more about our infinite God than we already do now? Does the Bible become the core of our belief instead of God?

Letting Go

Let’s look back at that first statement I paraphrased from those at Fuller with whom I’ve had this discussion and take apart two things. First, we should not rely on the Bible as an ultimate authority–God is our ultimate authority, and the Bible often times, but not all the time, helps us get to God. There are other ways we encounter God, his will, authority, etc. Second, we don’t need to be sure in our faith the way a scientist is sure of gravity. When we attempt that, we put God in a box as the famed theologians of Five Iron Frenzy once said in a song. When we attempt that, we’re not really operating in faith, or rather we’re saying that faith is good enough for now, to hold us over until we can prove some things. It’s possible to be sure in our faith without scientific proof. We need to let go of the idea that we have to “prove” the Bible. Trying to claim knowledge of authorial intention is part of that because it’s an attempt to empirically describe meaning of the text. But as I’ve hopefully argued, there is no way to ever arrive at an author’s actual intentions and even if there were, it wouldn’t necessarily represent the authoritative interpretation. I could spend ten more pages arguing for why certain methods, deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonial cirticism, and others are worth using, but those methods can become just as falsely authoritative as authorial intention. I suppose then that the point is to recognize that we should not be trying to arrive at the reading of a text and instead recognize that a multitude of readings all contribute to a richer, fuller understanding of the text.

by Joel Harrison


One thought on “Whose Authority?

  1. my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it
    with ‘we leave it to you to decide’.

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