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Four Types of Meaning in Texts

The text-driven preacher must recognize that there are four basic types of meaning conveyed in every text and context: referential, situational, structural and semantic. Referential meaning is that which is being talked about; the subject matter of a text. Situational meaning is information pertaining to the participants in a communication act; matters of environment, social status, etc. Structural meaning has to do with the arrangement of the information in the text itself; the grammar and syntax of a text. Semantics has to do with the structure of meaning and is in some sense the confluence of referential, situational and structural meaning. 1

Most of us are trained to observe structural meaning. We are intuitively aware of referential meaning and situational meaning, but we often fail to observe the semantic structure of a text. The text-driven preacher will want to analyze carefully each one of these aspects of meaning for a given text. For example, it is important to observe the situational (social) meaning expressed in Genesis 18 in the dialogue between God and Abraham regarding the destruction of the city of Sodom. One must pay attention to the way the Hebrew text references God and Abraham. Notice at the end of the scene we are told by the narrator, Moses: “So the Lord went his way as soon as he had finished speaking with Abraham” (Gen 18:33). We are not told the Lord went His way when Abraham finished speaking to the Lord, but the other way around, because God is the most important figure in the dialogue. The narrator here and throughout Genesis carefully conveys the social status of the various interlocutors in a given dialogue or narrative by means of linguistic clues.

We are intuitively aware of referential meaning and situational meaning, but we often fail to observe the semantic structure of a text.

John 1:1 furnishes an example of the importance of lexical meaning at the semantic level. Notice the threefold use of eimi, “was,” in this verse. Here a single verb in its three occurrences actually conveys three different meanings: (1) “In the beginning was the Word,” (where eimi, “was,” means “to exist”); (2) “and the Word was with God,” (where eimi followed by the preposition “with” conveys the meaning “to be in a place”); (3) “and the Word was God,” (where eimi conveys the meaning “membership in a class: Godhood). 2 Notice also in John 1:1 that logos, “word,” occurs in the predicate position in the first clause but is in the subject position in the second clause. In the third clause there is again a reversal of the order creating a chiasmus: theos, “God,” is placed before the verb creating emphasis on the deity of the “Word.” 3 Lexical meaning is not only inherent in words themselves but is determined by their relationship to other words in context.

A knowledge of a text’s situational meaning is vital for the preacher because meaning does not simply reside in the words of a text themselves and their structural relations but in the total context in which an author uses them. Take, for example, the words of Tom Sawyer in the episode where Tom was told by his aunt Polly to whitewash a fence on a Saturday, a day Tom would much rather spend in play. 4 On the surface, his statements appear to be descriptive of his genuine feelings about whitewashing the fence. In reality, Tom is engaging in a bit of trickery to persuade his friends to want to do the job for him so he himself can get out of the chore. The surface structure meaning in this text is actually just the opposite of the intent of Tom: the purpose of his statements in the text is not to communicate how wonderful it is to be able to whitewash a fence. Rather, his purpose is to extricate himself from work by means of verbal trickery and reverse psychology in an attempt to persuade others to want to do the job themselves so he will not have to do it. 5 Commenting on Tom Sawyer’s verbal ruse, Boers pointed out:

The meaning of each of Tom’s statements has to be taken in the context in which he uses them. For example, “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” expresses an obvious truth in rhetorical form, but that is not its meaning for Tom. Its meaning does not reside in the words themselves, but in the meaning effect to which it contributes in the total context of the situation. 6

For preachers, we are not just interested in grammar and syntax alone. We are interested in all the linguistic factors that converge in a given text to communicate meaning. If we aspire to be text-driven preachers, we must seek to convey all the textual meaning inherent in a text.

Notes:

  1. See Beekman, Callow and Kopesec, Semantic Structure, 8-13.
  2. See J. Waard and E. Nida, From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 72.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Harper and Row, 1922), 16-18.
  5. See R. de Beaugrande and W. Dressler, Introduction to Text Linguistics, in Longman’s Linguistic Library, no. 26 (London/New York: Longman, 1981), 171-79., where the authors analyze linguistically this discourse pericope in a chapter entitled “Situationality.”
  6. H. Boers, “Introduction,” in W. Egger, How to Read the New Testament: An Introduction to Linguistic and Historical-Critical Methodology (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996), xxxix-xl.

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David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry

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