Does Authorial Intent Really Matter?

Tragic events over the last few years have led to significant discussions in our country regarding justice, spawning competing slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter,” and “Blue Lives Matter.” Taken at face value, all of these slogans should be affirmed by every Christian, and no offense should be found in any of them. God treasures every single human being and, as a God who is Himself just, commands us to seek justice. However, it is quite obvious that some people find each of the slogans to be offensive and have responded by doing unjust things.

I believe the argument behind “Black Lives Matter” is that there are numerous injustices suffered by African-Americans that are overlooked or mishandled by the American judicial system. Some affirm that these injustices are deeply rooted within our country and, as a result, seek to strongly emphasize that black lives do indeed matter.[1] But this is not how other people hear the slogan. Some take the slogan to mean that black lives matter more than other lives. In response, they have said, “All lives matter,” intending to communicate that while black lives matter, it is inappropriate to single out a particular group. Additionally, they may wonder, when people say “All Lives Matter,” how anyone could view that slogan as offensive. Yet some do interpret the slogan as offensive because they believe it minimizes the injustices experienced by blacks.

If we desire to begin working on a solution, we must pay attention to the difference between intent and reception: how something is intended and how something is heard. We face the same issue when we try to read texts. Does meaning come from authorial intent (what the author intended to communicate) or reader response (how the reader hears the text)?

Admittedly, the social issues that we face today are extremely complex and cannot possibly be solved in a single blog post. Nonetheless, we can take one step toward solving them by genuinely seeking to understand, and if we desire to understand, we must give attention to authorial intent. Although some try to give the reader/hearer the determinative role in assigning meaning, I think we all want to be judged based upon what we intend. In fact, unless there is meaning in authorial intent, communication is not possible. If you are not convinced that authorial intent matters, try to pay $100 of taxes with a government-issued $5 bill. The tax man will quickly tell you that the numbers on the tax bill and the numbers on the money mean something.

When we listen to others or read texts, primacy must be given to authorial intent, but we would be foolish to ignore the fact that we do not always read or hear something as it is intended. No doubt, my interpretations of the slogans above may not fully reflect the intended meaning by all parties. Indeed, different people mean different things even when using the same words. If we wish to be judged based upon intent, we must give the other party the same privilege. Rather than finding quick offense, we would be much better served by simply asking someone, “What do you mean by that?”

Godly communication requires the humility to listen. Additionally, we would be wise to use slogans cautiously since they have so much baggage and, in isolation, do not provide enough context for proper interpretation.

When we apply this to the Bible, we affirm that what matters is what God intended to communicate. In order to arrive at His intended meaning, we must avoid interpreting the text in isolation from its context and stop thinking of verses as slogans. Let us learn how the particular verse fits into the passage, book, author, testament and Bible as a whole. Let us learn about the historical and cultural issues that were a given for the immediate recipients but are so foreign to most of us today. Additionally, let us talk with others about how we hear the text. In community and in dialogue, it is much easier to identify the baggage that we bring to the text.

Finally, we must surely pray. Since Jesus has purchased us access, we have the privilege to ask the divine Author, “What do you mean by that?” As we pray for insight into the text, the Spirit will guide us.

At church on Sundays and in classes during the week, I see people from all over the globe united by the transformative power of the Gospel. As we live out the Gospel in response to social issues, we will do well, patiently and humbly, to seek to understand before we seek to be understood. In so doing, we will display the godly wisdom of those who are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).

[1] May it be noted that not everyone who chants these slogans understands the historical background/perspective.