The Roles of Author, Text, and Reader in Interpretation
The Role of the Author
The Bible had human authors which were used to compose it. The Bible describes itself as the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). As a result of these two realities, there is a human aspect and a divine aspect to the Bible. The author of the biblical text has a supreme role in the interpretive process. The author composed a literary work that has meaning and purpose. Simply stated, whatever the human author intended to say when he originally wrote, that is the true meaning of the biblical text. Any interpretation or conclusion that is contrary to the authorial intent is erroneous. This must be stated clearly because even though the Word of God has a divine aspect it is not removed from the intent of the human author. The human author had an accurate understanding of what he was writing and therefore that is the real meaning of the text.
The Role of the Text
The text of the Bible as mentioned above has a human aspect and a divine aspect. The Bible as originally composed was written in human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) that were able to be read and understood by those who understood those languages. The literary units were not a new invention. Therefore a reader (or readers) would interpret those biblical texts (taking genre into account) the same as any other literary work (of the same genre). The text is meant to communicate a message to those who would hear it read or who would read it for themselves. The authors of the biblical text used idioms, poetry, apocalyptic imagery, and other grammatical tools to communicate the message to their recipients.
The Role of the Reader
When an individual (or perhaps a group) comes to a biblical text he is attempting to understand what an author has written. Every reader comes to the biblical text with certain preunderstandings and also certain presuppositions. There are many things that affect the interpretive process. Yet, the reader must seek the understand the biblical text with a historical-grammatical hermeneutic. The reader must seek to determine the author’s intended meaning, or authorial intent. The reader does not determine the meaning of the biblical text. Rather, he discovers the meaning of the biblical text. The reader must recognize the preunderstandings that he brings to the text and allow the text to correct his preunderstandings. The reader must remember that the biblical text has only one meaning but it possibly has multiple applications. There must be an effort made to distinguish between meaning and application.
In the interpretive process the authorial intent has supreme authority. In studying a biblical passage the first goal is to discover what the author was intending to communicate his original audience. This is the meaning of the biblical text. There is only one meaning for a biblical text. The real meaning of the text is what the intended to communicate to his original audience. The role of the text in the interpretive process helps to give boundaries for meaning. The text has meaning that is tied to the period of time in which it was communicated. The role of the reader is to seek to discover what the biblical author was communicating to his original audience. The reader does this through studying the historical backdrop of the writer and the recipients. The reader seeks to study the text in the original languages (if possible) to get closer to the original situation. A historical grammatical hermeneutic is the tool that must be employed to be able to discover the actual meaning of the text, of which there is only one. After this actual meaning is discovered, then and only then, may the reader seek to make modern application. If application is sought before discovering the authorial intent, then it is very likely that the application will be informed by preunderstanding and not the actual meaning of the text.