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Divine Meaning and the Human Author

Biblical hermeneutics is the science of interpreting Scripture. But Scripture, unlike any other written document, is a product of divine and human authorship. It is rightly said that God is the primary author of Scripture, whereas the human author(s) is secondary. God is the primary author because he superintends the writing of his Word by inspiration (e.g. 2 Pet 1:19–20; 2 Tim 3:16). Curiously, this basic aspect of the classical doctrine of inspiration often has no functional role within biblical hermeneutics.

If you’ve listened to our recent panel discussion on Redemptive Historical Hermeneutics, Divine Authorship, and the Christotelism Debates, you’ve heard how this pans out. In one form of the Christotelic hermeneutic, the apostles creatively reimagine the story of the Old Testament in light of the resurrected Christ. Under this model, Hosea would have had no idea that his prophecy in Hosea 11:1 would come to refer to Jesus coming out of Egypt as it does in Matthew 2:15. As such, on a first reading Hosea 11:1, Christ is not the proper subject matter of the prophecy. Nonetheless, Hosea 11:1 becomes about Christ once the apostles reimagine the prophecy in that light. I believe it’s fair to say that under this hermeneutical model Christ is imposed upon the Old Testament—even while one might say the Holy Spirit initiates and authorizes such an imposition.

Many conservative biblical scholars reject such a hermeneutical model in part because it makes the New Testament an artifice that rests upon the Old Testament. The Christotelic approach is understood as a variant of reader-response theory and therefore underemphasizes the intentionality of the human author. Such scholars are right to be concerned about the Christotelic hermeneutic, but they should also be wary of overcorrecting for its perceived dangers. Instead of insisting that the Old Testament prophets did not intend to speak of Christ, an overcorrected view would suggest that Hosea was indeed fully aware of the manifold meaning of his prophecy. While there may have been an immediate historical reference to Hosea’s context, he certainly would also have had an eschatological fulfillment of his prophecy within his interpretive peripheral vision.

Both hermeneutical approaches place the weight squarely upon the human author of Scripture. This is regrettable, because we should never seek to isolate the human author from the divine. The Holy Spirit has an active—indeed the primary—role in authoring the text. Passages such as 1 Peter 1:10–12 indicate that the Old Testament prophets had some knowledge their prophecies awaited an eschatological fulfillment, but they did not possess exhaustive knowledge of its time or referent.

This is why it is so important for divine authorship to have a functional role in hermeneutics. Christ can be organically present and the central eschatological concern of Hosea’s prophecy even while Hosea might not fully understand his own prophecy. God is the primary and ultimate author of Scripture. The Spirit employs the knowledge, personal characteristics and experiences of the human author, but in such a way that the human author writes God’s own inerrant, infallible, and holy words. The meaning of Scripture ultimately rests in God himself. If we do not functionally consider the role of God in authoring Scripture, we should not expect to understand it rightly.

I was pleased to see Vern Poythress addressing this issue in his latest article, “Dispensing with Merely Human Meaning: Gains and Losses from Focusing on the Human Author, Illustrated by Zephaniah 1:2–3.” Frame-Poythress.org posted a link to the PDF of the article, which was originally published in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57/3 (2014): 481–499. Poythress reminds us of our position in relation to God and his authoritative Word as he offers parting words to all biblical interpreters:

My concluding advice with respect to the focus on an isolated human author is that we give it up. Period. There is no gain to it, and much loss. We who are scholars work on the intentions of human authors as if this focus will give us answers. But we are living an illusion. Instead, let us seek God. If we do so, we will get more spiritual health, because we are encountering God seriously. We will get more accuracy, because we can settle many interpretive questions concerning authorial intention. We will get more candor, because we can give up concealing from ourselves that in most cases we do not know anything about the human author except what we infer from the text, and that many such inferences are questionable (p. 499).

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