Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 2

i. Authorial Intent?
After introducing his main point in Chapter 1 in Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, that texts "don't speak", Martin turns to the major objection to his position: Authorial intention.

Authorial intention is considered to be the key that unlocks the meaning of the text. That is, if I am confused and want to determine the meaning of your speech or writing then I need to appeal to your intentions. What did you mean when you said or wrote that? Your intentions, as an author, is thus the judge and jury which adjudicates between rival meanings of a text or speech act.

The recovery of authorial intention dominates modern approaches to Scripture, both in the Academy and in the Pew. When we read, let's say Paul, we ask "What was Paul intending to communicate when he wrote this?" Once we "recover" Paul's authorial intention--what he was trying to communicate as he wrote--we unlock the true meaning of the biblical text. What could be simpler or more obvious?

Martin is going to contend that authorial intention is not the simple cure we think it is. He offers a variety of arguments which I paraphrase and group this way:

1. Authorial intention isn't often recoverable even in very simple discourse.
Imagine I bring you an old poem of yours or quote you ("Remember when you said...") and ask you what you meant when you said/wrote that. Truthfully, you'll probably be guessing much of the time: "Well, I think I was trying to say..."

2. Texts have meanings in spite of our intentions.
Imagine we write/say something that causes problems for us (e.g., a joke that goes off poorly). In these cases we might claim that we did not intend certain meanings to be taken. Regardless, meaning is conveyed beyond your intentions, your authorial intent doesn't wholly constrain the meaning of your utterance.

3. The Holy Spirit and not the human writer is the true Author of the Bible.
The church contends that the true Author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit. Thus, what the human writer intends isn't wholly binding. Clearly, throughout Scripture the human writers only vaguely understand what they are writing about. The goal of the church is to discern the intentions of the Holy Spirit which is clearly a more complex interpretive task.

4. The Bible has multiple authors.
Obviously, the bible has many overt authors (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). But as biblical scholars know, within texts there are multiple authors (e.g., 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah; the Yahwist and Elohist in early Genesis). These authors may have all very different intentions when they write making the "meaning of Scripture" a buzz of voices and intentions.

5. The literal or "plain sense" of Scripture isn't always clear.
During the Reformation we saw the rejection of the teaching magisterium of the Catholic church in favor of sola scriptura where the "plain sense" of the text is taken to be the meaning of the text. This trend is what ultimately produced biblical fundamentalism, the attempt at a literal reading of the text. I probably don't need to outline the ways biblical literalism has failed to produce a uniform consensus on the meaning of the bible. (And that is not even taking up the issues of scientific credibility.)

6. The historical-critical method is no fix.
Let's say I learn Greek and Hebrew and get a Ph.D. in textual studies. I learn all the history and relevant archaeological finds surrounding a biblical text. Can I recover the meaning of the text then? This question goes to the ability of what is known as the historical-critical method, the modern, academic approach to the bible. Can this scholarship recover authorial intention?

Martin says no for a few reasons. First, scholars come to widely different conclusions in their assessments of the text. Second, the historical-critical method is a modern invention, a post-Enlightenment development. Did the church not have access to the true meaning of the text prior to the Enlightenment? Third, is the true meaning of scripture only to be recovered in Ph.D. dissertations?

7. The early church recognized that the bible had multiple layers of meaning.
Most Protestant church-goers, indirectly shaped by the historical-critical methods (witness those concordances and commentaries on the shelves), would likely be scandalized by how the church fathers interpreted scripture. Interestingly, many had a very low view of literalism.

In sum, Martin concludes that appeals to authorial intention, although ubiquitous and apparently commonsensical, are, in the end, non-starters.

ii. A Reaction: The Rubber-Band Model
The issue that eventually gets raised at this point is “Does the text (or authorial intent) in any way constrain the reading of the text?” My sense is that Martin would say no, all the agency, 100% of it, rests with the reader (and the culture the reader is embedded in). That is a radical position to take.

Personally, I think there is a continuum here. On one end you have the position where the text is the agent, controlling 100% of its own interpretation. This is the extreme sola scriptura, fundamentalist, “plain sense” position. On the other end you have Martin’s extreme reader response position where the human agent is in total control of the interpretation. Obviously, there are shades of grey between these two positions.

To be honest, this continuum kind of makes Martin’s point. Our view of “textual versus human agency” is an extra-biblical assumption. Something that is an a priori commitment we take into the reading event. Once we pick a spot on the continuum the outcome of our interpretation has already been dictated by our reading assumptions. As Martin would surely contend, it’s all in the assumptions of the reader.

However, I would suggest that the text does set SOME constraints on its reading. Perhaps the word “constraint” isn’t the best word to use. I would use the word plausibility. The text seems to make some readings more or less plausible. True, my reading assumptions might largely govern my judgment of plausibility, but I think the text is a part of this process. It has SOME say on plausibility assessments. This input might be larger or smaller but it is present.

For example, imagine these readings of Scripture:

Reading 1: God is actually a cheese sandwich living on Planet X.

Reading 2: Homosexuality was considered to be a sin by many biblical writers but many of the “sins” we see in the Old and New Testaments are cultural products. But when we look at the larger thrust of Jesus’ ministry we see that it had little to do with issues of sex and more to do with love and relational commitment and fidelity. Thus, as cultural sin lists change within the bible (and across time) the message of the gospel remains consistent: Love is the only moral issue to adjudicate.

Reading 1 is clearly implausible. It would be hard to see how a person could draw this conclusion from reading the bible. The point is, the text does seem to render some readings more or less implausible. The bible doesn’t allow for just ANY reading.

Is Reading 2 plausible? Most Christians would disagree with Reading 2, but from where I stand the reading looks plausible. That is, I can see how you could get that reading from the bible. It might not be my preferred reading, but I can see how it is a reading that is emerging from the text. I might think other readings are even MORE plausible, but I recognize Reading 2 as from “the same universe” of the text.

In sum, I think the issue is better framed as less to do with “constraint” and more to do with the text exerting plausibility pressures on readings. How much pressure is up for debate, but I think there is SOME pressure. Call this the rubber-band model. Readings of the text are like stretching a rubber-band. Some readings stretch the plausibility more than others. Eventually, stretched too far, the rubber band snaps and we get this sense that the reading has gotten so extreme that it “leaves the orbit” of the text.

So, what is your opinion? Do you think the rubber-band model makes sense? Any other thoughts on reading scripture?

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

21 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 2”

  1. Very good post, Richard. Your rubber band model reminded me of what Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge called the "personal pole" (subjective) and "universal pole" (objective) of all knowledge. This type of responsible approach cuts a nice path between absolutism and nihilism.

  2. It definitely makes sense. Personally I've always thought of it similar to a lump of stone or a piece of wood in sculpture - the material will partially determine what the resulting sculpture looks like. You can't make a 15' statue out of a 7' block of marble, but there is still a lot of diversity within those constraints. As a community we are held together by the recognition that we are all working with the same materials, even if we produce dramatically different works of art from them.

  3. No doubt certain readings are more plausible than others, but I think it is important to emphasize just how much grey there is. Basing your theology and behavior off of your reading of Scripture should be done with great care (in other words, coming up the "most plausible" reading is not easy). Personally, I think laypeople are dangerous when they try to read the Bible in the attempt to glean truths from God. Given how difficult knowing the author's intentions are, pehaps this work is better left to the academics.

  4. To elaborate a bit on my last comment:
    The academic community should be more effective at weeding out implausible readings than individual judgment. I guess I am assuming here that it works in the same way the scientific community works at weeding out bad science.

  5. Pecs brings up an interesting phrase "the most plausible reading". I think the model would want to be formulated in such a way as to make it clear that there is no such thing. MORE plausible readings I buy, but there is no objective standard on which to select one reading that is the most plausible. That puts us right back into a foundationalist mode, essentially. This is partly why I like the block of marble analogy. It's clear to most people that there is no single "right" statue to be made from a given block of marble. There are better ones and worse ones, possibly, but the marble is just the material, it is the skill of the artist that will determine how good the final statue is.

  6. Upon reflection, the rubber-band metaphor does break down. It rests on the notion of "stretching" which implies a kind of "resting tension" (or, more properly, the absence of tension) that is the reference point.

    The best part of the metaphor, I think, is the notion of "snapping," the qualitative sense that the reading and the text just have no similarities whatsoever.

  7. I'm not sure your metaphor directly addresses what Martin is getting at.

    To continue with the metaphors: The problem with both the rubber band and the 7x7 block of marble is that they actually exist as entities in a physical universe. So when you think about a block of marble, say, your brain adds in all the physical constraints that would be implicit in a block of marble.

    But it sounds like Martin is doing some literary deconstruction here, so he may not be saying that the bounds of interpretation are broad, but that there are no bounds. That there *is* no block of marble to reference. That there is no single, true meaning of the text that one can get closer to or remain within the bounds of.

    If this is correct, then the meaning of the text really is particular to the reader, and while person A's reading may seem utterly implausible to person B, this says nothing about the True Meaning of the text, because there isn't one.

    And if we're going to attribute the text to God, I think that Martin would say that God intends for there to be as many correct interpretations of the text as there are individuals. (And times - people change over time, so the reading that helps me today may hurt me 10 years from now.)

    This does present some problems: on what grounds can we reject person C's interpretation that - and I'm quoting here - "God hates fags"?, or "God is a cheese sandwich"?

    I suspect that these sorts of interpretations would indicate a mental imbalance rather than a bad hermeneutic, but we also have to consider that an implausible interpretation might be entirely a function of different language and metaphor ... maybe when person C says "God is a cheese sandwich", he is saying something very meaningful about the nature of God, at least to himself and those who speak his language. So within a "language group", you can talk about the plausibility of a reading of the text, but it might be that the largest possible language group is of size 1.

    Sorry for the long comment; these sorts of ideas are fairly important to me as I try to figure out how to interact with people who use foundationalist and fundamentalist language, so please blog on.

  8. "God is a cheese sandwich" is a fairly plausible theological position, given that "is" conveys a variety of meanings.

    However, when I say "meaning" I intend only one thing: the intent of the author at the time of writing.

    I don't assume we can know that meaning.

    As a songwriter, I understand how varied meaning and interpretation is. Songs are often intended to be vehicles for the hearer's own ideas. But it seems to me that there is a difference in genre here.

    REM intends their songs to be understood in a huge variety of ways.

    But I don't think Paul had that intention.

  9. Matthew,

    Martin definitely is doing literary deconstruction and definitely would say that there *is* no meaning inherently in the text - and basically I'd agree with him.

    But the block of marble in my metaphor isn't representative of meaning in the text, it's representative of the text. Meaning is the statue and it comes out of an interaction between the sculptor and the marble. To be sure it is primarily the sculptor's work and imagination that created it, but it still had to fit within the bounds of the block of marble.

    When we do interpretation of texts (or speech or any kind of communication) we aren't interpreting in perfect freedom. We are interpreting something. In the case of a text that thing is more nebulous than a block of marble, but it is still more concrete than, say, an interpretive dance, or a random string of letters and numbers. Do you see what I'm getting at?

    The text is the material we are working when we interpret. Just as wood doesn't automatically become chairs the text doesn't automatically generate meaning, but the chairs/meaning generated by the effort of the artist are in some degree shaped by the material used.

  10. The question is "To what degree do you think the meaning is shaped by the text?"

    Martin would answer - very little or none.

    I tend to think that the text plays a little bigger role, but still nowhere near the role usually assigned it by foundationalists.

  11. Is not the text a material with which the author works to create meaning?

    Lets take a culinary metaphor:

    Each reader will have their own personal recipe which will call for a variety of other ingredients than the raw text. We may:
    1. admire the way one chef has respected the character of his ingredients by producing a simple yet hearty dish.
    2. admire another chef for his haute cuisine flight of fancy which utterly transforms the ingredients into something wonderfully different
    3. even consider chef (2) possessed by demons for his unnatural product to the point where we hide the fact that having tasted it we actually rather like it.

    But all of these reactions are likely to be determined by our dispositional outlook on the world which is pre-theological, and which we garnish with theology post hoc.


  12. Authorial intent is not a thing set in concrete. Have you ever read something you wrote 5 or 10 or more years ago and marvelled how what you wrote said things you didn't know you were saying?

  13. Great post. Who decides "plausibility"? It seems to me that what constitutes a "plausible" reading depends on the community in which the interpreter operates. A "plausible" reading for Doug Pagitt and other emergents wouldn't pass muster as a "plausible" reading at my father in law's Southern Baptist church. "Plausibility" is flexible; it depends on the community and context in which the reading is carried out.

  14. Humm...these concepts are hard to grasp...can't get my mind around the God as cheese part...

    I've recently read "He is in Heaven" by Angeline Tucker and "Twice Pardoned" by Harold Morris. Maybe you could read them sometime and apply the experimental theology process. Simple narratives describing individual understanding of the christian life. Isn't that what we all have? Thinking, relating, behaving and praying to the best of our understanding?

    Love the blog...did I already say that?

  15. Richard, Others,

    Praise to the Big Cheese Sandwich, the Rubber Band, and to Plausible Deniability!

    According to Luke's (or somebody else by the name of Luke) telling,
    Jesus grants readers freedom and respects them: "He [Jesus] said to him, 'What is written in the law? How do you read?'" (Luke 10:29)

    My nine-year old grandson has it nailed, I think. "We find what we need," he says, "and it's tough."


    George C.

  16. Plausibility is tricky... partly because it is culturally contingent (on our communities, on our personal experience, on our readings of other parts of the text). But if we remove all plausibility, then what remains are a multitude of perspectives, upon which the powerful person's view tends to win out in a survival of the fittest mentality.

    I tend to lean towards the perspective of Richard, Aric, and a few others in attempting to find some type of middle ground. Again, I fear that giving too much freedom to interpret moves us eventually towards a power where where certain readings that can be destructive of others are imposed by the powerful group. In essense, I think its importance to find some balance between a hermeneutic of suspicion, and a hermeneutic of love. In other words, we view our own interpretations with caution (as we are fallible human beings, we interpret based on self-interest, we cannot reach the authors intent, etc), but continually to push outside the bounds of those biases to a bias TOWARDS love, partly because its semi-plausible to see the scripture moving towards the importance of inclusion of the other with embrace. In other words, because my tendency is to read scripture in a self-affirming manner, I need to continually push myself and push others to read it through the lens of the 'other,' (the other perhaps meaning the marginalized) and humbly interpret it through a lens that pushes me towards love of this person (i.e. the principle that I glean as important because there seems to be some intersection here between the words of Jesus and my own experience).

  17. What is "meaning"?

    I still have trouble viewing it as anything other than original intent. I may not know what I meant in the letter I wrote 10 years ago, but THE AUTHOR (my past self) did!

    Whoever I was at that time attempted to capture his (my) thoughts in words. The extent to which we may (or may not) be able to extract those original thoughts is a matter of how successful he (I) was.

    I wouldn't call the process of trying to figure out what I was talking about back then to be "creating meaning".

    I have no idea what Paul meant with "baptism for the dead". Nor do I need to know, or expect to extract any meaning from that passage. But that passage did have a meaning when it was written, when Paul thought to put it down.

    As I see it,
    Meaning is objective and absolute.
    Meaning can't be known (with certainty).

    Or am I confused?

  18. "REM intends their songs to be understood in a huge variety of ways.

    But I don't think Paul had that intention."

    Micah, I'm glad you brought up Paul. I was thinking of him when I read this post as a perfect example of how differing groups derive different messages from the same text. The Valentinians used to read Paul's Epistles as totally Gnostic and Elain Pagels has written "The Gnostic Paul" which is a verse by verse commentary of Paul's writings.
    However, we also have the proto orthydox group who read Paul in a totally different way.
    Also consider the Jewish tradition of textual interpretation called midrash that seems to me to be a very liberal method of determining meaning in the text, often maybe several meanings at one time.
    With this in mind I find it hard to say that there could be a correct meaning or even an author's intended meaning. Maybe some of the authors intended the text to be a gateway to further, deeper meaning.
    Rick T.

  19. Richard,

    Wittgenstein warned us about being bewitched by grammar: in this case we are treating "plausibility" as though it were a word like "hardness" or "pitch," which can be assigned definite, objective measurements. But "plausibility" is a product of indefinite, subjective measurements.

    That is not to say that language cannot be used to create definite meanings--just that it can be surprisingly difficult to do so. One thing not mentioned above is that some people are much better than others at doing that...

    For instance, when I read Flaubert I seem to be inhabiting a borrowed consciousness that is far superior to my own... And as for assigning a meaning to scripture, well, it is precisely the rich layered meaning of a text created over a thousand or so years that makes it so fascinating.

    But I'm with George's grandson on this, "We find what we need, ...and it's tough."



  20. Aric, good point. In your metaphor marble == text, and in my appropriation of your metaphor, marble == meaning. So I drop any objections that hinge on that understanding of the marble metaphor.

    But I'm still uncomfortable with using marbles and rubber bands or any physical objects as metaphors for the text. I guess what I'm concerned about is that the rubber band and wood and marble metaphors, being metaphors, depend on things being like one another. But I'm not convinced that the text, in and of itself, is anything like a physical object.

    I think this is because a physical object is "physical" precisely because it is constrained by the laws of physics, while the text is language, and therefore metaphorical, and if it is constrained at all, it is only constrained by a person's mental mappings between words and images. So I think I'm going to agree with one of the earlier anonymous posters: plausibility is not merely a function of the text, it is also a function of ... something else ... a "world" that would constrain the meaning. I think it's fair to call that world "community", but only if "community" includes a large degree of similarity among people's mappings between language and ideas.

    This would have the pleasant side effect of ensuring that you could never critique a person's interpretation of the text if you didn't also understand their community.

Leave a Reply