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?
i. Authorial Intent?