A LOVE SUPREME

I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Meaning vs. Significance

Here is a bit of a clip from Ben Witherington's blog:

When I say ‘what it meant is what it means’ in reference to any text, but especially the Bible, I mean that the meaning is encoded in the complex of words and phrases we find in the text. Meaning is not something we get to read into the text on the basis of our own opinions or ideas. Meaning is not in the eye of the beholder. Meaning is something that resides in the text, having been placed there by the inspired author and requires of us that we discover what that meaning is by the proper contextual study of the text. ‘Significance’ however is a different matter altogether. A text can have a significance or even an application for you or me, that the original author could never have imagined. But the text cannot have a meaning that the original inspired author did not place there. Meaning is one thing, significance or application another. The job of hermeneutics is to help us rightly interpret the meaning of these important Biblical texts.[1]

The basic idea here is that we can get the one, true meaning that is "encoded in the complex of words and phrases in the text" and then proceed to find the "significance" of the text. This is an old notion that goes way back. It was (unfortunately) revived by the Reverend E.D. Hirsch in Validity in Interpretation, and then Kevin Vanhoozer latched on to it as the make-or-break theory for his Is there Meaning in this Text?

I mention this faulty line of reasoning because I am taking explicit issue with it in my most recent essay-in-progress (an essay that I should be working on at the current moment, rather than blogging!).

Here's a big problem: The meaning/significance distinction does not hold in the book of Hebrews. The use of the Old Testament in the book of Hebrews is the topic of my essay. What we find in Hebrews is that the meaning of the text (i.e. the intention of the author "encoded in the text") is blurred together with the significance for the contemporary context. That is, God not only spoke in the past, but is speaking now, in the present. Here's the kicker: God is speaking something new through the old words.

The Word of God is Living and Active

Anthony Thiselton, whom I have praised a time or two on this blog, recognizes the folly of trying to press the meaning/significance distinction dogmatically and actually explicitly takes issue with Vanhoozer on this.

The Meaning/Significance issue is pushed for one, primary reason: Interpretive stability. In this post-Derridean age conservative biblical interpreters are worried primarily about preserving the meaning of a text. It is a reactionist/alarmist mentality. I suppose I can understand this to a point, however, ultimately I think anxiety is a poor foundation for theology.

27 comments:

chris van allsburg said...

You have a great point. It seems to be a glaring oversimplification that is so proud in its reactionary manifesto, that it completely ignore that fact that the Bible itself doesn't follow this rule!

It's almost like the old-time dispensationalists who insist on a "plain, literal hermenuetic."

I guess my question is: can there be any truth to what Witherington said as his assertion relates to a closed canon (assuming the latter in this hyposethical situation)?

Also, what does the bunktitude of this idea have to say about the progression and eventual stop of special, written revelation?

Thanks,
Chris

gmw said...

Thanks for visiting the blog. I'll be interested in that essay on Hebrews and the faultiness of distinguishing between meaning and significance. Perhaps I'm a bit dull on this point, but it seems to me that the meaning/significance distinction is lived out in most preaching. I suppose you could agree with that and then take issue with the preaching too, which would be appropriate and helpful.

Melody said...

So, I understand what Mr. Witherinton wrote on his blog, but I don't think I understand your arguement against it.

Are you saying the the author of Hebrews used OT passages to mean something other than the orginal author meant them to mean when they were written?

I know the bible is full of passages that are double sided...I've never quite understood how that works (ex. the Psalm where David is talking about himself...kinda...but also talking about Jesus...way off in the future (well, for David anyhow).

And, how do you think the whole divinely inspired thing plays into this? I mean are we talking about the person who actually penned this sucker or about God? Because I'm pretty sure God would have intended both meanings.

Melody said...

Oh, and...I mean are we only getting all huffy about this because its the Bible and everyone wants to have the Bible backing their thoughts or would you feel the same way about anything?

I mean, would I be able to take your words and use them to say something you'd never intended them to say?

I suppose that gets done in research a bit (well, it did in my research papers) but how far can you take that before someone starts screaming at you for making crap up?

Jonathan Erdman said...

GMW:
it seems to me that the meaning/significance distinction is lived out in most preaching. I suppose you could agree with that and then take issue with the preaching too, which would be appropriate and helpful.

Good point. An interesting observation along these lines is that (per most commentators) the book of Hebrews was written in order to be preached. This is true of most Epistles, but the linguistic construction of the Greek in Hebrews exhibits a sense of "preachyness," for lack of a better term. (Preachyness in the positive sense!)

So, it is interesting to me that most preaching today follows a hermeneutic that the author of Hebrews (a preacher/speaker) would likely not relate well with. The author of Hebrews does not draw a sharp distinction between what the word meant then (in the past) and how the Word is penetrating the lives of the faithful in the present. This does not mean s/he had not respect for the original context, rather there was continuity in the God who was behind the words and the new meanings that unfold throughout history as the Living Word continues to reverberate in "various times and various ways" (Heb 1:1).

Jonathan Erdman said...

I guess my question is: can there be any truth to what Witherington said as his assertion relates to a closed canon (assuming the latter in this hyposethical situation)?

Also, what does the bunktitude of this idea have to say about the progression and eventual stop of special, written revelation?


These are some loaded question! But good topics for discussion.

As I see it: Theoretically and even biblically it is difficult to establish a closed canon. I do believer, however, that there are good practical reasons to think that the canon is closed.

I would also distinguish between "canon" and "revelation." If God is still "living and active" then I believe he is still revealing himself to people in a wide variety of ways. I do not, for example, believe that a Christian merely has to read the Bible to live the life of faith. As pious as this often sounds it seems to drain away the energy and reality of the personal encounter with the "living and active" God and the challenges that must be met in the present - challenges that did not exist for the biblical authors/writers.

Those are just a few quick thoughts. Where do you stand on the topic?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody:
would I be able to take your words and use them to say something you'd never intended them to say?

You can if you want. I might take offense at that. But, then again, I might not. For example, if I tell you that I think Chris Van Allsburg is a a great guy and you turn around and tell Chris that I said he was a bastard then I would have a problem with that.

But a second scenario might not be offensive to me. If I wrote a novel and you read it through several times and told me about how excited you were to find new layers of meanings in my writing, then I would be excited too - even if I did not actually "intend" those meanings. Great literature is often multi-layered with many deep meanings (take the Bible, for example!).

I don't completely discount the intentions of authors, but it is just not realistic to think that the authorial intent is the only thing that carries "meaning." It is especially difficult to squeeze the book of Hebrews and other biblical passages into this theory.

Melody said...

Jon: But a second scenario might not be offensive to me. If I wrote a novel and you read it through several times and told me about how excited you were to find new layers of meanings in my writing, then I would be excited too - even if I did not actually "intend" those meanings.

Ok, maybe you would, but you're assuming that I discovered something spiffy in that meaning.

What if I thought your novel was a great support for racism or something equally disturbing?
Or less extremely, if attributed motivations to your main character which were which change the entire meaning of what happened? That wouldn't be frustrating?

I have a couple of friends who are writers and I'm pretty sure they would cry.

I guess what I'm trying to say is I think you could find a meaning that was not nessacerily in the author's thoughts at the time of the writing (bloody hell, I find stuff in my own writing that I wasn't thinking about when I wrote it) but if it contradicts the author's orginal meaning/intention you would have to discard it.

Melody said...

...which I guess you kinda covered in your first example...sorry, sometimes I don't process things until I've read them five or ten times...

Jonathan Erdman said...

If someone said they found extreme racism in my writing I would say, "Show me."

If they presented a good case I would say, "Gee, I didn't intend it to be that way, but upon rereading I can see how racism emerges from my novel."

But what if I didn't see it? I would say something like, "I think your interpretation is unjustified..." Or, I might suggest that they did not listen to the text or truly open themselves up to better possibilities. And we might even find that in this person finds extreme racism in nearly every text they read, which implies that they have a very narrow range of experiences or that they do not really come to a text expectantly or with any kind of openness.

But as an author I do not hold that my interpretation privileges any other interpretation. It may be more interesting to most people (because, after all, I created the text), but authorial intent is not a trump card that invalidates any other contrary interpretation.

ktismatics said...

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the ages.

When I read this I see generational contrasts: long ago versus these last days, the fathers versus us, the prophets versus the Son. The author seems to be asserting that what God had to say through the prophets is of no relevance to the present generation. Our fathers had their revelation, we have ours. Is ours less than theirs; are the sons less than the fathers? No: in fact, the Son created the ages past; in a sense the Son is father to the fathers. I can see in Hebrews the beginning of a modernist worldview in which the present trumps the past instead of submitting to its authority. The fathers are long gone; it's the heirs' turn now. "That's not what God told me," the father says, wagging his finger; "be quiet old man so I can hear," the son replies.

ktismatics said...

That quote in my comment was Hebrews 1:1-2, by the way.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, yes. I agree that there is a superiority complex at play in Hebrews: The current revelation (our revelation) is superior to the past.

However, I would depart from your (Ktismatics) thoughts in a couple of ways. First, I would not say that the revelation of the past is not relevant. The author of Hebrews makes wide and deep use of the OT, citing from all portions to sustain, establish, and deepen all major points that he has to convey. If the past revelation is of no relevance, then why cite it so liberally?

Also, the superiority complex also goes to establishing warnings such as:
If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? (12:25)

Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. (6:7-8)

So, if revelation is superior and plentiful in these days (land that "drinks in the rain often") then it follows that rejection of it will be met with a more extreme judgment.

It is a fearful thing to fall in the hands of the living God

Hebrews is a very active and lively book!

Melody said...

I don't know Jon, to a certain extent I think author's intentions do have a trump card.

In LOTR for example the movies are a great interpretation of the book to fit it on screen.

One of the things that frustrated me though was that Faramir is portrayed as being a bad guy even though Tolkien clearly wrote him in as a good guy.

You can't hold one to be a true interpretation without making the other false one. So wouldn't Tolkien's win in a fight?

Even in your example that you're giving you allow yourself the ability to say, "I think your interpretation is unjustified..."

Granted, anyone could tell them that, but you're the one who can say, "No, I specifically put this here to show..." no one else can do that. They can guess, they can make something up, but only you know.

In college we were supposed to write a paper on a theme from "The Son Also Rises" but we couldn't use any of the themes covered in class. Well, in my reading I discovered that these are the only themes ever to be addressed in all the literary world. So I made up my own. It was complete and utter B.S. from start to finish.

But in order to make it acceptable B.S. I had to make it work with what I already knew of Hemmingway's intentions for the book. My made up theme was about how the main character is still living out the war in his life and it worked because there's a lot of conflict in the book, but I never could have said that what's-his-face was tranquil and at peace, because it would have directly contradicted what Hemmingway is saying...so how can Hemmingway notbe holding the trump card?

ktismatics said...

"However, I would depart from your (Ktismatics) thoughts in a couple of ways."

So you're asserting that these are my thoughts rather than the writer of Hebrews' thoughts? It's right there in the text: long ago God spoke to the fathers in the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us in the Son. It seems to me that the exegete's job isn't to water down this forceful first sentence with caveats, but rather to reconcile the strong temporal discontinuity by which the author introduces his epistle with his heavy use of OT citations.

I sense an imminent move into the Erdmanian theory of revelation.It's not the text, nor the author of the text, nor even (any longer) the prophet who said what the author wrote down, that constitutes revelation. Rather it is God who speaks through the text in these last days.

Jonathan Erdman said...

So you're asserting that these are my thoughts rather than the writer of Hebrews' thoughts? It's right there in the text: long ago God spoke to the fathers in the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us in the Son. It seems to me that the exegete's job isn't to water down this forceful first sentence with caveats, but rather to reconcile the strong temporal discontinuity by which the author introduces his epistle with his heavy use of OT citations.

I agree. What I was trying to demonstrate in my last comment was that one (of various) reasons that the author invokes the OT is to both connect and disconnect with the past. The continuity is God speaking. The discontinuity is that God is speaking with more force and more clearly now. But what follows from this? What conclusions does the Hebrews author draw from this superior revelation?

One conclusion, I suggested, is that the readers are in a position of greater responsibility. They have more to gain but more to lose. If they "fall away" after hearing the Son then a more severe judgment awaits. Hence, the superior revelation is not for epistemological arrogance (see 20th century Evangelical theology), rather it is to move the readers to action.

As an exegete I would want to note not only the superiority complex of the Hebrews writer, but also the conclusions s/he draws from it. That was what I was trying to communicate.

I sense an imminent move into the Erdmanian theory of revelation.It's not the text, nor the author of the text, nor even (any longer) the prophet who said what the author wrote down, that constitutes revelation. Rather it is God who speaks through the text in these last days.

I think this hits the nail on the head of what the author of Hebrews is doing. This is also a direction I go, as you suggest. Karl Barth also held to something of a similar view of revelation.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

Your thinking is so refreshing to me because you are drawing on specific examples to flesh out your theory of interpretation, rather than developing a theory at the outset and forcing everything else to fall in line.

You said:
I don't know Jon, to a certain extent I think author's intentions do have a trump card.

In LOTR for example the movies are a great interpretation of the book to fit it on screen.

One of the things that frustrated me though was that Faramir is portrayed as being a bad guy even though Tolkien clearly wrote him in as a good guy.

You can't hold one to be a true interpretation without making the other false one. So wouldn't Tolkien's win in a fight?


You talked about a "great interpretation." But that is the very thing we are debating. What constitutes a "great interpretation"? Is it being true to the author? If this is the criteria then an interpretation is justified solely by how closely the interpretation aligns with the author's intentions. In the case of Tolkien we can't ask him b/c he's dead.

But what if we added another (in my opinion very reasonable) criteria: That it was a good movie. If someone just read the books and there were no images the movie would be "faithful" to the book, but not really a good movie. A good movie must do some sort of recontextualization to turn a good book into a good movie.

What if I argued that even though the Faramir adaptation was not true to Tolkien that it actually made for a better movie? Then what would you say? That the interpretation was a "bad" one because it was not true to Tolkien's alleged intentions? But I might argue that it was a better interpretation (in terms of character and plot development, etc.) on the basis of the fact that it was not true. That is, I might like Faramir as a bad guy.

So, in this case I would argue that a "good" interpretation does not always have to align with the authorial intent. But here is the main point: What constitutes a good interpretation depends upon the criteria that you use. Once we establish the criteria we are using to judge the interpretation then we can justify the goodness or badness of the interpretation. I think this is an important point that most of my Evangelical friends have completely missed.


Even in your example that you're giving you allow yourself the ability to say, "I think your interpretation is unjustified..."

Granted, anyone could tell them that, but you're the one who can say, "No, I specifically put this here to show..." no one else can do that. They can guess, they can make something up, but only you know.


I agree: No one else can claim to have authored the text for a given purpose. However, I would counter this by saying that interpretations may be justified as "good" interpretations even if they author did not "put it there" for that purpose.

An example.

Here is my interpretation: The refusal of Rosa Parks to sit at the back of the bus helped launch a movement for human dignity and equality.

First question: What was Rosa Parks' intentions in "putting" herself at the front of the bus? Who knows. Do we even really care? She may have just had enough. She probably didn't have the ability to see what a monumental event it was. In other words, she interpreted her actions one way, but others have taken a different interpretation. What did her actions mean? And is Rosa Park the only one qualified to interpret her actions because she is the author of them?

In a similar way I would argue that an author's intentions are not the sole criteria for interpreting the meaning of a text. And if I write a text I would hope that my intentions are not the trump card for each and every interpretation. This is not to say that the author's intentions do not matter. I actually do care what Rosa Park intended. Rather, I simply suggest that it is not a trump card in all situations. (This is counter most conservative Evangelicals - at least the loudest and most vocal.)

Melody said...

Mostly I use examples because I'm a horrible abstract thinker, but thanks anyway :)

You talked about a "great interpretation." But that is the very thing we are debating. What constitutes a "great interpretation"?

Ok, true. I guess I was thinking that while it doesn't follow the book word for word it is in the same spirit that the book was written in. It was a good interpretation because it was faithful to what made the books good.

The characters, in general, behave as the characters in the book would have even when they are doing things Tolkien never has them do in the book.

And the message is the same. "Power Corrupts" thunders through the books and it would have been a shame if it hadn't done the same thing in the movies(which it did).

But I might argue that it was a better interpretation (in terms of character and plot development, etc.) on the basis of the fact that it was not true.

Ok, I can't think of any instance in which this has ever been the case...but maybe it could happen.

The only instances that I can think of have been ones in which the characters, plot, point, etc. have been changed so much that it is really a new story loosely based on the first story. At that point I don't think its interpreting the first story as much as it is being inspired by it.

But here is the main point: What constitutes a good interpretation depends upon the criteria that you use.

Really? That's your point?

Once we establish the criteria we are using to judge the interpretation then we can justify the goodness or badness of the interpretation. I think this is an important point that most of my Evangelical friends have completely missed.

Do you think so? It seems to be that its more a dissagreement of what the criteria should be. And I think you'd be hard pressed to find a set of criteria that could be universally agreed upon.

This is not to say that the author's intentions do not matter. I actually do care what Rosa Park intended. Rather, I simply suggest that it is not a trump card in all situations.

For example? The actions of a person aren't exactly the same as a person's writing. And in your interpretation you're not really trying to interpret her actions as much as you're noting the effect they had...does that count as an interpretation?

ktismatics said...

Let's say that the meaning of a Biblical text isn't in the text itself, or in the author's intent, and or in the reader, but in God who speaks through the text. Then what's the relationship between the words of the text and God's meaning? Is there any? Or is the Bible like a Zen koan, meaningless in and of itself, serving only as a channel through which the real meaning is transmitted? Just like bread and wine don't mean anything of themselves, but serve as a channel through which God transmits the real body and blood of Christ?

ktismatics said...

Another question: how does your hermeneutic relate to secular texts? I.e., where does meaning come from in a text that doesn't purport to be either a revelation or someone's experience of an encounter with God? A short story, say, or a political article, or a scientific study.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics: Let's say that the meaning of a Biblical text isn't in the text itself, or in the author's intent, and or in the reader, but in God who speaks through the text. Then what's the relationship between the words of the text and God's meaning?

I'll answer this in Gadamerean fashion. I don't think one can determine, in advance, what that relationship is. This is because an interpretation is composed of an interaction between text (past) with contemporary context (present). Theories that attempt to determine this relationship at the outset are bad theories.

Ktsimatics: Is there any? Or is the Bible like a Zen koan, meaningless in and of itself, serving only as a channel through which the real meaning is transmitted? Just like bread and wine don't mean anything of themselves, but serve as a channel through which God transmits the real body and blood of Christ?

I don't think the words are just relative to whatever God wants to say in the present. It was argued in America that the Bible was God's spoken word in advocation of slavery, and more specifically in favor of the type of slavery taking place in the United States. I would look to the text and make an argument that the slavery advocates were not listening God's Word, but the sweet sound of coins and profits.

I am not a complete relativist. I just consider that there is a complex relationship between past context, authorial intent, current context, words in the text, the work of God in the present, etc., etc.

Jonathan Erdman said...

how does your hermeneutic relate to secular texts?

As a general rule I don't draw a sharp dichotomy between the two. For example, the Scriptures might speak to "secular" themes (the practical advice of Wisdom Literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and secular literature might speak to "sacred" themes. Furthermore, I think God can move through secular texts to impress truth upon the reader/hearer. As such, certain secular writers were cited by Paul in a few places and these "secular" authors made it into the sacred canon as inspired words. (See for example Acts 17:28) Did these "secular" authors realize that their words would be recontextualized into a sacred canon? Did they intend it as such?

ktismatics said...

Thanks and thanks again.

ktismatics said...

"Things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions (poems) very often have meanings that differ in nature from the meanings of things that have their origin in reason. They have imaginative or emotional meanings, not rational meanings, and they communicate these meanings to people who are susceptible to imaginative or emotional meanings. In short, things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions very often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain. It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them and that is why poets do not like to explain. That the meanings given by others are sometimes meanings not intended by the poet or that were never present in his mind does not impair them as meanings. On the inside cover of the album of Mahler's Fifth Symphony recently issued by Columbia there is a note on the meanings of that work. Bruno Walter [conductor], however, says that he never heard Mahler intimate that the symphony had any meanings except the meanings of the music. Does this impair the meanings of the commentators as meanings? Certainly this music had no single meaning which alone was the meaning intended and to which one is bound to penetrate. If it had, what justification could the composer have had for concealing it? The score with its markings contains any meaning imaginative and sensitive listeners find in it. It takes very little to experience the variety in everything. The poet, the musician, both have explicit meanings but they express them in the forms these take and not in explanation."

- Wallace Stevens, 1948

Jonathan Erdman said...

The score with its markings contains any meaning imaginative and sensitive listeners find in it.

If my understanding of the above holds, then we find not only a release of the imagination (as well as finding that the shackles of "authorial intent" and "original context" have been broken) but also, quite interestingly, I think that there is a control against absolute relativism - relativism of the sort that denies responsibility for its actions. Stevens speaks of "sensitive listeners," which implies to me that there is a developed sense of taste. This is comparable to a palette that can judge a very bad wine while it is still on the shelf at the Liquor Store on the Corner. Interpretations are "respectable" precisely because the interpreter is sensitive to the nuance of the text (or the musical score). This is cultivated over years and years of refinement and study.

This is something like the Gadamerean idea of "taste" applied to interpretation.

ktismatics said...

"I think that there is a control against absolute relativism."

I believe that's true. The multiple meanings don't float free of the text; it's more like an emergent interaction of the text with the sensibilities of the listener/reader. Stevens contends that, by reducing a piece of poetry or music to a single rational meaning, the listener is "destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them." That would suggest that the text itself is purposely incomplete, leaving loose ends for the listeners to tie together in various ways.

"This is something like the Gadamerean idea of "taste" applied to interpretation."

Agree. Stevens says he wrote with the elite in mind, which would refer to those with a cultivated palate and an enhanced ability to imagine.

ktismatics said...

Scroll down, friend... On a related matter and in a link to what may have been the original of reading each others' blogs, I see that Scot McKnight has written a new book invoking metaphor for explaining the atonement. A brief description of the book is written up at Church and Postmodern Culture, so I wrote a comment there.