Picture yourself in a group Bible study. Your small group is studying the book of Ephesians, and you’ve made it to chapter 5. Someone reads aloud verse 18: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” Then Steve, the new guy, says, “Well, Paul clearly forbids getting drunk on wine. I’m just thankful that he said nothing about getting drunk on whiskey. That’s my favorite way to become intoxicated.”
We all intuitively recognize that Steve is mistaken. We might even think him absurd. But how do we explain his error? My guess is that we would say something like, “Steve, that’s not what the Bible means. Paul intended to prohibit all drunkenness, not just drunkenness from wine.” To which Steve might reply, “But that’s not what the Bible says. Paul mentioned wine only. I’m sticking to the text.” Or he might say, “That’s just your interpretation. I’m talking about what the Bible means to me.”
Learn the Habit of Reading Well
When people ask what I do for a living, I often say, “My job is to teach college students how to read.” This is only half a joke, because the reality is that our educational system and society has left many people incapable of reading well. That’s why, at Bethlehem College & Seminary, our approach to education centers on imparting to our students certain habits of heart and mind.
In all of our programs, we aim to enable and motivate students
- to observe their subject matter accurately and thoroughly,
- to understand clearly what they have observed,
- to evaluate fairly what they have understood by deciding what is true and valuable,
- to feel intensely according to the value of what they have evaluated,
- to apply wisely and helpfully in life what they understand and feel, and
- to express in speech and writing and deeds what they have seen, understood, felt, and applied in such a way that its accuracy, clarity, truth, value, and helpfulness can be known and enjoyed by others.
“You can’t say whether something is true or false, good or bad, until you first know what the something is.”
There is a certain order to these habits. Before you can feel appropriately, you must evaluate rightly. And before you can evaluate rightly, you must first observe accurately and understand clearly. Note this: evaluation depends upon understanding. Without clear understanding of what someone has said or written, evaluation is impossible, because you have nothing to evaluate. You can’t say whether something is true or false, good or bad, until you first know what the something is.
Meaning and Significance Are Not the Same
My own experience as a teacher suggests that there are many confusions and pitfalls around the question of “meaning” when we read a text. Consider this a crash course on the meaning of meaning.
Let’s begin with the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). When it comes to reading, we ought to practice Golden Rule Interpretation. That is, we ought to treat authors the way we want to be treated. No one wants his own words treated like a wax nose that a reader can bend according to his will. No one likes to have his words twisted into something he didn’t intend. When we speak or write, we mean something, and we want that meaning to stand — to be understood and respected as ours (even if others disagree with us). And so, given that’s how we want to be treated, we ought to treat authors the same.
To do this, we must distinguish between what the author meant by his words and the effects of his words on subsequent people and events. For clarity, let’s refer to the first as meaning. Texts mean what authors mean by them. The second we may call significance. The author’s meaning can be related to different texts, contexts, concepts, situations, people, places — anything you can think of, really.
Meaning and significance are distinct. Meaning is stable through time; significance may and does change. Meaning is about what authors do in public by means of words (as one theologian puts it). Significance is about the effects of those words on everything else. Meaning is fixed and bounded; significance is, in principle, limitless. When an author writes something, he means this and not that. But significance has to do with the relation between the author’s meaning and this, that, and the other.
With this basic distinction in hand, let’s consider four puzzles in relation to meaning: the source of meaning, the means of meaning, the levels of intent, and the boundaries of meaning. To aid in solving these puzzles, we’ll use Steve’s surprising interpretation of what the Bible says in Ephesians 5:18 as a test case.
Puzzle 1: Source of Meaning
The first puzzle has to do with the source of meaning. Note that I introduced the quotation as “what the Bible says.” But if we’re thinking carefully, we realize that this must be a form of shorthand. People say things, not objects. So when we say, “The Bible says . . .” what we (ought to) mean is, “Paul says (or God says) in the Bible . . .”
“Texts are not free-floating entities with autonomous meaning. Instead, authors are the source of meaning.”
Meaning, then, is a matter of the author’s intent. This is crucial to remember. Whenever we talk about meaning, we are talking about persons. Sometimes we say things like, “The text means what it says.” But this again is misleading. Texts don’t mean; only people mean. To put this another way, a text doesn’t mean what it says, because it cannot say anything; instead, it means what the author says. Or to say it in yet another way, if there is meaning, there must be a mean-er. Meaning exists only when someone has meant.
Thus, we stress that texts are not free-floating entities with autonomous meaning. Instead, authors are the source of meaning.
Puzzle 2: Means of Meaning
If authors are the source of meaning, what then are texts? Texts are the means of meaning, and therefore are absolutely crucial for interpretation. Stressing the importance of texts helps us avoid another confusion and solve another puzzle.
When we are interpreting a text, we sometimes say that we are looking to “get inside the mind of the author” and to “see what he wanted to do.” Now, this could be another form of shorthand, a way of stressing that we are interested in the author’s intention, and seeking to avoid usurping his place by imposing our own meaning on his text.
However, speaking like this could also be misleading. It could lead someone to think that the aim of interpretation is to somehow recover the author’s psychological state at the time he was writing. We might attempt to psychoanalyze him, and discover the hidden motives of his mind. So someone might try to discern what in Paul’s personal background led him to prohibit drunkenness in Ephesians 5. And because many recognize the impossibility of such a task, this mistake has sometimes led interpreters to abandon the idea that the author matters at all.
How, then, can we avoid this error? By stressing both the author and the text. The text is the public means by which an author accomplishes his purpose. As we said above, meaning is about what authors do in public by means of words. Note this: meaning is not about what the author wanted to do, or what the author tried to do, or what the author subconsciously attempted to do. It’s about what the author did do through his text.
Meaning, then, is a public affair, because through the text it is shareable and reproducible. The norms of our language establish the boundaries of what we can say. Within those boundaries, we select the appropriate elements (words, grammar, syntax, and more) and put them to use to accomplish our purposes. Someone who shares our language is thus able to discern our intent in what we’ve said. Authors are the source of meaning, and texts are the means of meaning.
Puzzle 3: Levels of Intent
Now we introduce an additional puzzle, having to do with the English word intent, which is potentially ambiguous. Consider the simple phrase “Do not get drunk.” When Paul writes this phrase to the Ephesians, we can see two different levels of intention. At one level, his intent is to exhort or issue a command. That’s what his words do. At another level, his intent is that his command be obeyed. That’s what he hopes his words accomplish.
But it’s important to keep these two levels distinct. The first level is entirely within Paul’s power. Assuming he writes clearly in a language his audience understands, he accomplishes his intent simply by writing, regardless of whether the Ephesians obey or not.
The second level is not within Paul’s power. While he may intend (in the sense of “hope for”) the obedience of the Ephesians, securing that obedience is not within his power. The first level refers to the force of Paul’s words — what he is doing in speaking at all. The second refers to the desired results of his words — what he is trying to accomplish by speaking. But these are distinct. The first level — issuing the command — is a matter of meaning; the second level — the Ephesians’ obedience or disobedience — is a matter of significance.
Puzzle 4: Boundaries of Meaning
The final puzzle has to do with the boundaries of meaning. Earlier, we noted that meaning is stable, fixed, and bounded. But how do we determine such boundaries? When Steve says that Ephesians 5:18 only prohibits getting drunk with wine, but has nothing to say about getting drunk with whiskey, how can we explain his error?
One way might be to focus on the logic of Paul’s statement. “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” The word for indicates the ground on which the command is issued. And drunkenness is debauchery and corruption, whether it is caused by wine or whiskey or beer.
But even without the grounding statement, we can know our friend to be in error if we recognize that meaning is both explicit and implicit. When Paul explicitly mentions wine, he is using wine as an instance of intoxicating beverages. Wine is a type of intoxicating beverage that represents the entire class. Implicit within Paul’s statement is an etcetera; we might reproduce his full meaning as, “Do not get drunk with wine (and things of that sort), for that is debauchery.”
This is how communication works. We can’t say everything all the time. We can’t identify every instance of every type. And so, we frequently will the type of thing that we mean, and trust that, using language and shared context, our audience is able to discern the boundaries of our meaning.
How Good Readers Interpret
Much more could be said about meaning. But being a good reader means learning to think clearly about the task of interpretation. When we interpret, we are looking for the author’s intent or meaning. This original intent is distinct from the significance of that meaning to us. The author is the source of meaning, and the text is the means of meaning. Because the text is public, readers are able to attend to the author’s intention embedded in his words. And good readers attend both to the explicit and implicit dimensions of an author’s meaning.
The task of interpretation does not exhaust our responsibilities as readers, especially as Christian readers who are interpreting for ourselves or trying to help friends like Steve. As mentioned above, our school seeks to teach students to evaluate, feel, apply, and express what they learn from their reading. But none of those steps can happen apart from patient, persistent, humble observation and understanding — that is, hard work. And that hard work of good reading is not without great reward.