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What is the meaning of meaning?

What is the meaning of meaning?

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For the next several weeks, we are going to be going through our statement of belief and learning what it means and doesn’t mean. Having a statement of belief is important because we live in a time when meaning has become relative. Even Christians who believe in the Bible don’t all agree upon what the Bible means.

In the past the fundamental beliefs of Christianity were more widely known. In fact Christianity’s creeds and confessions go back more than a thousand years.

The Apostle’s Creed, which we read a few minutes ago, was written in 390 AD. The Nicene Creed even earlier than that in 325.

And the beliefs in our statement are very similar with those that have been around for more than a thousand years so they too have a very long history.

Tradition alone, however, isn’t a good enough reason to trust them. They need to accurately reflect what the Bible means.

But that’s where it gets tricky because not everybody even agrees upon what “meaning” means.

It’s not enough to just say we believe the Bible. To be on the same page doctrinally, we need to also establish how we arrived at the doctrines. We need to be on the same page with the answer to the question…

What is the meaning of meaning?

Is meaning something we give to a text or is it something inherent in the text that needs to be uncovered?

Is the goal when we read God’s word to understand God’s meaning of the text or is it to give the text a meaning that makes the most sense to us?

We need to know because answering one way makes our statement just the opinion of people and answering the other gives our statement biblical authority.

So, I want to give you a definition and then explain why it’s a good one. It’s not a definition I’ve invented but one taught virtually all well-respected scholars I’m aware of (I am especially indebted to John Piper).

Here’s the definition:

The meaning of a text is what the author intended to communicate with his words.

To be clear this definition implies at least three things.

  • Meaning doesn’t come from what comes into our head when we read it.

  • Meaning doesn’t come from what we feel is in the text.

  • Meaning doesn’t come from how we respond to the text.

The meaning of a text is defined by the author, not the reader.

This may seem like common sense but understanding this definition and applying it to our Bible reading is probably one of the most important things we can do.

So for the next few minutes, I want to share seven reasons why this definition is essential for having confidence in our Statement of Beliefs and in the Bible, itself.

OK, seven reasons…

1) Taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate is what the Bible assumes.

1 Corinthians 5:9-11

9 I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11 But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.

The Bible assumes that what the author actually meant is the real meaning not what the people thought. They thought he meant one thing but he really meant another.

One more. John 11:11-14

11 He said this, and then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m on my way to wake him up.” 12 Then the disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will get well.” 13 Jesus, however, was speaking about his death, but they thought he was speaking about natural sleep. 14 So Jesus then told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there so that you may believe. But let’s go to him.”

What the disciples thought He meant wasn’t the real meaning. The real meaning was what Jesus, the author, meant.

So, the Bible assumes it.

2) Taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate is consistent with the Golden Rule.

Matthew 7:12

12 Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Applying the golden rule: As a reader do unto authors as you would have them do unto you as an author.

Wouldn’t you feel abused if you wrote something and someone else gave it a meaning completely different from what you intended? Yes, you would, so don’t do that to the author of the Bible.

Sometimes we avoid this rule in an attempt to be “helpful” with difficult texts.

2 Peter 3:15-16 says of Paul…

16 …There are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable will twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures.

There’s a meaning that is hard to understand but that doesn’t give us the right to “fix” it with a meaning it doesn’t have.

Instead we should apply the golden rule and try and understand what the author meant even if it’s hard work.

So, the Bible assumes the meaning of a text is what the author intended and this definition is consistent with the golden rule.

3) Taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate is the humble path to greater knowledge and wisdom.

It is the arrogant path when we ignore or discount the author’s intention.

Psalm 25:9

9 He leads the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.

The arrogant approach the word to confirm what they think they already know but God communicates through his written word and teaches those who are humble

Proverbs 11:2

2 When arrogance comes, disgrace follows, but with humility comes wisdom.

To approach the word humbly means we want to know what the author intended. It means we don’t read God’s word just to confirm what we already know.

So, taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intends is what the Bible assumes, it is consistent with the golden rule, it’s the humble path to wisdom, and…

4) Taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate reflects a biblical worldview.

There are many views of the world, but only a biblical worldview that reflects objective reality is true. Reality is not just an echo of our own subjective preferences but a result of God’s inspired design.

So, in line with a Biblical worldview, the aim of reading his word is not to create meaning, but to discover it in what the God-inspiried author intended to communicate.

A biblical worldview starts with God, not us.

Psalm 14:1

1 The fool says in his heart, “There’s no God.”

So we shouldn’t approach Scripture as if the author of Scripture doesn’t have an intended meaning in mind. That would be foolish.

There are not infinite realities in a biblical worldview. There is only one and that simplifies our goal in reading God’s word.

Paul says in Ephesians 3:3-4…

3 The mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have briefly written above. 4 By reading this you are able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.

By reading what God inspired we are able to understand Paul’s insight which is really God’s revelation. There aren’t multiple “understandings” there is only one revelation which we understand by reading what Paul wrote and what He meant.

So taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate reflects a biblical worldview that there are not infinite realities, but one reality which is about Jesus.

5) Taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate is consistent with meaning being a historical event.

In other words, the meaning of a text never changes from age to age or from reader to reader.

This is because a text’s meaning is a historical event. In the past, the author intended to communicate something through his words. That event, like any other event in history, is past, so it can’t cease to be what it was. It simply is, like all other events in the past.

But what if an author changes his mind? Authors do change their minds but that doesn’t change the meaning of what he wrote in the past. An author might refute what He wrote. He might write something new but that doesn’t change the original meaning.

Now, can I get more out of a text than what the author originally understood? Possibly, if the author wrote in such a way to allow for that.

For example, Paul in Galatians 5 listed several works of the flesh that we shouldn’t do. Verse 21…

 …envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

It was Paul’s intention for us to think of things not listed by him so he uses the phrase “anything similar” and “such things”.

But in other instances Paul is rather narrow about what he intends for us to understand. When he says we are saved by faith alone, his meaning doesn’t allow for us to make up something we like better. His meaning is a historical event.

So, because the meaning of a text is rooted in the past it doesn’t change.

The Holy Spirit might inspire how you apply a passage to your life but that application doesn’t change the original meaning. The meaning is fixed. We either understand what the author meant or we don’t.

That’s because the author’s meaning is something fixed in the past. It’s a historical event.

6) Taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate gives us an objective standard to test whether an interpretation is right or wrong.

For example, Mark 4:13 implies there is a right and wrong way to understand the parables. Speaking of the parable of the sower…

13 Then he said to them: “Don’t you understand this parable? [the parable of the sower] How then will you understand all of the parables?

Interpreting the parables correctly hinges on rightly understanding the parable of the sower. So there is a right way to understand the parable and a wrong way which is only true if the meaning of a text is objective.

One more example in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11…

9 I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world.

11 But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.

So, if we don’t get the author’s meaning it’s not good enough to just say “I’ve got my meaning.” Only the author’s original meaning is what is valid.

And, if we discount this then we have no real standard for what’s right. I might feel the meaning is this and you might feel the meaning is that but who really knows if there is no standard?

The meaning of a text is what the author intended to communicate with his words.

The Bible assumes it, it’s consistent with the golden rule, it’s the humble path to greater knowledge and wisdom, it reflects a biblical worldview, meaning is a historical event, and this definition gives us an objective standard for knowing right and wrong.

7) Taking the meaning of a text to be what the author intended to communicate makes it possible for God to communicate to us with authority and trustworthiness.

It makes it possible for us to know his promises and to be able to trust in them.

Hebrews 6:13-18 speaks of two unchangeable things:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater to swear by, he swore by himself… Because God wanted to show his unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.

With this definition of meaning we can have assurance of God’s promise to keep his word. God made a promise and an oath and He meant what he said.

Human authors get things wrong and may need to revise or completely throw out what they promised in the past. But not God. God gets it right the first time.

2 Peter 1:20-21 says God, the Holy Spirt, and the Biblical author all have one interpretation.

20 Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

God spoke through the Spirt which spoke through people which was written down as scripture. They all say the same thing. Our interpretation of meaning isn’t what counts it’s what God originally meant that counts.

So we come back to our statement of faith. Can we trust it? Yes, to the degree that it faithfully reflects what the Author of Scripture meant.

The meaning of a text is what the author intended to communicate with his words.

Over the next few weeks I intend to show you that our statement of faith is in fact consistent with what the Author of Scripture intended to communicate with his words.

Reading the Bible is worth the effort. It is worth digging in and discovering the truth it contains. It’s worth all the effort involved in comparing all the various passages to get at the intended meaning of its one author.

That’s what we will do as we examine our statement of belief. We will consider all of the verses on the most important subjects and then come to a conclusion about what God meant to reveal.

Proverbs 2:3-5 says…

3 furthermore, if you call out to insight and lift your voice to understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and discover the knowledge of God.

Don’t you want to understand the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God? It’s possible to do so but we must seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure.

And that’s what we plan to do over the next few weeks.

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Scripture

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