Angels, Demons, and Authorial Intent

But even more important for our subsequent purposes is the fact that to speak is not, as such, to express one’s inner self but to take up a normative stance in the public domain. The myth dies hard that to read a text for authorial discourse is to enter the dark world of the author’s psyche. It’s nothing of the sort. It is to read to discover what assertings, what promisings, what requestings, what commandings, are rightly to be ascribed to the author on the ground of her having set down the words that she did in the situation in which she set them down. Whatever be the dark demons and bright angels of the author’s inner self that led her to take up this stance in public, it is that stance itself that we hope by reading to recover, not the dark demons and bright angels.

-Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 93.

Especially over this past year I have become increasingly skeptical of the attention certain people give when reading a piece of literature to discerning the original meaning intended by the author thereof. Although I don’t necessarily subscribe to his particular version of speech act theory, I think this quote from Nicholas Wolterstorff nicely highlights how such efforts are ultimately misplaced.

Since I spend most of my time doing biblical studies, I am particularly accustomed to seeing such a foundationalist approach applied to the Bible, which usually amounts to little more than a feeble attempt to psychoanalyze the hypothetical entities who might have composed the texts therein. Besides the paucity of historical information that could enable such endeavours (more than the minimalists would assert but significantly less than some fundamentalists maintain), I am left wondering why Christians especially feel the need to constrain Scripture’s denotative capacity by giving epistemological privilege to an author’s interpretation.

To this end, I submit that questions about authorial intent should not lie at the centre of theological hermeneutics. Rather, as believers we should perhaps have a little bit more faith in the ability of the body catholic to appropriate the biblical message in new circumstances whilst remaining faithful to the God whom the Bible attests. Likewise, we should perhaps have more faith in that same God who continues to inspire new and creative, though sometimes conflicting, readings of this authoritative book.



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