The Stability of the Divine Meaning

Having in my last post criticized the claim that the mind of the human author determines the meaning of a biblical text, I commend here the claim that the meaning of a text is its meaning according to the mind of the Holy Spirit.

Some resist this approach because they fear that it results in an exegetical free-for-all (as Poythress points out, ‘Dispensing’, p. 484). But whether we seek the human or the divine meaning, we are asking about the meaning of the same given words. We are all alike starting with the words. The text is the text. It isn’t that a human meaning approach is interested in the words and a divine meaning approach is cut loose from them. Nor is it that one sticks with authorial intent and the other does not, leaving us to our own subjectivity. Both seek the mind of the author, but ultimately of different authors (I say ‘ultimately’ because a divine author aproach need not be uninterested in the mind of the human author, but it does not stop with it). Nor does one stay with the immediate passage while the other goes beyond it to other texts that illuminate it. Both seek to read the text in the light of other related texts. Nor does one stick with the text while another goes beyond it to consider the extra-textual reality of the author’s mind. Both need to know the field of possible illuminating connections the author may have had in view as he wrote.

Nonetheless, an interest in the divine meaning does make a massive difference, because while the content of the mind of every human author of Scripture as he wrote is largely lost to us, we know for sure what verbal consciousness was in God’s mind when he wrote. Concentration on divine meaning does not by itself tell us in any given case which connections God had in view, but it does tell us a number of vital things: which earlier texts the author knew (because God knew them all), which later texts the author knew (because God knew them all), whether the author was conscious of his intention and meaning (because God possesses perfect self-consciousness; so Poythress, ‘Dispensing’, p. 491), and what the general intentions of the author were (because they are the covenanted intentions of the triune God). A commitment to the determining role of the divine author’s divine mind thus means that we know the author far better than any other author. The Bible is therefore more understandable than any other text. This is as we would expect: if the living God seeks to communicate then he will be the most effective communicator.

How do the humanly and divinely intended meanings of Scripture relate? Put it another way: ‘How do the divine and human authors relate?’. They must be harmonious. The human author’s intended meaning does not conflict with God’s meaning because he is a Spirit-filled friend of God. He does not exist unrelated to God, but is himself indwelt by the Spirit of God who as he breathes out the Scriptures aligns the intentions of the human author with his own. The human author is not engaged in a separate, competing project. Though he does not know it fully, ‘The human author intends the divine intention’ (Poythress, ‘Dispensing’, p. 486). In that sense, any attempt to isolate a distinct intention for the human author that diverges from the omniscient intention of God is in fact to go against the human author’s own desire; it is to fail to take the human author’s intent seriously (Poythress, ‘Divine Meaning’ p. 278). The limited knowledge of the human author may mean that his intended meaning falls short of the meaning intended by the omniscient author, but it never contradicts it. We might say that the human meaning is further back along the same track as the divine meaning, or that it is contained within the divine meaning.

It is as we approach the human words of Scripture where they truly were and are when breathed out by God – that is, located within his own sovereign intent – that we find their fuller and stable meaning.