Is Every Text Pregnant with Meanings?

blue and white diamond pattern

For centuries, theologians have grappled with the tension between the human author(s) and the Divine Author of Scripture. Historically, this has caused the Church great turmoil, leading some to see two, three, four, or even more meanings in every text. As we near the end of our interpretive (exegetical) process, we must consider the question, “What is the relationship between the human author and Divine Author in Scripture?” Space limits a full-orbed historical survey, but perhaps the following historical sweep will put the discussion in its proper context. 

We must consider the question, “What is the relationship between the human author and Divine Author in Scripture?”

Historical Sweep

Philo, a Jewish philosopher born in 20 BC, suggested every OT text had two meanings. He felt the Hebrew scriptures were too culture-specific. He attempted to make the OT more palatable to a Greco-Roman culture by broadening the meaning of passages, especially the Levitical laws. A two-meaning system developed: (1) the literal meaning and (2) a hidden one.[1]

Origen (late 2nd century) suggested every text had three meanings. He was influenced heavily by Platonism and attempted to synthesize three streams of thought: (1) the human author; (2) Platonism thinkers; and, (3) the Divine Author. He developed a tri-partite structure: (1) the literal (human author’s meaning); (2) the ethical (moral meaning); and, (3) the heavenly (Divine meaning).[2] Origen did apply two controlling parameters: Every interpretation must align with the analogy of Scripture and the rule of faith.[3]

Augustine (late 4th/early 5th century) reached further, suggesting every text had up to four (or more) meanings. His words:

“When, again, not some one interpretation, but two or more interpretations are put upon the same words of Scripture, even though the meaning of the writer intended remained undiscovered, there is no danger if it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with Scripture.”[4]

Augustine developed a system in which a text might have as many as four meanings: (1) historical (what has been done); (2) aetiologial (why it was done); (3) analogical (consistency between OT & NT); and, (4) allegorical (Divine meaning). Augustine, too, applied two controlling parameters: Any interpretation must align with Jesus’ command to “love God and love your neighbor.”[5]

Augustine’s influence trickled down through the medieval age. Thomas Aquinas formalized it into what became known as the Quadriga, which the Catholic church employs with some regularity even today. Aquinas posited four meanings: (1) literal (human author’s meaning); (2) tropological (moral); (3) anagogical (future fulfillment of divine promises); and, (4) allegorical (Divine meaning). Over time, the literal meaning began to be usurped by the other three. Extra-scriptural traditions began to take root from the “non-literal” meanings (indulgences, purgatory, works-salvation, etc.), resulting in a two-source authority: Scripture and tradition. Oberman and Ward, respectively, track this progression in their excellent works.[6] What we find is the Divine Author’s “non-literal” meanings–which were subject to the interpreter–began to overshadow the human author’s meaning. 

The Protestant Reformers rescued us from such polyvalent meanderings, in large part, by restoring the human author’s intent to its rightful place of objectivity. For instance, Martin Luther said of Origen:

“That is why Origen received his due reward a long time ago when his books were prohibited, for he relied too much on this same spiritual meaning, which was unnecessary, and let the necessary literal meaning go. When this happens Scripture perishes and really good theologians are no longer produced. Only the true and principal meaning which is provided in the letters can produce good theologians.”

Martin Luther, Answer to the Hyperchristian . . . 1521 AD

Their battle cry was Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), which was nothing less than a return to the authority of the human author’s intent. The human author’s intent was much easier to substantiate through (1) his grammar and (2) his historical context. The so-called Divine Author’s intent(s) had been abused and weaponized to keep people (as well as the human author) in subjection. The Reformers recognized: Only the objective truth of the human author’s intent could cut through the subjective, oftentimes fanatical, conjectures. Sadly, the revival of the human author’s meaning was short-lived. 

Higher criticism, in the 19th and 20th centuries, threw up its hands and suggested no one can know the human author’s meaning (Schleiermacher, Gadamer, Frye, Derrida, etc). Therefore, the reader—not the author—determines meaning, which paved the way for where we are today: Post-modernism.

Though brief, this historical sweep suggests all of these efforts were grappling with the same question: What is the relationship between the human author’s meaning and the Divine Author’s meaning?

The Problem Continues

After this brief historical journey, one might think we would take all precautions against suggesting every text is pregnant with multiple meanings. Yet, the urge to dabble has proven too fascinating. Mitchell L. Chase’s (adjunct professor, Boyce College) recent article is stimulating, even if highly speculative.[7] He relies heavily on David Schrock (adjunct professor, Boyce College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and, to a lesser extent, Jim Hamilton (professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Chase advocates for a controlled typology. That is, any typological connection must be grounded in (1) historical correspondences, (2) a discernible escalation between type and antitype, and (3) a Christological viewpoint. He supports this assertion with Schrock, who departs even further from the human author’s intent into subjectivism:

“[I]t is appropriate to speak of typology in terms of Christotelic trajectories that would have exceeded the expectations of the original author and audience . . . Israel’s persons, events, and institutions are divinely designed types of Christ.”[8]

We must pause here to ask, “Who decided on these three criteria? If trajectories exist that exceed the human author’s expectations, how do we know it? Who authorized it? Certainly no NT author; and if no NT author, then who?” We cannot help but notice: The transference of meaning, subtly, has shifted from the human author to the human interpreter; and this sleight of hand (or, so it seems) flies under the guise of the Divine Author. But, I go on . . .

Chase asserts:

“The divine author has designed a type to function in a forward-pointing, christotelic way.”[9] 

To this, we must pause again, with eyebrows raised, and ask, “On what basis do we make such a leap? On inferences grounded purely in human speculation? And, then, are we to preach such speculations as if they have Divine Authority?” But, I go on . . .

Chase continues:

“The NT authors never claimed to exhaust all that one can see of Christ in the OT, nor did they forbid their readers from imitating their hermeneutics.”[10] 

Once more, we must pause. We understand Chase’s point, but what of Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6)? Whatever Paul meant by that, it was within the context of the Corinthians elevating human wisdom above what is written. Yet, I proceed . . .

Finally, Chase asserts:

“While readers can be certain about Christological types which NT authors have identified [with this, we agree], interpreters can also make a cumulative case suggesting a type, which is unidentified by NT authors, with different degrees of probability or certainty (brackets added)”[11]

Here, we must ask, “Who defines these ‘degrees of probability,’ and how? What is the objective measuring-stick?” Chase even suggests (quoting George Barrois) to not enter into such speculative typology is a “serious fault of method.”[12] Barrios, now deceased, ought to have known where this leads, historically, since he was a professor (and historian) at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Chase will go on to suggest Boaz is a type of Christ, a notion we shall examine in more detail in a subsequent article. Before we drink too deeply from this rather intoxicating well, though, someone must be willing to ask, “What happened to the biblical author’s truth-intention in all of this?” 

Someone must be willing to ask, “What happened to the biblical author’s truth-intention in all of this?” 

This is not to suggest Chase, et al., are not capable theologians. They are. They are well-intentioned, and I recognize their motive is pure: To glorify Christ in new, exciting dimensions. They make valid points and offer Christ-centered controlling parameters. Moreover, they have centuries of church history on his side. Yet, that is precisely the point. Origen and Augustine offered Christ-centered controlling parameters, too (see above). Nevertheless, when they stepped away from the objectivity of the human author’s intent, it was a slow, slippery slope into subjectivism. The end-game of subjectivism nearly always leads us to the same terrible place: An inherent or outright denial of the sufficiency of Scripture.

Their proposal is a dangerous one—indeed, one we cannot accept—and the record of church history is the strongest evidence of where that road leads. One can see, easily, how this interpretive laxity opens “Pandora’s Box” of pregnant meanings. We don’t need better controls on typological references; the Holy Spirit made certain, through the NT apostles, the typological references He desired us to have; rather, we need a (re)commitment to the true and principal meaning of the human author through whom God chose to speak.

Their position is predicated on the presumption that we possess the same hermeneutical powers as the apostles, another proposal we cannot accept. The apostles’ hermeneutical powers were stamped with infallibility, inerrancy, and a certainty we do not enjoy. Again, we must never apologize for that (or for this): If the NT authors make typological (or hermeneutical) correspondences, then we are on solid footing. Otherwise, it is a serious fault of method—and a dangerous one—to create those ourselves and then proclaim them as divinely authoritative.

The end-game of subjectivism nearly always leads us to the same terrible place: An inherent or outright denial of the sufficiency of Scripture.

Is There A Solution?

So far, we have done nothing except uncover the problem which has plagued interpreters, ancient and modern, namely: “What is the relationship between the human biblical author(s) and the Divine Author?”

Is there a solution? Indeed, there is. It begins with the two principles: (1) the analogy of antecedent Scripture and (2) the distinction between the human author’s meaning and the timeless significance of that meaning. To these, we shall turn next.

[1]For example, see Philo, De Specialibus Legibus, 1.37.207-208. In 1.37.207, Philo suggests the hidden meaning underneath the washing of the feet of animals is that man’s soul should walk upward to heaven. 

[2]See Origen, De Principiis, 4.1.11. In support of this three-fold division, Origen cites Proverbs 22:20-21, “And do thou portray them in a threefold manner, in counsel and knowledge, to answer words of truth to them who propose them to thee.”

[3]See Origen, Contra Celsus, 7.11 and De Principiis, Praef., 2. 

[4]Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 3.27. 

[5]See Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.

[6]Heiko Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Referomation Thought (Edinburgh: 1986), 276-280; Timothy Ward, Word and Supplement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture (Oxford: 2002), 21-73.

[7]Mitchell L. Chase, “A True and Greater Boaz: Typology and Jesus in the Book of Ruth,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 21.1 (2017): 85-96. 

[8]Schrock, “What Designates a Valid Type?,” 25.

[9]Chase, “A True and Greater Boaz,” 87.

[10]Chase, “A True and Greater Boaz,” 88.

[11]Ibid., 88. 

[12]Ibid., 88.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author blue and white diamond pattern

Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.