Author’s Intent

Knowing what a person intends to say is quite important when it comes to understanding the words they say.  Let’s say for example Bob says “He killed it today!”.  Depending on what Bob intended to communicate, the sentence could mean completely different things.  It could mean Bob saw someone killing a big cockroach(or some other terrifying beast) today or it could mean Bob saw a singer deliver a jaw-dropping performance(yeah urban slang can be weird).  In everyday conversation we are always trying to find out what the other person is trying to communicate.  That is how we understand each other when we speak.  Even when we read the newspapers, magazines, blog articles etc, we try to find out what the author is trying to communicate.  No one reads a newspaper article about Ghana winning the world cup (sigh!!!… one day!!!) and concludes that the author is writing about Skynet destroying the world with rainbow unicorns!!! That cannot be the case if all the author was doing was telling you that Ghana beat Germany in the finals.

The same principle holds when we pick up the Bible to read.  The Bible is made of a collection of books; each written by an author who intended to communicate something.  We can easily come up with wonderfully creative interpretations of verses if we don’t think about what the author intended to communicate when writing that particular sentence (like wrongly accusing Bob of violence against household pests when he was really talking about his friend Kwaku’s performance).

Words have different meanings in different contexts… When we consider a verse in isolation, one meaning may occur to us. But how do we know it’s the right one?
Let’s take this popular verse:“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Phillipians (4:13)
Looking at that verse alone, it could mean a whole variety of things.  One day I will be a millionaire because I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  I will pass that exam because I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  And I could keep coming up with different scenarios where I can use this verse and even feel comforted by it.

But the question we must always ask ourselves when reading a verse in the Bible is this: What was the author’s intent? What was the author trying to communicate? We can answer this question by looking at verse in the context in which it was written and see how that changes our understanding of the verse.  For example when I add the preceding verses, see how our understanding of the verse can change.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
– Phillipians (4:10 -13)

It now begins to sound less like a rallying call to be a millionaire.  As one writer put it: “Looking back at verse 11, we see that Paul is really talking about how he has “learned in whatever situation. . . . to be content.” He continues in verse 12, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” In context, it seems that “all things” refers to all manner of life circumstances we encounter, not all goals that we set for ourselves. While the American dream tells us that finding happiness requires continually striving for more, not settling until we are the best and have the most, Paul tells us that satisfaction has nothing to do with our circumstances. Whether life was going really well or really poorly, with Christ’s strength, Paul learned to to be content“.

Next time you read a verse, ask yourself.  Is the meaning I have in my head actually what the author intended to communicate?

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