The Benefits of an Author-Oriented Approach to Hermeneutics

By Stein, Robert H. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Benefits of an Author-Oriented Approach to Hermeneutics


Stein, Robert H., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


I. INTRODUCTION

In all communication three distinct components must be present. If any one of these components is missing, communication is not possible. These components are: the author, the text, and the reader. Linguists tend to use the terms: the encoder, the code, and the decoder. Still another set of terms that can be used is: the sender, the message, and the receiver. Having been born and raised in New Jersey where we like to use alliteration, we can refer to the three components as: the writer, the writing, and the "weader."

During the twentieth century we have witnessed amazingly diverse views as to which of these three components is the determiner of meaning. Who or what determines the meaning of a text, code, message, writing? At the beginning of the twentieth century the general assumption was that the author was the determiner of a text's meaning. The text meant what the author of the text consciously willed to convey by the words he or she had written. Texts were understood as a form of communication, and in communication we seek to understand what the author of that communication seeks to convey. Thus, if in a Bible study we were engaged in a study of Paul's letter to the Romans, and by some miracle the apostle Paul entered the room and explained what he meant by the passage under consideration, this would settle the issue. Our goal was to understand what the author, that is, Paul, meant by this passage, and we now know what he meant. Hopefully, we would proceed to discuss some of the implications of that passage for us today, but the issue of what the text "meant" would be settled. This is the common sense approach to hermeneutics that most people use quite unconsciously. This is why, for example, in trying to understand Romans we seek help from Galatians rather than Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls or Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. The reason for this is that the author of Galatians thinks more like the author of Romans than Hemingway or Mitchell, and we desire to understand what the author of Romans meant.

In the 1930s, however, a movement arose called the New Criticism. This movement became the dominant approach toward literature in the universities until the 1970s. This approach no longer sought meaning in what the author intended to convey, but in the text itself as an independent entity. Texts were interpreted as independent units in total isolation from their authors and the historical situation in which they were written. In fact, if, using the example given above, Paul entered into our presence and explained to us what he meant by what he wrote, this view would respond, "That is interesting but quite irrelevant, for after you wrote your text, you lost control of it. It is no longer a form of communication but a form of art. It has become `literature,' and as a result it possesses semantic autonomy and has its own meaning or meanings." According to this view, in handing the text over to the reader, the author lost his or her authority over the text and its meaning. It should be pointed out that this view is very different from that of Billy Graham when he says, "The Bible says" or "Our text tells us," for Billy Graham means by this, "The author of our Biblical text is telling us." The New Criticism totally disconnects the text from the original author. It is as if texts magically appeared on the scene without father, mother, or author.

More recently we have witnessed a hermeneutic that seeks meaning, not from what the author consciously willed to say or from what the text means in isolation, but from the reader. This reader-oriented criticism argues that it is the reader who gives meaning to a text. The "written text in itself... is dead or in hibernation. The text only comes to life through the reader. He revives the text, he gives meaning to it."' A text is in effect an open reality that stimulates us to give meaning to it. This is very different from and should not be confused with the view that the reader learns, deciphers, discovers, or ascertains the meaning that the author sought to convey or with the view that a text possesses in itself a meaning totally independent of both author and reader. …

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