Thursday, February 7, 2013

Authorial Intent

Augustine, in his Confessions supplies a list of interpretations of Genesis 1 that were “bandied about” in his day. He concludes that any of them will do as long as it is true to the truth: “What harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you (God), the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that” (XII.18.27).

Augustine’s hermeneutic seems odd to those of us who were taught E. D. Hirsch’s theory that a text has only one meaning: the meaning its author intended. Augustine accepts the idea of authorial intent, but goes beyond critical theory to state that “the author’s (ultimate) intent must be sought in charity.”

He writes, "Having listened to all these divergent opinions (interpretations of Genesis 1) and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen (2 Timothy 2:14). The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith (1 Timothy 1:4,5–8), and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and the prophets depend (Matthew 22:40)."

In other words, when I expound a text I need to ask myself, “To what extent does the meaning I assign to this text promote love for God and my neighbor?” This, according to Augustine, is the only “lawful” use of scripture. Paul would agree: “the goal of the commandment is love…” (1 Timothy 1:5).


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