How do we discover the intention of the biblical author—and how important is it in interpreting the Bible correctly?
One of the greatest challenges for the reader of Scripture is to discover what the author’s intention was when he delivered a message from God. Failure to identify the author’s intention introduces the risk—from a spiritual and theological point of view—of adopting conclusions that do not represent God’s message. The path that a reader must follow to discover the author’s intention cannot be followed chaotically. Certain concrete and very exact steps are necessary.
The first step on this road is contextual analysis. This step involves several important stages.
The immediate literary context
Just as no word has meaning in and of itself, but only in relation to other words, so no verse has meaning outside of its relation to other verses in the immediate literary context. One of the most common mistakes a reader makes is to extrapolate the verse or take it out of context. Extrapolation is a serious obstacle to discovering the writer’s intention at the time of writing.
For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, the apostle Paul writes: “…but test them all; hold on to what is good” (emphasis added). What does the apostle mean by the word “all”? Is it biblically correct to test absolutely all things, regardless of their nature, good or bad? The close literary context helps us a lot. The preceding verse says: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt”. This is Paul’s advice to a church that believed that the prophetic office was closed and that all prophetic manifestation was dangerous. In this context, the phrase “test them all” makes sense. In other words, Paul states that we must search all prophecies and keep what is good.
The broader literary context
The broader context of the verse is also helpful. Taking the same example of the passage from 1 Thessalonians, one can see the eschatological character of chapters 4 and 5. Reading them together with the aforementioned verse will be of great help.
The context of the book
The context of the book or the Pauline corpus can help us better understand the theology of the apostle Paul on eschatology. The different ecclesial contexts provide a broader and clearer picture of Pauline theology.
The canonical context
The canonical context means framing the text in the theology of the whole of Scripture. Scripture presents us with a complete picture of eschatology. The books of Daniel, Revelation, the eschatological passages from the gospels and those from the general epistles offer a much broader perspective and complete the Pauline eschatology.
The historical and cultural analysis
The historical-cultural analysis is one of the most sensitive issues in theological research. Is the Bible a case-text book (the application is made only to the temporal and geographical context in which the author wrote) or code-text (the supratemporal application of all passages of Scripture, regardless of time, space, or recipients)?
The historical and cultural context of the author
The apostle Paul’s advice regarding the liturgics of that period, the relationship between man and woman, as well as between master and slave, is often applied without taking into account the historical and cultural contexts. Thus, in its practice, the Christian church supported slavery with the argument that “it says so in the Bible”. Lack of discernment can lead to interpretations that do not correspond to the author’s intention.
The ideological philosophical and theological context
It is also important to analyse the ideological and theological context of the author’s time. Among the trending philosophies in New Testament times were Epicureanism, Stoicism, Docetism, Gnosticism, etc. They were based on elements of Greek thought, so they constituted a challenge for the newly-formed church. The prologue of the Gospel of John represents a response to the challenge of Docetism, which denies the humanity of Christ. With the statement “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), the apostle not only wants to convey the idea of identifying Jesus with us, but also to challenge the Docetist perspective according to which Jesus’s birth, life, and death were not real but apparent (1 John 4:1-3).
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The theological analysis
A last important step on the way to discovering the author’s intention is to analyse how a certain verse has been viewed throughout the history of Christian thought. Even though Christian interpreters cannot take the place of Scripture, their perspective can help us greatly in understanding Scripture.
The Holy Spirit
The Bible is the only book that you can read with the help of the author. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). It is the privilege of every reader to pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit, because He is the ultimate author of Scripture.