When it comes to the Word of God, both conservatives and liberals believe in divorce–the divorce of words from meaning.
Conservatives divorce them in this way: the primary function of words is to aid in determining authorial intention. Meaning lies in the author’s intentions. The words are an aid in the discovery, but do not carry inherent meaning apart from what the author put there. Hence, divorce.
Liberals divorce words and meaning in two ways. Some believe words preserve a psychology of the author or a moment in the evolution of God’s people. The meaning lies behind the text in the psyche of the author or community. Words serve as a viewfinder or a telescope providing tunnel vision into the past where the meaning lies hidden. Other liberals believe meaning is created above the text in the reader, the words of the text serving as receptacles for a reader’s created meaning. The text is a mirror providing a place where the reader discovers meaning in himself. Again, words and meaning end in divorce.
When you boil it down, all of the above positions assert that meaning is invested in words either by the author or the reader. Both conservative and liberal hermeneutics end up treating words like mere vehicles for meaning. It’s as if words are empty railcars that are hitched up into sentences that either the author or the reader (depending on your hermeneutical view) fills with freight. Allow me to propose a third way–a way that does not end in divorce.
When words are chained together, a context is formed where these words mean something by their mere existence. They do not mean something merely because the author intended for them to mean something, and they do not mean something merely because the reader invests them with meaning. They have meaning because they have been put together in context that creates meaning. And meaning deepens the greater the context.
The words of Scripture have meaning because they are the words of Scripture. I do not mean that in a tautological sense. Words create context which creates a realm of meaning. Words mean something because they are with other words. The words of Scripture weave together a context where a people was chosen, saved through Jesus, and awaits his return.
Words create not merely a context on the page, but a context in the present. The Church is a people brought into existence by the context created in the words of Scripture. The message of the Gospel stretches forth from the pages, bleeding the meaning of Jesus into our reality. As we read the words of Scripture together, the context grows as those words shape the way we see and experience the world around us.
After all, it was the Word of God that called the heavens and the earth into existence. Genesis 1, among other things, describes how words created contexts and then filled those contexts with meaningful creatures–creatures who required a physical and metaphysical context in order to exist. This was all created through words.
The Scriptures are not a mere necessity, a pragmatic tool for Biblical authors to send some theological freight to their readers. The authors of Scripture molded and fashioned words much like an artist. What they pass down to us in the pages of Scripture is not a time capsule or a sounding board, but a self-contained work. The books of the Bible are masterpieces filled with beautiful, context-creating words–words that are meaning-full.
We must realize that these words themselves are God’s grace to us. As we read them, they shape and create a New Creation reality in which to live. The hope of a New Heavens and the New Earth becomes our context for meaning through Jesus. The more our lives are immersed in these words, the more our lives come to have meaning. The Spirit of God hovers over our feeble existence bringing forth life as the Word of God speaks meaning into our dark reality.
We must stop seeing the Word as a vehicle, a conduit, a husk, or a container. The Word is a Person. A Person who becomes the context for all of life to those who believe. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). As we encounter the Word, He creates a meaningful context in which we find fellowship with God and one another. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
The meaning of the text is not behind, in front of, or drawn from it. The words are the meaning. The Word is the meaning.