John Frame on allegory, authorial intent, and creativity in biblical interpretation

The Richness of Scripture’s Meaning

The traditional concern for contextual exegesis must be qualified somewhat by some implications from our principle that meaning is application and application is meaning. The meaning of a text is any use to which it may legitimately be put. That means that in one sense the meaning of any text is indefinite. We do not know all the uses to which that text may be put in the future, nor can we rigidly define that meaning in one sentence or two.

Thus we find that Scripture itself sometimes uses Scripture in surprising ways. “Do not muzzle the ox while it treads the corn” (Deut. 25:4) is used in 1 Corinthians 9:9 as the proof-text for a paid ministry. The story of Hagar and Sarah (Gen. 21) is used in Galatians 4 as an allegory of the relationship between Judaism and the Christian church. We would be perplexed by these uses of the Old Testament if we followed the principle of asking, What did the text mean to the original (human) author or audience? That question is important and useful, but it doesn’t always tell us what we need to know. Most likely, Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 25:4 did not (consciously) occur to Moses, nor did Paul’s use of Genesis 21. At least we could not use any hermeneutical method of which I am aware to determine that such ideas occurred to Moses. Thus, unless we wish to accuse Paul of misusing the Old Testament at those points, we must find some other principle at work.

The relevant principle, I think, is simply this. The Old Testament texts that Paul used are capable of being used in the ways he used them. Whether or not Moses conceived of Genesis 21 as an allegory, it happens that the text is suited to being used that way. Since it is suited to such a use, we know that this usage was in the mind of the divine author, even if it was not consciously intended by the human author. God knows and predetermines all the uses that are proper for His inspired Word. And surely the unique double-authorship of Scripture must influence our interpretation of it. The principle, then, is that we may use Scripture in any way that it is suited to be used. And the meaning of any text, then, is the set of uses to which it is suited.

This sort of approach opens the doors of our creativity! It encourages us to make allegories out of other passages too! That is well and good; there is nothing wrong with that. But our governing principle must be to present the gospel clearly and cogently. If an allegorical illustration helps to that end, then no one may forbid it. But obviously we are not warranted to turn theology into an allegorical flight of fancy as did Origen. (Origen’s mistake was not that he allegorized Scripture but that he misused his allegorical interpretations to try to prove the substantive theological propositions. That is not what Paul is doing in Galatians 4, where he uses his allegory only as an illustration of, not as the basis for, his theological point. Paul’s basis for his argument, he makes clear, was his own private revelation from God–Gal. 1:1, 11f.)

Text and Telos

But if the meaning of a text includes all its legitimate applications, and if this fact makes the meaning indeterminate, then what must be said about the purpose (telos) of a text? Is that purpose, then, vague, indefinite?

On the one hand, the concept of “purpose” corresponds with “meaning.” Like the meaning of a text, the purpose of a text is constituted by its legitimate uses. God gives us the text so that we may use it in these ways. Therefore if there is a sense in which meaning is indefinite, there is also a sense in which the text’s purpose is indefinite. We cannot now predict all the uses to which the text may legitimately be put.

On the other hand, there is another sense in which the purpose is definite. We can determine exegetically what the authors (divine and human) intended the text to do in its original setting. Thus, in a sermon where we are trying to explain the original meaning of the text that original purpose must play a central role. We want to tell our audience what the biblical writer was telling his audience. If our audience does not know that, they are missing something important. And naturally, we will want to bring to the attention of our audience any parallels between the ancient and modern situations so that the text might have the same effect in the lives of our audience that its author intended to have in the lives of its original audience. And that is what the standard “expository sermon” seeks to do. It seeks to present the original intent of the original author and to reproduce that intent in the modern setting. As long as we claim to present such sermons, they ought to include those elements. Are expository sermons the only kind of sermons that are biblically warranted? Must the original purpose of a scriptural passage always govern the way we use that text today? I think not on both counts, but perhaps the specialists in practical theology are better equipped than I to answer those questions.

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 198-200

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About cteldridge

A beggar trying to tell other beggars were the Bread is.
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