In 25 years of ministry one of the most profound changes I’ve seen is the growing inability and/or unwillingness of Americans to read texts according to the intent of the author. One of the major reasons for this change was the mutation of the Modernism in North America from rationalism and empiricism to subjectivism. Mind you both forms of Modernism have much in common. In both cases the subject of the verb is always the autonomous “I.” For the rationalist “I get to decide what is reasonable and true on the basis of what I can know comprehensively.’ For the empiricist, “I decide what is true on the basis of sense experience.” The subjectivist says, “Truth is what is true for me.” In that sense, the starting point hasn’t changed but in other respects things have changed.
The argument with rationalists and empiricists was not whether there is such a thing as objective reality (that which is true regardless of my experience of it) but whether it is “reasonable” to believe a truth claim on the basis of an authority or source that transcended my intellect or sense experience. Now the discussion has devolved into the question whether there is anything that isn’t me or my imagination or my experience. Do “you” really exist?
All that to say subjectivism was washing over the American university just as I graduated. I heard rumblings but I didn’t pay attention. At seminary we were still largely fighting with the higher critics and old modernists (mostly rationalists) so I didn’t really see it there even though we had some brief discussions about the subjective turn in hermeneutics to “reader reception” and the like. It seemed like a fad. When I got to the UK in 1993, however, I discovered that it was not a fad and I had to catch up. The language of the university had changed while I wasn’t looking.
In the years since the consequences of this turn have become clearer. It is increasingly difficult to get readers to move beyond their subjective experience of the text to the text itself in its original context, to ask when did the author write it? To whom? Why and what did he intend to communicate? These questions, which my 9th-grade Journalism teacher, Mrs Chafee taught us were basic, are now regarded as quaint and outmoded. Are they really?
Consider this example: when a subjectivist author writes a document attempting to persuade us that the reader’s experience/reception of a text is as important or more important than the author’s intention, that subjectivist author necessarily expects us to read his document according to his intention. If we refuse and receive his words as communicating something about cosmic grasshoppers the entire communication process is frustrated. For the purposes of telling us to do to other authors what he does not want us to do to his words, our subjectivist author must rely on the old-fashioned idea of authorial intent. He must rely on the notion that the author had an intent, that words are signals of that intent, and that the intent can be inferred by understanding the words—that there is perspicuity in language, that it is a vehicle for meaning. Only after reading the subjectivist author are we to begin reading other texts as if the reader’s experience trumps all.
In that case then we’re just playing a game that defies the nature of creation, the nature of the created order and pattern. God gave us language not, first of all, to facilitate my subjective experience, to do with whatever I autonomously will, but in order to facilitate communication between the Creator and his image bearer and secondarily to facilitate communication between image bearers. Of course, the fall corrupted the process. Signs are not as easy to read because our perception is corrupted and because our wills, our affections, and our intellects are corrupted. Nevertheless, God has pledged to restrain the effects of the fall (Gen 9) so that life can continue, albeit brokenly, and communication can continue, albeit haltingly, until the end.
Please do not misunderstand. I understand that readers necessarily receive texts and that, in some way, their experience of the text is distinct from that of the author, that the reader may justifiably perceive messages in the text of which the author was not conscious. This is true in the case of the NT reception of the authors of the typological revelation (the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament in the broad sense of that term). John understood aspects of Isaiah that Isaiah himself probably did not understand. The NT interprets Psalms 110 repeatedly in ways that David probably did not understand fully.
This process occurs even with uninspired texts. Readers do decode messages of which the author was perhaps not aware but recognizing the power of creative reading is not quite the same thing as ignoring the author’s intent or denying that the author had an intent. Again, you might take this post to be a secret message from a cosmic grasshopper but I’m telling you that it is no such thing. In the nature of the created order, words bear a relation to the things they intend to signify. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter whether that relation is fixed by nature (realism) or fixed by convention (nominalism) so long as the intent of the sign is understood in a substantially similar way by author and reader.
Consider the lowly stop sign. S-T-O-P. In English we add those letters to make a word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s an Old English word derived from Saxon and West Germanic words. It may be used as a noun to refer to a bucket or to something that plugs up something. In the case of a stop sign, however, it would not seem to be a noun. That would make the sign an announcement: “Here is something that plugs up something else.” That’s true in a way. A stop sign does momentarily impede cars but is that the intent of the author (in this case the city council) of the sign? Probably not. So, we move on to the the next possibility: a verb. Again, it’s an Old English word with relatives all across Europe. As a verb it may mean “To fill up, plug, close up.” If it’s a verb, what sort of verb it is? In what voice? If we take it as an indicative (what is) does that work? “Things stop.” Well, they do, yes but why would the city council post signs across town announcing that? It seems unlikely. If, however, we take it as an imperative (“do this!”) then it begins to make sense in context.
After all, these signs tend to occur at intersections where autos must negotiate a limited space at the same time but what sort of imperative? If the noun means “a plug” does that mean that the city council wants us all to congest intersections and impede traffic? Probably not. Why would the council want that? To what end? Why would we allow them to tax us in order to post signs to slow our way home from work? Thus, if it is an imperative it must mean something else. In context, it seems most likely that the intent is to require us to cease moving forward long enough to allow others to move or to make sure the way is clear before we continue. Imagine if we chose to ignore the intent of the city council in posting the signs? Chaos!
Most likely someone told us what STOP on a red sign means but this exercise shows that even if no one told us what the signs meant it is possible to decode messages according to original intent by considering the signal in its immediate and broader context. We are able to infer a likely meaning and confirm that inference by experience. In fact, we would probably make all of those decisions very quickly.