Author-centrism vs. Reader-centrism

“The only correct meaning of any written work is the author’s meaning.” – Chancellor C. Roberts, II

There’s a strange phenomenon that has come about in recent years, a phenomenon I find disturbing. It is, perhaps, a product of the postmodernism that seems to define American society today and that, sadly, has infected American Christianity. I refer to it by a term that I came across a few years ago: reader-centrism.

Reader-centrism is the view that a written work doesn’t mean what the author means by it, but what it means to the reader. We see it, unfortunately, in many Bible study and Sunday school curricula in questions like “What does the text mean to you?” or “What do you think the text means?” or (something I find particularly annoying) “What do you feel the text is saying to you?” (This silly notion of asking about what we feel about a text suggests that we’re not supposed to think about a text, but are to somehow feel something, have an emotional experience from the text. When I encounter it in writing or I hear someone say “I feel that [insert opinion or thought here],” I’m inclined to ask “What is the emotion or physical sensation that you’re experiencing?”).

The only correct meaning of any written work is the author’s meaning. There was a time when that statement would have been so obvious that it didn’t need stating. However, it seems that today such a statement is controversial. It most certainly contradicts the modern (or, more accurately, postmodern) reader-centric view that is perhaps related to a hallmark of postmodernism: the relativity of truth, that truth is relative, that it’s whatever you decide it is, that there is nothing objective or absolute or universal about it. In the postmodern view, it doesn’t matter what the author means by what he wrote (I’m using the universal he, referring to humans in general). To appeal to the author’s meaning, the author’s intent, is to appeal to authority (supposedly a logical fallacy): it suggests that there’s an objective, absolute, universal meaning to a written text, something postmoderns just can’t accept.

I’m a member of an independent Reformed church in Buffalo, New York. One thing that we talk about a lot is what we refer to as “author’s intent.” When interpreting scripture, we are urged to look for what the author of a particular passage of scripture meant by what he wrote. We do this mainly by looking at the context in which the passage appears, but also through a historical-grammatical approach to interpreting scripture. That approach requires us to consider the historical background of the writer and his original audience, and to consider the regular meaning of the written words (taking into account that there are different kinds of written work in the Bible such as narrative, prophetic language, poetry, types, figures of speech, and parables). When we approach scripture, we ask not “What does this passage mean to me?” but “What did the author mean by what he wrote?”

We, like those in the Antioch school (one of the two major centers of the study of biblical exegesis and theology that started in the third century A.D.), interpret the Bible literally (meaning that the text means what the author meant by it; the Antioch school stands in opposition to the Alexandrian school, which tended toward an allegorical interpretation of scripture and the gnostic tendency toward looking for secret or hidden meanings). Again, however, we take into consideration the kind of language used in the written text. Historical narrative (e.g. the Pentateuch, the narrative portions of the gospels, the book of Acts) is to be interpreted differently from how, say, the prophetic visions in the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament book of Revelation are to be interpreted. The epistles are to be interpreted differently from, say, the gospels and Acts. Throughout, however, we are always to look for the author’s intent, to take an author-centric view of the text.

Again, the only correct meaning of any written work is the author’s meaning. This is true regardless of what we’re reading – whether the Bible, a modern work of non-fiction, the latest best-selling novel, your local newspaper, or any other written work. When an author writes (whether the authors of scripture, I as an author of books and this blog, the writer of a newspaper article, the author of the latest best-selling novel, or any other author), there is a particular message the author intends to convey through the written text. It is that message which the author wants you, the reader, to receive: there is no place for your subjective opinions or feelings (reading is a thought process, not an emotional one or a process of physical sensations) in it.

The next time you read something, get into the habit of asking “What does the author mean by what he wrote?” or “What is the author’s intent in writing this?” Seek out the author’s meaning and only the author’s meaning. It is only then that you will have read and understood any written work correctly.