Enter any classroom filled with Juniors at a Christian College and say one thing: “Jeremiah 29:11.” Groaning, shouting, and gnashing of teeth are sure to ensue: “Put it in context!” “That passage doesn’t mean what people think it does!” I was among this cohort, and to an extent, they’re correct: we need proper context for proper exegesis, and there are a slew of Bible passages slapped on magnets and instagram posts that people don’t fully understand. In our fervor, however, I think we’ve lost sight of what scripture is and how it’s been exegeted in the past. I would like to present a few examples and ideas to inform our modern attempts at finding meaning in the text and correct my younger, overzealous self, starting with our infamous example above.
Jeremiah 29:11: The “plans” have nothing to do with your diet.
In his book “Reading the Gospels Wisely,” Jonathan T. Pennington tells the hypothetical tale of a Mother-in-Law who uses a Jeremiah 29:11 magnet to hold up her diet plan. Pennington describes the typical reaction of her seminarian Child-in-Law: disgust at her poor interpretation and lack of careful exegesis. Surely Jeremiah didn’t have this woman’s diet in mind when he wrote this passage.
But Pennington reminds us throughout his chapter that there are actually different meanings of “meaning.” Authorial intent is a commonly cited metric by which to judge a text’s meaning, but authorial intent alone is not truly sufficient for meaning. Pennington refers to Jeannine Brown here to say that meaning is complex, meaning cannot be accessed perfectly from one person to another, and the communicative event cannot be completed without a reader or hearer. To put it another way: the authorial intent does not decide any given text’s meaning, per se, but works with other factors such as the reader’s context to communicate meaning. As Pennington says it: meaning is understanding is application. This all happens within the confines of proper historical contextual work with the text, but historical contextual work alone does not a valid interpretation make.
So, this Mother-in-Law may be ignorant of the text’s original context and meaning to its original audience, but she is using her own context to interpret this text in a way that is true for her, in a way that neither damages the original text (it is, in fact, true that God has plans for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future) nor leads her away from the true Word, Jesus Christ. In fact, she is drawn closer to God even through a “faulty” interpretation.
This does not make Scripture into a “wax-nose” to be bent at our will, meaning whatever we wish. The authorial intent still informs and directs our understanding and application, but the understanding and application themselves are equally important parts of “meaning.”
Karl Barth: Communism, Dogs, and the Holy Scriptures
Karl Barth is not Scripture. I want to clear that up before I make some specific references to Barth’s views on Scripture and why Conservatives should be slower to reject him than they have been.
As Michael Horton puts it: “For Barth, the Word of God (i.e., the event of God’s self-revelation) is always a new work, a free decision of God that cannot be bound to a creaturely form of mediation, including Scripture. This Word never belongs to history but is always an eternal event that confronts us in our contemporary existence.” Barth believes that first and foremost, the “Word of God” is Jesus Christ. In another sense, the Word of God may come through exhortation, specifically when that exhortation is convicting. But for Barth, Scripture is not necessarily the Word of God, but only becomes so when it is convicting. It cannot be “contained” in the one static thing, Scripture, but instead convicts us according to our context.
This is the sense of God’s Word that I would like to very, very carefully affirm in our interpretation of Scripture. To be clear: I think that Barth oversteps in his definition of God’s Word as only that which convicts; I affirm that Scripture as contained in the Holy Bible is the Word of God whether the hearer is convicted or not; God may convict or not convict whom he chooses with that which is always his Word.
However, Barth does get at an important part of the truth of God’s Word. As the saying goes, all truth is God’s truth, and in that way any interpretation which may be considered true (or, perhaps in Barth’s terms, convicting) is a valid interpretation, keeping authorial intent in mind. An interpretation that brings one life and draws one closer to God, even if that interpretation doesn’t necessarily take into account the historical context or the exact parsing of πιστεύων, may still be the Word of God (just as much as an interpretation grounded exclusively in the authorial intent).
Malachi 3:1: Multiple Horizons
A wise professor during my undergrad described prophecy this way: many prophets in the Old Testament, for example, weren’t “predicting the future,” at least not in their perspective. They spoke prophetically into their own context, and only later did other believers realize the double meaning of their words. He referred to these double meanings as “multiple horizons” of Scripture, where as time progressed (towards “the horizon”), new “horizons” could be seen over every hill.
My favorite example of this comes from Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” For Malachi (a Hebrew name which means “My Messenger”), this passage was literally about himself. God was sending him to prepare the way and let Israel know that God was returning to His temple.
The passage is beautifully mirrored in Matthew 3:1 only a book later: “In those days, John the Baptist came” to “prepare the way” for Jesus. There are other parallels throughout Malachi 3 and the first few chapters of Matthew that I’ll let you find for yourself, but the point is this: when we note those similarities, we acknowledge a meaning in Malachi that is far outside his authorial intent. New contexts can produce new interpretations for a text that don’t invalidate the original meaning to the original audience.
Psalm 69: Using Scripture to Interpret Scripture… to Interpret Scripture
When it comes to discussions about proper exegesis of Scripture, the common phrase “Use Scripture to interpret Scripture!” is ubiquitous. This idea is paramount: if an interpretation of any given passage or text directly contradicts the clear meaning of another, that interpretation must be reexamined. But that again calls into question our definition of “meaning” and how context, both historical and current, affect our exegesis. To expand on this, I want to call to our attention Psalm 69, not in itself, but as it is quoted in Acts 1 and Romans 11.
In Acts 1, the disciples of Jesus are selecting a new member to take Judas’ place after his betrayal and suicide. Peter declares that Judas’ field (in which he hung himself) remained empty “as it is written in the book of Psalms: ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’” which is a direct quote from Psalm 69:25.
This may fit into our “multiple horizons” of scripture mentioned above, wherein Psalm 69 may at one and the same time be referring to David and his enemies as well as Judas. But in Romans we find what seems to be a third meaning: Pauls quotes Psalm 69:22-23 to refer specifically to the people of Israel who have rejected Jesus.
In a sense, we might say that this is simply a third horizon, but it seems to me that Peter’s and Paul’s interpretations are competing: one implies that they are specific prophetic words about an individual, and the other states that they are general terms about a group of people, and once again we must be reminded that the original author had neither of these eventualities in mind.
The best way to harmonize this dissidence is to consider how these Apostle’s used scriptures. Surely they too knew the historical context of Psalm 69, but they recognized the truth in their application in each of their specific contexts. Again, the words themselves are true in all three of these contexts, and not necessarily because they were specific prophetic words spoken in one time to describe a specific other, but because each Apostle was able to apply the words themselves without doing violence to the original meaning as defined by the authorial intent.
We too may feel empowered to apply scripture as we are led by the Spirit in our contexts. Scripture should not (and with proper prayer and reliance on the Spirit, indeed cannot) by twisted beyond truth. If the interpretation contains convicting truth and leads its hearers closer to God, than it cannot be a “bad” interpretation, even if a fuller and “more accurate” interpretation is possible.
Brown, Jeannine Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand
Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007
Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand
Rapid: Zondervan Academic, 2011.
Pennington, Jonathan T. Reading the Gospels Wisely. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.
Noah Matthysse is a 2nd year MDiv student at Calvin Theological Seminary. His undergraduate studies were completed at Kuyper College just down the Beltline. He aspires to be a Christian Mystic, but he’s afraid that he’s too saturated in West Michigan for that. He is married to his wonderful wife, Julie, who he met and married at his alma mater.