You cannot rightly preach a passage of Scripture that you have not accurately understood. It is a factual impossibility. Therefore, good homiletics is built on good, and perhaps even better hermeneutics. I have made this statement personally on many occasions. I practice this in my own preaching rigorously. I remind my students of this connection ad nauseam. I genuinely believe in this connection myself.
But, what do we mean when we say hermeneutics? Perhaps even more germane to this post, what do I mean when I say “good hermeneutics?” Generally, when we talk about hermeneutics, we are referring to the study of the practice of interpreting a text or texts — more specifically for the purposes of the student of the Bible, texts of Scripture. Much goes into this practice. In order to arrive at a holistic interpretation, at a minimum one must consider the historical background of the passage being studied, the grammatical and linguistical analysis of the language employed, and the theological milieu or context of the cannon of which the passage is a part.
We are trying to assemble all of these interconnected parts into the valid whole. Stated simply, we are trying to arrive at the correct meaning of the passage. But, even this may not be so simple. Because, what do we mean by “meaning?” For instance, when we say meaning do we mean what the text is talking about? Or do we mean what the passage is saying about what it is talking about? Are we simply looking for the original author’s subject or theme? Or, are we looking a little deeper? Are we actually searching for what the author intended by what he spoke about and what he said about what he spoke about (what we usually indicate by simply saying “meant”)? And finally, how about application? Does how all of this matters today have anything to do with the meaning of meaning?
What if I told you we really mean all of these things when we talk about attempting to arrive at the correct meaning of a passage? What if I told you when we define meaning, there are really four aspects of this concept that are a part of hermeneutics? Well, believe it or not there are! And each one builds on the other and are paramount for the pastor who has committed himself to expository preaching. In this article, I will identify and describe the four aspects of meaning that are a part of the hermeneutical process. As such, all of these are foundational for good expository preaching.
First, Meaning as Referent.
Here we simply mean what the passage is talking about. This aspect of meaning is the most basic and foundational. However, do not understand this to mean that it is unimportant. If meaning as referent is not rightly ascertained, the likelihood that the process moving forward will yield valid results is highly unlikely. To say it another way, if you cannot find what the subject of the passage is, then correctly finding the intent of the passage would be in spite of your interpretation not because of it.
For an example of meaning as referent, think Acts 8. You remember the situation. The Ethiopian eunuch from Candance’s court was on his way back from attempting to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. And, more than likely in a state of disappointment and despair, he begins to search the Scriptures. To not much avail, he begins to read the scroll of Isaiah. Just then Philip comes upon his chariot. Now the passage he was reading was Isaiah 53:7-8 — “He was led as a sheep to slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He does not open His mouth. In humiliation His judgment was taken away; who will relate His generation? For His life is removed from the earth.”
And in the middle of this encounter, the eunuch asks a great question that gets to the heart of meaning as referent. “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?” Essentially, he is asking what is the referent here? Who or what is this passage about? What is the subject? This is Meaning as referent.
Second, Meaning as Sense.
Here we are talking about the compliment of the passage. “Gee thanks!” you may be thinking. “That does not help at all.” After finding the referent, as a whole we are asking what is this passage saying about what it is talking about. When you answer that question, you now know the meaning as sense. At this point, we are not engaging in the interpretation of words or phrases, what we think the author intended by what he wrote, although this step will be paramount in doing that. We simply are looking for what is said about the subject, as close to the words of the passage if possible.
For clarification, allow me to borrow the Acts 8 example again. We already know the referent according to Phillip is Jesus. Now the question becomes, “What does Isaiah say about Jesus?” Look with me once more: “He was led as a sheep to slaughter; and as as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He does not open His mouth. In humiliation His judgment was taken away; who will relate His generation? For His life is removed from the earth.” Basically, Isaiah said that Jesus, without speaking a word and in humiliation, endured his death as a sheep going to its slaughter. This is Meaning as sense.
Third, Meaning as Intent.
This is where we get more into what we normally think of as the interpretation process. But we only should and can effectively do so after we have clearly articulated what is being talked about and what is being said about what is being talked about. Now, we are ready to take a foray into what we believe this “means.” In other words, what is the author intending by his words? What truth claim is being made? What theology is being communicated? What Christian ethic, action, or character is being taught?
Allow me to switch examples and take one of my recent sermons to illustrate this point. Last Sunday, I preached Luke 21:1-4. In this text, the widow, or more precisely the widow’s giving, is the referent. Certainly, there are other players in the narrative. But Jesus’s teaching point clearly focuses on the widow and her action as the subject of the passage. Having agreed on this, we can move to meaning as sense. Therefore, the sense may be something like “the widow gave more than all the rich” or “the widow’s giving was greater than the riches’ offerings.”
But, what is the intent? What do we believe Luke’s intention was for expressing Jesus’s words and teaching about this widow’s giving? In other words, what is the author “meaning” by his words? What truth claim is being made or theology is being espoused? From my perspective, I believe it is some combination of the following. Giving is judged by how much a person has left not by how much he gave. More in the Kingdom is not determined by monetary amount. Or, simply because a person is economically loaded does not automatically mean she is spiritually rich or useful. This is Meaning as Intent.
Finally, Meaning as Significance.
Here we are really talking about why this matters. We, in earnest, are entering into what is commonly known as the application process. Think of it this way — “How does the intent of the author here matter to me and my audience today?” Since this is the one that most pastors are comfortable with and in which most congregations seem the most interested, I will focus here less on giving explanations of and examples for the “how-to” and more on providing the “what-not.” In other words, I feel like you probably know what application is and have some working knowledge of “how-to” do it. Therefore, instead of focusing on what you already know, below I am going to give a word of caution or two.
Significance is an aspect of meaning. But, it is not a synonym for it nor the sum of it. Furthermore, to be a correct and authoritative application, it must precisely and intentionally be based on the systematic process of discovering and building the other three aspects of meaning. To say it another way, it is fine to think about ending with significance, but you must not begin here when interpreting a passage for preaching. If you do, you should not hold out much hope that the “so-what” of your sermon is accurate, valid, or genuinely helpful. At this point, in terms of scriptural truth and application derived from direct biblical authority, then, your meaning as significance becomes very insignificant!
Much of the “bad” preaching that I see or hear is because of one common problem. It usually is not because of a bad outline, poor communication skills, unintended and distracting nonverbals, or a lack of proper use of the functional sermon elements. No, it is usually because of bad hermeneutics or misinterpretation. Specifically, at some point in the “aspects of meaning,” the pastor has taken a wrong turn or gotten off course. The most common of these is confusing meaning as intent with meaning as sense or meaning as significance with any and everything else.
Think about this absurd statement and overt example. “In Galatians 5:4, the Bible says you can lose your salvation.” This is a clear illustration of interchanging intent for sense. Errors like this are common. I believe the main reason this mistake and other ones like it occur in preaching, or even in conversation, is usually not because of intention or malice. I believe the overwhelming majority of the time that it happens, it does so accidentally and out of ignorance. Most may not even know that meaning can be so complicated and has so many components.
Perhaps before this article you didn’t either. Hopefully now you do and this week’s entry has brought some clarity. And, my prayer is that it will help you be more intentional with and thus effective in your interpretation so that you will become an even more effective expositor. As always, my aim is to aid, support, and encourage you. And my prayer is that this post has done just this as you “Preach the Word!”
The four terms that are used to denote the four aspects of meaning in this post and their subsequent general descriptions have been taken from Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. and Moises Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 35–45.