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Who Controls the Meaning?

Authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays begin the chapter by posing the question of meaning: Who controls it, the author or the reader? There is no denying the reader response to what an author has written. But while a text’s particular significance may be determined by the reader, there are “serious negative consequences that will come if we misunderstand or intentionally ignore the meaning the author intended.”[1] This is due to the revelatory purpose of Scripture; it is God’s communication to us as readers (e.g. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:21).

Authorial Intention: One of the most basic principles of Duvall and Hays’ approach is: “We do not create the meaning. Rather, we seek to discover the meaning that has been placed there by the author.”[2] When employing the term “author” in their writing, Duvall and Hays mean both the human author and God as the divine inspirer. In Step 3 of the Interpretive Journey we determine the theological principle(s) in the passage. Applying the axiom that the author determines the meaning of the text, we can amend Step 3 to determining the theological principles the author intended to convey.

General, Universal and Context-Specific: Duvall and Hays distinguish between general, universal theological truths and context-specific theological truths. “Context-specific theological truths are based on the general, universal theological truths, yet are more narrowly focused into a specific setting.”[3] For example, the general theological truth, that God is holy, is expressed in context-specific ways that change according to the situation. God’s teaching the Israelites to be holy in Leviticus 11 is expressed differently than the teachings on holiness to Christians in 1 Peter 1:13-22, and yet underlying both context-specific expressions is the general theological truth that God is indeed holy. Being able to distinguish between these two types of theological truths help us go deeper in our understanding of Scripture.

Check back next week for Chapter 11: Levels of Meaning

We’ve barely scratched the surface with Grasping God’s Word! We highly recommend you purchase this excellent book here.

[1] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 193-194.

[2] Ibid, 194.

[3] Ibid, 199.

Speaker, Educator, President of A Clear Lens, Inc. and host of A Clear Lens Podcast. B.Sc., M.Ed. Lives in Las Vegas with his wife, two sons, and dogs.


  1. […] Authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays begin this chapter with a question: “Does the Bible have different levels of meaning?”[1] That is, beyond the literal meaning, are there deeper levels of spiritual meaning to the text? The answer depends on what one means by “spiritual meaning.” Yes, the Bible has a spiritual meaning because the meaning comes from the Spirit of God. But that does not mean that we get to interpret Scripture in a “new” way that no one has heard before and call it a spiritual meaning. The Spirit has chosen to convey His meaning through literary conventions (grammar, context, etc.),[2] which means we are still faced with the task of discovering the author’s intended meaning rather than determining it for ourselves. Remember the author is the Spirit. […]

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