When it comes to understanding the Bible, we are ultimately aiming to understand what the author was trying to convey. In the ultimate, inspired sense, we are trying to understand what God – the divine author – wants to communicate to us. In the human sense, we are trying to understand what Paul, John, James and the others are specifically trying to communicate in their particular writings. In the end, the human author’s purpose in writing, and therefore what they are trying to communicate, is God’s purpose in what he wants to communicate, being as he is the one who sovereignly guided what they ultimately wrote.
The problem is, though I think we understand authorial intent is the goal, because we are so used to dealing with the Bible in particular chunks (passages or, if you’re a poncey theologian, pericopes) that we often fail to get to grips with overall authorial intent and just focus on the passage in front of us. So, we do really think (rightly) that the writer is trying to convey something to us in this passage and want to understand his intention but then we just look in that particular passage to discover what that might be. Which, obviously, we need to look at the passage and the particular words used to get to whatever the author is intending to convey here, but what he is conveying here will make much more sense if we understand why he is writing the whole thing at all.
It is such a simple and yet vital thing to remember. The biblical writers had particular reasons they were writing what they wrote. Before we are likely to get to grips with the particular passage in front of us, it pays to figure out what they were writing the entire book for. Understanding the overall purpose of the book helps us to figure out the specific intention of including this particular passage in this particular place.
So, when we turn to the gospels for examples, we know that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had particular emphases in mind. In at least two of them (Luke and John) we’re told explicitly what their overall purpose in writing is and I reckon Matthew is pretty obvious in his too beginning as he does in 1:1 telling us what he’s all about showing us. Mark is a bit more subtle requiring more digging, but looking at what he chooses to include, miss out, emphasise and focus on gives us some pretty big hints.
When we understand their purposes in writing their different gospels, we suddenly start to realise why some of them include particular things that others leave out, why they order the events differently and why certain things are emphasised differently across them. It is because of authorial intent that we don’t want to do too much ‘filling in the gaps’ across the gospels because the authorial intent of one is different to another and filling in those gaps might just throw us off what Matthew was specifically trying to convey rather than what, say, Luke wanted us to know.
Of course, if we understand that the Bible has one ultimate author, it won’t contradict itself. We do, in the end, need to synthesise what the different writers tell us. But we can’t synthesise what they variously tell us before we have understood what they are actually telling us. We have to understand the intent of this particular author before we can synthesise what he says with another author. We know they won’t contradict one another, we know their writing has been inspired and guided by God’s Spirit, but we have to understand their particular intent to understand what they are trying to communicate before we start delving into how they fit in with the others. In the end, we want to understand the authorial intent first and then understand how what they wanted to communicate fits in with what others intending to communicate.
But if authorial intent is the goal, we understand what God would say to us by understanding what the biblical writers would say to us. We understanding what the biblical writers are saying to us in this passage by understanding what their overall intention was in writing this entire book. I think we often miss this at our peril and end up interpreting bare words without the wider context of authorial intent across the book itself. But interpreting any given passage in line with the wider intention of the author gives us a good basis to understand what they actually intend to communicate here.