Does Purpose Determine Meaning?

Purpose and Meaning

Another serious mistake of some non-inerrantists is to believe that purpose determines meaning. Vanhoozer claims “I propose that we identify the literal sense with the illocutionary act the author is performing” (Enns, 220). The locutionary act is what the author is saying, and the illocutionary act is why (purpose) he said it. The what may be in error; only the why (purpose) is without error. This is why Vanhoozer comes up with such unusual explanations of Biblical texts.

For example, when Joshua commanded the sun to stand still (Josh. 10), according to Vanhoozer, this does not correspond to any actual and unusual phenomena involving an extra day of daylight. Rather, it simply means, as he believes that the purpose (illocutionary act) indicates, that Joshua wants “to affirm God’s covenant relation with his people” (Vanhoozer, Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 106).

Likewise, according to Vanhoozer, Joshua is not affirming the literal truth of the destruction of a large walled city (Josh. 6). He contends that “simply to discover ‘what actually happened’” is to miss the main point of the discourse, which is to communicate a theological interpretation of what happened (that is, God gave Israel the land) and to call for right participation in the covenant” (Vanhoozer, Five Views, 228). That is why Joshua wrote it, and that alone is the inerrant purpose of the text.

However, as we have explained in detail elsewhere (Geisler, Systematic Theology, in One Volume, chap. 10), purpose does not determine meaning. This becomes clear when we examine crucial texts. For example, the Bible declares “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exod. 23:19). The meaning of this text is very clear, but the purpose is not, at least not to most interpreters. Just scanning a couple commentaries from off the shelf reveals a half dozen different guesses as to the author’s purpose. Despite this lack of unanimity on what the purpose is, nonetheless, virtually everyone understands what the meaning of the text is. An Israelite could obey this command, even if he did not know the purpose for doing so (other than that God had commanded him to do so). So, knowing meaning stands apart from knowing the purpose of a text. For example, a boss could tell his employees, “Come over to my house tonight at 8 p.m.” The meaning (what) is clear, but the purpose (why) is not. Again, understanding the meaning is clear apart from knowing the purpose.

This does not mean that knowing the purpose of a statement cannot be interesting and even enlightening. If you knew your boss was asking you to come to his house because he wanted to give you a million dollars, that would be very enlightening, but it would not change the meaning of the statement to come over to his house that night. So, contrary to many non-inerrantists, purpose does not determine meaning. Further, with regard to biblical texts, the meaning rests in what is affirmed, not in why it is affirmed. This is the reason that inerrantists speak of propositional revelation and many non-inerratists tend to downplay or deny it (Vanhoozer, 214). The meaning and truth of a proposition (affirmation or denial about something) is what is inspired. Inerrancy deals with truth, and truth resides in propositions, not in purposes.

Limited inerrantists and non-inerrantists often take advantage of an ambiguity in the word “intention” of the author in order to insert their own heterodox views on the topic. When traditional unlimited inerrantists use the phrase “intention of the author” they use it in contrast to those who wish to impose their own meaning on the text in contrast to discovering what the biblical author intended by it. So, what traditional unlimited inerrantists mean by “intention” is not purpose (why) but expressed intention in the text, that is, meaning. They were not asking the reader to look for some unexpressed intention behind, beneath, or beyond the text. Expressed intention refers to the meaning of the text. And it would be better to use the word meaning than the world intention. In this way the word intention cannot be understood as purpose (why), rather than meaning or expressed intention (what) which is found in the text. To put it simply, there is a meaner (author) who expresses his meaning in the text so that the reader can know what is meant by the text. If one is looking for this objectively expressed meaning (via historical-grammatical hermeneutics) it limits the meaning to the text and eliminates finding the meaning beyond the text in some other text (i.e., in some alien extra-biblical genre).

Mike Licona is a case in point. He redefines “error” to include genre that contains factual errors. He claims that “intentionally altering an account” is not an error but is allowed by the Greco-Roman genre into which he categorizes the Gospels, insisting that a CSBI view cannot account for all the data (MP3 recording of his ETS lecture 2013).