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Infinitely Interpreted?

Photo by: Natasha C Dunn

While thinking about the goal of Bible reading and study, I rediscovered a quote by George Gopen, an author and university professor known for his expertise in teaching others to write from the reader’s point of view.

About the meaning of words, he says, “Language theorists have long argued that every sentence can be infinitely interpreted.”

Gopen goes on to say, “I for one agree. Meaning depends on context…

GG: Take the simplest articulation we might deign to call a sentence—a single exclamatory word like “fire!” That sentence, if it be a sentence, means one thing if it is uttered in answer to the question, “Name the single greatest cause of damage to homes in Wake County in the first three months of this year; it means quite another if it is uttered with great energy in the middle of a crowded theater…

GG: Context controls meaning. Since there are an infinite number of possible contexts for any sentence, it must have an infinite number of possible meanings.” (end of quote by George D. Gopen, The Sense of Structure; Writing From The Reader’s Perspective.)

After reading what the professor had to say, I thought of another more familiar quote that, at first look, may seem to be making a very different point. According to the Apostle Peter’s second New Testament letter, “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies (2Peter 1:20-2:1).”

On first impression these two quotes might sound as if they are contradicting one another. But, from different perspectives, both are acknowledging what can happen to the meaning of words. Gopen is speaking in general terms when he says that any sentence can be interpreted in unlimited number of ways by putting those words in an unlimited number of new settings. Peter gives us a specific example by reminding us that false teachers can bring to Scripture a different meaning than the Spirit of God intended.

Seems to me that if it is possible to miss the Author’s intent of Scripture by bringing an unlimited (i.e. “infinite”) number of our own assumptions to any text of the Bible, we have all the more reason not only to express our need for the Holy Spirit when we read the Bible but also to use whatever insight we are given to:

(a) Consider the immediate context of any statement.

(b) Remembering that this was written to someone else, a long time ago, in circumstances much different than our own– for our insight and benefit.

(c) Keeping in mind that all Scripture has the collective purpose of leading us to Christ, and through him to love our neighbors as ourselves.

(d) While being ready to hear how others read the same text.

(e) Especially when the wider Body of Christ has different understandings of the necessary and possible implications of the text we are considering.

(f) With the result that we are both enlightened by our effort to find the Author’s intent, and humbled by anything that, in the process, we discover we don’t know.

Seems like this also shows the value of a blog conversation like this, where we interact with one another from different regions, churches, and personal experiences– and where you have a chance to let me know that I don’t have a clue about what it means to write from a reader’s point of view :-)….

PS Whoops. Here’s proof that my last line is more than a smile. From a comment below, I learned that I have not been clear enough about what George Gopen means about writing from a reader’s perspective. So here’s a clarification. It doesn’t mean telling a reader what they want to hear but rather learning to write clearly enough so that a reader has a better chance of not misunderstanding :-)…

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130 Responses to “Infinitely Interpreted?”

  1. poohpity says:

    Could that mean anything like, I hear what you have said about what you think I wrote but that is not at all what I intended in my writing.

  • yooperjack says:

    I write letters to the editor on all kinds of subjects. There is no way I could write from the readers point of veiw. I also found out that readers read into my letters what “they” want it to say rather what I am saying. It’s a real chalange for me to get an idea over in 400 words but I love it.