Beale: The Importance of ‘Extended Meaning’ Part 1 of 4

“Reflection on the nature of how people, especially authors, communicate will help us better perceive the nature of how biblical authors communicate and how God communicates through them. This, of course, will have important bearing on how the temple is to be understood throughout various segments of biblical revelation.

The act of ‘literal’ communication, whether of biblical writers or any human author, involves three aspects: (1) the content of the utterance; (2) the manner in which the utterance is made; (3) the intended effect of the utterance. It is this second step, the various ways God communicates content through human authors, that is the focus in this section. The ways Scripture conveys content is through such literary forms as poetry, parable, historical narrative, visionary apocalyptic, praise, mocking, satire, irony, prophecy, wisdom sayings, and so on. Some literary forms may only be discerned not from sentences or paragraphs but from considering the completed literary work as a whole. In our case, some of the divine forms of communication can only be discerned from considering the completed canon as a whole (K. Vanhoozer, From ‘Speech Acts to Scripture Acts,’ in Bartholomew et al. (eds.), After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation, 2001, 34–37). One such form would be typology (on which see the example of John 19 below).

The biblical canon has similarities with other literary works which ‘can grow in meaning’ as a result of original authors sensing a fuller, potential meaning than they can express. This means that sometimes authors consciously intend that their literary acts, their ‘literal sense’, be open-ended or indeterminate, and other times such indeterminateness is unconscious or implied. This may be called ‘transhistorical intentions’ or ‘open-ended authorial intentions’, whereby an intended original meaning may go beyond the original content spoken (E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 1967, 125; and ‘Meaning and Significance Reinterpreted’, in Critical Enquiry 11, 1984, 202-244).

Authors may wish to include a potential in what they say to extend meaning into the indefinite future by espousing principles intended for an indefinite number of applications. Or, alternatively, authors may be aware that their original meaning has the potential to be recontextualized by subsequent interpreters who ascertain creative applications of the meaning to new contexts. In such cases a provision is made for subsequent readers to interpret in a way that ‘extends meaning’. Thus an original meaning is so designed to tolerate some revision in cognitive content and yet not be essentially altered.

E. D. Hirsch helpfully distinguishes between what he calls ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’, which has relevance for the present discussion. The explanation of original, intentional, verbal meaning is distinct from the significance of that meaning. We can compare an author’s original, unchanging meaning to an apple in its original context of an apple tree. When someone removes the apple and puts it into another setting (say, in a basket of various fruits in a dining room for decorative purposes), the apple does not lose its original identity as an apple, the fruit of a particular kind of tree, but the apple must now be understood, not in and of itself but in relation to the new context in which it has been placed.*

Hirsch calls this new contextual relationship ‘significance’. The new context does not annihilate the original identity of the apple, but now the apple must be understood in its relation to its new setting. It is the same with meaning and its significance: ‘ “Meaning” refers to the whole verbal meaning of a text, and “significance” to textual meaning in relation to a larger context’ beyond itself (i. e., a context of ‘another mind, another era, a wider subject matter, an alien system of values’, etc. (E. D. Hirsch, Aims of Interpretation, 1976, 2-3). What Hirsch calls ‘significance’ may be divided into a concept of extended meaning or merely an application of an original unextended meaning (e.g., with respect to the latter, how does the message of a particular ancient biblical text apply to the lives of people living in the twentieth century?). Our focus here is on ‘significance’ as the organic extension of meaning (Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 1967, 49-50).

*Note: A more radical illustration could be taking the apple from the tree, cutting it up and making it part of a fruit salad, or making it into apple sauce or part of some other kind of sauce. Even in these ‘new contexts’ something is identifiable with the apple in its original setting, whether by sight or taste. An illustration we would disagree with is the taking of part of the apple and making it into something that can no longer be identified with anything in the original apple.”

-G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, 2004, 376–378

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