Overall message and meaning

Would you agree to this statement? Your answer will reveal much about your approach to life.

No principle of literary study is more important than that of grasping the overall message of a literary piece as a single work. Though the idea of the whole must arise from an encounter with parts, the entire work controls, connects, and unifies one’s understanding of the parts.

This from James R. Slaughter’s article, “The Importance of Literary Argument for Understanding 1 Peter,” p. 73 (pdf file).

wordsurfacep.jpgI vote yes, but it would be a fascinating thing to see how many people today would worry with such a concern as the overall message of a book of the Bible or of even the Bible itself. I’d imagine that many, if not most, people have unconsciously bought into the reader-centered approach of making from the reading whatever meaning one desires.

The quote above stands squarely in the historical-critical approach to biblical studies. There is a message in each ancient document, and that message, through analysis and reading, may be discerned and perceived by the reader.

Perhaps this is why our world is so neurotic: we read our own meaning in what others say (be they beside us or writing from centuries ago) and engage in the Great Disconnect. Paradoxical, ironic, is it not, that the age in which people are most connected to others is that in which they are most distant, because they don’t get the meaning in other people’s messages.

We make of it what we will, and inevitably get it wrong.

To get it right, discern the author’s intention, his message, his theme, his emphases. Though actual meaning is formed in the mind of the listener or reader, the intention of meaning is invested in the message. In uninspired people, that meaning must often be reshaped, recast, remolded, restated, repackaged. (But even an inspired writer had to deal with his meaning not being understood — or perhaps twisted — at times; see 1 Corinthians 5:9-10.) But we can be assured that the inspired writer got it right the first time around.

J. Randal Matheny

Be pithy.

3 thoughts on “Overall message and meaning

  1. Randal,
    One of the most difficult tasks of life is to listen actively. This is a learned skill and demands discipline and concentration. There are so many times in life we must void our filters so that we can hear others properly. This skill affects how we relate to God and to everyone around us. Compassionate people learn to listen with their heart and with their whole being.

    I urge my students to read whole books at one sitting, because it it is helpful to get the bigger picture. Many folks misunderstand Scripture because they fail to read the relevant passages within a book that pertain to the topic at hand.

    We often read the way we listen, interrupting and adding our own thoughts. Everyone today wants to speak, and not many want to listen. No wonder we misunderstand; we’re too busy telling our own story to listen to anyone else, and sadly even to our Lord God.

    Good hermeneutics majors in listening and perceiving.


  2. Randal,

    It is a fascinating thought: God will judge us on what HE meant in Scripture. Men will face judgment based on what THEY meant. We know who will win this struggle. 🙂

  3. Randal,

    I totally agree with what Bro. Mansel stated in his comments.

    To properly understand any book (including God’s Book), we must first strive to understand the INTENT of the author – what message he or she wants to convey to his or her readers.

    Effective communication does not happen unless the hearer or reader understands the intent of the speaker or author.

    God’s main intent is “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).


What do you think?