My Shakespeare professor scowled as I told him what the passage he’d set before our class meant to me personally. He found my comment entirely too subjective, and therefore not acceptable in the context of scholarly discussion. I tried to appeal to a 1974 mindset, but he wouldn’t consider such a perspective. “What matters is not what what the passage says to you,” he explained, “but what Shakespeare intended when he wrote the play.”
Thankfully, that incident occurred during my freshman year of college, preparing me well for my next three years of majoring in English Literature. Although my professor’s attitude clashed with the free-thinking approach to literature that my high school teachers had taken, he taught me an indispensable lesson in literary criticism. A work must be understood, first and foremost, on the basis of its author’s intent.
But how does a 20-year-old in 1974 discern the intentions of a 16th Century playwright? My professor answered that question by pointing me to both historical context and (more importantly) to the context of the play itself. Additionally, it helped to study how people used certain words in 16th Century England, as well as knowing some biographical information about The Bard himself. Finally, familiarity with literary history offered insight.
Understanding Shakespeare’s intent, in other words, took work. But it could be done. And I had to do the same work in studying Homer, Virgil, Malory, Chaucer, Donne, Byron, Browning, Frost and all the writers in between. In art history, I had to do the same with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Carravargio.
A poem or painting is less about “what it says to me,” and more about what the author or artist intends. We may not be comfortable with the message (indeed, I don’t care for most of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly his comedies), but we owe them the respect of interpreting their works on their terms rather than our own.
How much more do we owe the Lord respect in interpreting His Word?
19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. ~~2 Peter 1:19-21 (ESV)
All too often, professing Christians read the Bible with the expectation that they can arrive at a personal, subjective interpretation. Just as I showed disrespect to Shakespeare by presuming that I could make his plays and sonnets say whatever I imagined them to say, so we show disrespect to the Holy Spirit by conforming His Word to our personal experiences and biases.
Certainly, the Spirit uses Scripture to address specific situations and attitudes in our lives (Hebrews 4:12), so I don’t mean to imply that He never speaks to us personally through it. But in order to make a correct application, we must first understand the verse or passage in its proper context. We need to look at the “literary” context, both in terms of how the verse fits into the chapter and book as well as in terms of when and why they Holy Spirit called the prophet or apostle to write the book. Only after you establish the Lord’s original intent can you make a proper personal application.
We serve a loving God Who desires to communicate with us! What a joy to open His Word with the assurance that He uses it to reveal Himself to us. Through Scripture, we see His character, His priorities, His passions and His dealings with men and women. As we respect Him by understanding His Word as He meant it, He brings us into a deep and personal relationship with Him.