Is the Bible Clay in Our Hands?: The Importance of Authorial Intent

Recently, I began preaching through the book of Philippians.  What an awesome word from God to us!  For my first sermon, I focused in on v1:6, For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.  That verse is one of the most encouraging verses in all of Scripture!

As I was preparing, I wanted to illustrate how God molds us and makes us into a work of beauty in the image of Jesus Christ.  So, my mind immediately went to the potter with clay illustration that we often hear about.  I searched YouTube for a video of a potter working with clay and came up with this clip:

I was immediately struck by the video!  I loved the imagery, especially that the imagery was employed in the book of Jeremiah.  I loved the message of redemption and hope, that God could take our mess and make something perfect out of us.  My heart said YES when the woman said, “‘If you just turn yourself over to Me, I’ll remake you again like this potter’… All God wants us to do is turn the mess over to Him.  Just turn it over to Him so that He can put things back together because see, He is the potter.  He’s really good at that.”  That passage in Jeremiah, which I’ve read a few times in the past but was a bit fuzzy to me, must be an awesome passage of blessing and is perfect for my sermon, I thought. I hit the download button right away on my RealPlayer, ready to show the clip on Sunday morning to illustrate my message and to use that passage to show that God is forming us into something awesome.

Potter-and-Clay

Then I actually turned to the passage in Jeremiah and was immediately disappointed—not by the Word of God, but by the message of the video, which spoke from that passage.  The video captured the imagery of Jeremiah but not the message.  Check it out, and see if you agree:

Jeremiah 18:1-11,  1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD saying, 2 “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you.” 3 Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. 4 But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.

5 Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, 6 “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. 7 “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. 9 “Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; 10 if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. 11 “So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.”‘

A passage of blessing?  Hardly.  The feeling of the passage is one of woe and cursing instead of blessing.  The point was, “You think you are sovereign, Israel.  I’ll show you who’s sovereign.  I’ll mess you up like that clay vessel and remake you into whatever pleases Me.”

Now to be fair, what the woman said in the video is true.  God does want to remake us.  God does want us to give Him our messes so that He can put it back together.  However, we can’t get that from Jeremiah 18.

Needless to say, I didn’t use that video or passage to illustrate the point I was making  from Philippians 1:6, but it was a good reminder for me that I want to pass on to you.  I’m not just picking on the woman in the video.  Her example points to a larger temptation for we who teach the Word are often faced with.  If we are not careful, we’ll take the text and make it to mean whatever we want it to mean.  Preachers and teachers must always remember that the meaning of the text is tied to authorial intent.  We are not free to pour our own meaning and conclusions into the text.  We must pull them out of it.

Let me put it this way:  the Bible is not clay in our hands to shape it to say whatever we want it to say.  It’s already been formed by God and kiln-dried to finish so that it no longer conforms to our hands.  Our hands must conform to it.

So, the next time you approach any text,  the first question we must ask ourselves is:  what did God through this author intend by this?  Then and only then can we begin to rightly teach a text of the Bible.

~Ben Simpson  :  @JBenSimpson  :  JBenSimpson.com  :  West Main Baptist Church

Comments

  1. John Fariss says

    Before we can ask, “What did God intend,” I think we have to wrestle with the issues of “What did the human writer intend, or at least, what situation in his life was God addressing?” and “What did the original audience understand the text to mean?” For some passages, that may be lost in the sands of time, and nuances of it may be unclear, but should we not wrestle with it anyway?

    John

  2. says

    I am deeply suspicious of interpretations, be they designated Christ-centered or gospel-centered, that ignore authorial intent.

    Excellent post.

  3. dr. james willingham says

    I had to laugh, when I read your title, because, if I have learned anything in 56 years as a believer, 55 years as a licensed minister, and 51 years as an ordained minister, it is that our minds and hearts are clay in the hands of the biblical teachings. The Book, inspired, breathed out, by God, has a way of engaging and altering and transforming everything about us, internally and then externally. It is sort of like taking a hold of the electric fence that my grandfather had around the pasture for our livestock on a farm in Arkansas: You really feel a shock. Likewise with the teachings of the Scripture: They shock one intellectual, mentally, emotionally, and spiritual as well as in many other ways. I always laugh, when I hear of folks speaking of hyper Calvinists as not being evangelistic (and I know some are of that persuasion), but the truth is, rightly understood, they are the most evangelistic and missionary minded folks on earth.

  4. says

    As a historian, currently working on a degree from a secular university, I have to deal with this type of thing on a regular basis. It is good when historians strive to use primary source material to do their research. The problems arise when those historians view those sources with their 21st century vision. The idea, or concept that meaning/intent of words written 100, 200, 2000 years ago can change is absolutely ludicrous! The author of a text/source wrote what they did for a specific reason, to a specific group, at a specific time. “True” historians will do their best to view those sources in that context.

    I often use the example of someone writing an email/text/ect today to a friend. They are asking if they want to go out for dinner. Now, some how 500 years from now, that conversation survives. Would it be correct for the future historian to come to any other conclusion other than that conversation had to do with dinner? I have yet to have anyone argue yes to that type of question.

    So then we have the bible. Scripture is a bit interesting because God inspired the authors to write with a specific reason, to a specific group, at a specific time, BUT He also had us in the future in mind. How do we balance the two? In my opinion, we theologians/pastors/ministers/ect have to the same thing as historians. Study the context a text was written, and only THEN can we begin to see how we can apply it to our lives. Taking a verse out of its original context is to destroy the intended meaning that God ascribed to that verse.

    This is why prophecies are so hard to understand (and why a definitive eschatological theology will never exist). Often times prophecies have at least 2 sometimes 3 intended meanings. I think of Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones. We see this applying to the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian Captivity, applying to the spiritual rebirth resulting from the coming of Christ Jesus, and possibly even an application to end times! How can we possibly keep that all straight?!?!

    • Adam G. in NC says

      If the friend they are texting is a female, then the historian who only concludes that this is about a meal would be a negligent one.
      Just sayin’.

      • says

        You know I wasn’t thinking that way. I was thinking just two friends, and something like a “future historian” saying that the dinner talk was just a “metaphor” for geopolitical conversations, or something like that.

        BUT you are completely right, and I think that your point actually gets to what I was trying to say. We have to look at the context of the original author’s inert. Say it is a guy and girl chatting about having dinner. Is it romantic? Maybe they are brother and sister? Would being related preclude romantic relations? I could go on and on with questions that Historians need to ask when we deal with primary sources. These are similar questions that we need to ask when dealing with scripture. A 1st Century, Jewish/Greek/Roman culture is different than ours, a 10th Century BC Jewish culture is different than ours, we can’t make assumptions.

        Thanks Adam for pointing out my oversight and allowing me the ability to expound on my thoughts.

        • Adam G. in NC says

          Yeah, I knew you didn’t mean it like that. The idea that the author intends to express cannot change, however meanings of words DO change. Etymological fallacies can be in error both positively and negatively.

  5. says

    Treat the Bible as a cold case. Drop all preconceived ideas and set guidelines for study. Historical spiritual context. What was taught in the time of Jesus, Paul or Moses? What teaching was each redirecting the Pharisees /people from or to? Was Jesus paraphrasing a familiar sage? What did the plagues represent to Pharoah? How was Moses’ through Daniel’s Hebrew alphabet different from Ezra’s till now? Do we know why it changed and what scripture says about restoring a pure language and what does that mean? What is linguistically different, significant about how that passage was written, what is imbedded waiting to be found there? What languages were really commonly spoken in that time and if more than one how were they used? Has archeology found something new my professors were unaware of…or after my lexicon was written? Do we ask God questions about what He meant and allow Him to lead us in His Word to the answer? Do we believe He will journey with us to uncover what lies hidden under 2000 years of man’s ideas of what it means? Are we willing to forego Western thinking; because Moses, Jesus, Paul…didn’t think in abstract but concrete terms. What is concrete? Function vs asthetic. Concrete is ‘I do therefore I am’ rather than just thinking. Concrete means that the meaning of ‘kabod’ is liver …yes the body part…rather than just a concept of glory weight or esteem. Entailed in the meaning is the function of the liver…so we don’t know what glory of God is unless we know the function of the liver!? Correct! Are you willing to accept the consequences of truly teaching what He shows you His Word means? If not don’t start searching. ..either He won’t bother showing you or you will be doubleminded knowing Truth and teaching something else to avoid trouble. When you find something you and many others didn’t see before will you act with love and honor those who disagree with you or use knowledge as a bludgeon? The more questions God answers…the less you will think you know even when you think your brain and heart can hold no more…He has infinitely more. So many more questions I still need to ask…so little time…

  6. Dale Pugh says

    This was pounded into our heads in Hermeneutics 101. We should never stray from the lesson learned there.

  7. Wayne Hatfield says

    Thought your blog was a good lesson on what we read into the Bible if we aren’t focusing on the lesson God is trying to tell us in His Word.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  8. says

    1 Peter 1:10-12 KJV Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: 11 Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. 12 Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into.
    Just couldn’t help but throw a little Biblical curve ball at the subject of authorial intent. An apostle claims that the authors of Old Testament Messianic prophecy did not even know to whom they were writing, Ludicrous?
    Thank you Jesus for the foolish things of God that confound the “wise.” Especially thankful for the cross of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 1:23-28

  9. Jim G. says

    This is a very good article, Ben, and it scratches the surface of the source of all our disagreements as Southern Baptists.

    We all believe the Bible to be the Word of God. We disagree (at times) on how to interpret it. And I believe it is our assumptions on interpretation that trip us up most of the time.

    For example, you wrote, “Let me put it this way: the Bible is not clay in our hands to shape it to say whatever we want it to say. It’s already been formed by God and kiln-dried to finish so that it no longer conforms to our hands. Our hands must conform to it.”

    I agree with that quote about 95%. I would agree 100% if I knew that I might not be able to behold the finished kiln-dried product all of the time. What I mean to say is that what God fully intends in a text of Scripture might not always be clear or even available to us. Divine-authorial-intent (to say nothing of human-authorial-intent) is not always easily discerned.

    Hermeneutics becomes more difficult for us when we look at how inspired NT authors used the OT. They were not always proponents of our recently-invented grammatical-historical method of interpretation. Both Matthew and Luke took Is 7:14 to be the prophecy of the virgin birth (and I agree with them), but neither Isaiah nor Ahaz (the original audience) had a clue of that meaning, as far as we know. Paul takes Is 54 and interprets it in quite an opposite manner as a Jew would then or now – allegorizing the women into the two covenants and identifying the bearing wife to be in bondage as the Jerusalem “which now is.”

    Now, does Paul have the correct interpretation of Is 54, or do the Jews have it? I’ll side with Paul, but I must say that if we use our current evangelical Protestant hermeneutical methods (without Galatians 4), we would likely arrive at the Jewish interpretation rather than Paul’s. It is God’s book, but he reserves the right by his Spirit to interpret the fullness of his Word when he is ready. That’s the part we cannot control.

    Jim G.

  10. dr. james willingham says

    How about considering the fact that the Bible is inspired by the Omniscient God, and that it reflects a wisdom commensurate with such a source? The Bible is a book of ideas, and it is questionable whether we understand just how concepts, ideas, truths, understandings, etc., are intended to effect human nature and behavior. Just consider how the Book uses opposites like therapeutic paradoxes and shock therapy to accomplish its purposes. I shall never forget the shock of realizing that Jonah 3:4 was never intended to be literally fulfilled as the preacher of that prophecy certainly intended. Quite the contrary, even he did not expect it to be fulfilled as he indicates in chapter 4, and he was quite upset about it. Imagine a preacher who wanted to see you destroyed being sent with a message to that effect to you. He does not say, “Now, if you repent and turn and be good, God will forgive and bless you.” Nope! He says, “Forty days and that is all she wrote.”(pardon the country translation). And that is the way he wants it. But the prophet knows that God has other plans, that he would use that message to that end. Our Lord does the same thing in Lk.4:16-31 with his own fellow citizens of Nazareth and again with the woman of Canaan in Mt.15:21-28. Imagine telling someone who is not a Jew, “I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Particular redemption, limited atonement, as shock therapy, as a therapeutic paradox? And the He goes even further: He raises the issue of total depravity, inability, and reprobation, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”(Mt.15:26).

    Such statements and practices raise serious questions about the depth of the Scripture, namely, that the Bible seems to have a deeper perspective on man’s fallen condition and that he or she needs to be really confronted with the truth in a way that will lead to real thinking and an appropriate response. In this case, it is the response of an argument. Yes, and a very good one too. The woman argues with the Son of God, using His own words. First, she agrees with Him, “Truth, Lord.” In other words, when He expresses her depravity, inability, and reprobation (and if a dog that returns to its own vomit is not a symbol of depravity, inability, and reprobation, pray tell what is?). Think of it. She agrees. She says He speaks the truth about her condition. She recognizes it, and then she turns it into an appeal: “Yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Actually, I think she is paying our Lord the highest honor here, saying that even a crumb of His mercy and grace will more than meet her needs without in the least taking from the children. After all, what does this say about the power, etc., of God’s mercy and grace: a crumb will more than meet her needs. Could a single drop of His mercy and grace be the amount needed to Awakening the whole earth, a drop that would be more plenteous than the flood of Noah that covered the whole earth to the height of 15 cubits over the high hills and the mountains (Gen.7:19,20)?

    Think upon it, brethren. And remember God calls us to a service that is logical (the term in the Greek is the term for logic), rational, and reasonable. The folks who render it spiritual are only right as long as one realizes that the rational/logical is the route to spiritual as far as God is concerned.(cf. Roms.12:1).

  11. K Gray says

    Today I heard a sermon that was based on a secular book. I waited for the preacher to bring it around. What happened instead was the preacher buttressed the article’s 5 points with verses from around the Bible, and told us this is how to live life (a “balanced” life). The sermon was the article, with a Christian spin.

  12. Kevin Peacock says

    A “sermon” without a text is actually not a “sermon” but rather a “religious speech.”

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