Nov 26, 2014

Vern Poythress' Proposal Related to the Human Authors of Scripture

Vern Poythress makes a provocative and interesting suggestion regarding the human authors of Scripture in an article that appears in the most recent Journal of the Evangelical Society. Here are the first four paragraphs introducing the article.

How important is it for biblical interpreters to focus on the human author and his intention? For many books of the Bible, we know little or nothing about the human author, except what we might tentatively infer from the text itself. We who are inerrantists say that we believe that Scripture has a divine author, and that we have come to know him. What gains are there in focusing on the human author whom we do not know?

People might list several benefits: (1) focus on the historical and social environment, as a context for the text; (2) reckoning with human capacity, the characteristics of human linguistic communication, and the limitations of human understanding; (3) reckoning on limited canon available at the time; (4) reckoning on the structural coherence of a single biblical book, written by a single human author.

All of these are indeed valuable benefits. But a robust conception of divine authorship and divine purpose leads to exactly the same benefits. In addition, focusing on the divine author leads to fewer interpretive problems, because problems are generated by what we do not know about an author.

We will use Zeph 1:2–3 to illustrate the difficulties. In the process, it may seem at times as if we are multiplying the uncertainties about human intentionality. But I believe we can have confidence on the other side of the uncertainties."
Poythress goes on to conclude the following. “My concluding advice with respect to the focus on an isolated human author is that we give it up. Period. There is no gain to it, and much loss. We who are scholars work on the intentions of human authors as if this focus will give us answers. But we are living an illusion. Instead, let us seek God. If we do so, we will get more spiritual health, because we are encountering God seriously. We will get more accuracy, because we can settle many interpretive questions concerning authorial intention. We will get more candor, because we can give up concealing from ourselves that in most cases we do not know anything about the human author except what we infer from the text, and that many such inferences are questionable.”

My take

Poythress raises interpretive problems related to the relatively scant information regarding many, if not most, of the human authors of Scripture. And it is probably true that many interpreters pay little if any attention to the divine Author. But I am not sure that Poythress’ proposal is the way forward. My concerns are threefold. First, the attribution authorship, as in Zephaniah, is part of the inspired text. Simply put, God apparently wanted us to know that Zephaniah was the author. For me, that suggests that we should strive to understand how and why the authorial attribution might be important. If jots and tittles are important surely the name of a prophet might be as well. Second, while focusing on the divine Author is commendable, I wonder whether we can assume to know His intentions any more than we know the human author’s. Or in other words, the same ambiguities that dog the human author might also apply to the divine Author as well. Third, I get the feeling that many of the issues raised by Poythress are not so much related to ignorance concerning the human author but of how prophecy should be interpreted and how it functions in general.

In sum, I found the article to be thought-provoking but remain unpersuaded. If you have read the article, please feel free to leave you feedback in the comments section.

Vern Poythress, “Dispensing with Merely Human Meaning: Gains and Losses from Focusing on the Human Author, Illustrated by Zephaniah 1:2–3,” JETS 57 (2014): 481, 499.

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