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Part 3: Who Are God’s Audiences?
Recap to This Point:
What Is Polyfunctional Old Testament Text? (see First Article)
A polyfunctional Old Testament text is any passage that functions in more than one context. Context includes audience, time frame, and referents. To be polyfunctional, a text need have multiples of only one of those items. For example, there may be two distinct audiences for a text in the same or different time frame, or there may be two referents for the same text. Similar to scientists’ new understanding of how cells use polyfunctional nucleotides within DNA strands, a polyfunctional biblical text must broaden our biblical understanding away from strict single purpose, single audience, single meaning kinds of interpretation. The same God who created the language of polyfunctional DNA is the same God who wrote Old Testament Scripture. God is the living Word. He designed Scripture with his own audiences, time frames, and referents in mind. Jesus the Son of God, one of the triune God, had to correct even his disciples for their lack of biblical understanding (see especially Luke 24). This author wants to be one of their number.
The Old Testament and Polyfunctional Texts
I. Introduction (Part 1)
II. Authorship of Scripture (see Part 2 at this link)
New Material Begins Here:
III. Who Are God’s Audiences? (Who are his intended readers?): Some Pertinent Questions
God alone is the ultimate author of Scripture. That is a given; that is the starting point. Beginning with God as author, we can ask questions about his audience.
- Does God write for one audience or more than one?
- Is God’s original audience his main audience? By “original audience” is meant the audience who initially received, whether orally or in writing, the content of Old Testament Scripture.
- Is the human author to be considered an audience?
- Does it matter to the full functioning of the text if the human author did or did not understand in full detail all the various functions his text might at any time perform?
For example, does it matter that the human authors did not know in detail of whom and of what time they were prophesying when they predicted a future salvation and grace to be revealed? (See 1Peter 1:10-12 and “Example 4” of prior post, link to Part 2 above.)
As another example, does it matter to the full functioning of any particular Davidic psalm whether or not David knew he was being the mouthpiece of another? (Peter tells us that in the case of Psalm 16:8-11, David was a prophet who did foresee that he was speaking about his descendant in the flesh, namely Christ, Acts 2:30-31).
- Who are some possible audiences?
We can think of the audiences of prophecies given before the exile which were read, interpreted, and acted upon after the exile. The exile prophecies are clear examples of text written for an original audience and a God-intended later audience. For example, Daniel speaks while in exile of prophecies proclaimed to a different audience before the exile, Daniel 9:2– “In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years (1).” A reasonable conclusion is that God intended to write to two different audiences at two different times and places. The identical prophecies would function differently for each audience. For the original audience, the prophecies functioned as warnings, a call to national repentance, and signals of a future hope. History shows that many in this original audience did not believe that Jeremiah spoke the Word of God. Or, believing, they simply chose to rebel. For the later audience, Daniel, the prophecies functioned as truth and a call to prayer. Within that prayer, Daniel repented for the whole nation (Daniel 9). God began to fulfill the prophecies spoken to both audiences shortly after Daniel’s prayer, when Cyrus issued his famous decree for the exiles to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the house of God (Ezra 1:1-3).
As another example, later in the text of Daniel, Daniel himself prophesies and introduces yet another audience for a different time and a different place.
Daniel 12:8 I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” 9 He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. (2)
Clearly, since Daniel openly states, “I did not understand,” the identical text functions for him as the original audience differently than it will function for the future audience who will read it in the context of its fulfillment. Daniel’s contemporaneous listeners are yet a third audience for the identical set of words, and their perceptions are not recorded.
To summarize the above, some examples of multiple audiences would include:
1) the human authors of Old Testament Scripture, often prophets or historians
2) the original audiences to whom the human authors spoke or wrote
3) a later biblical author commenting upon prior biblical passages (these commentaries are common in both testaments)
4) New Testament audiences
5) the eschatological, or end times, audiences.
ARGUMENT: God wrote the Bible as polyfunctional text intended to serve different functions for different audiences in different times and places. We gave examples of specific audiences from the books of Acts, Psalms, and Daniel. Some audiences were original, some, such as Daniel, were intermediate, and some are still future, e.g., the eschatological audiences who will live when history arrives at its final end. Nor do we want to overlook the fact that believers and nonbelievers comprise distinctly different audiences for whom biblical texts convey different meanings and functions.
As we consider the ins and outs of prophetic speech in the Old Testament, to this author at least, it seems far simpler to think in terms of polyfunctional text intended by God to effect different outcomes for different audiences of different times and places (the function of a text, rather than the meaning of a text), than to try to solve unanswerable puzzles phrased in terms such as, “single meaning,” “multiple meanings,” “single meaning and single referent,” “single meaning and multiple referents,” sensus plenior,” “typology,” “allegory,” “pesher,” “midrash,” and so forth.
To comprehend that Old Testament text performs functions on more than one contextual pathway, the Christian reader must simply perceive her own pathway, the pathway intended specifically for her by God. Any given reader of Scripture is herself a context and audience of one, different than the “original audience” in a “historical-grammatical” setting. Who but God has authority to claim that a meaning perceived by someone is invalid, because insufficient attention was given to a projected “original audience” and a projected “historical-grammatical” setting? If such were the case, then even Jesus’s own interpretation that Moses wrote about him would be subject to doubt (John 5:39).
All this is not to suggest that a consideration of original audiences in their own historical-grammatical Old testament contexts cannot produce valuable understandings. However, these may be largely irrelevant to the context God provides as his Spirit joins readers in their reading of Scripture. Nor need they be the Spirit’s own starting point–or, he may choose to ignore the original context completely. It is my Christian belief that the Holy Spirit is capable of interpreting Scripture properly within the heart of each and every believer according to his (God’s) own purposeful design and intention. For each and every believer God created in the very words of Scripture a function that varies according to the specific conditions and needs of that believer’s heart at various times in her life. One and the same Scripture may perform different functions within a reader at different times in the reader’s life. This would be an example of polyfunctional text. God as writer is big enough to accomplish this.
To state the proposition differently, devotional readings can be true and valuable within the context of a believer’s own heart, whether or not they agree with academic interpretations. This is not to say that the way a text functions in one believer’s heart will provide a profitable function in another believer’s heart. The proposition is that God wrote polyfunctional text. The biological world provides an analogy in polyfunctional components of DNA. Within a strand of DNA, a polyfunctional nucleotide can participate in a network that conveys a command to a particular cellular component, and the very same nucleotide can participate in a second (or third or fourth or fifth) non-related network that conveys a different command to a different part of the same cell. Polyfunctional Scripture functions similarly.
There are safeguards against extreme error. Just as a single nucleotide exists and functions within an entire strand of DNA, each individual believer exists and functions within the universal body of Christ, which is the church. Within the cell, a mutation to a nucleotide may benefit one of its communication pathways, yet prove to be deleterious to others and to the whole. All believers together, as a unified whole, provide the corrective for individual errors of interpretation, that is, a veering off from God’s intended textual purposes in Christ.
CONCLUSION: To state my thought simply, “Christian, read your Bible in faith, trusting in God, and he will do the rest. He designed his holy Word to function this way. You don’t need a scholar to interpret his word for you.” (see 1 John 2:27)
Next Time: Part 4–Might Jesus Have Been an Audience?
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).