The Problem Post-Moderns Have with Meaning and How a Preacher Can Speak to That Problem


Written at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando), 2002-2004.

Post-moderns say two things about texts. First, they say that texts do not have meaning in themselves. Rather, the meaning of a text “emerges only as the interpreter enters into dialogue with the text.” Therefore, a text “has as many meanings as it has readers…” Similarly, reality is “read” differently by each person who experiences it. There is “no one meaning of the world, no transcendent center to reality as a whole.” Therefore, according to post-modernists, for a person such as a pastor to insist that a text has one meaning for every person is ridiculous. For a person to insist that understanding what the author meant is important is preposterous. For a person to insist that there is one transcendent reality is ludicrous. Second, post-modernists say that texts are used to manipulate.

A preacher can respond in three ways. First, he can counter the post-modernists’ claim that texts do not have an intended meaning by asking one of its authors if the words the author wrote have an intended meaning. In so doing, the pastor can show that their claim is absurd. If the author did not intend to convey a given meaning with the words he wrote, he would be wasting his time and energy in writing at all. All words have a meaning intended by their author unless they are intended to be gibberish, to have no meaning.

Second, the preacher can respond by saying that the words of Scripture are symbols that God uses to communicate with man through human vessels. God has condescended to use human language in order for us to hear and understand the gospel message. And if God is the author, then he intends to convey a particular message, the message of the gospel centered in Christ, first, to the original audience, and second to all succeeding generations. There is some disagreement among theologians whether each Scripture text has only one meaning or whether a particular text can have more than one meaning. In either case, God, through human authors, intended however many meanings to each text. Therefore, it is up to the readers to determine what meaning(s) God intended for a particular text rather than assigning the readers’ own meanings to the text.

We can agree with the post-modern rejection of the Enlightenment model of a universal truth based on reason alone, but we reject their view that there is no meta-narrative at all. We proclaim that the many local narratives of the various human communities all fit together into the grand narrative, “the story of God’s action in history for the salvation of fallen humankind and the completion of God’s intentions for creation.” We can trust God’s Word to do its work in the hearts of post-modernists as we faithfully preach the gospel to them because it penetrates the heart.

Third, the preacher can respond by saying that texts are not meant to manipulate but to motivate. Manipulation is an attempt to convince someone to do something that benefits the manipulator(s). Motivation is an attempt to convince someone to do something that benefits the church and the kingdom of God. When a preacher speaks in a motivational manner, he is attempting to convince someone to do something that benefits “us” not himself.

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