The Unitary Authorship of Scripture

From Dispensational Publishing House; used by permission. Read the series so far.

Dispensationalism & the Literal Interpretation of the Bible, Part 5

There are four essential principles that must be considered in order to understand literal interpretation. We looked at the first two, the univocal nature of language and the jurisdiction of authorial intent, in the last installment in this series. This time we will study the third element and then introduce the fourth and final one.

The Unitary Authorship of Scripture

It is commonly asserted that the Bible has a “dual authorship” and from a certain perspective this may have some truth. The Bible does have human authors and a Divine Author. But the dichotomy of the usual understanding of “dual authorship” must be challenged. It is better to understand Scripture as having a unitary (rather than a binary, Divine-human) authorship, which resulted in a unitary Bible with a Divine and a human aspect. This is comparable to the Divine and human natures in the single person of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. The difference between the Biblical word and the Word made flesh is that the Bible is not an extension of the Divine essence. Even as we must not divide the person of the God-man, we must not dichotomize the Biblical authorship. Zuck appears to do exactly this by saying, “In interpreting the Bible we seek to understand what the Bible says, not the human author’s intended meaning.”1

The confluence of the Divine and human participants in the authorship of Scripture is the essence of the doctrine of Biblical inspiration. Inspiration is the “supernatural influence exerted on the sacred writers by the Spirit of God, by virtue of which their writings are given Divine trustworthiness.”2 The human authors and the Divine Author were in an organic relationship in the production of an inerrant Bible. In a sense, inspiration is an act that encompasses a process and a result. Inspiration proper, however, belongs to the writings and not the writers (2 Tim. 3:16, “All graphe [Scripture, script, writing] is theopneustos“), although the writers are obviously involved and cannot be excluded from the picture.

The interpretive value of the unitary Divine-human authorship of Scripture via inspiration is that it guarantees an identity between God and the human author. What God said, the human author said; what the human author wrote, God wrote. More particularly for hermeneutics or literal interpretation, there is an identity of meaning because of the miracle of inspiration. What the human author meant is what God meant. It can be argued that this is a one-for-one identity of meaning; nothing more and nothing less. See 1 Corinthians 2:13: “Which [revelatory] things we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

This establishes a most important point in literal interpretation. This identity of meaning prevents one from saying that the human author meant one thing but God meant another, or that God may have meant “more but never less” than the human author. The unitary authorship produced a single truth intention in every passage of Scripture, with meaning coextensive to the Divine and human participants in authorship.

The Textually-Based Locus of Meaning

Thus far we have seen that the Biblical languages (and all human languages) convey univocal meaning, that this meaning is based on authorial intent, and that the unitary authorship of Scripture by means of inspiration guarantees an identity of meaning between the human authors and God. This all leads to a fourth ingredient of literal interpretation—meaning must be textually based.

The authorial Divine-human truth intention of Scripture must be in the words of the passage. There is only one correct interpretation or meaning of a passage and that is the one that Biblical authorship intended. And the only building blocks of that intent are the words left to us. (The best resource for understanding that meaning is a lexicon.) Words cannot be made to carry some hidden freight of meaning that is not in the actual text of a passage as defined by the previous points. There cannot be two or more different meanings to the same words in a text.

It must be recognized of course that the words of a passage may carry implications beyond what are discernible in the text itself. Implications, however, are actually supplemental and are not to be construed as different meanings to the same words. Thus it is true that the Divine Author knows more implications of the Word of God than the human authors. Indeed, He knows all such implications. Human beings are not even aware of all the implications of their own speech much less those of the Word of God. However, all implications must be consistent with the textually-based truth intention of an author. They must reproduce in some verbally/grammatically identifiable way the author’s original text intention or idea.

For example, statements of Christ’s eternity legitimately imply His preexistence. But the church of the present age, it would seem, cannot even be an implied fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy given to the nation Israel because it would not be textually based. Such a meaning/fulfillment could hardly be located in the Old Testament text. Nor would it really qualify as a legitimate implication of the Old Testament since its verbal/grammatical identification with the Old Testament text intention is both tenuous and unclear, if not totally absent.

(Part 6 will address the location of Scripture’s meaning.)


1 Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1991), p. 64.

2 B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), p. 131.

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ScottS's picture

Dr. McCune, I'm in an overall agreement with your statements here. But I do think that an area where you and I differ, or at least differ in terminology, is in the matter of "Unitary Authorship" vs. "Dual Authorship." I am actually fine with your term of Unitary Authorship, but it is the practical outworking and connotations that I am not sure I agree with. That is, you are against the idea that "God may have meant 'more but never less'" because of this unitary nature. But I cannot reconcile that to my understanding of God and His Word. Let me explain, and again, maybe we are using terms slightly differently.

You (rightfully) state:

Thus it is true that the Divine Author knows more implications of the Word of God than the human authors. Indeed, He knows all such implications. Human beings are not even aware of all the implications of their own speech much less those of the Word of God.

But where your explanation does not seem to quite hold true for me is in two areas:

  1. Referent Identification. When God says to the serpent "He shall bruise your head," where the "he" is a 3rd person singular reference back to "her seed" (Gen 3:15), the seed of the woman, God has in His mind (authorial intent, which you correctly note above "meaning is based on") a specific referent to what man, which one of her seed, is going to do this; which later Scripture reveals to be Jesus Christ. So while both God and human author mean one of "her seed" will do this, God also (in my use of terminology) means Jesus Christ here (something the human author is not intending), even though He has not yet fully revealed yet what specific referent He is referring to. It is more than just implication. Not yet revealing a referent does not imply the author has no specific referent in mind to which he refers in making a statement.
  2. Completed Communication. This is related to #1. A human author that writes a book has intentions for that work as a whole, and language being linear, a reader is enlightened to the author's intentions as those are revealed further in the book. God is no less than man in doing this. Scripture in toto is God's book, so He has intentions for things expressed in Genesis (or any one of the individual books of Scripture) that will relate to things not to be revealed until later, even not until the New Testament. Those intentions do not preclude Him also having immediate intentions within the specific writing in question, but it does preclude the human authors from having those same long-term intentions for the text, as the human author only has the immediate intentions in mind. So the authorial intent is not 1-to-1 between divine and human authors; God has a purpose for the text beyond what the human author does, for God has in mind not only that the text is going to the immediate recipients, but also to later recipients who will have more of (and eventually completed form of) God's inspired written work that He is Authoring through many human authors.

So to me, authorial intent is distinct between human and divine author, with the divine intent being nothing less than the human intent, but possibly more than. But if intent is different, than the meaning can be different—but not wholly different (not changed), just further specified/clarified. Again, to me this is beyond mere implications. So God can mean a more specific referent than the human author, but not a completely different referent; God can plan to use a specific statement of an early Scripture authored by one human author for a further purpose in a later Scripture authored by a different human author which is beyond what the first human author planned, but not in a way that destroys that first human author's meaning.

In these cases, it seems clear to me that God must be allowed to possibly mean "'more but never less'" than the human authors, assuming God reveals later in His inspired work of Scripture what that intent was by making the associations to earlier referents and statements revealed. This is part of progressive revelation.

Those are my thoughts. To me, these concepts are more than implications God knows, but are in fact purposes/intents to the words of Scripture beyond the original human author's grasp, but yet still encompassing those same intentions the human author would have had.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Rolland McCune's picture


Thank you for your thoughtful reply, and I think I understand your intent.  The problem as I see it is the relationship between the divine and human intents, which biblically and theologically, are infinitely separated by the ultimate incomprehensibility of God and the finite capacities of human minds. I refer to the uncrossable line of the Creator-creature distinction. It seems you understand that God's knowledge is somehow equal to His intent, especially when He makes promises, prophecies, commands, etc., and it is concluded that He could mean more but never less than what the human author intended and wrote. Using Genesis 3:15 there are two ultimate intents here and thus two referents: one intended for Eve and the other for God. If it were all that simple, I could agree heartily.

However, I don't understand how God can pack all He knows, and thus intends, into His address to the serpent here. What did God know at the time? He assuredly knew that Jesus Christ would fulfill His words, but He also knew, planned, and self-consciously supervised every item and exchange of energy for the fulfillment of His words.  Does that not make every person and event between Eve and Jesus also His intents and referents? And how many fulfillments of the promise does all this entail? I don't grasp how human language can bear all this weight. Further, all that God foresees, knows and intends, including all the finite contingencies, possibilities and relationships therein, regarding any datum of His universe will never be known by His creatures. He reveals only what He intends and when He intends it. But how much of His infinite knowledge is kept to Himself after that?

Authorial intent, in my mind, means simply what the authorship of Scripture intended to convey by the words that are left to us. What everything God, Eve, Adam, the serpent or Moses knew or were thinking at the moment of hearing or writing is essentially irrelevant; it is what God intended for them, and all who hear or read the record, to know; no more and no less.

I hope I'm not too abstract in my reasoning here. Thanks again for interacting. We probably are not too far apart in thinking; light years closer than many would be.




Rolland McCune

ScottS's picture

I agree "we probably are not too far apart in thinking." Let me clarify, though. Gen 3:15 is a statement about "who" (he; her seed) and what this "who" does. And I agree that the language does not need to "bear all this weight" of God packing "all He knows" into the statement with respect to "meaning." But it does have to contain a meaning behind it of the identity of the "who." That is, God cannot make a statement without knowing what He knows, so there can be no mystery in His mind behind the identity, unlike Moses, who may well have himself only known the vague description "her seed" as a means of reference. 

Permit a finite example. If I say to you "my sister is traveling right now," I have a specific referent in mind for "my sister." I have not revealed (at this time) anything more to help you identify her other than something she is doing right now, but my intent is to refer to a specific individual in that statement, I have just chosen to keep from you the specific identity of her. Now if I ask you to convey that message to your wife and you do so, your message is the same, but your knowledge and intent is not directly aligned to mine (it is partly so, we both would then want to convey that message as the words are stated) because you are yet in the dark as to who "my sister" identifies. But it is my prerogative to later make known that identity (to either you, or in some way directly to your wife). I do not see an issue with God operating the same way through the inspiration of His word via the human authors. The language is still limited: you mean "my [Scott's] sister" (even though you would not know who that exactly is) and I meant "my sister," but I do know who that is and can choose to later clarify, and may even have an intent of later clarifying that you are unaware of.

So my point is that inspiration is, as you stated, of the words and not inspiration of the human authors themselves. The words were what God wanted, because they have a message He intended to convey, but the human authors might not have the same full intent behind the message. But that message still is limited to God controlling the meaning (as to specificity of the referent or not).

So I find we do agree again, "Authorial intent ... is what God intended for them, and all who hear or read the record, to know; no more and no less." But what God intended for serpent, Adam, Eve, and Moses was simply "her seed" (a description), while what God intended for those "who hear or read the record" after NT revelation was to identify that seed with Christ, for He makes the identity of this seed known later in His work of revelation.

So I see the unitary authorship and the dual authorship, for God is united to the human author's intent, but also can have that fuller intent in mind.

Thanks for the exchange. God bless.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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