By David Hegg
Anyone who has ever written a research paper, especially those who have gained a post-high school degree, has been instructed in the relationship between meaning and context. The simple truth is the beginning place of meaning in any written document is authorial intention. This goes for spoken communication as well, especially orations such as political speeches, sermons and even the somewhat spontaneous pronouncements of press conferences.
However, here I want to zero in on the ethics of using material someone else has written. Today, it is all too common for critics to take things out of context to demean the character or viewpoint of another person. We are seeing this kind of activity in some politicians’ response to the election of Rep. Mike Johnson as speaker of the House. Regardless of how we may view one another, it is unethical to take another author’s statements to mean something that the actual literary context surrounding those statements does not allow.
Simply put, the beginning place of meaning in any document or speech is found in answering this question: What did the original author intend the original audience to mean by the words that he or she used? This presupposes that the author wrote or spoke freely and is actually the creative source of the written or spoken words and, more importantly, the architect of the true meaning of the complete word group.
For example, you’re reading a column that was first created in my mind, then keyed into my computer, and subsequently emailed to Tim Whyte at The Signal who then put into play the system by which it now appears in your newspaper or on your screen. Consequently, as the author, I have instilled my meaning into these sentences, and especially into the overall context of the column.
That means, first, that I am responsible for what you are reading. Secondly, anyone who would take some of my sentences, or certain phrases, and declare that I am saying something different than the overall meaning set forth in the full context of the column would be acting unethically at best and fraudulently at worst.
But my concern here isn’t really about what you may or may not do with my column. I understand that my writings are simply my opinions and as such are subject to critique and even opposition. My real concern is the unethical practice of taking a line or concept from a document, ripping it out of context, siphoning off the author’s intention, and using it to buttress a personal belief.
For example, we see this happening to many of our historical documents, from the Federalist Papers to the U.S. Constitution and beyond. Those who have decided to deconstruct our founding documents do so by denigrating the authors and denying that today’s meaning of those documents no longer should have any connection to the original authors’ intention. Using the ideology of “presentism,” they replace what the authors’ meaning clearly was in order to insert a modern understanding that seemingly supports a whole new perspective.
But here’s my true burden in this column. From time to time I hear and read the writings of those who have chosen to use biblical material in ways that neither the overall themes of Scripture nor the author’s words in Scripture support. Perhaps the greatest of these unethical practices is to assert that God is love without defining that beautiful statement as the Bible does.
To say God is love does not mean God does not judge sin. Ask Adam and Eve. Ask Noah, whose family was sovereignly saved from destruction while God’s judgment fell on a world where, according to Genesis 6, “every thought of every heart was only evil continually.” And you only have to keep reading to understand that God judged his people for their sin, and it was that disciplining judgment that caused sinful hearts to repent and return to joyful obedience to their God.
Yes, an essential attribute of God is love. But it is also true that all of his attributes have attributes, and in this case, God’s love is always just, always holy, and is seen in everything he does, including his righteous, holy and true judgment of those who rebel against his sovereign goodness.
So, what’s my point? Just this. Don’t quote the Constitution, or The Signal, or some politician, business leader, author, or friend unethically by ripping his or her meaning out of his or her declaration and inserting your own. And please don’t use the Bible in your arguments if, first, you don’t own it as your authoritative basis for life, and second, you don’t care to be ethical in bringing out the meaning God himself, through his superintendency of the human writers, put into the words they wrote.
According to John 3:16, God’s love for his creation was demonstrated in sending God the Son Incarnate, Jesus the Messiah. He came so that, by believing in the saving promises of God, we wouldn’t perish but have life everlasting. In this great verse we see both the love of God, and the consequences of refusing to be found and changed by that love. And that’s an important meaning we dare not mess with.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.