1.2 The Problem of Meaning
At the heart of the problem of Christian Scripture is the problem of meaning in general. In popular usage, words are imagined to point rather straightforwardly to things. The meaning of the word dog is thus aptly captured in the picture of a dog that appears in the bubble above my head when you say the word. In this sense the meaning of words is fixed by the things to which they refer and is thus relatively stable. Understanding meaning is simply a matter of finding the things to which the words point.
But this model has proved to be vastly inadequate for a number of reasons. For example, words often do not point to things. Concrete nouns may refer to things. But it is hard to say what picture will appear in the bubble above your head when you hear the word "righteousness" or "is." And the picture of a "wild goose chase" or a "red herring" will hardly help you understand the meaning of these phrases in English, and you will have to find completely different idioms if you try to translate them into Chinese.
A word may have also more than one meaning. As an instance of our conundrum, these meanings need not have anything to do with one another. It is simply not the case that getting "fired" from your job has some current semantic connection to the meaning of getting all "fired" up for a football game or the fact that a hunter "fired" a rifle.
We may sum up the situation of meaning in the following way. First, the relationship between words and meaning is arbitrary and constantly changing. To put it in more precise language, the relationship between "signifiers" and that which is "signified" is in no way fixed or constant.  I can write a note to my family in what seems the simplest of English language and in ten years those same words may have taken on quite new and different connotations than today.
This is the hidden irony of the use of the King James Version by so many English speaking Christians in the United States today. Such individuals may think to themselves, the meaning of the words is perfectly understandable to me. Yet they may at the same time not realize that the way the words strike them is sometimes different from how those words were used when the fifth updating of the language was made in 1789 to give the King James its current wording. A good translation into some language today will thus inevitably become less and less accurate and helpful over time. 
Secondly, meaning is a function of word use, not a matter of fixed truths to which words point.  The dictionary entry of a word is a snapshot of how that word is being used at a particular point in time, listed from most frequent to least. A dictionary thus technically does not tell us what a word means, but how it is being used at any given time. Meanings are constantly added and removed over time.
The implications of this simple shift in understanding are quite momentous for the meaning of the Bible. For example, what use of these words at what point in time is the one that renders the meaning that is Christian Scripture. Is it the way the words of the Bible were being used at the time the book in question was written (which will not clearly be the meaning of the words in the other books at the time they were written)? Is it the way Christians in general have taken the words over time? Is it the way the words strike me in my way of using words?
Certainly meaning is not purely a matter of individual words added together. Combinations of words--especially into clauses but also into sentences and paragraphs--have a greater tendency to clarify and delimit the possible meanings rather than to further ambiguate them.  Nevertheless, even a careful reading of a text can frequently leave ambiguity--especially when the text is somewhat removed from us in context. And many readers of texts are far from careful.
When we couple the arbitrary nature of words as signifiers with meaning as a function of use, we begin to see the scope of the problem. The meaning of a word, phrase, or semantic unit at any point in time can differ widely from the meanings it previously had or subsequently will have. That meaning is tied to the way the word is being used at the time. Accordingly, the meaning of the same words will shift over time so that the same book of the Bible will inevitably take on different meanings depending on who is reading it against what general set of word uses. And thus we begin to appreciate better why there are over 35,000 different Christian denominations, most of which have little awareness of the fact that the way the words have struck them in their way of using words is different from the way other groups use words and still vastly different from the way the original authors and audiences of these books used words.
Thirdly, the use of words goes far beyond "denotation" and statement. Words can say things far beyond what they say on a surface level or on a literal level, and words do things far beyond simply making assertions. That is to say, we often use words in complex ways. If I try on some clothes I have not worn for twenty years and say to my wife, "Yeah, that fits," I may actually mean the exact opposite of what the words seem to say. When I say, "He went through the roof when I told him how much it was going to cost," I do not mean to suggest he is now dead or in the hospital with major head injuries.
Yet even these "non-literal" statements are statements--they are used to assert things. Words do many things other than make assertions.  When I see someone and say, "How are you?" I may or may not really be asking them of their current state. My words may rather simply be performing a social pleasantry--one that is completely sincere, but not a matter of an actual question. Some of our language is "cohesive" in nature, meant to perform social functions, rather than logical ones.
If I yell, "Fire!" in a crowed room, chances are I am telling everyone to get out of the building as quickly as possible. If I say, "I do," at my wedding, I am not simply making a statement. I am marrying a person with those words, making them my spouse with those words. Those who fight tooth and nail for the propositional nature of biblical truth thus ignore the fact that words do much more than make assertions--and even assertions are often figurative to one degree or another.
It does seem possible to make carefully worded absolute statements. "All single men are bachelors" would seem to be such a statement. When all the words in this sentence are taken in the way those words are normally used at this particular point in the history of the English language, the statement is always true in all times and all places. It is a proposition that is absolutely true because it is true by definition.
At the same time, absolute propositions are not the stuff of ordinary speech. They are the stuff of a Western philosophy class. Most statements we use in ordinary language are not meant to be absolute in scope, and we would "misinterpret" the statements of others to take them as such. And the "connotations" are often more to the point of our meaning than the precise "denotation" of our words. We frequently employ figurative language--understatement, hyperbole, irony. And we use metaphors.
A good case can be made that metaphor stands at the root of all or at least most human language.  Nevertheless, it still makes sense to distinguish between the "dead metaphors" that constitute the baseline of human language, and new meanings we create when we juxtapose unlike things together in new ways or at least ways that are new enough to be fresh in connotation.  The metaphorical use of language alone vastly multiplies the possible meanings that words can have in the use any individual makes of it.
The matter of genre also affects the meaning words have in a particular context. If I am reading fiction, I am not meant to take the individuals in a narrative as individuals who actually lived in history. If I am reading satire, I should expect irony and a more critical stance toward a topic than normal. The function of genre also changes over time, to where one cannot assume that what is appropriate for history writing today is the same as what it was at another time in place.
We thus face significant questions of meaning when we approach a library of texts such as the Bible. We have narratives, laws, prophecies, letters, and apocalyptic material. The overwhelming majority of the biblical material does not seem to be in the form of absolute philosophical propositions. We have irony, understatement, hyperbole, metaphor, allegory, and other non-literal language. We have not only language that asserts but language that honors and shames, language that binds author and audience, language that commands and wishes, language that expresses emotion, and so forth. The potential for a multiplicity of interpretations is enormous, as the history of interpretation embodies.
Fourthly, the use of words is a function of community and culture. The history of what words have meant in the past is interesting, but ultimately irrelevant to what words mean at any given point in time. Herein lie many of the fallacies of the way words are and often have been treated in Christian rhetoric. The etymological fallacy, for example, supposes that the way a word has been used in the past is somehow determinative of what it means today. Not so. Even if one could show that the Greek word "to sin" originally meant "to miss an archery target" (and that is incredibly dubious in itself), it would have no necessary connection whatsoever to what the word meant at the time of the New Testament or to how the word "to sin" is understood in a given Christian culture or sub-culture today.
The fact that the Greek word for "church" is a compound of "ek," "out of," and "kaleo," "to call," does not in any way imply that the meaning of ekklesia has anything to do with being called out. In fact, the word was used of an assembly of people for centuries before the New Testament with no apparent thought for its origins as a word. These sorts of semantic games that readers of the Bible often play with words give the impression of meaning as something present in each word and readily identifiable. But such is simply not the case.
The meaning of words at any given time and place is the individual actualization of potential meanings based on the way words are being used in a local community, which is usually bears a relationship to the way words are being used in a broader culture. If I am using the "sweeper" in Indiana, I am using something more typically called a "vacuum" in broader American language, although a "Hoover" in England. Local dialect has its own way of using words at a particular time and place.
The dynamics of word usage involve two poles of influence. On the one end is the understanding of the world in which language is used--paradigms, worldviews, the socially constructed nature of the way we think and talk about our worlds. On the other is the individual actualization we make of the potentialities of language, including all the metaphorical uses to which we put language. We are often unaware of how differently one group of human beings in one cultural or social setting think about the world in contrast to other people groups or subcultures. This is the most insidious factor in meaning as moderns approach the biblical text, for our default is to see our own paradigms behind language that originally pointed to quite different paradigms of a different socially constructed reality.
It is highly doubtful, for example, that the typical Westerner reads language of sacrifice and atonement with anything like the cultural lenses that the original audiences of the Bible did. Indeed, it is possible that New Testament audiences did not understand such language with quite the same glasses that Old Testament ones did. Our sense of families or of individual identity may differ widely as well. We read words like "father," "mother," "I," "we," "discipline," "wife," and may be completely unaware of the vast differences in connotation in the biblical worlds, deceived by the common denotations of these words.
So the question of the Christian meaning of Scripture comes into clearer focus than ever. We have not only the distinction between the way any specific group of readers might understand the Bible and the way its original audiences might have. But we have the fact that the books of the Bible themselves span a thousand year period involving not only vastly different individual situations but also vastly different cultural contexts. We thus have not only the question of the gap between us and the Bible in time, culture, and situation. We have the gap between the individual books of the Bible themselves.
The Bible itself largely does not address these gaps, wherein lies the incoherency of the notion that the Bible alone might serve as guide to the Christian. This view inevitably treats the Bible naively as a single book whose words have common meanings that are definable by a common human dictionary that is the same as the dictionary I use. Every element of this assumption is false. The Bible is dozens of books whose words were originally a function of the way words were used at particular times and places. There is no common human dictionary--human thinking differs far more from culture to culture than is usually appreciated. And the way I understand words is a snapshot of my time and place, not of universal linguistic meaning.
So the individual books of the Bible largely do not tell us how to integrate their words in their situations with the words of the other situations presupposed by the other books of the Bible. And the books of the Bible largely were not written with whether readers thousands of years later would know how to appropriate their words in quite different times and situations. The task of finding a unified meaning to these texts is far more an extra-biblical task than a task that the Bible itself can perform for us. Again, the multiplicity of Christian traditions is a witness to the multiple ways in which the varied content of the Bible can be configured in systematic form.
When we find a unified meaning to Scripture, the organizing principle of that meaning will be, of necessity, a function of something outside the text. Some current hermeneuticians speak of a different order of speech that is God speaking to us through the text of Scripture as a whole.  The problem with their suggestion is not so much the suggestion itself but their apparent sense that this overall meaning is in some clear relation to the particular original meanings these books had and their apparent sense that this meaning is still in some way "in" the Bible rather than a function of a particular point of view brought to the Bible read as Scripture.
Finally, meaning is ultimately a function of the individual reading (hearing, etc...) a text, not a function of the author of that text.  As one philosopher of language put it, a text becomes autonomous once it is uttered.  It takes on a life of its own that is not limited to whatever meaning its author might have intended it to have. Indeed, the meaning a "reader" finds in it may have little or nothing to do with the originally intended meaning.
This recognition is not to deny that author's have intentions in relation to texts or that authors intend to do things with their words.  This meaning, while not always easily accessed by others when the author is not present to confirm intention, is in theory a relatively fixed meaning and an appropriate object of inquiry. Nevertheless, an author cannot control the meanings a text will take on once it is uttered. Meaning is a ultimately function of "readers," regardless of authorial intent.
Further, we do not come at texts as objective thinkers detached from our own biases and presuppositions. And we will meet the horizon of the text as it meets us, possibly with all sorts of semantic baggage that text has accrued over time, if we read it within any sort of tradition at all.  But if we affirm that communication can take place at all (and thus would seem to be a useful suggestion if we at all use words), then we must affirm that authors have intentions when they make utterances, and that we can at least in theory receive their communication appropriately to their intention, even across the span of time and place.
However, the assumption that the intended meaning is the only or the most valid one is an one that bears significant examination, especially when it comes to the question of Christian Scripture. Some hermeneuticians have argued that it is an ethical duty to try to read an author's words in terms of their intended meaning.  The New Testament authors in general felt no such compunction in relation to the Old Testament text. It is one thing to consider it a loving obligation to try to listen to a living speaker trying to communicate with you. It is quite another to extend that duty when an author has been dead for thousands of years and was writing to someone else.
As we will argue in the remainder of the chapter, the "Christian" meaning of Scripture turns out to be distinct to varying degrees from the original meanings and connotations of the biblical words. We will argue in this chapter, and then assume and demonstrate in the rest of the book, that the Christian meaning of Scripture is a significance that the words of Scripture take on when read from a Christian point of view. We will further argue that the most appropriate starting point for identifying such a point of view is the consensus of Christendom throughout the ages, a fairly stable point of view on key issues.
 de Saussure
 Ironically, many King James only advocates do not realize that the version of the King James Version that they use has already undergone four revisions to update the language. In other words, their adamancy over fixing the wording of the Bible was not shared by those most responsible for the wording of the King James itself. This is particularly true of its original translators, who made the translation in a day when the Geneva Bible was the translation of choice. Some King James advocates, upon realizing the incoherency of their position, have turned from the ridiculous to the sublime by beginning to use the 1611 version of the King James, whose language is even further removed from current English usage than the fifth revision of 1789 currently in use.
 This is the strength of Ricoeur's response to Derrida.
 J. L. Austin. Searle and subsequent attempts to standardize the various things words do have been less helpful.
 Lakoff and Johnson
 definition, Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor
 A "text" of course need not be words.
 Vanhoozer, Thiselton
 Vanhoozer, who then negates his claim with his notion of the Bible as a whole as a divine speech-act, which requires one to discard the originally intended meaning in deference to this new meaning of the whole.