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Dale Martin and the Myth of Total Textual Indeterminacy


by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.


[The following is the beginning of my response to Dale Martin. Because I have received many inquiries about his recent book I thought it best to put out what I have now, however incomplete, and add installments as time and duties permit.—RG (3/7/07)] 


Dale Martin, professor of New Testament at Yale University, has just come out with a book entitled Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Westminster John Knox, 2006; released around Oct. 1, 2006). Since Martin has made a special point of critiquing my work in this publication, my intention here is to get at his main arguments through a careful response to his critique.


The Shape of the Book and a Convenient Omission 

Readers may be disappointed that Martin’s book is not a sustained, comprehensive argument about gender and sexuality in the Bible but rather a series of discrete essays, most of which were previously published. Six of the eleven chapters consist of previously published essays (one of which, though, had been published previously only in Norwegian: “The Queer History of Galatians 3:28”). The two and only two essays in his book closely directed at the Bible and homosexual practice, an issue to which I have given significant attention—“Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences” and “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32”—were first published a decade or so ago (1995-96). They are republished in the book as if no substantive critique had been offered in the intervening years to these articles in particular and to the general pro-homosex reading of Rom 1:24-27 and 1 Cor 6:9 that they represent. We will come back to why this is omission is significant. Two other chapters consist of papers that had been previously delivered as talks at a university seminar in 2001 (“The Hermeneutics of Divorce” and “Community-shaped Scripture”).  

Only three of the chapters were written specially for this book:  

  • Ch. 1, “Introduction: The Myth of Textual Agency” (pp. 1-16, notes on pp. 187-93)

  • Ch. 2, “The Rhetoric of Biblical Scholarship: A Primer for Critical Reading of Historical Criticism” (pp. 17-35, notes on pp. 193-201)

  • Ch. 11, “Conclusion: The Space of Scripture, the Risk of Faith” (pp. 161-85, notes on pp. 237-40)


The Shape of Martin’s Critique of My First Book 

It is in the second chapter, and only in the second chapter, that Martin deals with my work (primarily pp. 25-28 but also a brief reference on pp. 22-23, with the notes on pp. 196-98). In all Martin devotes six full pages to criticizing me. I suppose that in some perverse sense I should be “honored” for this attention; indeed, for being the first in a series of four persons to receive a critique. Of course, the honor is dubious since he says that he selects me first because he considers my first book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon, 2001; 520 pgs.), to be a ‘textbook’ example of “foundationalism” in the study of the Bible and sexuality. The other three persons critiqued are given three full pages or less each: Richard Hays (pp. 29-31, notes on pp. 198-99; with a smattering of discussion elsewhere in the new essays), Francis Watson (pp. 31-32, notes on pp. 199-201), and William Countryman (pp. 32-34, notes on p. 201).  

Rather than read my book fairly—and, incidentally, Martin completely ignores my many publications on the Bible and homosexual practice since that first book—Martin creates a caricature by cutting and pasting texts taken out of context and misrepresented. This procedure is not too dissimilar from his treatment of biblical texts in matters of sexuality, particularly homosexuality.  


My Alleged Crime 

For Martin, my main crime appears to be twofold.  

First, I believe that there are some texts in Scripture (and in the ancient world generally and in our own times), not all, whose interpretation is relatively secure. Stated slightly differently, I believe that there are some texts in the Bible, not all, whose meaning—more specifically, the meaning that the writer(s) intended readers to pick up from the communication symbols in the text—is clear in its basic contours to reasonable persons interpreting reasonably and contextually.  

Secondly, I believe that, on the whole, fidelity to God is more likely and more often to be attained by conformity to such meaning, especially as regards core values, than it is by radical deviance from such meaning.  

I might add as regards these two accusations that I am “guilty as charged,” except that the manner in which Martin charges them is distorted by a rhetoric that misrepresents the case. 


Why Does Martin Lie By Saying That I Flatly Reject Any Notion of Textual Uncertainty? 

According to Martin’s lead-off charge, “Gagnon flatly rejects any notion that textual interpretation is an uncertain endeavor” (p. 25; emphases added). To be blunt, this claim by Martin is “flatly” a lie. In my fifth and longest chapter of my first book, “The Hermeneutical Relevance of the Biblical Witness” (pp. 341-486), I begin by setting out “some basic principles for guiding application” of the message about homosexual practice. (This message was not presumed but rather discussed and argued in the first 340 pages of my book.) I ask (pp. 341-42):


1. Is the issue a matter of significant concern in the Bible?

(a) Is there a consistent perspective in the Bible?

(b) Is it a serious moral issue for biblical writers?


2. Does the biblical witness remain valid in a contemporary setting?

(a) Is the situation to which the Bible responds comparable to the contemporary situation?

(b) Are the arguments made by biblical writers still convincing?

(c) Do new socio-scientific insights or cultural changes invalidate the biblical witness?

(d) Has the church adopted a consistent and strong witness on the issue over the centuries?

(e) Does a new work of the Holy Spirit in the church justify changing the biblical position?


To note that such guidelines exist and then to address each of them systematically, as I have done, surely makes clear that textual interpretation often is “an uncertain endeavor.” Moreover, I note textual ambiguities throughout my book. For example, I state on p. 201 n. 21 that “the decision is difficult” as to whether “Matthew” forbade remarriage even for men who divorced adulterous wives and conclude by saying, “I am not sure what the solution is.” What Martin apparently doesn’t like is that I do not consider all texts to be ambiguous as to intent or meaning.  

When one thinks of Martin’s comment, it really is kind of ludicrous. The idea that I, or anyone of any intelligence, could argue that no text in Scripture (or anywhere else) on any issue at any time is ever uncertain is such a “flatly” erroneous charge as to call in question Martin’s entire credibility. If Martin sincerely believes that this is what I think, then he is obviously a poor reader of texts, certainly of anything that I have written. But I don’t believe that he is a poor reader of texts generally, not at least of that magnitude. This leads me to question whether he had any intent to portray me fairly and charitably.  

Consequently, for Martin to characterize my interpretative stance before unsuspecting readers as “Gagnon flatly rejects any notion that textual interpretation is an uncertain endeavor” is to engage in a blatant, and probably deliberate, distortion of the truth. Of course, it wouldn’t look as effective for Martin to critique a position that holds that some readings of ancient texts are, for all intents and purposes, secure and reliable. The reason is simple; namely, most persons reasonably subscribe to just such a position. That Martin evidently feels the need to produce a caricature of me—indeed, to lie about me—in order to ‘score points’ with readers suggests that he is aware of how weak his overall position is. He knows that he cannot be persuasive to others unless he is successful in portraying me falsely as a one-dimensional cardboard character. Lacking a strong argument, Martin resorts to a rhetoric of caricature. 


Martin’s “Texts don’t speak” Argument and His Claim of Textual Indeterminacy 

There are two main prongs to Martin’s general argument:  

1)  The meaning of a text in its historical context cannot be recovered with a reasonable degree of certitude.

2)  Such meaning should not be recovered as a normally controlling influence on hermeneutical application for a contemporary context.

As we shall see he also uses both arguments in his specific critique of my work. For now I shall focus more generally on the first point. 

Central to the first contention is his insistence that “the Bible (or any text) does not speak.” This is a point that he repeats so often and so stridently as to leave readers with the impression that he believes he has made a brilliant point. The very first sentence of his first chapter underscores this point: “One of the central goals of much of my writing . . . has been to undermine a common assumption . . . that the Bible ‘speaks’ and our job is just to ‘listen’” (p. 1). So enamored is he with this theme that   

I sometimes illustrate my point when asked to speak about “what the Bible says about homosexuality.” I put the Bible in the middle of the room or on the speaker’s podium, step back, and say, “Okay, let’s see what it says. Listen!” After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence and some snickers, I say, “Apparently, the Bible can’t talk.” (p. 5)

Such is the current state of the discipline that this passes for profundity among many.  

When criticizing me, Martin alleges that “Gagnon constantly, and with no hint that he is using a metaphor, portrays the Bible as ‘speaking,’ or ‘condemning,’ or performing some kind of action” (p. 25; emphasis added). The silliness of this allegation should be readily apparent: If I didn’t think I was using a metaphor then I would have to believe that texts really do speak in audible voices or really do write themselves. Does Martin really believe that I think this? Texts are a medium, not an agent. Everywhere in my work I operate with the notion that specific, culture-embedded persons and communities speak through texts. Anyone with a minimal ability of comprehension can see this in page after page of what I have written on the issue of the Bible and homosexuality. Assuming the intelligence of my critics, only someone determined to put forward a false caricature of me could say otherwise and then it could only be done out of deceit.


Does Martin Practice What He Preaches about Textual Indeterminacy? A Look at His Chapters on 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Romans 1:24-27

The sheer silliness of the allegation turns into hypocrisy when Martin does the very thing that he castigates me for doing. Now I make no claims to having gone through Martin’s writings with a fine-tooth comb to uncover all such instances. That would be a waste of my time. A few examples will suffice. In ch. 2, just two pages (!) before lambasting me for “portray[ing] the Bible as ‘speaking,’ or ‘condemning,’ or performing some kind of action,” he states that Romans 1 “does not explicitly condemn same-sex activity” (p. 23). Moreover, in his very opening line in “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences” (ch. 3), he states: “The New Testament provides little ammunition to those wishing to condemn modern homosexuality” (p. 37). But texts cannot “provide ammunition” insofar as they are lifeless, inanimate script, right?  

If even a person who has told himself, “Don’t ever say that the Bible performs some kind of action” lest he be accused of inconsistency and hypocrisy can’t help but occasionally speak in such terms, why, then, should the rest of us be held to a strict standard of avoiding such metaphorical language? For neither do we think that texts can speak audibly or write themselves, divorced from real historical personages and communities. Both Martin and I prefer, when referring to Pauline texts, to write “Paul says (thinks, believes)” rather than to say the text does so. But shouldn’t this be even more of a metaphor from Martin’s perspective? After all, we don’t have direct access to Paul. We only have relatively direct access to the medium of his text (albeit transmitted over centuries by scribes). Is it not, then, truer in some respects to say that “the text says”? It is Martin himself who insists that “we can never actually go to the author’s intention” (p. 6). Yet throughout his writings, page after page, Martin makes reference to what Paul said, believed, and thought, without so much as batting a literary eye (oops, another metaphor). 

In the same chapter on “Arsenokoites and Malakos” Martin states that “we possess many occurrences of malakos [the term for “soft men” in 1 Cor 6:9] and can be fairly confident about its meaning” and about “the hatred of women inherent in the ancient use of the term” (pp. 43). This reference to words meaning something is carried throughout the chapter. But I thought, based on what Martin claimed, meaning wasn’t “inherent” in the text but resided in the interpreter? And that we couldn’t be “fairly confident” about what a given writer might have meant?  

Indeed, Martin goes on to say that “malakos is easy to define” and that “to say that malakos meant a man who was penetrated is simply wrong.” 

There is no question, then, about what malakos referred to in the ancient world. . . . The meaning of the word is clear. . . . Malakos means “effeminate.” Why has this obvious translation been universally rejected in recent English versions? . . . Do we condemn what Paul and his readers are likely to have considered effeminate . . . ? . . . Some scholars and Christians have wanted to make arsenokoites and malakos mean both more and less than the words actually mean. . . . Rather than admitting the obvious, that malakos is a blanket condemnation of all effeminacy, they explain that it refers quite particularly to the penetrated man in homosexual sex. . . . It should be clear that this exercise is driven more by heterosexist ideology than historical criticism. (pp. 43-44, 47-49; emphases added)

Note the one occurrence of “likely” and the hardly waffling “fairly confident” in a sea of unequivocal adverbs, adjectives, and descriptive phrases: “easy to define,” “no question,” “clear,” “obvious,” “actually.” Anyone who disagrees with Martin is “simply wrong.”  

Now I certainly do not agree that, in the context of 1 Cor 6:9, malakoi means what Martin claims it must mean. In fact, I have critiqued his argument and similar arguments about 1 Cor 6:9 in my first book and works thereafter. 

Cf. The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), esp. pp. 303-36; Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 81-88, with online notes 96-111 at; and “A Comprehensive and Critical Review Essay of Homosexuality, Science, and the ‘Plain Sense’ of Scripture, Part 2,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 25 (December 2003): 226-39, online here.


Essentially I argue that the meaning of malakoi (lit., “soft men”) in context is not the broad sense of merely effeminate men but rather has the more restrictive sense of “men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners” (incidentally, this is similar to the meaning given to the term by both Victor Furnish and Bernadette Brooten, two scholars supportive of homosexual unions). What is the evidence for the more restrictive sense?


1.  Its place in the vice list amidst other participants in illicit sexual intercourse. Since it is sandwiched in between the terms pornoi (a generic term for sexually immoral persons but, in the immediate context of 1 Cor 5, applied specifically to the incestuous man in nearly identical vice lists; cf. 5:9-11) and moichoi (adulterers) on the one side and arsenokoitai (men who lie with a male) on the other side, it is probable that malakoi too has to do with immoral sexual relations.

2.  Its pairing with the immediately following word arsenokoitai. Since arsenokoitai means “men who lie with a male” as a reference to the active, insertive partners in male-male intercourse, it is likely that malakoi refers to the passive, receptive partner in such intercourse. Indeed, the two preceding terms eidololatrai (idolaters) and moichoi (adulterers) form a natural pair in the Old Testament, making more probable the pairing of the next two terms, malakoi and arsenokoitai.

3.  Philo of Alexandria’s use of cognate words. Philo (a first-century Jewish philosophy) uses cognate terms to malakos to refer to men who actively feminize themselves for the purpose of attracting other men: malakia and malakotēs, “softness”; also: anandria, “unmanliness,” hoi paschontes, “those who are ‘done’” [as opposed to the “doers,” hoi drōntes], and androgynoi, “men-women” (cf. Special Laws 3.37-42; On Abraham 135-36; Contemplative Life 59-61; translated in Gagnon 2001a, 172-75).

4.  Greco-Roman usage of malakoi and the parallel Latin word molles (soft men). The terms malakoi and molles could be used broadly to refer to effeminate or unmanly men. But in specific contexts it could be used in ways similar to the more specific terms cinaedi (lit., “butt-shakers”) and pathici (“those who undergo [penetration]”) to denote effeminate adult males who are biologically and/or psychologically disposed to desire penetration by men. For example, in Soranus’s work On Chronic Diseases (early 2nd century A.D.) the section on men who desire to be penetrated (4.9.131-37) is entitled “On the molles or subacti (subjugated or penetrated partners, pathics) whom the Greeks call malthakoi.” An Aristotelian text similarly refers to those who are anatomically inclined toward the receptive role as malakoi (Pseudo-Aristotle, Problems 4.26). Astrological texts that speak of males desirous of playing the penetrated female role also use the term malakoi (Ptolemy, Four Books 3.14 §172; Vettius Valens, Anthologies 2.37.54; 2.38.82; cf. Brooten, 126 n. 41, 260 n. 132). The complaint about such figures in the ancient world generally, and certainly by Philo, centers around their attempted erasure of the masculine stamp given them by God/nature, not their exploitation of others, age difference, or acts of prostitution.

Regarding the meaning of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9, “men who lie with a male,” Martin is less certain. He is not certain enough to claim “to know what [it] meant,” though he thinks it “probable that arsenokoites referred to a particular role of exploiting others by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily by homosexual sex” and he adamantly denies that anyone can say with reasonable certainty what it meant. Martin’s supposition here appears to be that if Martin can’t figure it out, no one else can. In this, too, I believe that he is mistaken. The evidence is, in fact, overwhelming for taking the term, in context, as an absolute indictment of men who serve as the active partners in male homosexual practice of any kind (see my resources cited above).

My main point here, though, is that as regards Martin’s handling of the term malakoi texts “mean” something and only an idiot or a dissembler could argue otherwise since, according to Martin, the meaning is “clear,” “obvious,” and “simple.”  


Martin’s Textual Determinacy Manifested in His Shaming Rhetoric 

Martin is so sure of himself that he can even, in facile and flat manner, charge those who think otherwise with being motivated by prejudices akin to racism and sexism. In just this one 14-page article alone we read: 

By analyzing ancient meanings of the terms . . . we discover that interpretations of arsenokoites and malakos as condemning modern homosexuality have been driven more by ideological interests in marginalizing gay and lesbian people than by the general structures of historical criticism. (p. 38; similarly, p. 43)


Why has this obvious translation been universally rejected in recent English versions? Doubtless because contemporary scholars have been loath to consider effeminacy a moral category but have been less hesitant in condemning gay and lesbian people. (p. 47; emphasis mine)


People who retain Paul’s condemnation of effeminacy as ethical grounding for a condemnation of contemporary gay sex must face the fact that they thereby participate in the hatred of women inherent in the ancient use of the term. . . . To mask such problems and tell our fellow Christians that the word “really” refers just to boy prostitutes or, worse, “passive homosexuals” is by this time just willful ignorance or dishonesty. (p. 48; emphasis mine)


It should be clear that this exercise is driven more by heterosexist ideology than historical criticism. (p. 49; emphasis mine)

The hypocrisy here is underscored by his criticism of me for allegedly “resort[ing] to shaming rhetoric” (p. 28). The examples that he cites are all taken out of context or in other ways misrepresented, as we shall see later. But there is no mistaking the context for Martin’s remarks above since the accusation that everyone who comes to different conclusions from him is a “heterosexist” is the centerpiece and conclusion of his article—and not only this article but of his work generally. For example, this shaming rhetoric and attribution of foul motive appears also throughout ch. 4, his article “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32,” where his thesis is: 

I will demonstrate . . . that modern scholars are being disingenuous or self-deluding when they claim that their position—the heterosexist position—is simply an appropriation of “the biblical view.” Their reading of Paul is prompted not by the constraints of historical criticism or their passive perception of the “clear meaning” of the text, as they claim, but by their inclination (not necessarily intentional) to reinforce modern heterosexist constructions of human sexuality. (pp. 52-53; emphasis mine; note here he says “not necessarily intentional” while holding open a “disingenuous” motive; compare his attribution to “willful ignorance or dishonesty” above)


It is certain . . . that heterosexism has led [scholars] to introject their own modern conceptions of sexual desire and its relation to “nature” into the biblical text. (p. 60)


Having denied that heterosexist scholars interpret Paul they way they do because they are simply “reading the text,” I wished to propose other reasons to explain why they have misconstrued Paul’s writings. . . . I suggest that a specifically modern form of homophobia—an irrational and exaggerated loathing and fear of homosexuality—has motivated many such interpretations. (p. 63)

Ironically, Martin says of me that 

Recourse to shaming rhetoric is often the final recourse of one who truly believes that “nature” or “the text itself” provides a clear, self-interpreting foundation for ethics. If other people cannot see it, there must be something wrong with them. (ibid.)

Hasn’t Martin demonstrated clearly by his own actions that “recourse to shaming rhetoric” is much more of a staple of his own work and views? That it is precisely the person who seeks to deny the clear witness of Scripture on matters that is likely to resort to shaming rhetoric and to be absolutist about what texts can and cannot mean? For, whatever Martin says to the contrary, he certainly writes as someone who is absolutely certain what malakoi in 1 Cor 6:9 means and cannot mean and how Paul in Rom 1:24-27 certainly does not have in mind creation and the fall, someone who applies a nature argument that homosexual orientation is a benign condition like race or sex, and someone who knows—as his main point, mind you—that there must be “something wrong” with those who think otherwise. It is surely ironic when he alleges of me, that “the sense of security provided by foundationalism makes self-critical awareness unlikely” (p. 198 n. 36). To this I would respond to Martin: What’s your excuse? 

Doubtless Martin would respond (as he has in email correspondence to me) that he is just “‘playing the game’ of normal, modern historical criticism,” artificially adopting “certain assumptions about the social location of the interpretation” and entering the “discursive realm” and persona of the historical critic. But can anyone seriously believe, after reading the material above, that Martin himself does not really think that people who interpret 1 Cor 6:9 and Rom 1:24-27 in ways that indict homosexual practice absolutely do so because there is “something wrong with them”? And does he not manifestly base this observation on the “obvious” and “clear” meaning of texts? Which, then, is the “pretend hat” and which the real persona? Dale Martin the radical poststructuralist or Dale Martin the historical critic?  

It needs to be said as well that Martin, in making his arguments, is absolutely convinced not only of what the text of Scripture says or doesn’t say at certain points convenient to his ideology but also of what the scholars with whom he disagrees write and even sometimes what their motivations are behind what they write. He does this even with scholars whom he has never met but encountered only through text. How can he both maintain the “texts don’t speak” contention of total or virtual textual indeterminacy and then express himself with such certainty and, indeed, with such obvious emotion in his criticisms of scholars whom he knows only through text?  

There is a jarring inconsistency here that once again confirms that “Dale Martin the radical poststructuralist” is more of a pretend hat or persona than “Dale Martin the textual absolutist” or “Dale Martin the historical critic.” In caustically berating scholars whom he knows only through text, he unknowingly betrays that not even he lives like a poststructuralist.  


Martin’s Textual Determinacy in His Interaction with “Textual Gagnon” 

An obvious case in point is Martin’s reaction toward me. Martin knows only a “textual Gagnon.” We have never met. What he knows of me he knows only through my writings (and, so far as I can tell, only through my first book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice) and through limited e-mail correspondence that occurred a month or so after the publication of his book Sex and the Single Savior. After just three exchanges, Martin knew with all the certitude that anyone could muster that:  

  • Gagnon “really [really?] doesn’t understand literary theory”

  • Gagnon “simply” [simply?] doesn’t “understand the notion of contextual meaning”

  • Gagnon does not, “in fact [in fact?], . . . present other people’s work accurately and fairly”

  • Gagnon has “inadequate understandings of scripture . . . and of interpretation in general”

  • Gagnon’s rhetoric “is not at all [at all?] Christian and kind”

There is a tremendous amount of textual certitude here. Note Martin’s persistent use of adverbial expressions denoting certitude and the categorical/absolute nature of his assertions: “really,” “simply,” “in fact,” and “not at all.” And yet all that he had to go on was text.  

I honestly don’t understand how this works in Martin’s head. When he takes off his textual-absolutist hat and reassumes his real poststructuralist self, does he cease to be so certain about what I believe, know, and say, on the basis of reading text? If so, how does this happen? Does he suffer memory loss? Or does he just will himself to remember that “texts don’t speak” and then disavow everything he had presumed to be true about the “textual Gagnon”? It really is confusing to me. How is it that text does not have determinate meaning and yet he has in my case only text and comes to a series of strongly held, even offensive, determinate meanings?  If he were only adopting the persona here of a textual absolutist and did not really believe in his heart these determinate claims about me, why does the real depth of his emotion come out when he expresses absolute certitude about what his perceived opponents believe, know, and write, even beyond what is actually communicated in the text itself? I think that this is a legitimate question. I also think the answer is clear, even if Martin doesn’t want to admit it publicly. If he were only “playing a game” when he becomes textually determinate I wouldn’t expect him to get so passionate over what he alleges that I have written, let alone write six pages about it in a book. His emotive mode of expression betrays him. 

So on one level, at least, Dale Martin himself is “exhibit A” against his own argument for textual indeterminacy. I am tempted to argue that, on another level, he is also “exhibit A” in favor of his own argument for textual indeterminacy—but not in a manner he would find congenial. Martin at so many places misrepresents me that maybe it really is true that the medium of writing cannot effectively communicate an author’s meaning. However, I must say that he ultimately does not prove his case here, for two reasons: (1) that Martin gets so wrong what I have written is not proof that no one can understand what I write (I have met many who do understand what I have written); and (2) there is evidence that he deliberately misrepresents my work (I have already noted his absurd allegations that I “flatly reject any notion that textual interpretation is an uncertain endeavor” and that I am unaware that the expression “the Bible says” is a metaphor). 

The truth is that I have rarely encountered someone who, in practice, operates with a greater conviction of textual certitude than Martin. Apparently Martin does believe that texts control interpretation (he has had nothing else on which to base his judgments about me) and he is obviously convinced that his interpretation of “textual Gagnon” is the correct one (even in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary). Martin is, in reality, the worst sort of textual absolutist because he deceives himself and attempts to deceive others that it is otherwise with him.  


Martin’s Misguided Case for Dismissing the Primacy of Authorial Intention 

Martin gives an example from everyday life to argue against “authorial intention as establishing the meaning of an utterance” (that is, “constrain[ing its] meaning or . . . control[ling] its interpretation”) and “to point out that we actually do not . . . take ‘the meaning’ to be equivalent to the intentions of the author” (p. 6).  

Of course, there is an initial irony here. Martin wants his readers to understand his own “authorial intention” and clearly thinks that he can communicate effectively to his readers what his own point of view is, through the medium of text. I take Martin to be arguing that authorial intention cannot provide the primary basis for establishing the meaning of texts. It certainly would be misrepresenting Martin to contend that Martin believes we should limit the meaning of texts to what can be discerned from authorial intention. If I argued the latter, Martin would be the first to contend: You misunderstood me. Then he would chastise me further for “willful ignorance or dishonesty,” for being “disingenuous or self-deluding” (to quote his written chastisements of other scholars). Indeed, when Martin complained to me in e-mail correspondence that “I [Martin] do not, in fact, believe you [Gagnon] present other people’s work accurately and fairly,” what is he doing if not insisting by the use of the adverbs “accurately” and “fairly” that his own “authorial intention” controls the meaning and interpretation of his texts? In short: How can one take seriously the insistence that the authorial intention communicated through the medium of text should not constrain meaning and interpretation when this very insistence presupposes the textual constraint of one’s own authorial intention? One can’t have it both ways, though Martin appears to want it to be so. 

Martin’s example is this: 

When my brother was young, he was briefly hospitalized due to a collapsed lung. The doctor told my parents . . . that the condition was congenital. . . . My sister, a teenager at the time, overheard this conversation and for days went around telling family friends that my brother was in the hospital because of a “genital disease.” How do we decide about “the meaning” of my sister’s statement? Certainly not by simply attempting to ascertain “what she meant.” (p. 6)

The example, however, does not demonstrate Martin’s point that “authorial intention” cannot be accessed through the medium of communication. Rather, it demonstrates the opposite. The humor of the story—confusing “congenital condition” with “genital disease”—depends entirely on an operating assumption that we know the true “authorial intention” of the doctor and, through that knowledge, recognize the authorial confusion of the adolescent. Martin himself believed that he had understood correctly the authorial intention of the doctor’s words, “the condition is congenital,” and on that basis was able to recognize the mistake of his teenage sister. Had the doctor been unable to communicate effectively the intention of his message or had Martin been unable to understand that intention, he would not have been able to correct his sister’s misstatement.  

Martin further contends (again, unknowingly presuming on the general reliability of text for communicating his authorial intention) that  

Theories about authorial intentions providing the meaning of texts must show that to be the case not only in ideal or even most cases; they must show that authorial intention is the meaning of a text in all cases. Otherwise, authorial intention becomes just one more act of the imagination we employ when we interpret texts. (p. 7)

Neither Martin’s premise nor his corollary follows in the real world outside the ivory tower of language games.

To refer approvingly to authorial intention as a constraining influence on the interpretation of written or spoken word is not to assert that people always express themselves clearly or always say precisely what they mean. Confusion can and does arise. (Communication between husband and wife in marriage is a classic case in point.) Yet confusion can only be recognized as confusion on the assumption that oral and written communication through language symbols is a generally reliable method for ascertaining intention. That authorial intention is not always communicated accurately in spoken word or written text does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that “authorial intention becomes just one more act of the imagination we employ when we interpret texts.” It may, and does, remain the operating premise for communication until clear indications arise that there is some disconnect between the communication and the author’s actual intention. 

Martin’s poststructuralist views unfortunately have real world implications. If neighbor Miss A frantically knocked on Mr. B’s door, shouting, “Your child is drowning in the pool next door,” and Mr. B didn’t give primacy to Miss A’s “authorial intention” by running next door to check on his child’s safety, Mr. B would be subject to criminal prosecution if his child drowned (to say nothing of lifelong psychological torment for neglect). Society would be rightly outraged if Mr. B’s defense in court was: “Authorial intention is just one of many acts of imagination that I employ when I interpret people’s utterances.” On matters even more significant, pertaining to people’s eternal destiny, Martin would have us believe that when the authors of Scripture tell us that engaging in certain behavior in a serial unrepentant manner could lead to our exclusion from the kingdom of God, we should not give “authorial intention” any special weight in discerning the meaning of their statements. 

Obviously, the fact that an adolescent may confuse “congenital condition” with “genital disease” is not a strong argument for why, for example, the authorial intention of Paul’s remarks concerning incest in 1 Cor 5 cannot be “recovered” or why it cannot “constrain the meaning” given to such remarks or “control its interpretation.” If someone wants to argue that what Paul “means” in 1 Cor 5 is that the Corinthians should tolerate, or even endorse, a consensual sexual relationship between a Christian man and his stepmother (or, for that matter, his mother), that person obviously doesn’t have a clue about how to read Paul’s communication. Authorial intention is not “just one more act of the imagination we employ when we interpret texts.” Understood in context, literary and socio-historical, the communication symbols contained in the text of 1 Cor 5 certainly carry the normal agreed-upon sense. It would be nonsense to claim here, as Martin does generally, that “we can never actually go to the author’s intention,” that “authorial intention is not the answer to the vagaries of interpretation because it is part of interpretation itself” (p. 6). While some of the details of Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 5 may be subject to interpretive debate, there is no reasonable interpretive debate about whether Paul might be approving consensual adult incest. Martin and others may choose to reject Paul’s views on incest, arguing incest conducted in the context of mutual love and commitment should be accepted. But they cannot justifiably ask reasonable persons to believe that the “historical Paul” himself would have tolerated such a sexual bond or even to believe that such an interpretation is “just as good” as one that posits Paul’s absolute opposition. 

It is interesting to note in connection with 1 Cor 5 that the Corinthians had misunderstood Paul’s textual communication in a previous letter (5:9-12). They thought that when Paul had earlier written them “not to get mixed up with (i.e., associate or have contact with) sexually immoral persons” he meant it in an absurd, absolute sense that included “the sexually immoral of this world” (i.e. sexually immoral unbelievers). This apparently led some at Corinth to disregard Paul’s allegedly impractical command. Now what did Paul do? Did he take this instance of confusion, throw up his hands, and say, “Authorial intention apparently cannot be known because texts don’t speak!” or, worse, “Your interpretation of my authorial intention is every bit as valid as an act of imagination!”? No, he simply clarified his position, asserting that of course he could not have meant that they cease all association with unbelievers because, had he intended that, they would have “had to come out of the world” (5:10). Paul believed that by further clarification he could make his authorial intention in the matter known. So does Dale Martin when he writes his own books and articles.


To be continued as time, duties, energy, and interest permit.


Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. He can be reached at



  © 2007 Robert A. J. Gagnon