Psychoanalyzing Biblical Authors

At an ETS meeting a few years ago, I asked a presenter (and friend) whether he thought John the Seer intentionally wrote Revelation to an ideal reader or to what extent John meant to communicate certain things. I asked that question because it’s a common question I receive when discussing my own research on John’s theology. He gave a helpful answer, but the summary (rightly) was, “I’m not sure.” That’s often my answer, as well, but I was hoping he would give me some kind of uncharted insight that I could cite later. Alas.

Relatedly, I was recently lecturing at a university on the development of Trinitarian language from the NT to Nicaea and a student asked me afterward, “Do you think the OT writers would have had a pre-existing concept of the Trinity?” Though I answered the question the best I could, my initial comment was, “We need to be careful not to try to psychoanalyze biblical authors.” This is a good general rule for both my question at ETS and the student’s question of me.

That said, we can suggest or hypothesize about particular authors’ intentions or thought processes because we have the final form of their texts in front of us. Along with the text itself, what we know of the historical or cultural conditions in which it was written can help us make relatively informed conclusions about the author’s underlying intentions or influences — so long as we use those tools with care and caution.

For example, in my dissertation, I’ve made the following statement about John’s incipient Trinitarianism:

John’s apocalypse contains a view of the Trinity—that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal in substance and yet distinct in personhood—that is incipient; that is, John’s explanation of the relationship between the persons was developing rather than fully or systematically established. This developing understanding of the persons means that John’s Trinitarianism is not tidy or terminologically precise; therefore, the explicitness of his descriptions will vary from passage to passage. Like other NT writers working from early Christian kerygma—particularly the Christological interpretation of the OT, patterns of devotion, and religious experience—he uses language and concepts familiar to himself and his audience to describe the apparent multiplicity of persons within the identity of Israel’s one God. . . .

While at some level we cannot interrogate John’s mental apparatus in order to understand all of his intentions and presuppositions, we have the final form of Revelation’s text through which we can ascertain judgments about his theological project. For example, John clearly constructs Revelation as a cohesive and unified letter with an epilogue and prologue and, as we will see, his method for applying concepts and allusions varies but is not haphazard. . . .

Regardless of whether it’s John or another biblical author, we should be careful not to psychoanalyze him, most obviously because he is not here to defend himself against our false conclusions. However, we should not allow this caution to scare us from saying anything definitive about the purpose, method, or theological project of an author. Indeed, Christian scholars acknowledge that each text is written by a human author, of course, but also by a Divine Author who is working behind the scenes in ways the human author cannot see. In turn, we as modern readers have the Holy Spirit and a biblical canon that offer us the ability to pay attention to patterns within both individual books and the overarching biblical storyline that may not be obvious on an historical-critical Petri dish.

I suspect that many biblical scholars are so paralyzed by my first question above that they cannot appreciate this tension.