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Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Prolegomena Part 2

In my last post we began our prolegomena by sketching a doctrine of Scripture. In today's post we will look at some issues regarding hermeneutics. As I concluded in the last post, our job is to listen to the Scriptures. That stresses both posture and effort. This post will be a little technical. I apologize for that, but it is a technical topic.

I have learned a great deal from a variety of stances that could loosely be gathered under the heading of post-modern literary criticism. The biggest gain I see is the emphasis on voice and power. Whose voice are we hearing when we read a text? So often it's our own, or the voice of the tradition or social group we have aligned ourselves with. How, then, are these different voices using the text for their own ends? How do we think the author was using the text for his or her own end? The moment we begin to use Scripture for our own power plays we lose all hope of hearing God speak through it. Scripture is something to be listened to, together. For community, in all of its diversity and messiness, is the best safeguard against usurping the text of the Bible for our own ends.[1] At its heart, listening is about reading as well as possible, while hoping to encounter God. Philosophy of language and applied linguistics have given us some tools to help us read well.

A major breakthrough over the last fifty years in the philosophy of language is the realization that speech, oral or written, is an action. Human being write and say things for reasons. They are trying to do or accomplish certain things with their words. These intentional actions are part of the meaning of what we say and write. Utterances and writings mean things because by them we express intentional (psychological) states.[2]  That's another way of saying that utterances mean what speakers intend them to mean.

Therefore, if we want to understand what has been written, we must pay attention to the three elements of every utterance: the locutions, illocutions, and perlocutions of the texts as wholes.[3] Locutions refer to the propositional content of an utterance. If I say, 'the kitchen is clean,' then the propositional content is that the kitchen is clean. What am I trying to do by making that utterance (or what is my illocutionary force)? Am I using that propositional content to make an assertion or a complaint or both or something else? Last, look at the impact of the text. How do you feel reading it in context? What did the text accomplish? The significance of a text or utterance is part of the meaning (although certainly in a somewhat different sense). Also, when dealing with ancient texts we must ask how the earliest audience understand the text. Often reception history, especially during the first couple of centuries CE, is a clue back into what the author was trying to do with the text. To paraphrase Markus Bockmuehl, to understand what happened, look at what happened next and work your way backwards.[4] All of this must be taken into account to understand what a text means. Progressing through a text word by word seeking to understand lexical meaning is inadequate. Texts must be understood at the level of discourse and discourses are made up of speech acts.[5]

Everything I've said is all well and good but we will run into a few roadblocks that require us to be careful. We are not the intended recipients of any biblical text. It was written to someone else and intended to participate in some sort of conversation that we are not part of. We may not even know who either the author or the intended audience was. How then can we proceed?

Two things help us substantially. First, most speech acts have conventional ways of being performed. The text as it is should contain much of the material we need to properly interpret it. The author should, generally, make his aims clear.[6] We are not looking at detached fragments but at complete works. Bringing in literary tools appropriate to the genre will help us situate the individual utterances as a whole. Second, and most critical, we must do studies on background and comparative work. We must compare biblical texts to other similar biblical texts and to other texts both from within and without the Judeo-Christian tradition that are contemporary with the text we are studying. This will provide us with a range of possible uses for a given text, ruling out certain interpretations. For example, I firmly believe that when Romans is compared with both Jewish and Greco-Roman ethical treatises and when one understands first century Jewish attitudes towards the law and righteousness, it becomes clear that both traditional Catholic and Protestant interpretations, particularly of the first four chapters, are impossible.

Once we have understood both the literal content of the text and the aim of the author, we are left to react. We must ask, what is the proper response to the text?[7] How do we live and put into action what we hear God speaking to us when he makes the word come alive to us. As Vanhoozer has put it, how do we individually and collectively improvise on the text as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit? Any interpretation that stops short of this point is incomplete.

For Further Reading:

On Biblical Hermeneutics:
Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works with New Essays by Anthony Thiselton
Essays on Biblical Interrpetation by Paul Ricoeur


On Speech Act Theory and Related Philosophical Issues:
Speech Acts - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Intentionality: An Essay in Philosophy of Mind by John Searle
Foundations of Illocutionary Logic John Searle and Daniel Vanderveken
Logics of Conversation by Nicholas Asher and Alex Lascarides**


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[1] And by community, I don't have in mind only the level of the local church, but the church as a whole, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.

[2] Though the challenge to this view by Asher and Lascarides needs to be considered, modification here doesn't overthrow my overall argument.

[3] Here I think Asher and Lascarides - against Searle - are on the right track by insisting that we must view individual speech acts as contributing to a conversation and that the conversation is the basic unit of meaning.

[4] This paraphrase is from a line in Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory that I am unable to track down at the moment.

[5] In my own analysis I will be doing speech act analysis and inserting it into a discourse analysis that is in the spirit of SDRT as outlined by Asher and Lascarides. I will not make the analysis explicit in my writing on this blog but it will lie behind my presentations of my exegetical work.

[6] Even ironic texts like (I believe) the Song of Songs do make their intentions clear at points, otherwise even the original audience would miss the point. It gets dicier with satire.

[7] Is the proper reaction ever repudiation or a refusal to follow the leading of a text? I am not sure, but it's hard to see how not to push back against certain texts like Proverbs 31 or Ezra 9-10, for example. Resisting a biblical text is not something to take lightly and we must listen hard to hear how God might still speak to us through it. One would also have to make a convincing biblical argument against the said text. But I do not see any apriori reason why God could not move us in a direction in conflict with a 'problematic passage' just as the apostles were so moved at the Jerusalem council.

** Note: This work is extremely technical and is intended for specialists only.

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