Scripture as Communication
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Scripture as Communication

Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics

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eBook - ePub

Scripture as Communication

Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics

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Is the Bible just a book of ancient Israelite and Christian history and practices to be read? Or are we engaging in a more interactive practice when we study God's word? Jeannine K. Brown believes that communication is at the heart of what happens when we open the Bible, that we are actively engaging God in a conversation that can be life changing. By learning about how Scripture communicates, modern readers can extract much more meaning out of the text than they could if simply reading the Bible as though it was a list of rules or a collection of stories. In Scripture as Communication, Brown offers professors, students, church leaders, and laity a basic guide to the theory and practice of biblical interpretation, helping them understand our engagement with Scriptures as primarily a communicative act.

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Baker Academic
Part 1
Theoretical Perspectives
on Scripture
as Communication

Terminology and Context
for Hermeneutics
Concepts are not what we think about; they are what we think with.
Kathleen Callow, Man and Message
The Importance of Conceptual Clarity
A helpful starting point for exploring the idea of Scripture as an act of communication is the clarification of terminology. If, as Callow contends, we think with concepts, we will want to be as clear as possible about the concepts we use to engage issues of biblical interpretation. Robert Stein, in his book A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, emphasizes the importance of definitional work for thinking clearly about hermeneutics.1 As a beginning seminary student in Stein’s hermeneutics class and as a reader of his book, I was empowered to think more clearly about issues of interpretation by working through a number of terms that formed the basis for our class discussion. Since then, I have valued the gift of definitional clarity. With the goal of passing along this gift, I will introduce a few general terms and their definitions in this chapter. In chapter 2, we will take a look at some theoretical models for interpretation and also introduce some additional terms more specifically focused on the goal of interpretation.
After seminary, I experienced firsthand the value of having ideas precisely defined when I was taking a hermeneutics course in my doctoral program. In an informal discussion outside of class one day, a fellow student and I were discussing biblical interpretation. Part of the way through the conversation, I asked my classmate how she understood the concept of meaning (that is, What do you mean by meaning?). She was taken aback by my question and proceeded to censure me just a bit for the attempt to define meaning. She did not give me an answer and made it clear that the question itself was essentially wrongheaded. As you might imagine, we could not proceed much further on the topic. Without at least a preliminary definition, there was no way to determine if there was any common ground between our viewpoints, or where we diverged for that matter. In fact, articulating a definition of a term, such as “meaning,” is not as much about setting it in stone (mine continues to be nuanced) as it is about clarifying how a concept fits with other definitions of that same concept as well as other terms. In other words, we are best able to compare concepts and conceptual frameworks if we have adequately defined our understanding of those concepts—if we have done some basic definitional work.
To begin, what is hermeneutics? The short answer is that hermeneutics is the study of the activity of interpretation. In the realm of theory, the term is used to refer to the discipline that analyzes interpretation, specifically, how texts communicate, how meaning is derived from texts and/or their authors, and what it is that people do when they interpret a text. In practical relation to biblical interpretation, people use “hermeneutics” either to speak about the act of bringing the meaning of the text to bear in one’s present context, or the study of the whole movement involved in interpreting a text’s meaning and applying it today.2 I follow the latter course. For our purposes (and to return to a shorter definition), hermeneutics is the analysis of what we do when we seek to understand the Bible, including its appropriation to the contemporary world. You might have noticed that in the process of defining hermeneutics we, by necessity, also defined “interpretation” (seeking to understand the Bible). When we compare these two definitions, we notice that hermeneutics is a second-order task, which means that it involves thinking about thinking. In the case of hermeneutics, thinking and reflection are focused on the act of interpreting texts (which is itself more than a thinking activity but certainly not less).
For many, this definition might beg the question: Why is interpretation needed, let alone the analysis of interpretation? (To get down to it, why this book?) This is an honest and common enough question, especially in light of reflexive assumptions that would say reading rather than interpreting is what ought to happen when we come to the Bible. I am reminded of an advertisement I came across in a Christian magazine a while ago for a new English Bible version. The slogan read, “Now No Interpretation Needed.” The advertisers were implying that this particular Bible was so accurate and clear that simple reading of the text would suffice.
The matter is not so simple, however, given that all reading is interpretation. When I pick up the newspaper in the morning to read, I am, to be more accurate, an interpreter of it. I make a large number of reflexive determinations in order to read that newspaper rightly. For example, I know that I am to read the editorials differently from the front page headlines, and also from the funnies. I adjust my expectations accordingly. I also draw upon a large pool of shared assumptions with the writers of my local newspaper, such as the identities of local sports teams (Go, Vikings!) and the general political and social situation of my city, state, nation, and world. But I do so without much conscious effort, given my familiarity with my own culture’s social context and literary conventions (e.g., funnies are not advertisements).
When living in England for a month, I had the experience of reading a newspaper in my own language but without fully sharing the cultural backdrop of its writers. There were many times when they referred to a name, place, or situation that would have been clearly understood by a local British resident but was obscure to me. Additionally, a turn of phrase that was commonplace for a local reader would puzzle me. I felt the culture gap, even though I share the same language and live at the same time in history.
Imagine how the task of understanding grows more complex when reading ancient texts, including the Bible. This complexity is the reason why what is usually reflexive when reading documents in our native language and from the same cultural context necessarily needs to be more consciously addressed when reading ancient texts. There are significant gaps in our knowledge of the literary conventions, language, and social settings that surround and inhabit biblical texts. We live in a different time and place than the times and places in which and to which the text originally spoke. Deliberate attention to these issues and painstaking work at many junctures are required. That is the reason why interpretation is not only necessary; it is also unavoidable.3 And that is why biblical interpretation needs second-order reflection; it needs hermeneutics.4
Meaning: A Preliminary Definition
Meaning is what we are trying to grasp when we interpret. That is the short answer, and one on which there is general agreement. From there, definitions diverge sharply. Is meaning to be found by attending to the author and his or her intentions? Or is meaning a property of texts apart from their authors? How do readers intersect with meaning? Do they only discover or respond to meaning, or are they in reality creators of meaning? Our answers to these kinds of questions will significantly influence our definition of meaning.5
At this point, with a caution that I am advancing a preliminary definition that will be expanded in chapter 2, I will refocus and briefly explain the definition of meaning already provided: meaning is the communicative intention of the author, which has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement. The author’s communicative act when writing a text is an act of intention. Because the concept of “authorial intention” has been much maligned in recent years, I specify the kind of intention I mean: not simply what an author hopes to communicate (intention as wish or motive) but what an author actually does communicate by intention in a text (communicative intention).6 The latter is accessible to the reader of the text; the former is not. Meaning understood as an author’s communicative intention avoids the pitfalls historically associated with a broader concept of authorial intentions. Once we have explored some theories of textual communication, we will be in a better position to develop this definition of meaning to express more carefully the relationship between author, text, and reader.
Exegesis is the task of carefully studying the Bible in order to determine as well as possible the author’s meaning in the original context of writing. Or as MoisĂ©s Silva puts it, “exegesis . . . is a fancy way of referring to interpretation.”7 The latter definition makes it clear that our understanding and practice of exegesis are very much dependent upon our definition of meaning, since how we understand meaning inevitably works itself out in our interpretive (exegetical) practices. For example, if one understands meaning to be a property of texts divorced from their authors, interpretation will not focus on authorial meaning. So there is an organic interdependence between our definitions of meaning, interpretation, and hermeneutics. The first definition for exegesis given above, which focuses on authorial meaning within the original context, emphasizes that exegesis focuses on the then of the text rather than the now of contextualized meaning.8
For this reason, the exegetical process is, at its heart, a cross-cultural one. We are trying to understand the Bible in its original context. Doing so will necessarily involve bridging gaps of time and location, language and culture. Coming to study the Bible in its own context is rather like taking a trip to a foreign country. It is very exciting, but it also requires lots of energy! Even in our global age, crossing cultures is rather strenuous activity. You need to navigate a different language, different customs, differing money systems, and a location of which you may have very little firsthand knowledge.
When we come to exegete the Bible,9 there are a number of factors to pay attention to in order to bridge the cultural gap between its setting and ours. Some of these are simply good reading habits we need to cultivate. Others are necessitated by Scripture’s cultural distance. We might call all of these “guidelines for reading at a distance,” and they include attention to genre, literary context, and social setting.10
The genre of a biblical text or book refers to its classification as a specific kind of literature. There are many types of literature in the Bible, including, but not limited to, narrative, poetry, epistle, legal texts, and apocalyptic literature. Each of these genres can, in turn, be subdivided into further generic (genre) categories. Poetry in the Old Testament, for instance, is the primary genre found in the prophetic books (e.g., Micah and Jeremiah), in wisdom literature (e.g., Proverbs and Job), and in songs (such as Psalms and Song of Songs). It is important to identify the genre of a biblical book, since we will need to familiarize ourselves with the conventions of that genre to read rightly. As modern readers, we simply do not know everything we need to know about certain conventions of the genres of the Bible. For instance, while contemporary readers often feel fairly comfortable interpreting letters (modern or biblical), none of us encounters apocalyptic literature as a genre in our own culture. It is important, then, to understand the generic categories particular to the Bible and learn the conventions and contours that come along with that genre.11
Literary Context
One reading skill that seems obvious for general reading, but sometimes is ignored when we approach the Bible, is reading individual texts in their literary context. Literary context is defined as the written material surrounding a text in question. Initially, it is the material immediately surrounding a proposed passage of Scripture, as well as the wider section in which that passage is located. During much of the exegetical process, the most important literary unit to attend to when reading a specific text is the book of the Bible in which it is found. For exegesis to stay true to what an author has communicated, the whole book must remain in view, even when primary focus is on a single passage (as is often the case in sermons or exegetical papers). There is a time, as well, for looking beyond the individual book to its connections within the whole of Scripture. This is called canonical context (with the canon referring to the sixty-six books that make up the Protestant Christian Bible).12
Social Setting
The gaps that seem most obvious to us as we read Scripture are usually related to the historical and cultural distances between our world and the worlds surrounding the Bible. We experience these gaps more potently in some texts than in others. For example, my family had been reading Genesis together. Arriving at chapter 14, we read:
Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king...

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