Communicative Theory of Biblical Interpretation Any Theory Term Paper

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  • Subject: Literature
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Communicative Theory of Biblical Interpretation

Any theory is a composite of residual aspects of earlier theories and fresh compositions illuminated by the present context. The several theories that have been applied to the study of Scriptures are no exception, and this discussion will explore how several theories have come to coalesce in the communicative theory of Biblical interpretation. The relation of literary criticism, structural criticism, and reader-response criticism to the Biblical interpretation as seen through the lens of communicative theory will be discussed. Aspects of contextualization, relevance theory, and speech-act theory are explored with regard to the influence of these constructs on the development of modern communicative theory.

Communicative theory. The written word is a special form of communication -- a mysterious way for people to experience the inner thoughts of another being. The Bible, as a written record of the experiences and history of ancient Israelites and Christians, provides the same opportunity. However, proponents of the communicative theory of Biblical interpretation argue that reading and studying the Bible provides an even richer opportunity -- that of engaging in interactive communication -- a conversation -- with God. The Scripture communicates in particular ways, according to this theory, and readers have the capability of gleaning more meaning from the Bible if they know how Scripture opens the way to understanding more than the face-value stories and rules by which one must abide.

Biblical hermeneutics is inclusive beyond just an analysis and interpretation of the text of Scripture -- or what is called exegesis. Biblical hermeneutics includes interpretation that is verbal, nonverbal, and written. Integral to Biblical hermeneutics are the epistemological questions of the nature of knowledge and understanding -- how understanding comes about and how knowledge is experienced by human beings. Hermeneutics, then, must be considered "a second-order task, which means that it involves thinking about thinking" (Brown, 2007, p. 21). As a meta-cognitive process (thinking about thinking), hermeneutics requires an individual to consider how their own cognitive filters impact their interpretation of their thinking processes, assumptions, and conclusions.

Even though Scripture may be considered more than text, it is still also text. Understanding the text of Scriptural passages is generally the first analysis to which human beings apply themselves with regard to Biblical study. The same approaches to understanding any text apply at this level of knowledge acquisition, theological considerations aside. From this, it is reasonable that the initial study of the Biblical often takes the form of literary criticism.

Literary criticism. Literary criticism is the application of literary theory and it is focused on specific literary works. The realm of theory -- literary theory, in this instance -- is based in more abstract or general ideas. Literary criticism has as one of its several aspects clarification of the meaning of a literary work. Brown (2007) defines meaning as "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" (p. 22).

Central to this discussion on meaning is consideration of the three main components of meaning. Certainly, an author attaches some meaning to their own work, either directly -- through some intention -- or indirectly through subconscious attribution. And the reader, as the consumer of the literary work, is prepared to discover meaning, respond to meaning, or attach meaning to the text. The reader may, in fact, create a meaning apart from any meaning intended by the author. Third, the text may have the property of meaning that exists separately -- apart from the author and apart from the reader.

Structural criticism. The form that structural criticism takes in literary criticism is an insistence that the various elements of a literary work can only be understood in terms of their relationship to the larger structure or overarching "system," that is the literary work. Discrete elements of a literary work, according to the theory of structural criticism, cannot function in an explanatory manner apart from the whole. In fact, it is the location of elements within the structure viewed as a complete system that enables the derivation of meaning. The position of the structural theorists can be said to align with the position of theologians who require the Scripture and the Word to be perceived as an indivisible whole. In support of this position, Allan (1984) argues that the foundations of epistemology and hermeneutics appears undercut by the theology in which text is rendered indeterminate through the application of pluralistic textual meaning and theological assertions. Brown, however, illustrates through the electric approach that authority need not fall victim to pluralistic textual interpretation in light of the idea that Scriptural reading is a conversation with God and, therefore, no less authoritative.

Reader response criticism. The approaches to the study of literature that explore and explain the divergent and diverse responses that readers have to literary works is known as reader response criticism. A reader lives through -- experiences fully -- the text that they read. Some literary critics argue that the literary work exists as an entity separate from the perceptions and interpretations of individual readers. This theory is in direct opposition with reader response theorists who argue that the interpretation and meaning of a literary work is cooperatively produced by the text (the entity) and the reader. Reader response theorists refer to this collaboration as the live through experience. Critics of reader response theory refer to this notion as affective fallacy, and content that the response that a reader has to a literary work is irrelevant to the meaning of the work (Wimsatt & Beardsley, 1954).

Reader response theorists argue that it is a mistake to describe a literary work as something that is and not describe what it does -- the latter being the very essence of reading and literature. From a reader response theory perspective, what gives literature its force is the affective response of the reader (Fish, 1970). Further, reading is an activity with temporal rather than spatial manifestations, and it signifies meaning when it is read (Fish, 1970). According to Wolfgang Iser (1974, 1976), text is peppered with gaps that the reader must fill and explain, creating in the mind what is not in the text but is implied or incited by the text. From this redefinition of literature, it is apparent that the reader cannot be thought of a passive partner. Rather reader response theorist assert that the reader actively creates meaning through his or her own mental events Fish, 1970; Iser, 1974, 1976). From the mid-1970s on, the theory of reader response criticism has broadened its definitions to embrace the idea of interpretive communities that use interpretive strategies in common, such as might be found in a book club or a university literature class focused on historical novels, say.

Contextualization. The exercise of bringing a text into the perspective of another time and place is known as contextualization. With regard to communicative theory of Biblical interpretation, contextualization refers to the ability to "hear Scripture's meaning speak in new contexts" (Brown, 2007). Brown (2007) argues that interpretation (exegesis) and contextualization occur together in reading Scripture. At the heart of this discussion is the determination of what text truly is. Some theorists assert that text is an entity that shifts as a result of the mental and emotional filters of the readers. This perspective, then, diminishes any importance of authors, authority, and the intention of communication (Brown, 2007). However, if texts are "culturally located communicative acts, tied to a particular place and time," then the intention of communication and the context in which authors write are relevant and important considerations (Brown, 2007). "In fact," Brown writes, "it is meaning as communicative act that holds the most promise for doing justice to author, text, and reader, without missing the distinctive ways each contributes to the communication process" (2007, p. 27 ).

Relevance theory. At the core of relevance theory is the argument that an utterance -- the verbal act in speech-act theory -- requires of the hearer more than just attending to the linguistic features of the utterance. What is required is that the hearer select from a universe of contextual input those contexts (background or foreground) that have the most relevance for understanding the utterance (Brown, 2007). The speaker, according to relevance theory, assumes that the hearer will, in fact, supply those contexts that enable meaning. In this way, "meaning is always contextually situated" and "a communicative act assumes a context" (Brown, 2007, p. 35). It is up to the hearer or the reader, then, to visualize what is implied by the text and provide the contextual assumptions that a common to the author and audience for whom the text was originally intended.

Kaiser (1994) suggests that God has provided inspired texts for the benefit of people, but inspired commentaries have not been provided. Further, Kaiser argues that engaging in discussions about the interpretation of the Bible and application of the…

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