Monday, 8 June 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 5

[This is the fifth of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

#3 – Its natural affinity with precritical interpretation

#4 – Its noteworthy exemplar in Karl Barth

#5 – Its relative comfort with multiple interpretations

With some exceptions (to be noted), those interested in theological interpretation allow for more diversity in interpretation than those nursed in the arms of historical criticism are comfortable with. Arguing for an ‘underdetermined interpretation’ of Scripture, rather than a determinate or anti-determinate interpretation, Stephen Fowl seeks to move from debates about the ‘meaning’ of a text to ‘accounts of our interpretative aims, interests, and practices’.

[Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 32-61, citation from 56, and cf. also his ‘The Role of Authorial Intention in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture’, in Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 71-87.]

As we saw in an earlier post, Fowl turns to the multifaceted notion of the ‘literal sense’ in Aquinas for support.

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘The Importance of a Multivoiced Literal Sense of Scripture: The Example of Thomas Aquinas’, in in A.K.M. Adam, Stephen E. Fowl, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Francis Watson, Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 35-50; Engaging Scripture, 38-40.]

Likewise, according to Adam, hermeneutics has been held captive to the metaphor of interpretation as translation of a one-to-one equivalence sort.

[A.K.M. Adam, ‘This is Not a Bible: Dispelling the Mystique of Words for the Future of Biblical Interpretation’, in Robert M. Fowler, Edith Blumhofer, Fernando F. Segovia (eds.), New Paradigms for Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 3-20; ‘Poaching on Zion: Biblical Theology as Signifying Practice’, in Adam et al., Reading Scripture, 17-34.]

Elsewhere, he writes of the ‘myth of subsistent meaning’, which treats ‘meaning’ as ‘an immanent property of a text’.

[A.K.M. Adam, Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 3.]

Rather, he argues, ‘we infer meaning from the experience of attempting to arrive at a shared understanding’ (Faithful Interpretation, 5). Far from being stymied by this, such a procedure is beneficial for those with theological interests in the Bible:

‘Freed from the impossible task of pinning down a single correct meaning for each biblical passage, scholars might devote their efforts to spelling out what makes their proposal the best among various legitimate hypotheses’ (Faithful Interpretation, 10-11).

Texts can’t mean anything, but ‘a hermeneutic that respects the full catholicity of meaning needs to start by accepting abundance as a positive condition’ (Adam, ‘Poaching on Zion’, 25).

Others have not been persuaded to abandon the category of ‘meaning’.

[E.g., Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 132-40, noting that it is the ‘divine economy’ that establishes appropriate boundaries and context for the meaning of a biblical text; see further his ‘Texts in Context: Scripture and the Divine Economy’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, 1 (2007), 23-45, and cf. Brevard S. Childs, ‘Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia 6, 1 (1997), 16-26, at 22-25.]

Vanhoozer draws on speech act theory to contest the claim that meaning is relative to the encounter between text and reader.

[Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), passim, esp. 201-80. It might be worth noting that Fowl (‘Authorial Intention’, 76, n. 10) distinguishes between two streams of speech act theory, following on from J.L. Austin. Richard Rorty and Jeffrey Stout treat Austin as a ‘therapeutic philosopher’ who eliminates confusions about language by showing that words and utterances become intelligible because of the way they are used in particular contexts and social conventions, ‘not because words have meanings as inherent properties’. A second way is taken up by Searle, who seeks ‘to develop a philosophy of language and, at least implicitly, a metaphysic or ontology’. Fowl judges that Vanhoozer (and Thiselton) stand more with Searle, and places himself with Rorty and Stout. In fact, Vanhoozer utilises Searle’s speech acts along with Ricoeur’s hermeneutics and Habermas’ social theory, seeking ‘to integrate all three into a comprehensive theory of literary meaning as communicative action’ (Meaning, 207).]

Vanhoozer argues that authorial intention is based on the notion of the author as a communicative agent. To describe meaning is to describe the author’s intended action, which is not to be confused with ‘what the author planned to write’ or ‘unintentionally brings about’ (Meaning, 259).

[Francis Watson, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 95-126 also utilises speech act theory in his argument that biblical texts have a single ‘literal sense’ which is ‘the communicative intention of the author’. See Scott A. Blue, ‘Meaning, Intention, and Application: Speech Act Theory in the Hermeneutics of Francis Watson and Kevin J. Vanhoozer’, Trinity Journal 23, 2 (2002), 161-84. In a more recent essay (‘Authors, Readers, Hermeneutics’, in Adam et al., Reading Scripture, 119-23), however, drawing on Augustine, Watson echoes Adam and Fowl in wondering whether theological hermeneutics ought to be more comprehensive in allowing a range of interpretive priorities.]

Texts are speech acts performed by authors, communicative actions of communicative agents, and one needs to understand what an author is doing – whether telling a story, making a promise, giving a warning, or issuing a rebuke. Vanhoozer also uses speech act theory to offer an account of the nature of Scripture as God’s communicative act.

[Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 127-203. See also Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Timothy Ward, Word and Supplement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).]

God is a communicative agent, and Scripture is his communicative action, the book of the covenant – the covenant of discourse – which establishes God’s relationship with his people, and through which we enjoy communion with him.

[It should be noted that other scholars are less interested in exploring the notion of Scripture as a divine speech act, and more interested in using speech act theory to examine the communicative acts in particular biblical passages. See, e.g., Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 272-312, and Richard S. Briggs, Words in Action: Speech Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation: Toward a Hermeneutic of Self-Involvement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001). For useful surveys, see Richard S. Briggs, ‘The Uses of Speech-Act Theory in Biblical Interpretation’, Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 9 (2001), 229-76, and Brevard S. Childs, ‘Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58, 4 (2005), 375-92.]

In a more recent essay, against Adam and Fowl, Vanhoozer defends the emphasis of his earlier work:

‘In sum: theological interpretation is the process of discerning the discourse, human and divine, in the canonical work. Whose discourse counts? I answer: that of the original historical author and the divine author who commissions, enables, authorizes, and accompanies it.’

[Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Imprisoned or Free? Text, Status, and Theological Interpretation in the Master/Slave Discourse of Philemon’, in Adam et al., Reading Scripture, 51-93, at 71.]

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