Term Paper: Communicative Theory of Biblical Interpretation

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[. . .] While Brown does not present the conversational nature of her approach to hermeneutics as glorifying God, she does argue that it enables relevance and contextualization to play important parts in the efforts of Scriptural readers to evoke meaning. Certainly Brown implies that some pluralism is both part of the process and part of the product of such an approach to understanding Scripture.

Speech-act theory. The paths to a communicative theory of Biblical interpretation include consideration of several sub-theories, if you will, that establish a foundation for the development and consideration of the overarching theory of the Bible as a form of communication with God. The necessary linkage to other theories is evident in the construct of contextualization, which aligns with speech-act theory. Contextualization aligns particularly with the concept of perlocunon, which is the hearer's response to speech and the third component of the speech-act theory. The speech-act theory holds that there are three components, or actions, of speech. The actions associated with communication are locution, or what the speaker is saying, illocution or the verbal action and the force of what is said, and perlocunon, which is the hearer's response to the verbal action (Brown, 2007).

According to speech-act theory, Scripture says and does things with words. Some of the actions attributed to Scripture are blessing, forgiveness, judgment, promise, teaching, and worship (Brown, 2007). Theoretically, this is a departure from a conscribed interpretation of scriptural meaning beyond statements of fact to an interpretation that acknowledges that Scripture is active -- that is, Scripture performs certain actions, presumably as it is read. From this base, it is apparent that interpretation of the Scripture requires some understanding of what is said and the force of what is said, or the illocution (Brown, 2007).

The speech-act theory permits and affirms consideration of the interpersonal in communication. In other words, it is the author who provides the communicative intent -- letters and words do not arrange themselves in meaningful order and array on a page. That is the task of an author, and that is also the authority expressed by the author. As Brown emphasizes, "the author remains, in theory, connected to the text's communicative aims" (2007, p. 35).

Speech-act theory provides a framework for interpretation of text that does not require a belief in the construction of meaning by readers. Rather, the speech-act theory posits that perlocutionary intention -- which is the intent of the speaker for the response of the hearer -- is considered to be a part of and an extension of the speaker's intention. This aspect of speech-act theory maintains that the speaker continues to be linked to the communicative aims of the text (Brown, 2007). And where text enables person-to-person communication, speech-act theory establishes the author as the first person, whose communication is available for interpretation (Brown, 2007). Brown assembles a definition of meaning that considers the key points of several theories and frameworks:

"…we can define meaning as the complex pattern of what an author intends to communicate with his or her audience for purposes of engagement, which is inscribed in the text and conveyed through use of both shareable language parameters and background-contextual assumptions" (Brown, 2007, p. 48).


The utility of a communicative theory of Biblical interpretation is its capacity for analyzing Scripture for meaning in a way that takes into consideration the complexity of the task. If the conclusion is that the author's intent is present in the text, then the process of reading must consider the implications of the text in terms of assumptions, message intent, holistic structure, and implications. Taken as a whole, discerning meaning in text is a profoundly complex task and yet one that readers generally accomplish without much conscious thought, and certainly without a meta-cognitive orientation. Consideration of the action component of communicative intent lines up with the concept that biblical authors set out to evoke substantive life changes in readers and hearers, and were not just seeking to bring about some cognitive acknowledgement of the message embedded in the text -- however the reader or hearer might conceptualize it. Contextualization can serve to filter and clarify intention and meaning, regardless of whether the context that is being considered is an historical one experienced by the biblical authors, or our own context which requires both perspective and "sensitivity to our own social location" (Brown, 2007, p. 119).

Allen (1984), Brown (2007), and Kaiser (1994) are like three points on a unidirectional continuum. Allen (1984) is adamant that the Scripture is the Word is the Scripture, and argues that the Scripture is God preaching. Very little room for interpretation or for tacking toward relevance is indicated by Allen's position. Brown (2007) offers a rigorous cognitive framework for approaching the reading of Scripture, and calls on the reader to meet her exacting intellectual standards and respond in a rigorous manner -- a position that seems wholly appropriate given that Brown views Scriptural reading as a conversation with God. Brown's communicative theory is considerably more open than Allen's and more flexible than a structuralistic approach, which would preclude attributing substantive importance to individual components of the Scripture. For Brown, and proponents of speech-act theory, the individual components of Scripture may be the hooks on which understanding rests. Kaiser takes a principled view with regard to understanding the Scriptures in the context of the modern world. To those who would object to his "going beyond the Bible," he has at the ready examples of how the Church does exactly that, at its convenience and unabashedly argues that adjustments are made according to "views it believes God to hold true" (Kaiser, 1994). In this regard, Kaiser's criticism points to the Church's willingness to apply a literary criticism approach to Scripture, citing relevance to contemporary society as the pivot point. The very theological paradigms to which Allen (1984) objects are to Kaiser (1994) a natural outcome of a literary criticism approach to Biblical interpretation. The theological paradigms are needed to make assertions about what is Biblical, that is, what God requires in a given situation. Brown posits a more personal and rigorous approach to Scriptural interpretation -- demanding that multiple perspectives be considered, to the degree that the essence of a communicative theory of Biblical interpretation contains aspects of literary criticism, structural criticism, and reader-response criticism.


Allen, R. (1984). Contemporary Biblical interpretation for preaching. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.

Brown, J.K. (2007). Introducing Biblical hermeneutics: Scripture as communication. Ada, MI: Baker Academics.

Definition of reader response criticism. Critical Approaches. VirtuaLit - Interactive Poetry Tutorial. Retrieved http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/critical_define/crit_reader.html

Fish, S. (1970). Literature in the reader: Affective stylistics. New Literary History, 2 (1), 123-162.

Iser, W. (1974). The implied reader: Patterns of communication in prose: Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett.

Iser, W. (1976) The act of reading: A theory of aesthetic response. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kaiser, W. (1994). An introduction to Biblical hermeneutics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Murfin, R.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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