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Privilege the Text!
A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching
By Abraham Kuruvilla, Philip E. Rawley
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2013 Abraham Kuruvilla
All rights reserved.
General and Special Hermeneutics
[W]e are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity.
Alexander Hamilton, 1788
how the preacher may move from Scripture to sermon, from an ancient text to modern praxis in the life of a Christian congregation, is the burden of this work. As with all literary productions intended to stand the test of time and the stretch of space, the Bible, in a very special way, was written to communicate, not only to an immediate audience, but also to God's people located far in place and period from those at the text's origin. And not just to communicate; God's goal is to conform his people into the image of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This means that this ancient text must be preached to a modern audience in a manner that yields application to change lives for the glory of God. In reflecting on this whole process, where does the preacher begin?
It all starts with a text. Scripture, the predominant medium of divine communication to mankind, is textual. And so any approach to the interpretation of Scripture must begin with language, the essence of texts, the principle of all communication and, indeed, the universal medium of being—we are immersed in a sea of language from birth to death. Therefore, general hermeneutics, the science of interpretation of any text (hence general hermeneutics), comes into play in biblical interpretation. But the church has also construed Scripture as the word of God, divine discourse. In other words, Scripture is not simply any text; it is a special text. Therefore, special hermeneutics, the science of interpretation of this unique biblical text (hence special or theological hermeneutics), also has to operate in biblical interpretation. Chapter 1 addresses the essential features of general and special hermeneutics that enable the reading of Scripture by the preacher.
PREVIEW: GENERAL AND SPECIAL HERMENEUTICS
The peculiar features of the special text that the church calls "Scripture" include: its ultimate Author, the singular nature of its referent (what it is all about: God and his relationship to his creation), and its spiritually transforming power. Therefore, seeking the intent of the text's author, comprehending its referent, and responding to it are critical features of biblical interpretation. In fact these are features transferrable to the interpretation of any text. One might even say that it is because the Bible is read that way—with attention to author, referent, and response—that other texts can be read that way, too, mutatis mutandis. George Steiner points out that "any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, ... any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling [i.e., a general hermeneutic] is ... underwritten by the assumption of God's presence [i.e., a special hermeneutic]." For God is the ultimate Cause (or Author), enabling every other intermediate cause (or author); he is the ultimate Meaning, enabling every other meaningful discourse about referents; and he is the ultimate Authority, from whom is derived every other authority that beckons us to respond. In effect, then, every book is to be read as the Bible is—seeking authorial intent, comprehending textual referent, and responding to its overtures. The reading of the Bible is the paradigm for every other kind of reading that respects author, privileges content, and applies truth. In other words, general hermeneutics exists because there exists a special hermeneutic—the construal of Scripture as the viva vox Dei ("living voice of God"). Special hermeneutics is, thus, one of a kind, not just a small plot in the larger terrain of general hermeneutics. Indeed, it is the other way around: "general hermeneutics is inescapably theological."
However, this subjection of general hermeneutics to special hermeneutics does not mean that one can dispense with the former. After all, the Bible is a text, albeit a text like no other. But a text it remains, and the interpreter must resort to general hermeneutics in its interpretation. Therefore this chapter will first consider general hermeneutics; it will conclude with an examination of Rules of Reading that constitute the special hermeneutic of Scripture—the unique, special rules that govern the interpretation of this unique, special text. These reading guidelines serve as boundaries within which the interpreter must remain in order to be faithful to the text and to the intention of its Author and authors. With the establishment of these markers the interpreter can now proceed to explore the particular preaching text, the pericope. This sermonic chunk of text will be the consideration of chapter 2.
Discourse is the mediator between mind and world; what is thought in the mind becomes what is expressed in the world, "indefinitely extending the battlefront of the expressed at the expense of the unexpressed." Both speech and writing expand the frontiers of expression as spoken and written utterances are made. While text inscription is distinct from vocal articulation in both performance and consequence, writing nevertheless shares with speech many of the properties of a communicative act; it is a particular kind of "saying." But though textuality is kin to orality, the differences between the two are substantial. These differences have significant ramifications for textual interpretation, especially for the interpretation of the text that is the Bible, and most especially for the interpretation of that text for preaching—hermeneutics for homiletics.
Textuality and Its Consequences
Though the writing of Scripture was preceded by the utterances of the law-giver, the storyteller, the seer, the songwriter, the teacher, and the oral discourses of Jesus himself, it was the inscripturated word that was recognized by the Christian community as the canonical word of God, according the word preeminence in Christian faith and practice. Such a lofty regard for the text is based on the assumption that "this kind of discourse is not senseless, that it is worthwhile to analyze it, because something is said that is not said by other kinds of discourse"—i.e., the overarching theme of God and his relationship to his creation. Thus, biblical discourse, discourse of a special kind, calls for the employment of a special hermeneutic. Yet, there are some characteristics of texts in general, biblical and otherwise, that have to be considered (general hermeneutics) in the interpretation even of this special text.
The first and fundamental trait of any discourse, spoken or scripted, is that it is an act of communication whereby somebody "says" something to somebody else about something in some manner. In this, an inscribed discourse is no different from that which is spoken: both are communicative actions. However, in distinction from a speech-event, a text is a discourse that is fixed, preserved, archived, and disseminated by writing. It is a stable locus of meaning, but—and this is key—one that has undergone significant upheavals in its passage from speech to script.
Something has happened when writing occurs, when compared to speaking. In all discourse, there is an implicit dialectic between the event of the utterance (the act of saying) and the content thereof (what is said). In spoken discourse, there is an intimate association between these two poles with each getting adequate emphasis: the event of speaking is coincident with the conveyance of meaningful content. However, at the moment of writing, a radical breach is created between the event of communication and the content of communication, between the act of saying and what was said. The event is now potentially distanced from content, frozen as the latter is in its state of writtenness. What this change accomplishes is the fixation, not of the event of communication (the saying), but of the content of communication (the said). Ricoeur's observation is apt: "The human fact [and face!] disappears. Now material 'marks' convey the message"—no longer lung, larynx, and tongue, but ink, quill, and paper bear the fixed/frozen message. Writing has rendered the content of the saying autonomous, an orphan, dislodged from the event of saying. In essence, texts have been estranged from their creators, their original audiences, and the circumstances of their composition. This is the phenomenon technically called distanciation, the distancing between the event of saying and the content of saying. Distanciation is thus a constitutive element of the transaction of writing, and an integral property of all texts. From an oral-aural world, where the utterance was spoken and heard, the message has been translocated into a textual-visual world where the discourse is written and seen. The resulting emancipation of the text from the oral situation has unique consequences for the affiliations between text and author, hearer, and referent of written discourse.
Text and Author
As was noted, the liberation of communication content from communication event, accomplished in the event of writing, proclaims the escape of the text's career from the finite horizons of its author. This, however, does not imply a total loss of tethering of text to authorial meaning, or that readers have to throw up their hands in despair. Though there is, in writing, some degree of freedom of text from the author, it is not a complete severance that would make authorial guidance totally unavailable for interpretation. Distanciation does not render the text utterly autonomous, for the text bears with it, to some extent at least, artifacts of the event of writing and traces of the author in its script, medium, content, arrangement, etc. For instance, even the determination by a reader of the language of a written composition is an acknowledgment of what its author intended. The phenomenon of "false friends" illustrates this eloquently: Should "g-i-f-t" be read in English or in German (= "poison")? The decision is always based upon an assumption of what language the author chose to write in, a choice manifest in the text. Letters and wills are prime examples of texts always regarded as bearing the intentional presence of their authors or testators. Therefore the fallacy of baptizing the text as an authorless, absolute entity, detached and completely bereft of any authorial vestige, must be avoided. In other words, despite distanciation, authorial fingerprints can be detected in the inscription; such residues of intent are essential for interpretation, and are sufficiently present in texts to establish the writer's purpose.
Text and Hearer
In the visual world of the text, receivers of the discourse are no longer hearers; they have been turned into readers, for the text has escaped not only the author, but also those within earshot, and it is now rendered accessible to reading audiences situated anywhere, anytime. The unique nature of writing gives it the ability to reach receivers other than those originally intended by the author. As Lessig observed wryly, "Texts are transportable. They move. Because written, they are carried. Because carried, they are read—in different places and at different times. Nothing ... can stop this semiotic peripateticism. If you write it, it will roam." And these roaming pieces of communication, by virtue of their textuality and frozenness, can fall into the hands of a potential universe of readers.
Though writing may be addressed to a particular individual, this specification is less precise than in oral communication. The reader is, more often than not, beyond the physical vicinity of the author, and unknown to him or her. Anyone who can read and is willing to volunteer for the role of addressee may undertake the reading of that particular text. This potential universalization of the audience is one of the more radical effects of written communication. Yet, even when the identity of the reader is not stipulated and the possibility exists for an indiscriminate readership, the text may be directed towards an authorially intended consumer belonging to a particular community and perhaps even sharing the same authorial concerns that motivated the production of the text in the first place. This is, of course, pertinent to the interpretation of the Bible within a congregation that recognizes that writing as its Scripture, within a community committed to the same God who inspired that text millennia ago. In short, textuality and the consequences of distanciation have made this special, divine discourse potentially accessible to all of God's people in every age.
Text and Referent
Thirdly—and this is perhaps one of the more notable consequences—distanciation affects ostensive referents, i.e., those items referred to in oral communication that can be shown, pointed out, labeled, or otherwise indicated by virtue of the collocation in time and space of speaker and hearer: this person, that house, these shoes, those trees, this day, and so on, elements that are integral to any vocal utterance between individuals sharing the same time and space. However, for those not directly addressed by the speaker, and not sharing time and space with the speaker, these referents are elusive. So also for the "orphaned" text, dislodged from its generating agent, event, and original addressees: ostensive referents of the text are no longer immediately and directly accessible to readers far away. A bit of Jewish folklore, in the form of a letter, demonstrates this phenomenon well:
Be good enough to send me your slippers. Of course, I mean "my slippers" and not "your slippers." But, if you read "my slippers," you will think I mean your slippers. Whereas, if I write: "send me your slippers," you will read your slippers and will understand that I want my slippers. So: send me your slippers.
A "decontextualization" occurs with texts that the letter-writer to Riwke was acutely and painfully conscious of. Whose slippers are being demanded here? However, paradoxically, textuality is a necessary condition for the preservation of meaning across time and space, because textuality is designed to overcome the time and space restrictions imposed by orality. Those who could not be otherwise reached are now within reachable distance, for texts are transportable and movable, and they are carried and read. One need only imagine science, as we know it, occurring in a purely oral culture, to understand the immense value of texts and textuality. Notwithstanding this significant advantage, texts have undergone distanciation, and this distanciation of referents necessitates the enterprise of interpretation: What is the text all about—what is the author referring to, where and when, why and wherefore? In other words, if he is to respond to the writer in valid application, Riwke is going to have to figure out whose slippers are being referred to in that letter.
With regard to Scripture, these same consequences of distanciation operate by virtue of its textuality: the human author is unavailable; readers are located far from the origin of the text; and ostensive referents are not accessible in direct or immediate fashion. Yet, this unique discourse of the biblical text mandates its own application in times and spaces distant from the circumstances of its provenance. If Scripture is to be employed in these new locales, this gap of distanciation must be bridged and, importantly, the referent of the text—what it is all about (its thrust)—must be discovered. All interpretation, especially that engaged in by the homiletician seeking valid sermonic application, is an attempt to understand this thrust of the text. How may this be faithfully and fittingly accomplished?
Here is where what is considered to be Paul Ricoeur's most important contribution to interpretation theory, the world in front of the text, achieves notability: this world is the text's referent (what the text is all about) that transcends the effects of distanciation. Ricoeur's notion provides the framework for the interpretation, by readers in ages and places far away, of a text that has undergone distanciation. For such texts, this concept is particularly useful, and even more so when their interpretation is intended to culminate in application, as with sermons on Scripture. What exactly is this world in front of the text and how does it help application?
The World in Front of the Text
The text is not an end in itself, but the means thereto, an instrument of the author's action of employing language to project a transcending vision—what Ricoeur called the world in front of the text. He explains:
In oral discourse, face-to-face interlocutors can, in the final analysis, refer what they are talking about to the surrounding world common to them. Only writing can by addressing itself to anyone who knows how to read, refer to a world that is not there between the interlocutors.... It is neither behind the text as the presumed author, nor in the text as its structure, but unfolded in front of it.
The role of this world in front of the text in theological hermeneutics, and its significance for the faith and practice of the Christian community—specifically, its importance for sermonic application—is the major consideration of this work.
Excerpted from Privilege the Text! by Abraham Kuruvilla. Copyright © 2013 by Abraham Kuruvilla. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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