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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Putting the past and the future back into hermeneutics

Jeannine K. Brown has a very sensible introductory chapter to her book Scripture as Communication, in which she provides some straightforward definitions of the key terms in this field of study. So “hermeneutics” is the “analysis of what we do when we seek to understand the Bible, including its appropriation to the contemporary world”. “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”. “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”. She then highlights three factors to which the exegete needs to pay attention in order to “bridge the cultural gap” between the original setting of the Bible and our own place in space and time. These are genre, literary context, and social setting. Finally, “contextualization” is the “task of bringing a biblical author’s meaning to bear in other times and cultures” (19-26).

The definition of “meaning” is probably the most debatable one. Brown is careful to differentiate between what the author hoped or wished to communicate and what he actually communicated, but this looks like a spurious distinction. It is only the text that “actually” communicates, so intention has nothing to do with it—and of course, many would argue that “meaning” belongs neither to the author nor to the text but to the reader. The term “contextualization” also seems to me to be ambiguous: I would keep it for the exploration of the text’s original context and perhaps use “re-contextualization” for the ”task of bringing a biblical author’s meaning to bear in other times and cultures”.

These are only preliminary definitions, and no doubt the issues will be properly addressed in due course. What concerns me more is the manner in which the “original setting” of a text is constructed. Genre, literary context, and social setting are all very important. But the most important contextual factor is missing—the historical community that produced the texts.

Flicking through the chapters to come gives no indication that this oversight will be corrected. But I would argue, in any case, that is reflects a systemic failure in evangelical thought to recognize the the narrative shape of biblical theology. Modern evangelicalism constructs its belief-system abstractly and a-historically, arguably mythically; but biblical thought is always the community’s response to the contingencies of its political existence. This is certainly not covered by the heading “social setting”, which Brown illustrates by pointing out that the modern reader may not know what the “bitumen pits” were that some of the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fell into (Gen. 14:8-10). That doesn’t get us very far at all.

There is a whole dimension to the original setting of the text that remains invisible to evangelical thought, having to do with the concrete existence of a people. Scripture is fundamentally an interpretation of that existence, so it is critical that hermeneutics takes the dynamic of corporate existence into account. In particular, this means registering not merely literary and social context but also both the memories and the foresight of the community or of its interpreters.

This is why metalepsis, on the one hand, and apocalyptic, on the other, are so important for understanding New Testament thought. The New Testament continually draws on the dense mesh of corporate memories embedded in the Jewish scriptures (eg. Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven); and it constructs new narratives of a corporate future (eg. Jesus’ vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven). For a definition of “metalepsis” and some further discussion of this theme see: Which way did he go? The coming of the Son of Man and the theology of crisis.

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Where are you Andrew?  I’m getting Perriman’s Syndrome (symptomatic of acute Andrew Perriman blog withdrawl).  Please post again!

That’s a bit disturbing! I’m in the throes of moving house in London at the moment. Removers arrive in an hour. Normal service should resume next week—well, perhaps a reduced summer service.