Words and the WordPaperback Explorations in biblical interpretation and literary theory David G Firth & Jamie A Grant (Eds)
New introduction to aspects of literary theory and their contribution to biblical interpretation(more...)
It is generally recognized that scholarly study of the Bible has taken a 'literary turn' over the past two decades. The contributors to this volume are united in their belief that a proper understanding of different aspects of literary theory can make a significant contribution to biblical interpretation.
These informative and stimulating essays survey some general issues and a selection of specific approaches, filling a gap between simpler introductions and the primary texts of major theorists.
Literary theory is not the only conversation partner for biblical interpretation in our day, but this volume demonstrates that it is also an important one if we are to continue to hear and understand the living Word of God in the words of the Bible.
Contents and contributors:
Introduction: David G. Firth and Jamie A. Grant
Part 1: General issues
Literary theory and biblical interpretation: Grant R. Osborne
A structural-historical approach to exegesis of the Old Testament: S. D. Snyman
Part 2: Specific approaches
Speech-act theory: Richard Briggs
Genre criticism: Jeannine Brown
Ambiguity: David G. Firth
Poetics : Jamie A. Grant
Rhetoric: Peter Phillips
Discourse analysis: Terrance R. Wardlaw, Jr
Extent: 320 pages
Publication Date: 20/06/2008
Published by: Apollos / IVP
David G. Firth and Jamie A. Grant
Part 1: General Issues
1. Literary theory and biblical interpretation
Grant R. Osborne
2. A structural-historical approach to the exegesis of the Old Testament
S. D. (Fanie) Snyman
Part 2: Specific Approaches
3. Speech-act theory
Richard S. Briggs
4. Genre criticism and the Bible
Jeannine K. Brown
David G. Firth
Jamie A. Grant
Peter M. Phillips
8. Discourse analysis
Terrance R. Wardlaw, Jr.
David G. Firth and Jamie A. Grant
Biblical studies has often looked for dialogue partners. And as it has conversed with other disciplines new questions have opened up regarding the Bible’s interpretation, which at the same time have suggested new ways in which the Bible might speak to the world. The question, though, has often been who these dialogue partners should be.
In the early centuries, and even up to the time of the Reformation, the main collaborator was philosophy, especially as the biblical text was often relegated to the task of supporting established doctrine. Of course, great interpreters such as Augustine, Nicholas of Lyra or Calvin did considerably more than simply engage with philosophy or extract verses out of context to support doctrine. But it is impossible to read these authors without recognizing the extent to which they engaged with the dominant philosophical questions of their age. Theology was unavoidably drawn into the metaphysical debates of the day, and so these questions became the principal reference points for interpreters of the Bible throughout many generations.
Without abandoning philosophy altogether, a significant shift occurred with the advent of the Enlightenment . For biblical studies, increased historical awareness brought about crucial changes in the practice of academic theology, most obviously in the development of the so-called historical-critical method. This has given rise to significant debates about the Bible’s historicity: can we trust its testimony and if so, to what extent?
One of the problems of historical criticism was its tendency to atomize texts and look at the world behind the text, often privileging hypothetical sources over the finished text. This is not to disparage historical inquiry into texts and how they develop, but it is perhaps akin to seeking to learn to drive a car by pulling it apart rather than understanding first how the whole works. The literary turn often associated with postmodernity changed this basic approach by beginning to look at texts as wholes, and this was not restricted to biblical studies. Whether or not postmodernity is really something new or simply the latter stages of modernity, clearly one important shift in recent years has been that scholars now more commonly foreground their methodological concerns. In line with other disciplines, biblical studies has become far more aware of the need to be conscious about the theory that underpins interpretation and how it shapes the questions we ask.
In making this move, we have also reached a point where, rather than philosophy or history dominating, biblical interpreters now draw on a plurality of disciplines, engaging with issues such as rhetoric, gender, postcolonialism and psychoanalytic theory.
In spite of this plurality, literary theory is a conversation partner of continued and increasing importance for biblical interpretation, though, as is clear from this collection, literary theory too takes multiple forms. Some of its aspects, such as speech acts, are strongly rooted in contemporary philosophy. Others, such as rhetoric, draw on a range of classical sources as well as modern theorists to understand how the text seeks to persuade. But whichever aspect of literary theory is emphasized, it is crucial that biblical interpreters have a proper understanding of this discipline if they are to draw fruitfully on its insights. This does not mean we must become expert in each of them, but we do need to have enough grounding in these theories to appreciate how they can contribute to the ongoing task of interpreting the Bible so we can hear its ancient message clearly today.
The contributors to this volume are united in their belief that a proper understanding of different aspects of literary theory can make a significant contribution to the interpretation of the Bible. Though none would claim to cover the whole of literary theory, since it is a sprawling and growing discipline, each brings expertise in a specific area. Therefore, those contributors discussing a particular method both outline the issues related to that method and show how it applies to the interpretative task. Thus we hope to integrate theory with practice so that the process of applying a set of analytical tools will expand the ways in which we understand them.
At the same time, these are only explorations in literary theory and biblical interpretation. There is considerably more that could be said about each approach, and there are also many more aspects of literary theory (such as metaphor, intertextuality, film theory) that could be considered. Guidance on these is offered in the opening chapters by Grant Osborne and Fanie Snyman, both of whom offer different, yet complementary, overviews on the relationship between literary theory and biblical interpretation.
We hope these essays will stimulate discussion of the importance of literary theory as applied to biblical studies, and at the same time encourage students to draw on the possibilities these methods suggest. Literary theory is not the only conversation partner for modern biblical interpretation, but these chapters suggest it is a vital one if we are to continue to hear the living word of the living God.
Extract from 1. LITERARY THEORY AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
Grant R. Osborne
Many Christians think of and read the Bible as if it were nothing but a series of propositional theological principles stated in epistolary form. They are so inured to and controlled by epistles like Romans and Corinthians that they fail to realize the richness and diversity of biblical expression. Few books contain the incredible diversity of genre and style exemplified in this Book of all books. Actually, epistolary material is among the smallest of the genres (about ?%). Narrative is by far the largest, representing over half of the biblical material. Prophetic material is second, followed by legal material, then poetry and then wisdom and apocalyptic. The point is that each type of literature has its own richness of expression and deeply theological message. Each needs to be read and allowed to function in its intended way on its own. The problem is that genre is a fluid form. Epistolary material contains poetry, apocalyptic portions, and several other types embedded in its works. Books like Revelation are composed not just of apocalyptic material but also epistolary and prophetic sections (see chapter 4 in this volume). Therefore, in analysing any portion of Scripture one cannot do justice to it without a sound knowledge of literary theory and a fairly sophisticated use of literary techniques.
This does not mean that the average layperson can no longer study the Bible, for the number of excellent commentaries and Bible study tools is growing. It does mean, however, that the previous dependence on pure inductive Bible study needs to be supplemented with an emphasis on deductive analysis as well, that is, with the tools such as dictionaries and commentaries to aid understanding. Inductive Bible study can degenerate into simply a more scientific way of being subjective when interpreting the Bible. There is no way we can navigate the twisted literary corridors of the complex biblical books on our own. We need the help of scholars who have walked these paths before us, who can guide us through the interpretative mazes. The purpose of this article and volume is to help the Bible student understand the literary process involved in the hermeneutical event.
The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate the value and importance of literary theory for biblical interpretation. Yet let me go a step further. Interpretation, indeed reading, cannot be done without literary theory. The only question is whether it will be sound or flawed literary theory. As human beings, we engage in communication, which is fuelled by an innate sense of context and the development of sometimes correct and often incorrect understanding. My wife and I frequently mis-communicate, which is caused when we fail to understand the context and background behind what the other is saying. As we clarify and restate our previous point, we are using the shared literary assumptions with which we have grown up. Of course, that is oral communication, but similar assumptions guide our reading as well. In fact, it is far more difficult in Bible reading, for those works were written millennia ago in a culture long dead. How do we bridge the cultural distance in order to understand Scripture properly? That is what I would like to demonstrate in the ensuing pages.
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