There is something about the nature of Scripture that seems to distinguish its study from the study of other texts—literature, history, philosophy, scientific theories, etc. The distinction comes from our beliefs about these texts. One may say a work of literature or philosophy is “divinely inspired” in a figurative sense, positing its brilliance, but when one claims divine inspiration with regard to Scripture, one is invoking a very different, special sort of classification reserved only for religious texts—that the text has an actual connection to the divine. The task of interpreting these texts then becomes difficult since there is a desire to derive the best meaning possible if not the absolute meaning in order to use the text as a guide for living, while the tension of what method will best serve that purpose seems to detract from the possibility of being able to arrive at such an interpretation at all. As a result, there is a debate in New Testament studies over whether or not historical-critical methods should be favored over others that find their source in literary theory. However, if we are interpreting faithfully within a particular interpretive tradition, or, to take this further, if we accept a tradition in which multiple methods can be used faithfully, then the question of method itself will only enhance our ability to arrive at the best interpretation.
In this essay, I will explore Nancey Murphy’s argument for speech-act theory as the best postmodern account of language and the most fruitful, holistic tool for biblical hermeneutics, affirming much of what she has to say, but arguing that speech-act theory alone is not adequate for all texts or all interpretive goals. I will explain what the contributions of the tradition of literary analysis are to hermeneutics and demonstrate how that tradition can provide an acceptable general understanding of how scholars should approach biblical hermeneutics. However, because of Scripture’s special status, it must also be protected from the hermeneutical “freedom” that literary criticism seemingly affords the scholar. Through these explorations, I will argue that the most fruitful way to approach a text is through searching for and understanding first what use a particular method will have in the interpretive task because not all methods are useful at all times. We must ask whether or not a method or methodological question is doing work for us in trying to understand what a text is doing. Therefore, the biblical scholar or theologian must be open to a hermeneutical tradition that allows for a multiplicity of readings to form the most useful understanding of the text.
Postmodern Analytic Philosophy of Language
Nancey Murphy approaches the problem within the realm of the philosophy of language, positing that the late modern epoch was comprised of referential and [secondary] expressivist theories of language and that these migrated over to the way scholars spoke about religious language as well. Referentialists, such as John Locke, or later, logical positivists such as A.J. Ayer, posit that language is understood in terms of reference; that is, words refer to actual objects in the real world. With regard to religious language, there is a split. For conservatives, the referentialist argument is transferred directly to the Bible, and the authority of Scriptural language is affirmed; everything the Bible refers to must have an actual referent. However, Ayer argued that both ethical and religious propositions only express the feelings and attitudes of a speaker. In other words, such propositions are not factually meaningful at all. Therefore, when one makes a statement about what is ethical or who God is, he or she is merely expressing a feeling about those things, not making a statement of fact.
Murphy makes the case that while both of these theories may contribute to our understanding of language, neither alone is adequate to provide a holistic account of language. She turns to J.L. Austin and speech act theory to provide this. Austin argues that language is best understood in terms of what it is doing. This raises a two-fold question: What is the speaker attempting to do with the language, and what does the receiver do with language? These too can be divided further into the conditions necessary for a “happy” speech act: (1) Both parties must share a common language. (2) The speaker’s statement must be made in a way that is conventional within the common language (a command, request, promise, etc.) (3) There must be a state of affairs existing that make the statement comprehensible. (4) The speaker must intend to perform the act with the proper attitudes and affects and the hearer must understand the speaker to have these attitudes and affects. Through an analysis of these conditions, one can determine the meaning of an utterance. This is particularly important for statements, which, apart from their narrative context, are seemingly meaningless.
Post-structuralism and Literary Analysis
As Murphy points out in her book Anglo-American Postmodernity, speech-act theory is not the only postmodern theory of language available to us. Because the focus of this paper is not to argue that one approach to language in general (or the text for that matter) is better than another, it will behoove us to avoid a long explanation of poststructuralist thought when it comes to the philosophy of language. Rather, it is mentioned here to illustrate another point—the use of philosophy as a hermeneutical tool. One of Murphy’s aims in chapter 7 of AAP is to argue that deconstruction does not offer an adequately postmodern account of the meaning of language, and that speech-act theory does. Whether one is better than the other as a philosophy is a moot point, however, when it comes to each one’s use as a hermeneutical tool.
Literary criticism has a recent history (within the last fifty years) of utilizing theories, from fields in which these theories are perhaps viewed as long dead, insufficient for, or merely a part of the history of the discipline. Psychoanalytic criticism, for instance, primarily utilizes Freud (the concepts of the Uncanny, the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.), Jung (archetypes), and the work of Jacques Lacan (the Real, the Symbolic Order). One of the reasons that these theories are used is because Freud, Jung, and Lacan themselves used literature to illustrate points about their theories—they analyzed literature using their theories as tools to unpack meaning from the text.
That is not to say, however, that theory is the only way a literary scholar can or would approach literature. Indeed, history is often an important if not more advantageous tool to pursue in certain cases. It is this notion of tool that is important in the development of the argument here. At stake is an important distinction between “tool used to describe a state of affairs in the world”—a theory would be a better word—and “tool used to interpret a text.” Speech-act theory and deconstruction are both of these. Both fall under the category “Philosophy of Language,” and it may be very true that speech-act theory is superior when both are used in the first sense above. However, if we look at both as hermeneutical tools, we are drawing a very different comparison between the two. Before we get to that point, we must first establish the difference between the practical use of language and narrative.
The Action of the Text
There is a third component to our original question above regarding what texts do. Austin and others of the analytic tradition are concerned with how language is understood practically; therefore, the analysis of what language does only includes questions about speaker and hearer (or writer and reader.) However, if we are asking what the text is doing, then we are granting a certain amount of autonomy to the text itself. Literary scholars are typically concerned with texts in this way—with what they do apart from any specific author/speaker or reader/hearer. As a starting point, think about the “universality” (or timelessness) of certain narratives—Greek myth, Grimm’s fairytales, or particular plays of Shakespeare. The important question to ask is why any of these that come to mind have achieved such staying power. They do not have devout religious followings, at least none that are taken seriously. While we can certainly analyze them in terms of how they were received in their own context that is most likely not the reason most people are familiar with them.
Literary scholars would argue that these texts themselves do things: have certain effects on readers, illuminate aspects of the human condition, draw attention to paradoxes—the list is potentially endless. The important point to note, however, is that in contrast to Austin’s speech-act theory, the original conditions of the act (i.e. the author’s intentions, the speaker’s apprehension of those intentions) are not necessary in order to derive a meaning from the text. One could certainly turn to such things (as one would pick out a particular tool for a task) in search of further explanation of something within the text; however, this is but one method. We know from our own readings of these types of texts that we are able to draw conclusions about them without this information.
Consider Stanley Fish’s dissection of a famous John Updike sentence describing the home run Ted Williams hit in his last at bat in 1960, It was in the books while it was still in the sky:
‘It was in the books’ is metaphorical. Updike imagines, correctly, that this moment will be memorialized in stories [. . .] and he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park. Indeed, in this sentence the ball never does get out of the park. It is ‘still in the sky,’ a phrase that has multiple meanings; the ball is still in the sky in the sense that it has not yet landed; it is still in the sky in the sense that its motion is arrested; and it is still in the sky in the sense that it is, and will remain forever, in the sky of the books, in the record of the game’s highest, most soaring achievements. On the surface ‘in the book’ and ‘in the sky’ are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously.
First, let us acknowledge, and rightly so, that the sentence is not intelligible unless we understand its context: My explanation of what Updike was writing about is necessary. However, Fish’s explication of the sentence is only dependant upon the historical information provided above in so far as it tells the reader why the sentence should have any force in the first place. One could perhaps make the claim that all Fish is doing is detailing Updike’s intentions—certainly Updike was attempting to achieve a particular effect, and Fish’s explanation only proves that the effect was achieved.
Suppose, however, that the effects Fish details were not Updike’s intention. What would happen if one found an interview in which Updike claimed he had no specific intention in mind when he wrote the sentence, that he was merely describing what he felt at a particular moment, but intended no specific effects upon readers? The answer is simple: nothing. We can imagine such a scenario, return to Fish’s explication, and still see for ourselves what Fish is arguing and how it applies. The historical information gives us the weight of importance upon the sentence. If this authorial information were actually available, we may then say that perhaps Updike’s sentence is a failed speech-act with reference to Fish, but that seems to matter little if Fish’s analysis of the sentence achieves its own goal, which in this case is to explain why the sentence has struck readers as particularly poignant.
Speech-Act Theory in Biblical Studies
As I have argued, speech-act theory provides a compelling and adequate account of the philosophy of language and does achieve important work when it comes to the analysis of a text. Let us now examine some specific uses for speech-act theory in Biblical studies. Through that analysis, I will make a case for why speech act theory is relevant in interpretation. In the next section, I will explore some important functions of literary theory in biblical hermeneutics.
Murphy makes the important point that the Scriptures come from a tradition of use; that is, they have informed Jewish and Christian practice for millennia, so to attempt to remove them completely from that context would be erroneous. It is with that in mind that we turn to Paul’s brief letter to Philemon. In this epistle, Paul is writing on behalf of a slave, Onesimus, who was imprisoned with Paul, and whom Paul claims to have become a father to. The thrust of the letter seems to be a request to allow Onesimus to return to Philemon without punishment: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Many contemporary Christian readers, however, have struggled with the inclusion of this letter in the canon because it seems to condone slavery. It seems that Paul has convinced Onesimus that he must return to Philemon because he is a slave.
However, if we use speech-act theory to understand Philemon, these objections are easily resolved. Although elsewhere I have minimized the interpretive import of authorial intention, it becomes far more pertinent with regard to Paul’s epistles. We have an historical figure, widely recognized as a leader in the church, writing a letter of instruction (a conventional way of speaking both in his language and in English) in a language we have access to in order to study it and understand its idioms and specific conventions, to another person whose character is fleshed out by historical context. While a full analysis of the text here would detract from the main argument, we can see how an attempt to come at Paul’s intentions and purposes in writing the letter and Philemon’s potential uptake using historical information would help to bring us to a more holistic understanding of the text, one that tries to understand what the use of the letter was in its context rather than merely using the appearance of the word “slave” to draw hasty conclusions. From that understanding, we can then, in a contemporary setting, come to understand what the letter means for the church today in terms of our own practices.
Gaps in Speech-Act Hermeneutics
Let us turn briefly to a biblical example that demonstrates an instance where speech-act theory may be partially useful but does not carry the force that it does when examining a genre like the epistles. Consider Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Some scholars have made the case that we can say it was the author’s intention to include the phrase “the Son of God” at the beginning of the gospel narrative with the explicit purpose of stirring things up among Romans who were followers of the Imperial Cult (the belief that the Caesars were deified in death.) However, it need not have been the author’s intention for that effect to be actual in history. We know from historical context that the Romans worshipped the Caesars as the true sons of God and to claim anyone else was a deity was indeed a heinous crime. Thus, we can deduce from that information that Mark 1:1 perhaps did have the effect of causing some turmoil among Romans of that day. 
We can ask the same question about authorial intention here as we did with Fish’s analysis of Updike’s sentence: If we were to somehow discover that the author of Mark did not intend to incite turmoil among Romans, would that change our historical understanding of the appearance of the phrase “Son of God” in Mark 1:1? It most likely would not. Again, to then point to the verse as a failed speech-act does little for us on the interpretive front. Whether or not the author intended the effect, our deductions from history tell us the phrase most likely carried it. Why then an insistence on authorial intent in this case? It seems that New Testament studies in particular has been dominated by such methods because of the erroneous belief that if one could come to understand the actual meaning of the text, through understanding the author’s original intentions, then one would have the literal divine meaning of the text—God’s words unadulterated. That is, one would be able to establish an appropriate foundation for understanding the text if one could gain access to authorial intent. To be fair, most scholars of this school today would never go so far as to say that they could ever come to understand exactly what the intentions of a Biblical author were since we indeed are not even sure who wrote many of the New Testament texts (let alone the Old Testament texts.) The fact remains, however, that there is a foundational sense in which scholars seek for authorial intent. Let us turn now to a study of how speech-act theory and literary theory can work in conjunction.
The Parable of the Great Banquet
In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who planned a great banquet, invited many friends, yet all he had invited were unable to attend. Upon learning this news, he sent his servants out into the streets to bring in the poor, widowed, blind, and lame to come to the banquet. The rich man asked his servants to compel people to come inside so that his house would be filled. The parable is about hospitality. Jesus frames the parable before telling it:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke’s narration is important, and we can use speech-act theory to get a better understanding of just how radical Jesus’ words are. We learn from historical analysis that to host a party was a respected, honorable ability since it meant that one had enough money to share what he had with others. Therefore, to offer a criticism the way Jesus does here would have been highly unusual and most likely offensive to his host. We also know from context that there were severe class distinctions among people in the ancient world. For anyone of stature to open his home to any passerby including the poor, crippled, lame, and blind would be absolutely out of the question. It would be possible to take this analysis further, to examine the Koine Greek Luke is writing in, to explain in detail the social and historical conventions, but the point is made that those elements aid us in understanding the text.
Now consider an understanding from a deconstructive point of view. Derrida, in his later work, wrote a lecture on the concept of The Gift. It is a paradigm of an impossible aporetic situation, even though it seems quite simple. Suppose A gives x freely to B, but imagine the chain of consequences the act of the gift incites. B now feels obligation to return the gesture by giving a gift to A. However, it cannot be just anything. B must attempt to match it in value lest B make A look bad or make herself appear cheap. If A refuses the gesture, A is either being rude or A is attempting to raise herself in appearance, emphasizing A’s own giving nature. We can imagine a number of scenarios in which gifts are given and in each the true nature of The Gift is always thwarted, always reduced to an economy of gift giving—an economy in which The Gift can easily become a burden. However, this is not to say Derrida argues that giving The Gift is thus impossible; rather he argues that The Gift is itself the impossible. The aporia, the impossible, “is never the end of action in deconstruction but the start, the condition of possibility of a genuine action, one with teeth in it.” That is to say that the moment we think we understand the genuine action of gift giving, is the very moment we lose it because it is aporetic—the impossible we continually pursue.
Let us now apply this to what Jesus is saying about hospitality. What he presents is a scenario that represents the impossible. When we are attempting to be hospitable, we extend invitations to those we know, which are really a matter of selection; not only do we not want certain people we know already to not be invited for various social reasons, but we would not ever conceive of inviting strangers into our homes. Even given Jesus’ instruction and parable, following through is difficult. However, if we view the scenario as the impossible, then we are acknowledging that we will never be able to achieve exactly what Jesus is calling us to in this story—and that’s a wonderful thing. Seeing hospitality in the same way Derrida describes The Gift, allows us to keep after a genuine living-out of the parable. It reminds us that in our brokenness, the moment we think we have solved the mystery of Jesus’ hospitality is the exact moment our hospitality ceases to be genuine. We are broken, but we have the ability to never stop pursuing genuine Christian living.
Certainly the implications I have drawn out of the passage above using deconstruction could be reached using another method—but that is rather the point here. Deconstruction does provide a conceptual framework for understanding the practical implications of Scripture. One may say that another conceptual framework can do the exact same thing and illuminate something else that deconstruction cannot. That is wonderful. One may look at this second framework and see a way in which a supplemental method, historical-critical understandings or exegetical work, can tease out even more important implications from the text. Even better. One of the most important contributions to method that can be gleaned from the tradition of literary studies is the multiplicity of methods. Murphy is on the right track with her appropriation speech-act theory to biblical interpretation because she recognizes the importance of understanding the full context of Scripture—it cannot just be either referential or expressive. However, speech-act theory itself is but one method of analysis and to limit ourselves to it would be to limit our understanding of the text.
Finally, we must emphasize the fact that the argument here is not that any reading goes. Murphy turns to Stanley Fish on this point, who emphasizes the important influence interpretive communities have upon the interpreter. One way to state the point would be to say that one can certainly make an attempt at any reading he or she wants, but whether or not that interpretation is validated is dependent upon the practices of particular interpretive communities. Thus, one must still justify an interpretation using the means available. This is also particularly important when it comes to biblical interpretation since we are not merely interpreting narratives, but attempting to live by them. We must carefully weigh what methods are useful while being open to the possibility of learning something new from a method previously unconsidered.
by Joel Harrison
Caputo, John D. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.
Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.
Murphy, Nancey, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2007.
. Murphy draws upon Alasdair MacIntyre for this notion and cites an example in which one person approaches another at a bus stop and informs the latter of the common name for the wild duck. MacIntyre’s point is that without the proper narrative context, one is forced to begin imagining scenarios in which such a statement would be intelligible. In other words, to make the statement intelligible, we must put it into narrative context; otherwise, it is without meaning.
. This is rather obvious with one of Freud’s most famous theories, the Oedipus Complex, coming directly from his analysis of Oedipus Rex. C.G. Jung used myths and allegories to talk about archetypes. One of Lacan’s most famous lectures was on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” One could also open the table of contents of the Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism and skim down the list thinkers who fit this category—Marx and Derrida for example.
. In fact, one could easily write just as much as Fish about the history of baseball, the importance of Williams’ career, the difficulty of being able to hit a home run, the chances of that happening in one’s final trip to the plate, all in order to help us better understand what Updike is talking about in this sentence. But an explication of the text itself is needed to explain why this particular description as opposed to any other carries the effects that it does.
. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). The summary that follows is indebted largely to Caputo’s summary of The Gift here.
. One could also turn to Alasdair MacIntyre and his work on traditions and practice for this point, though to do so here would perhaps be to large a departure from the task at hand. In short, MacIntyre argues that a particular practice must meet certain criteria such as complexity, internal and external goods, and standards of excellence. The last criterion is particularly relevant in the argument against “anything goes” textual relativism. As long as a method is meeting its own tradition’s standards of excellence, then it should be accepted.