Speech act theory and the bible
Posted October 15, 2007on:
But I was struck last week in my History of Interpretation class by Augustine’s approach to the problem of interpretation. He is almost entirely goal-centred. For him, the purpose of the scriptures is to engender love for God and love for one’s neighbour.
So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writers demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is certainly not a liar.
And a bit later on:
If… he is misled by an idea of the kind that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field. But he must be put right and shown how it is more useful not to leave the path, in case the habit of deviating should force him to go astray or even adrift.
So, the most important thing for Augustine is that love is built up. It’s better to get what the authors actually intended, but only because if you get into the habit of misreading them, you might eventually end up not going in the direction of love at all.
It seems to me that what Augustine is saying is that the perlocutionary speech act of scripture is more important than its locutionary act. What is communicated is less important than what is achieved by that communication. Might this not be a useful hermeneutical principle? Especially when coupled with Augustine’s warning that to keep ignoring the author’s intended meaning is dangerous.
What does God intend to accomplish by the bible? To tell us things? Yes, certainly and Augustine is right that we should try to stick to this path as much as possible. But God knows how we are liable to misinterpret the bible, even sometimes the whole church, for centuries at a time. Might it not be the case that even during these times, his word is accomplishing the purpose for which he sent it? Which is to say, building up the church. And if so how ‘wrong’ are those ‘wrong interpretations’? The locutionary act may have failed, but the perlocutionary act is achieved.
How would this work in practice? Well, it would mean that faithful Christians who open their bibles and find encouragement in a particular passage to love God or to love their neighbour in specific ways, could claim legitimacy for their interpretations, even if the GHE would suggest otherwise. For example, take Jer 29:11, a verse which was important to me as an undergraduate. It was a great encouragement to put my trust in God who loved me: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” A strict GHE reading would point out that this verse is addressed to Israel in exile, and that its meaning must be applied to that situation. The Augustinian method might agree that Jeremiah’s prophecy wasn’t intended to be directly for me, but since that interpretation clearly builds my love for God, it is legitimate.
So it would free us from the idea that we have to find ‘the’ meaning of a passage, as if it could have only one. Any interpretation that served the goals of love would be legitimate.
And it would remind us that God, in giving us the bible, wants to do much more than tell us information, he wants to change our hearts and lives towards him.
Hmm. A little bit too crazy?
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