Brown, Jeannine K. Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. 315 pp. $24.99
“Engaging in and interpreting communication is at the heart of what we are doing when we read the Bible” (13). That is the conviction that Jeannine Brown (assistant professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota) offers the world her introduction to hermeneutics, Scripture as Communication. In it, she strives to attain a balanced approach towards author, text, and reader that incorporates the strengths of various historical models that focus on each particular aspect, while avoiding the common pitfall of neglecting the others (14). The intent of this book review is to provide a summary of the major thrust of the book, as well as present a critical evaluation of the strengths and significance thereof.
Brown’s communication model for interpreting the Bible is summarized as follows: “Scripture’s meaning can be understood as the communicative act of the author that has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement” (14). She likens the task of interpreting Scripture as closer to reading an email from a loved one than a more rigid attempt to discern meaning from a collection of propositional truths (15). This distinction refuses the interpreter a position separate and distinct from the object of interpretation (subject-to-object relationship), and instead forces him into an interpersonal relationship (person-to-person).
One particular point of emphasis that Brown understands clearly is the importance of defining the terms when speaking of a “second-order task,” such as hermeneutics (21). Indeed, Brown spends the first chapter clarifying several definitions which assist the reader in the task of understanding the author’s hermeneutic. Her definition of the meaning of meaning – “the communicative intention of the author, which has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement” – stems from her conviction that the interpretive model demands a balanced approach to author, text, and reader (22).
Brown argues that scholars during the nineteenth century focused their attentions on the author of the biblical text, and sought to “understand the author better than the author understood himself” (59). This focus led to the misguided attempt to reconstruct the background and situation of the author, and in doing so, to remove the attention of the interpreter from the text itself. In response to this infatuation with the author, scholars did away with the human author and focused their attention on the text itself in the early twentieth century. The text was the thing to be studied and was considered to be that which carried forth meaning. The author and his intended audience were merely considered to be the vehicles for this truth to be communicated. This infatuation with the text, removed of the shackes of authorial intention by well-meaning interpreters, devolved into a reader-oriented hermeneutic. During the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, interpreters understood the meaning of texts to be defined by the reader. This interpretive model abandoned the intent of the author and the primacy of the text. For the text itself had no inherent meaning. Meaning is only understood from the standpoint of the reader. This hermeneutic leads to any given text containing various (and at times, varying) meanings completely dependant upon the reader. This brief history of hermeneutics, according to the author, reveals the strengths of each of these three foci, but also presents the weaknesses in any interpretive model that fails to adequately incorporate all three.
In Part Two, the author moves from her proposed theory to the practice of interpretation given this model. In order to assist her reader in the task of applying her interpretive grid, she discusses issues of genre, language, historical background, and literary context. She focuses her attentions on three major genres – poetry, epistle, and narrative – and provides a helpful guide to understanding the communicative intent of various authors according to genre. She goes so far as to state that the very genre chosen by a given author to communicate his message carries substantial importance. “By paying attention to the genre choice made by an author, we will be in a better position to understand that author’s communication” (140).
Rather than taking the opportunity to extol the value and importance of studying the original Biblical languages that one might anticipate to read from the pen of a professor of New Testament, the author carries one major point throughout her chapter on language: context is key. “Isolated words do not communicate truth. Words are woven together into whole discourses. And it is at the level of discourses (sentences and beyond) that we hear the hear the message of Scripture for us” (188). According to Brown, we do a disservive to the text when we focus our attention on the meaning of one specific word at the expense of the context.
An entire chapter was devoted to the importance of understanding the social background of a given passage in order to discern the intent of the author and the manner in which the text would be received by it’s original readers. However, rather that attempting to reconstruct every aspect of the social background of the Scriptures, Brown provides some general information and extends to her readers a wealth of resources to reference in order to gain a clearer understanding of the Biblical background.
Brown’s book has several strengths that are vastly important in the study of hermeneutics. She approaches the subject in a very ecclectic manner which provides the impetus for her to define and develop each model that she incorporates into her own hermeneutic. Her use of Speech-Act Theory, Relevance Theory, Literary Theory, and Narrative Theology, their impact in the development of her own hermeneutic, and her rejection of any particular model wholesale help educate the reader of the vast landscape of the study of hermeneutics, and inform the reader of the background of the author.
Due to the vastness of the study of hermeneutics and the philosophical discussions that the topic can move toward, Brown’s writing style becomes what may be identified as the single-greatest strength of the book. Her personal anecdotes and parenthetical insertions help the reader identify with the author to the extent that the reader wants to understand the topic at hand.
The significance of Brown’s approach to the study of hermeneutics is that it has consciously been developed out of the milieu of what Brown herself terms, “The Reign of the Reader” (69). Her hermeneutic strives to discover a balanced approach towards author, text, and reader, which drives the reader (of her book) to consider if her approach swings far enough back to the middle. If the reader is satisfied that her interpretive grid recovers the balance she seeks, then the book is incredibly significant. However, if the hermeneutic still leans in one particular direction despite the author’s intent, the book will merely be seen as a step in the right direction, but will not bear the significance of making any major stride in that particular field.
One area that the reader might seek further understanding is in the author’s definition of meaning. She defines meaning as, “the communicative intention of the author, which has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement” (22). She then goes on to propose that in order to understand the meaning (as defined above) of the text (which is cited as an aspect of her definition), the interpreter must seek to understand authorial intent, the text itself, and the intended response of the audience by the author. Her definition of meaning, then, demands her hermeneutic. If, however, one adapts the definition of “meaning,” her hermeneutic is no longer sufficient. The task of further study would be for the purpose of determining the adequacy of her definition of meaning.
I was often frustrated with the book simply due to the afformentioned tendency to drift towards philosophical discussions. In fact, I indentified with her friend during her doctoral studies who was altogether taken aback by the need of identifying a meaning for the word meaning (20). I find myself much more comfortable dealing with absolutes, which provides my most ardent objection to Brown’s hermeneutic. It is my opinion that her interpretive method did not swing enough away from a reader-response hermeneutic. According to her, the response of the reader still carries significant weight in the determination of a text’s meaning. This brings to mind nightmare Bible studies where the question asked, (“What does this passage mean to you?”) reveals that it is not the Bible being studied at all, but rather the readers. As stated previously, Brown’s book appears to be a step in the right direction, but remains several steps shy of reaching it’s intended destination.
Jeannine Brown’s Scripture as Communication, presents a thoughtful, well-presented step forward in the study of hermeneutics. She lays out the historical imbalances of previous approaches, explains the current academic landscape and theories, and develops her own model in response to these utilizing the strengths of the various theories and attempting to cast away their weaknesses. Due to this manner of developing her own model, the book becomes a strong introduction to the study of hermeneutics for the first-year Seminary student.