Preachers of the Bible and biblical scholars recognise the need and difficulty of bridging the gap between the ancient biblical text and the contemporary audience. For a preacher, his concern is to preach so that the Word of God can shape listeners towards godliness. For a biblical scholar, his immediate task is to understand the text correctly. Both of these related objectives are possible only if interpreters, both the preacher and the biblical scholar, are able to perceive things from the perspective of the text. By way of illustration, Winks aptly underlines the gravity of the problem through Luke 18:9-14.:
For any modern reader at all familiar with the text knows that (1) “Pharisees are hypocrites and (2) Jesus praises the publican. The unreflective tendency of every reader is to identify with the more positive figures in an account. Consequently, modern readers will almost invariably identify with the publican (his italics). By this inversion of identification, the paradox of the justification of the ungodly (his italics) is lost and the social implications for the reader ignored.
This example is especially instructive for our discussion: it demonstrates that despite the fact that the reader knows the emphasis of this parable, that Jesus told this parable so that thereader may identify with the Pharisee, yet he is unable to do so. The root of the problem is notintellectual inability. It goes deeper than that: the problem lies with the being of the reader, or in Heideggerian terminology, its a matter of Dasein, the existence of a person’s being in its entirety as he relates to the world, that affects directly his understanding of the meaning of an object. In Gadamer’s term, it is a lack of a fusion of horizons, that of the interpreter’s and the object’s. In other words, a reader’s historical situatedness prevents him from understanding a text. Thiselton aptly summarises the issue involved for understanding a text:
My horizons must contain a space within which the text can be intelligibly ‘slotted’ in terms of provisional linkages with the familiar that allow patterns of recognition. On the other hand the realisation that what seems familiar is not quite what I had expected or assumed it to be, necessitates an expansion of my horizons to make room for what is new.
An Incomplete Understanding of a Biblical Text.
Apart from lack of a “fusion of horizons” of the interpreter and the text, there is a more fundamental problem. If Austin is right that all utterances, including a biblical text, are the product of an illocutionary act defined as “the performance of an act in saying something as opposed to the performance of an act of saying
something,” then understanding of texts by means of traditional exegesis may result in a loss ofmeaning of a text as it is based on a traditional belief that statements function to describe.
An Under-Utilised Resource.
Richard S. Briggs in his survey of the present state of research in speech-act theory six years ago, aptly observed that “speech act theory has obvious potential for assisting in the interpretation of texts (biblical and otherwise) . . . Despite a slow trickle of articles over the past 25 years, there have been only a handful of more extensive works making exegetical use of speech act insights.” This state in current research has not changed substantially.
In view of the above concerns, this paper will attempt to provide a way forward for biblical exegesis through the use of speech-act theory.
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