Saturday, June 12, 2010

Text, Telos, and Transformation

Some scholars may label much of what has been discussed thus far as naïve realism. Certainly, that label may appear to stick in some minds. However, I contend that far from being a naïve realism borne out of modernistic philosophy, it is Christian realism that I am getting at. It is simple because it is common to the common, yet it is anything but simplistic. There is nothing naïve about taking God at his word. At the same time, it is important to point out that sin has complicated the discipline of interpretation just as it has every thing else it has touched. Moreover, human communication has obstacles that it otherwise would not have had. Hermeneutics is about overcoming these obstacles so that we may enjoy the rich blessings of divine and human relations.

A text is an organized set of signs and symbols designed in order to convey meaningful information with an end-state in mind. The end-state may simply be to tell a story for the purpose of entertainment. It may be to report on the state of affairs of the current North Korean crisis. It could be to publish the results of an investigation around the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Hence, a text inherently has been designed by an author for the purpose of a specific goal. That is to say that the author had a definite purpose in mind when she put pen to paper. The author does not simply wish to inform of this or that matter. The author hopes for some change in the reader. The extent of this desired change is dependent on the author. The desired change may be very small. An author may write an entertaining story in order to provoke love or fear in the reader as they enter the world of fantasy. On the other hand, the author may be making a promise in hopes that the reader believes him, and acts on the information because the author can be trusted to keep his word. There are three components in communication that must be understood if hermeneutics is to be given the respect and attention it is due. This is especially true for biblical hermeneutics.

First, the author uses locution in order to construct his text. Locution is simply a word, phrase, or expression. However, that word phrase or expression can be classified by what it is doing. For example, “get off the lawn” is the locution by which I issue the illocutionary effect of a command. This is related to the author’s intention for uttering the phrase in the first place. The author intends to issue a stern order to the recipient to get off his grass. Finally, and ultimately, the author wishes to produce change in the hearer/reader. The author hopes the recipient will relocate off his grass. This last piece is the intended effect the author is looking for. The author hopes for a change in the hearer/reader. This change is called the perlocutionary effect. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 12:2 when he uses the phrase “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The transformation means to change inwardly in fundamental character or condition. This transformation is indelibly connected with the renewing of the mind. The idea of the renewing of the mind means, to cause something to become new and different, with the implication of becoming superior. It is used only here and Titus 3:5. This renewal of the mind is a renewal of critical judgment in terms of the will of God. One now lives with the new orientation that has come with the new birth.

With the undoing of authorial meaning, or intent, and the death of the author, this perlocutionary effect fades into a cloud of extreme relativism. Hirsch points this out when he says, “There is no magic land of meaning outside human consciousness. Whenever meaning is connected to words, a person is making the connection, and the particular meanings he lends to them are never the only legitimate ones under the norms and conventions of his language.” If meaning is borne in human consciousness, with it comes telos and with telos comes objective meaning. The goal of hermeneutics is to get at that objective meaning by utilizing the rules inherent in language. These rules are borne out of the rational aspects of the human mind. As such, they are not arbitrary conventions, engineered by human culture. They have their source in the Divine Engineer and Creator of all things human, the triune God. This fact provides hermeneutics with the necessary foundation it requires in order to function. Without this foundation, hermeneutics ceases to be hermeneutics. The whole concept of interpretation requires a meaning out there somewhere to be discovered. Otherwise, what is the point of engaging in a practice that has no hope of discovering what is there? The alternative is that the only thing we can ever hope to get at is what is here. With this, all hope for change evanesces. When we say out there, we do not intend to imply anywhere. The there to which we refer is a definite, fixed place. It is in the intent of the author that the there is actually located. Thus, the hermeneutical journey is a journey toward the center of authorial intent, to include an eye on the perlocutionary hopes found in authorial intention. After all, readers have a purpose for reading the same as authors have a purpose for writing. The two horizons inevitably meet and with the fusion of these horizons, something changes. The question is; does the text transform the reader or the reader the text?

As Thiselton rightly points out, “The phrase “transforming texts” can be interpreted in two ways. Texts can actively shape and transform the perceptions, understanding, and actions of readers and of reading communities…But texts can also suffer transformation at the hands of readers and reading communities.” This awareness must never be underestimated in the practice of biblical interpretation. The sin nature must always be in view as we seek to better understand the meaning of God’s word. In his book, Theological Hermeneutics, Alexander Jensen argues along the same lines. He writes,

“The theologian needs to keep in mind that his or her hermeneutical approach, both in biblical and wider theological hermeneutics, is informed, if not determined by certain fundamental theological decisions…It is therefore important for the theologian to be aware of his or her presuppositions, and wherever possible, make them explicit, reflect on them and where appropriate, criticize them.”

Most often, we transform texts that threaten us. What is the threat we feel from a text that causes us to engage in this transforming activity? Quite simply, the text threatens to transform us. We encounter the text as an enemy who threatens our way of life. It is here that the word of God does its best work in our lifestyle. The text causes moderate to serious discomfort because it confronts us with the truth about our state and actions. In short, the text threatens our autonomy. It seeks to subdue that part of our living, and thinking that has yet to be subdued in Christ. We refer to this progressive activity as ‘progressive sanctification.’ As these two horizons fuse, something must change. When hot air and cold air meet under the right conditions, a tornado is the result. When God’s horizon fuses with our understanding, a tornado is produced. Either we will destroy the text (in our minds), or the text will destroy the unbiblical thinking that has invaded our mind through sin. This is the process Paul described in Romans 12:1-2 as I mentioned above. Transformation will take place when the two horizons meet. The only question concerns the object of transformation.

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