Book Notes: Brown, “Scripture as Communication”


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Most Relevant Audience: Anyone interested in hermeneutics, theories of literary interpretation, biblical exegesis.

Date: 7/31/2009

Jeannine Brow, Scripture As Communication (Baker Academic, 2007),

“Scripture begins a conversation that is interpersonal and potentially life changing, because it is God who initiates the dialogue.” 13

Her model is: “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 the purpose of engagement.” 14

  • Bad hermeneutics is reducing focus to one of three: author, text, reader. She hopes to find a balance. 15

More than just subject-object relationship. 15

“We are not limited to an either/or choice between cognitive contact and noncognitive purpose in texts.” 16

Chapter 1 – Terminology and Context for Hermeneutics

“Meaning is what we are trying to grasp when we interpret.” 22

Chapter 2 – A Communization Model of Hermeneutics

Speech-Act Theory

  • “Verbal utterances not only say things; they also do things.” Like saying “I do” in wedding. 32
  • “An illocution is what we verbally accomplish in what we say.” 33
  • “Percolution…the responses speakers evoke from hearers.” 33

So in this theory there are three parts: speaker’s saying, speaker’s verbal action, and hearer’s response. 33

Relevance Theory

“Speaker’s assume these tenets of communication to be true and rely on their hearer’s to supply the most relevant information to interpret their utterances.” 35

  • Linguistic expression and assumed context. 35
  • For example, “I’m hungry” vs. “My stomach is growling.” 36

Psalm 43:5 “Why are you in despair, O My soul?”

“In context, the questions function as part of the exhortation to hope in God.” 37

Literary Theory


  • Meaning: pattern of intention and as participating in shareable conventions.
  • Implications: submeanings un/intentional of author.
  • Mental Acts: authorial motives not included in meaning. 39

“The goal of interpretation then will be to ascertain the author’s communicative intention rather than his or her motives.” 40

“While actual readers may respond in all sorts of ways to a text, the implied reader responds only as the author intends.” 40

  • Point of View

Narrative Theology: “The Priority of Story”

  • Story, Metanarratives.

“A way of doing theology that begins with propositions doctrines extracted from history and culture is, according to narrative theologians, not consonant with the way the Bible reveals who God is.” 45

“We may speak of entering the world of the text as a way of allowing its normative story to shape us.” 46

“Meaning [is] the complex pattern of what an author intends to communicate through his or her audience for purposes of engagement which is inscribed in the text and conveyed through use of both shareable language parameters and background contextual assumptions.” 48

Three-Fold Movement of Conversation:

  1. Reader’s engagement with the textually projected world; locution/illocutions, explicit/implicit meaning. That is, what it does in what it says, and how it does that.
  2. Reader looking at background-contextual assumptions. Weighing assumptions author has of reader.
  3. “What is communicated through the implied author’s point of view?” 50

Chapter 3 – Authors, Texts, and Readers

Schleiermacher distinguished between technical aspect and psychological aspect. 58

So “the interpreter seeks to group the meaning of the text as well as, and better than, the author did by putting himself or herself in the position of the author…the interpreter is trying to access a sort of universal unity of consciousness that lies beyond all human expression.” 59

Dilthy went further and said the goal is to understand the author better than the author understands himself.

But Enlightenment optimism came to an end around WWI, and getting into the head of the writer got reactions. People came to realize the actual message of the text was being neglected.

“Often historical reconstruction all but replaced exegesis. This certainly was the case in studies of the Gospels, which were mined for evidences about who Jesus was rather than for their message to the faith community addressed by the Gospels.” 62

Rudolph Bultmann reacted to this, and said the text was relevant. 62

“New Criticism” led by Beardsley and Wimsatt said looking for the author’s intention beyond the text is doomed. 62

They said text is autonomous, divorced from its author. 63

But a new group would react to these as well, and place all the weight on “the reader as the generator of meaning.” 65

Martin Heidegger pointed to reader’s presuppositions as the problem. Hans-Georg Gadamer – “understanding occurs in the fusion of the horizon of the text with the interpreter.” 66

David Gunn and Danna Fewell say it’s purely reader’s oriented. 67

“If the text with all its linguistic ambiguities is not the arbitrator of meaning, then readers create meaning as they come to unstable texts.” 68

So 19th century summary: 1. Text as window – to see author’s intention. 2. Text as picture – to study and understand it. 3 Text as mirror – reader’s own reflection.

She says communication model avoids “the tendency towards trichotomizing (dividing in three) that is prevalent in some discussions of textual interpretation, which seems to be rooted in the supposed distinction between literature and ordinary communication.” 71

Says is no big difference between communication and literature. Communication model avoids two extremes: “making reader’s into authors or claiming that readers reach complete objectivity in these interpretations.” 73

“My goal when participating in communication with a friend is not to master what is communicated, or the person communicating for that matter. Instead, I want to really hear and thereby know the person more fully. Analogously, our goal in textual interpretation involves at heart, listening in order to hear well…listening seeks relationship.” 74

Somewhat true. But seeking a relationship requires understanding as the author intends. Or are we to believe a relationship will develop on the basis of misunderstandings? Second of all, anyone who masters something I wrote I would admire than if someone didn’t master it. God wants His people to come into relationship with Him by mastering His Word, certainly that was the idea behind the Jewish traditions of memorizing the entire Torah.

“The hermeneutical process is open-ended, never fully completed.” 74

Transmissive (Ordinary Writing, technical writing) –   Expression (Visual Art, Music)

Literature is inbetween, with Epistles on the left and Poetry on the right, narrative in the middle.

Genre indicates where a writing stands on this spectrum. 77

Chapter 4 – Some Affirmations About Meaning From a Communication Model

6 Affirmations of Meaning

  1. “Meaning is author-derived but textually communicated. Meaning can be helpfully understood as communicative intention.” 80
  2. Meaning is complex and determinate.
    1. Determinate does not mean “single meaning.” 84
    2. “Why not envision meaning as a sphere – a complex entity that still may rightly be describe as having boundaries?” 85
    3. The circle of hermeneutics is moving from parts to the whole over and over. 86
    4. “There is no single correct way to describe a text…If meaning is determinate, however, our interpretations cannot be directly conflicting and yet accurate in their representations of meaning.” 87
    5. “Determinacy means that interpretations, can be weighed on the basis of their alignment and coherence with an author’s communicative intention…yet determinacy does not mean that we will be able to exhaust the meaning of a text (especially on the book level) in interpretive practice.” 87
    6. Big emphasis on contextualization. 88
  3. “Meaning is imperfectly accessed by readers, both individual readers and readers in community.” 88
    1. “The argument often goes that, since human beings cannot know truth in any kind of objective fashion, then truth itself is relative (it differs from person to person). On the other side of the argument, those who want to preserve the objectivity of truth sometimes do so with the additional claim of objective knowledge of that truth – as if we ourselves see reality, the Bible included, from an objective vantage point. But we need not fall into either extreme in our hermeneutic, if we clearly distinguish between objective truth or reality and the always-subjective human appropriation of truth. We can access reality only through subjective appropriation. This subjective access affects how we approach texts and Scripture specifically…our knowledge of meaning is not objective, since human beings are not objective. We will only partially access meaning, in the end. We “see in a mirror dimly,” as Paul would put it…we are subjective beings because God has created us this way…Our finitude means we are contextually located and our way of knowing truth is mediated…’however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it necessary or desirable that it should be.’…The distortion of sin impacts all of our faculties, and so our abilities to understand Scripture as well.” 89
      1. But this almost makes it sound as if “objective truth exists, but it can’t be known/accessed.” If that’s the case, then what does a “true, accurate interpretation” amount to, since we have no assurance our interpretation is any less imperfect than another?
    2. Ambiguity can and often does attend meaning.
      1. “God has inspired Scripture in such a way as to ensure that what God wanted to communicate was communicated by the human authors.” 92
      2. Linguistic gaps, cultural gaps, and worldview gaps create ambiguity. 93
    3. Contextualization involves readers attending to the original biblical context and to their contemporary contexts, so that meaning can be appropriated in ways that acknowledge Scripture as both culturally located and powerfully relevant.
      1. “Rather than asking which parts of Scripture are universal and which are culturally conditioned, we will ask, how is this particular Scripture text relevant to my cultural context? In other words, what is the author’s normative stand in relation to my context?” 95
    4. The entire communicative event cannot be completed without a reader or hearer.


Chapter 5 – Developing Textual Meaning

Hirsch asserts, that “implications are the (sub)meanings in a text of which the author may have been unaware while writing but which nevertheless legitimately fall within the pattern of meaning he or she willed.” So there are unintended meanings. Hirsch says “An author always means more than he is aware of meaning, since he cannot explicitly pay attention to all the aspects of his meaning.” 103

“Meaning as type allows that an author generates aspects of meaning without requiring the author to be aware of all such potential aspects when inscribing meaning.” 104

An example would be if I said “nothing pleases me so much as eating pancakes,” and a friend asked “does playing drums please you more?” and I said “you’ve taken me too literally, I obviously meant that no food pleased me more.” (types) So intention determines meaning, more than trying to be literal.

So how do we know what to do? See if it’s A. Coherent. B. What the overall purpose is. For instance, “do you want to leave and have lunch?” vs. “Do you want to leave and have lunch?” 105

Chapter 6 –

Role of presuppositions.122-123

“For if it is true that none of us is free from presuppositions, is it not necessarily the case that we will always produce rather than simply discover what the text says?” 123-124

“Although readers often do create something that is not part of communicative intention and call it meaning, this action should not be the goal of reading. The reader’s misreading is not a part of the text’s reading.” 124

“In the final analysis, it is possible to acknowledge the perspectival nature of all readers and readings, while still affirming the possibility of Scripture ‘getting through’ to readers. In holding these two truths in tension, it is helpful to make a few distinctions. First, we can affirm both the reality of what stands in the text and the subjective nature of our knowledge or appropriation of that reality. Second, without claiming absolute knowledge for our interpretations, we can attain adequate knowledge.” 125

Most of Old Testament was intended to be and was read outloud in communities. This says something about the intended/implied reader. 132

Chapter 7

Inclusio – statements that book end an idea.



Synthetic parallelism – truth out of two ideas.

Intercollation – embedded story for author.

Chiasm – abba pattern

Acrostic – using alphabet (acronyms) for beginng of words/clauses

Illiteration – first letter of every word is same

Assonance – repeating vowel sounds

Onomatopoeia – sounds like what you’re trying to do (hush)

Chapter 8 – The Language of the Bible

For Gadamer and Wittgenstein later, language to people is like water to fish. 168

Autonomous views of language fail because they don’t account for relationships outside of language (baby, etc).

Three Maxims:

  1. Communication happens at the utterance level.

At a time like this, few words will do.

At a time like this, a few words will do.

“The difference between the utterance meanings will not be discovered by an in-depth word study of “a”!” 175

  1. Language is located in culture.

Barr “disentangled the constructs of language and thought, disavowing any neat correspondence between how a people speak and how they think. For example, it had been frequently asserted that because the Hebrew language has little in the way of abstract vocabulary, the Hebrew people thought consistently in concrete terms.” 178

Language is NOT self-referential, it “regularly refers to realities outside of itself.” 178

  1. The use of language in utterance communication is highly flexible. 171


Sense – expressed in an utterance.

Referent – “what an utterance points to outside of the language-event itself.” 172

Language – linguistic system of speech community.

Utterance – particular, actual speech unit made by individual. 172

Sentences need context to become utterances. 173

Word/concept – concept is an idea that might have number of words or word senses associated with it.

Σαρκς can mean the concept of “human body” or “body tissue” or “flesh”

“Study of the original languages of the Bible must be wedded with careful historical study of their social settings.” 177

“There is no rule that stipulates that I cannot use the same term differently within even the same written work.” 181

“The less familiar we are with a language, the more likely we are to treat it artificially.” 182

Liguistic pitfalls to avoid:

“Don’t infer the meaning of a word from its etymology.” 183

“Don’t infer the meaning of a word from its later usage.” 184

  • “A word cannot be interpreted to mean what it could not have meant at the time of writing.” 185
  • Don’t define Greek words by our translations or branched words (reading back into a word our meaning from today of the word).

“Don’t read all possible meanings of a word into a specific usage.” 185

“Don’t overemphasize fine points of grammar.”

  • Rather than saying “this is important cause its aorist” we should be thinking “this is important because Paul changes the verb tense to something that isn’t usually the default tense.” 187

Strauss said “it remains a divine mystery how an imperfect vehicle (language) can communicate inerrant truth.” 188

Chapter 9 – The Social World of the Bible

Creation in Genesis 1 vs. Near Eastern Religions. 195

“The Genesis account counters its contemporary cultural worldview by providing a different explanation of what creation and humanity are all about.” 195

Intertestamental apocryphal books are important for seeing changes in Jewish thought and lifestyle (says Metzger). 196

Two major cultural contexts of New Testament are Judaism and Greco-Romanism.

I Peter 4:15, is the word “meddler” “embezzler” or “busybody”? It’s only mentioned once in Scripture and in literature at that time, so how can we tell?

“From a study of various Greco-Roman writings, the concept of meddling can be described as interfering with or performing activities outside of one’s assigned sphere. It is aligned at times with such serious offenses as adultery. So this concept does fit with the seriousness of murder, theft, and evildoing in I Peter 4:15.” 203

Dating texts.

Sometimes with authors “mythology is used in service of monotheistic thought.” But that doesn’t mean  the authors bought into that worldview. 206

Chapter 10 – Literary Context, Intertextuality, and Canon

Literary context (read books as wholes, not parts). 214

Proof-texting. 215

“The tendency towards proof-texting is nowhere as common as in topical Bible study.” 216

Look for repetitions to find the theme. 219

What’s function of section in terms of whole book? 224

Intertextuality  – books assume books within canon (Acts assumes Luke, Exodus assumes Genesis, etc). 226

Mark Powell gives three indicators of intertextuality:

  1. Author’s knowledge of alluded text.
  2. Extent of repetition of features of alluded text.
  3. Thematic coherence between two texts. 227

Old Testament quotes in the New Testament may be used to accomplish:

  1. To support part of author’s argument (Psalm 34:12-16 in I Peter 3:8-12) 227
  2. To show Old Testament promise as fulfillment (Isa 43 in Mark 1:2-3)
  3. To evoke part’s of Israel’s story (Matthew’s genealogy). 228
  4. To provide analogy or “event connection’ between Old Testament and New Testament (Exod. 32:6 in I Cor. 10:1-11).
  5. To provide illustration for contemporary use (Isa. 20:13 in Matt. 15:3-9). 228
  6. Stress continuity between Old and New Covenants (Ps. 32:1-2 and Gen. 15:6 in Rom. 4). 228


“Reading canonically means that we will listen for the overarching biblical story as we read the biblical text. We will engage in biblical theology.” 229

Why shouldn’t interpretation be looked at as finding culturally transcendent principles in cultural texts?

“First, the distinction assumes the possibility of disengaging the meaning of the text from its form…Second…it assumes that some or most Scriptures are transcultural, while some are not. Yet if by ‘transcultural’ we mean timeless, abstracted truth, we have not taken seriously the cultural location of all the books in the Bible. By insisting that Scripture comes to us as timeless, abstracted truth, we lose sight of the historical particularity of its origins…So it seems unwise to create a dichotomy between parts of the Bible that are timeless and transcultural and those that are culturally bound…The incarnational balance ought to be preserved by affirming that all Scriptures are culturally located, and all Scriptures are able to speak beyond their cultural location.” 259

“If Scripture is culturally located, it also follows that the truth contained therein is enculturated truth…there is a necessary recontextualization that occurs when we allow Scripture to address our own contexts.” 261

“It would be all too easy to venerate the principle in place of the text, if we have been taught that ahistorical, timeless truths are what we are after. But Scripture itself is God’s word, not our attempts to ‘principalize it’…As Vanhoozer warns, ‘It is dangerous to think that a set of deculturalized principles is a more accurate indication of God’s will than its canonical expression.” 262

NT Wright: “To suppose that one must boil off doctrinal abstractions from the particularities of the letters in order to gain material that can be usable in different situations is at best a half-truth; it always runs the risk of implying that the ‘ideas’ are the reality, and that the community in which they are embodied and embedded (Paul’s community on the one hand, ours on the other) is a secondary matter.” 262

Yet “principalizing can be quite helpful as one tool within a broader purpose-guided method for contextualization.” 264