Years ago, I worked in a legal office. I wrote the Last Will & Testament for many clients. Some clients had certain assets they wanted to bequest to certain people in certain ways. For example, they might desire a child receives an annual distribution commencing at their 18th birthday, provided the child: (1) is a full-time employee; (2) is a full-time student; (3) serves in the military; or, (4) serves a charitable organization at least 30 hours a week.
We called this “reaching from the grave.” Once the testator died, we had an ethical responsibility to follow his/her wishes with integrity.
Pastors have a similar ethical responsibility.1The subject of an interpreter’s ethical responsibility received some attention years ago, but it has waned. Those who address the issue best are: Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this … Continue reading This responsibility includes making certain the biblical author’s meaning and intended application(s) are preserved. Few (if any) preaching textbooks mention this subject, likely because it limits our freedom to apply passages as “we” see fit. Yet, an ethical responsibility resides in the written text and extends to the interpreter.
Most of us have been taken out of context at some point in our life. Karl Barth, after reading a review of one of his own books, felt as though he had been “cannibalized” because his writings were intentionally misrepresented. He wrote to Professor Geoffrey W. Bromiley of Fuller Seminary and refused to answer questions from fundamentalists. He felt they had misrepresented him. Bart quotes an eighteenth-century poem: “There is no true love where one man eats another,” and then exclaims, “These fundamentalists want to eat me up.”2See Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text?, 161; see also, Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968, ed. and trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 7-8. Whether his frustration was justified or not, who among us has not felt similarly?
Would the biblical writers cringe at how we apply their sacred truths?
Or, do we even care? . . . Perhaps that is the more relevant question.
Think Through Speech Act Theory
Present-day application(s) call for decisions from the reader. The arguments presented by “Speech Act Theory” (i.e., the study of how words relate to intended actions) offer some restraints on a reader’s decision-making. Timothy Ward, one of the better (and more understandable) writers on the subject, argues that the determinancy of textual meaning controls the determinancy of relationships between author, text, and reader.3Timothy Ward, Word and Supplement, 138. Without getting too technical, an author’s right to determine his meaning is conducted through the illocutionary (i.e., communication) force of his speech act. This illocutionary force—a warning, a promise, a request, etc.—establishes a new ethical relationship between author and reader, which in turn adjudicates the moral responsibilities assigned to each party.4Ibid., 199. Ward remarks, “These moral rights and responsibilities are determinate, and constitute the determinate relationships between author, text, and reader.” Accordingly, Ward concludes, the illocutionary force “protects the identity of each of the three elements, author, text, and reader, from being dissolved into any of the others. In addition, it makes clear the ethical and determinate character of the relationships which exist between authors, texts, and readers.”5Ibid., 205 All of this is interesting enough, but what does it mean for pastors? . . .
Think Through Your Ethical Responsibility
It means we have a solemn, ethical responsibility to the biblical author to stay within the confines of the his intended outcome(s). We must honor several virtues of integrity few are willing to consider. Vanhoozer suggests four: (1) honesty; (2) openness; (3) attention; and, (4) obedience.6Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text?, 376-77.
Honesty acknowledges one’s prior experiences, making a genuine effort to lay aside those preunderstandings. Openness hears the biblical author without prejudice or malice, and it requires a willingness to change. Attention makes a genuine attempt to explore the details and make a genuine attempt to study the various levels of the literary act (genre, syntax, word meanings, etc.). Obedience follows the directions of the text, reading the genre as the author intended it to be read (i.e., reading history as history, apocalyptic as apocalyptic, etc.).
Too often, we violate our ethical responsibilities, and it is our end-user application(s) which implicitly betray us. This must change.
Allegorical tendencies in application are the most difficult aspect of preaching to evaluate. In the leap between the author’s verbal meaning and his end-user application(s), we move from dealing with a concrete entity (namely, the text) to an abstract entity (that is, the relationship of that text to changing situations). We can go wayward quickly, often without even realizing it. This is why the previous articles on abstraction, extrapolation, and principlization are crucial. Yet, even when those procedures remain airtight, we still risk losing biblical authority when we relax our ethical responsibility to the biblical author we claim to represent.
Biblical authors wrote with an eye toward “reaching from the grave.” Don’t be the preacher who cuts off their arm for personal gain.
|1||The subject of an interpreter’s ethical responsibility received some attention years ago, but it has waned. Those who address the issue best are: Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text? 148-95, 367-452; Timothy Ward, Word and Supplement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture(Oxford: University Press, 2002), 94-105 and 137-207; and, Nicolas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: University Press, 1995), 75-94.|
|2||See Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text?, 161; see also, Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968, ed. and trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 7-8.|
|3||Timothy Ward, Word and Supplement, 138.|
|4||Ibid., 199. Ward remarks, “These moral rights and responsibilities are determinate, and constitute the determinate relationships between author, text, and reader.”|
|6||Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text?, 376-77.|