Anthony Thistelton’s, “Communicative Action and Promise in Hermeneutics” in The Promise of Hermeneutics
by Michael Barber
From The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 133-239.
Autonomy vs. Respect for the Other’s Otherness
Thiselton begins by contrasting the “orphaned individual” of Cartesian and Enlightenment philosophy (as defined by Roger Lundin) with the underlying concern for the “other” in Christian theology and biblical hermeneutics. While philosophers like Kant stress the autonomy of the individual, biblical hermeneutics stresses openness to the other – especially as this relates to receiving revelation from God. Contrary to the desire (and perceived necessity) to control and master the other, Christianity stresses the importance of “respect” him/her (132-133).
In this vein, Thiselton points to Gadamer and Ricoeur who both emphasize the task of “listening” and “practical action” in hermeneutics (134). Ricoeur, for example, speaks of illocutionary speech-acts where speaking is an “action” in which something is “done” and directed to an addressee who “listens.” Walhout goes on to show that texts themselves are products directed at an addressee, which themselves generate further processes. Utterances concerning them may “count as history or fiction, warnings or promises, heuristic explorations of possible scenarios or mimetic representations or refigurations of an extrralinguistic world” (135). He goes on to explain that “fiction” presents possible worlds wherein various possibilities may be explored.
Mechanical Replication (Scylla) vs. Orphaned Indeterminacy (Charybdis)
Thiselton turns his attention to the problem of what might be called “saying something new” (137). Authors will not gain a hearing if they “say the same old thing.” Texts – especially biblical texts – are to be “brought to life” through interpretation (137). While “wrong” interpretations exist, interpretation calls for something more than merely duplicating the text. Texts do not, therefore, have only one correct interpretation (138). It is “tradition” that creates the possibility of “speaking creatively” while the “orphaned” self “can choose only either tedious mechanical repetition or idiosyncratic novelty” (138).
Thiselton points out that texts do not merely have a single interpretation because texts often have more than a single “voice.” Within the canon of Scripture there are multiple voices (the various books). In addition, there are multiple – even contradictory – voices within the individual books (e.g., the Book of Job). Yet, there is not sheer anarchy in all of this. Limits are set through the recognition that texts involve agency and action – “we cannot bypass questions about the commitments, responsibilities, and appointments of extralinguistic authors or agents, or about the directionality of their address” (143).
Enlightenment philosophy views language as always functioning in the same way – as the means through which thoughts are conveyed. However, Wittgenstein and others have shown how language is more like “tools in a tool box” (143). The agent performs an action by choosing the proper “tool.” This is seen in the way illocutionary acts use locutionary acts. In the words of Walterstorff, “I have performed one action by performing another distinct action” (145). Indeed, single locutionary acts may be used to accomplish different illocutionary actions.
Furthermore, speech acts are defined by extra-linguistic realities. Thiselton looks at acts of promising, wherein certain “institutional facts” are presupposed. The words of a will, through which property is bequeathed to another, presupposes the institution of certain legal parameters within which it is accepted as a binding. Yet, “institutional facts” depend upon “brute facts.” For money to “count as” money presupposes that paper exists – “the social act of counting it as legal currency both transcends and presupposes the brute fact of its existence as a piece of paper” (147).
Four Criteria for a Hermeneutic of Promise
Thiselton outlines four senses in which we may speak of a “hermeneutics of promise” (151).
(1) It steers between Scylla (orphaned individualism) and Charybdis (intralinguistic indeterminacy)
(2) It locates the responsibility of hermeneutics within a teleological and temporal narrative frame – the present task and text requires the recognition of past history and its effects on us, as well as future directions and goals.
(3) From Scripture we see that “communicative acts of declaration, proclamation, call, appointment, command, worship, and most especially promise are constitutive of what it is for the word of God to become operative and effective.” The continuity of these acts make up a narrative history which gives us the most promising frame of reference for biblical hermeneutics and theology.
(4) The recognition of the necessity for the respect of the “other” shifts the concern from the individual to “relationality” and “responsibility.”
Reader Response Criticism
According to Thiselton, Reader Response Criticism, which recognizes the “openness” of the text, has failed to catch on in New Testament studies for 5 main reasons. First, because of its attempt to isolate the reader from the “author” – the “other.” Second, because it has set up a straw man case for formalism where texts are constructed rather than construed or conditioned by readers. Third, in its a-historical approach to the text it fails to engage with the interplay of the tradition of the text’s effects. Fourth, he points out that the timing of the rise of Reader Response Criticism appeared on the scene just in time to address certain dilemmas within parable research. However, its usefulness and relevance given the light of the focus of more contemporary studies is now in question. Fifth, its understanding of “intention” as a noun implying a psychological state rather than as an adverb denoting stance, responsibility, agency and directedness.
Reader Response criticism has been valuable in reassigning a pro-active role to the reader and the openness of the text. This is especially an important part of understanding texts that deal with the problem of evil, such as Job, which contain multiple “voices.” Indeed, one of its greatest contributions has been the way it has forced an appreciation of the diversity of biblical texts and genres (171). Yet, the deconstructionism of Derrida and Barthes ultimately leads to violence to the “other” by ignoring the intent of the author. Thiselton quotes Vanhoozer: “Desconstruction, far from protecting… an ‘other,’ licenses interpretive violence… Deconstruction claims to be ethically responsible for the ‘other.’… I do not agree. Deconstruction does not serve the other” (181).
Hermeneutics within the Horizon of Time
According to Lundin, Descartes and Kant view “the present” as disconnected from the past. Yet, speakers “act” within time. As such, a hermeneutic of promise depends upon time, which is inextricably bound up with the issues of personal identity, personal agency, and action. “Those who make a promise that they can keep only many years later, or over a whole life, have to retain their identity if they are to meet the promise” (190).
Thiselton turns to Jauss’ “Aesthetics of Reception” and others (e.g., David Tracy) to show how hermeneutics presupposes history. He explains that readers do not come to the text apart from tradition. Their pre-understanding is formed by past tradition. Moreover, the “past of history” is not “closed” but open to renewed understanding that is the result of subsequent events and experiences. “Similarly, every literary or artistic work is not ‘timeless’ in the sense of being abstracted from processes of history and tradition, but re-actualized as eventful in each changing context of successive processes of understanding” (193).
Moreover, successive readings generate new meaning:
“…each actualization and subsequent reactualization of a text constitutes concretions of meaning or instantiations of speech acts generated by the text and also co-operatively by the text and by subsequent horizons of expectation generated by the text as traditions of reading unfold, or as paradigms of reading change” (201).There is therefore a role for the “post-history” of the text.
Implications for Speech Act-Theory in Hermeneutics and for Post-History of Biblical Texts
Thiselton offers 4 distinctions (201-202). (1) At one end of the continuum, the original author of the final text is given a privileged place – it is he that the reader “aims” to hear. (2) At the other end, there is the audience, which hears the texts differently depending on the conditioning aspects of history and tradition. (3) The degree with which the text retains a stable core of content and the degree in which the speech act is replicated depends upon the genre and content. Historical statements are much more easily replicated than texts with multiple voices. (4) While intratextual terms remain stable (metaphor, tempo, etc), the audiences also brings with them different repertoires of reading (intertexuality). Thiselton goes on to give examples of the history of interpretation of certain texts (202-203).
Futher Implications and the Paradigmatic Status of Promise as Communicative Action
According to Thiselton, a consequence of Cartesian “individualism” is the shift in focus from “responsibility” to a self-centered obsession of “rights.” While there are biblical passages which speak of “rights”, they are always set within a very different context, that of covenant obligation. While secular postmodernism offers no remedy to this kind of selfishness – Christianity offers the possibility of a hermeneutic of truth – a hermeneutic of promise.
The most illuminating illocutionary act is the act of promising, which reveals something about the agent – not simply what s/he promises (149). In Scripture promise is usually bound up with the “institutional fact” of the covenant (224). The New Testament especially bases promissory speech-acts on the idea of covenant faithfulness. For an act to become more than just a perlocutionary act of persuasion personal commitment is required. Self-involvement fundamentally constitutes illocution. Paul declares Christ through his actions – not just through persuasive “wisdom” (224-225).
Proclamation as promise occurs most explicitly through the context of covenant, through celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the sharing of the “cup of the new covenant in my blood” (227; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). Moreover, the covenant is the basis for future expectations – justification, eschatology, etc.
Thiselton sets out to show why promise constitutes a key element in examining the nature and currency of speech acts in Scripture and Christian theology (231).
(1) The nature of promise presupposes institutional facts, such as covenant. However, these institutional facts are not simply to be absorbed into the intralinguistic world. There could be no covenant without the events of the Old and New Testaments
(2) Through promise we see the variability between explicit and implicit speech acts. Not all acts of promise in Scripture use the term “promise.” Illocution depends upon much more than vocabulary or grammar.
(3) Acts of promise entail personal commitments of the agent within “an intersubjective, public, extralinguistic world of ethical undertaking and address” (234). Enlightenment individualism has no role for promise. Responsibilities radically condition autonomy (235).
(4) Promising also is seen as a strong illocutionary act as opposed to wider definitions of speech acts. Some are now seeing all texts as speech acts. This is helpful because it helps us to see how agents mean what they say – however this also threatens to degenerate into the subjective (237).
(5) Promise provides a paradigm for how language can transform the world of reality.