Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation

By Peter Cotterell and Max Turner
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1989). 348 Pages.

Reviewed by
5.2 (Fall 1994) : 213-216

The authors, Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, are senior lecturer in missiology and linguistics at London Bible College and teaching fellow in NT exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, respectively. Their primary purpose in writing is "to offer a measure of guidance to students as to how they can use linguistics to develop more nuanced approaches to exegesis" (33). In short, "Linguistics may afford further precision, system and breadth of analysis" (27) to biblical interpretation.

They draw from this sister discipline principles by which to interpret as well as correctives with which to prevent abuse. Within the broad range of language studies, they concentrate on three main areas:

First, the concept of meaning (semantics), and especially . . . the vexed question of lexical semantics, the meaning of words; second, the particular significance to be assigned to author, text, and reader in the search for the meaning of any particular part of the Bible; and third, the significance of the recognition of the role of the discourse as a whole (a conversation, a parable, an anecdote, an epistle) in determining meaning (9-10).

A good example of a basic, yet commonly violated, principle of text interpretation comes from the book's discussion of meaning (semantics). The error commonly arises from the fact that individual words have multiple and sometimes diverse meanings or senses:

The attempt to give the words sharing a common lexical form a 'basic' sense which is then made to account for all the other senses of words with the same lexical form is to be resisted. In cases of homonyms there may be no shared component of meaning. In instances of polysemy there is usually some component of meaning shared between a number of senses, but it is not always the case that every sense of the word shares a single common component of meaning, far less that it is a central component of meaning (179).

From the authors' discussion of discourse, the area of language studies which looks at the structure of complete texts, comes another and perhaps better known set of errors committed by students of the Bible. Perhaps because of their theological commitment to the very words of Scripture, they have a tendency toward microanalysis at the word and sentence levels without considering the text as a unit of communication. To this the authors respond,

There has been a tendency to interpret the text of the Bible in terms of sentences rather than in terms of utterances, although all responsible commentators have taken some account of the socio-historical setting of the texts they expound (18).

Giving consideration to only a small textual unit and its immediate context does not see where the passage is going (80). Without an overarching understanding of a whole discourse, one should not feel confident that he has understood the individual sections (81). And how he understands the sense relations between sections considerably affects the sense of the paragraphs themselves (ibid). The authors explain the nature of texts, which requires giving more careful attention to the notion of structure:

Any address, any conversation, any book, any discourse, has structure. It would be absurd to attempt to impose any rigorous model of that structure on discourse, since it would be a matter of little difficulty to produce an example of discourse minus the structure. But discourse is not a random sequence of utterances, or an unrelated collection of sentences. In discourse we have sequences, words which are grammatically related and semantically connected, and this grammatical and semantic relatedness extends across sentence and paragraph boundaries to embrace the entire discourse. We note also that there is not merely coherence; there is also progression: a discernible development leading to some kind of peak. There is, in simplistic terms, a beginning, a middle, and an end (247).

The interpreter can study the structure of a text more carefully by diagramming that text. Even the most accomplished exegetes, translators, and other text scholars resort to diagramming when the organization of a text necessitates it. Another type of corrective addressed by the authors focuses on methods for mapping out texts. Diagramming, be it line, block, phrase, structure diagramming, or other, if carefully executed may assist the Bible student in discovering and blueprinting one sort of structure in a text. The authors set forth their own method of diagramming which, not surprisingly, gives greater emphasis to meaning than to form; however, they are careful to acknowledge the inherent weaknesses of the method. In short, the diagram may codify visually the grammatical and syntactical relations a Bible student assumes are resident in a text, and in so doing, provides the grounds for considering other interpretive options. In essence, the diagram tells what the interpreter believes is there. It helps organize much detail in one's thinking. The shortcomings of this method lie not as much in the method itself as in the assumptions of those who choose to employ it:

The attempt to represent the thought structure in a diagrammatic form is usually liable to be fruitful, at least in helping the reader to explore the ranking of the subordination. But it is not yet a systematic and explicit statement of the relationship between the parts. A line on a piece of paper may suggest that a relationship between parts exists, but a line does not specify the nature of that relationship as such (203, emphasis added).

At times, the authors become skeptical about the exegetical process and its potential for recovering the messages of ancient texts. For example, "The fact is that because of the enormous complexity of human communication we are practically never in total control of the communication process" (15). Though it is true that language is complex and may lack a certain kind of precision, this statement may be unduly pessimistic. Whatever shortcomings human language may have, it has never stopped humans from communicating either in oral or written form. The fact of the matter is that human understanding of the process is less precise than the process itself. But at one time these texts communicated. With careful and prayerful research they can do so again.

So far as the impact of modern linguistics on biblical study is concerned, students of the Bible have already learned much regarding abuses in exegesis. Even if the discipline does not yield as much assistance in the "how to's" of exegesis, students of the Bible who employ the time-tested aspects of linguistics may benefit greatly from this sister discipline. This reviewer highly recommends the book to those students willing to do the hard study to become acquainted with linguistics' challenging and, at times. daunting theoretical models and methods, while maintaining realistic expectations from the discipline like those of the authors: as with "historical study, the use of linguistics in biblical interpretation, is not so much to provide assured answers as to clarify the important questions" (32).