Question: Camery-Hoggatt challenges the idea that the primary function of language is to convey information. What does he mean by this? Do you think he is correct? If you agree, do you think that the language of the Bible is any different in this regard? If you think this is also true of the Bible, what might be some of the other purposes of biblical language beyond simply conveying information?
I am not sure that Camery-Hoggatt is challenging that idea, at least not explicitly. Rather, what he is trying to do is show us the many uses of the tool that is human language. One use of that tool is to communicate information, as he states on page 51, but he says that language also persuades, alienates, tells a story, etc. I agree with him in that respect. As a tool, language must match the intended need. For example, if someone asks me for directions to a restaurant, I am going to use the tool of language to provide them information as to where they need to go. On the other hand, if I wish to express joy, or persuade someone, my use of language will serve a different function.
The language of the Bible is no different. Language, whether spoken, written, or read is one of the primary means that we as humans employ in our attempt to express the inexpressible (God). Therefore, the writers of the Bible were constrained to use the same tool of communication that everyone throughout time and history has used. The various types of Biblical language, such as poetry, narrative, historical account, apocalyptic, etc. are all used in an attempt to express the interaction of God and His people throughout history. Our Enlightenment conditioned minds have tended to view the language of the Bible as solely informational. The resulting effect has been an approach towards the Biblical text that resembles the scientist or the researcher, gleaning the scientific textbook for valuable factual information. We sometimes fail to interpret or understand the Biblical text because we do not see that the language being used may be trying to serve a different purpose than our presuppositions tell us it does. The Psalms are a great example of poetic texts. If we approach the Psalms in an attempt to gather information, we have failed to appreciate the richness of the text. If however we approach them as poetry, which relies heavily on the imagination, we begin to get a glimpse of the human struggle with understanding God and His mission. The questions we may have brought to the text may very well remain; we are no longer approaching it in the attempt to master what we thought was information, but instead seek to be transformed by the richness and mystery of it.
Question: Camery-Hoggatt argues that human language is inherently ambiguous? What does he mean by this? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Does this leave open the door to interpretive relativism (or subjectivism)? What implications could this have for the way we interpret Scripture or for the results of our interpretation? Does this indicate any change in the way you view the Bible?
Camery-Hoggatt suggests that human language is inherently ambiguous because sometimes words can carry multiple meanings. I agree with him. I believe that most, if not all, language is culturally and contextually understood, i.e. gets meaning based on agreements of communities, whether local or global, as well as context and other factors. For example, if I told you that I thought your car was “hot”, do I mean: sporty and neat, possessing a high internal temperature, or stolen? All are valid meanings of the word “hot” as determined by our cultural understanding. In this case, we need context to help us. Another example is something like the word “red”. There is nothing inherent in the word “red” that tell us what it looks like; rather we understand and associate a particular color with the word “red”, because that is what the agreement already is, and that is how we were taught.
Camery-Hoggatt provides tools that guard against relativism in reference to language. Bottom-up and top-down constraints (one of which I already mentioned, context) act as the “guard rails” upon which we can disambiguate language, and in our case the Biblical text. Not every meaning that we assign to a word, nor every interpretation of a passage, is valid. This is especially the case in reading the Biblical text. We are reading a text that was translated from original languages, employed in cultural and historical contexts far removed from our own. We can not assign words meanings based on our understanding and use of those words, when in fact the historical context may not allow it. To do so is to read with our biases and presuppositions. We all approach the text with them, but seeing them and owning up to them will allow us to better appreciate the task of interpretation.
This has affected my view of the Bible in a positive way. I used to approach the Scriptures with the idea that my interpretation, which I believed was free from bias, was the only correct one. It also helped me to see the depth of the text that I glossed over before. An example from Rob Bell is helpful here: I had always read how, at Jesus’ words of “come follow me”, the disciples dropped everything and went. My interpretation, based on what I was taught, was that the disciples knew this was the Messiah, so that is why they came so eagerly. However, as Rob Bell points out, a historical and cultural understanding of Judaism at the time of Christ gives us a better understanding of what may have been going on there. Rabbis at that time would ask their best students to “Come, follow me”, which was among the highest honor reserved for only the most gifted students. By calling fisherman, tax collectors, etc to follow Him, Jesus was saying in effect “you can do it, you can be my disciple, come follow me, learn of me”. I do not know how true this is, but it makes better sense of the passage, and it accounts for the historical context.