Review: Scripture As Communication

Jeannine Brown’s book Scripture as Communication offers the reader a communicative model for biblical interpretation. God communicates with us, and he uses the variegated genres of the Bible to accomplish this purpose. According to Brown, this understanding allows for cognitive and noncognitive interpretations of a text. A biblical author may write a propositional statement, but he may also be doing something as he writes: praising, exhorting, etc. In short, “a communication model allows for such a holistic approach” (pg. 16).

Brown beckons us to approach the Bible with a hermeneutic of communication. Before adopting this the communicative model, we ought to ask whether or not the theory can account for interpreting all of the genres of the Bible, and how well this theory can be applied in practical theology — in the pulpit, in Bible study, in evangelism, and on the mission field.

Brown gives an overview of her model: “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 purposes of engagement” (p. 14). What does this actually mean?

First, the communicative act of the author is synonymous with communicative intention. Brown deliberately uses the term “communicative act of the author” rather than “authorial intention.” An author may wish to communicate something, but may actually communicate something else. “Authorial intention” may fail to capture the impact that the text actually has on the reader. Brown, therefore, eschews the term “authorial intention” for the more precise “communicative act of the author,” which has been “inscribed in the text.”

Second, we — the present-day readers of the Bible — are the intended audience that the author proposes to engage.

Brown claims that Christians are a part of the intended audience because we identify with the original intended audience. Brown writes, “Even as we seek the author’s communicative act, we will need to be aware of the importance of our stance and responses as readers” (p. 14). We atend to the culture and context to which the author wrote, yet we do not neglect to include our culture and context when understanding the author’s communicative intent.

Brown’s point about intended audience underscores the importance of the term “communicative act.” The author of James may have intended to address Jewish Christians familiar with wisdom literature, yet his epistle engages cultures and contexts far beyond the group of people he may have had in mind. When Brown writes of engagement, she is referring to perlocution, which is a speech-act theory term denoting communicative result. In order for the author’s communicative act to be complete, it must result in perlocutionary intention. The intent of James 1:22 to not only be hearers of the word but also doers first needs to be understood, then needs to be acted upon. Once the audience responds properly to James’ communicative intention by acting upon the word, then his full communicative act will have been successful.

Brown develops her thesis well. In the first part of the book, she explains the communication model in light of various theoretical perspectives, and in the second part she applies the model to the interpretive categories of genre, language, the social world of the Bible, literary context, canon, and contextualization. While dealing with each subtopic, she keeps a strong focus on the communication model throughout; she always brings the reader back to the thesis of her book, that Scripture’s meaning is a communicative act by an author.

This book is helpful for readers of a college level or above. The writing is clear, and the author makes difficult topics understandable. Part of this clarity is to take a complex theory and guide the reader through an application. Brown also keeps the reader’s attention focused on Scripture. She offers practical application of a particular theory to a biblical text, even in the first part of the book where she deals more with theory than practice. She provides helpful appendices which enable the reader to understand the Bible through multiple categories.

Central to Brown’s thesis is meaning. She deals with meaning in chapter four. She defines meaning as “the complex pattern of what an author intends to communicate with 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” (pg. 48). Discovering the Bible’s meaning does not come easily. The reader has to do some digging before he or she can discover what God is communicating through language and background-contextual assumptions. Biblical interpretation will invariably turn up different meanings, but this does not the Bible a relative book open to any and every interpretation. As Fee says, “Unique interpretations are usually wrong” (KJV class notes lecture 1 page 1). Meaning is determinate but complex. Brown explains determinacy in relation to the communication model. “Determinacy means that interpretations can be weighed on the basis of their alignment and coherence with an author’s communicative intention” (pg. 87). Brown offers a balanced definition of determinacy here. She puts equal weight on the author and the reader. It is the author (or Author) who communicates to us, yet readers interpret the communicative intention and not the authorial intention. The text will always have a determinate meaning, but our experience and application of the text will bring out the complexity of its meaning.

The communication model of hermeneutics is readily applicable to one’s growth as a faithful Christian. The model encourages us to become doers of the word by recognizing that the text is communicating. Through the communication model, the reader can seek to understand God’s illocution and render the proper response. When this perlocutionary intention is actualized, the communicative act is complete.

The main drawback I found in Brown’s book was the absence of description of the triune God. She does mention that he is the Author, but mentioning the attributes of God would have greatly bolstered her case for the communication model. In order for God’s communicative act to be complete, we need to understand his illocution to us at a particular time and place, and respond properly. But how can we understand fully if we do not appreciate who God is? On the other hand, if we do appreciate God’s eternal power and divine nature, we can respond properly and willingly, even to the point of giving our lives in obedience to his illocution.

Absent also is an explanation about the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding the text. Brown gives the reader the impression that if he or she has the right tools and methods, then correct interpretation will follow. Understanding the Bible through the implementation of the right means does not supersede human being’s dependance on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as Barth wrote, is the Lord of the hearing. Only by his help can we hear, understand, and respond to what God wants to communicate to us.


  1. I find your statement that, “Biblical interpretation will invariably turn up different meanings, but this does not the Bible a relative book open to any and every interpretation” very interesting. I often struggle with the idea that what our relative society does to absolute truth, we as Christians sometimes do to the truth found in the bible.

    We say that this passage might be saying X to you.. but it says NOT X to me. Greg Koukl (a calvanist apologist) who is known for his defense against moral relativism often attacks Christian’s for being scriptural relativist. I feel God definitely suggests to our heart certain passages because of what we may need at the moment. But I have up to this point not been able to discern what is the line between the Holy Spirit speaking to me through biblical text and me just trying to twist a passage to fit what I want it to mean.

    Any suggestions?

    • Gerardo,

      I hear what you’re saying. I think it’s important to let Scripture speak on its own terms without our preconceived notions and agendas guiding our reading (easier said than done). We can do that by understanding the “then and there” of Scripture. What did it mean to its original hearers? How would they have heard it?

      We can also be humble and confident at the same time with our Scripture interpretation. We can look at its interpretation within 2000 years of church history seeing how the church has read passages. This humbles us–we may not have any unique interpretations, i.e., I am not the first person to read, preach on, or interpret a passage of Scripture. Yet we can be confident that the Scripture is saying something to me personally (according to my context, emotions, circumstances in my life). I have found this is the best way that the Holy Spirit speaks to me.

  2. Wow – Well put my friend. I have only recently begun to read the Church Fathers and their teachings on scriptures. I feel’s like I have discovered a gold mine. Like a nerd who discovered a previously unreleased scenes to his favorite movie.

    I find contextualizing scripture also makes it more interesting. This is particularly true of revelations I think. Thank you for this article.

    • Thanks Gerardo. Yeah, Revelation is a whole other ballgame. That takes extra care to interpret, but I’ve found it a simple joy to just dive in and read it.

      We definitely need the “then and there” and the “here and now” when trying to understand Scripture.

      Keep reading those Fathers! Irenaeus is my favorite Father, besides Augustine. Who do you like?

  3. Another great book is “Grasping God’s Word” by Duvall and Hays, and I know Ben likes “The Hermenutical Spiral” by Osborne too…

    • Watch out for that Spiral! For the size of that book, it’s surprisingly accessible.

      “Is there Meaning in this Text” is great too. I haven’t plowed my way through it all, but have read select chapters–pretty dense.