The Bible as an Act of Communication

I was questioned on another thread about my views on creation and I referenced my belief that it is an act of communication and would not be clear in the same way to different audiences.
My view is grounded on a linguistic theory called relevance theory, that I have referenced elsewhere.

As a summary of the key points of the theory, horrendously simplified and hopefully with little jargon

When we see an act of intentional communication we presume that it has the following features
a. it is at worth our attention top spend the effort processing it
b. it is the most relevant that the communicator can make it according to their preferences and abilities.

All other things being equal, the more changes, additions or falsifications of our current views that we take on the more relevant the communication is. The strength of those is also key.
All other things being equal, the more processing effort it takes to understand the message, the less relevant it is
Basically it is a balancing act of the above

The human mind is geared towards maximisation of relevance and will engage in that balancing act. It will assess interpretations and fill in bits where needed in order of cognitive accessibility and stop when it achieves enough effects to justify the processing effort. The communicator communicates in such a way as to try to ensure that we stop at the interpretation that they desired. We can go further than that, but at that point we take responsibility for the fact that this may not be intended at all!

So, with the above in place we need to deal with what is communicated.

For RT words such as nouns and verbs are pointers to conceptual spaces. These comprise

  1. lexical information such as tense, aspect, person, number etc
  2. Logical information related to such things as category membership (cat / feline / animal / mammal)
  3. Encyclopaedic data. This is a “grab-bag” of information around attitudes towards something, cultural knowledge, information around associations with other things.
    Contextual information around the co-text (surrounding text/speech), context etc all shape the communicative situation

The problem is that for every act of communication the audience doesn’t share the exact same set of information. This is true for people in the same culture, but especially in different cultures. So the communicator makes a trade off - they inform as much as they have to for the communication to make sense, without overburdening the hearer/reader with information that is not needed. The more information they give which the hearer doesn’t need to make sense of what is being communicated, the more effort that reader has to go through to process the message. What could have been said in 10 words ends up being said in 30-40. An example is a trip abroad I took, when waiting for the coach the driver looked at me and said “English?”. I inferred that he meant “are you English / can you speak English” I responded accordingly. If he were to say “are you able to speak in the language that is called English” I would probably have assumed he was trying to be funny, because it is just unnecessary verbage
The hearer/reader on the other hand has their own job in this communicative situation. Their job is to go through an inferential process of fleshing out the meaning of the message. The actual words themselves do not encode all the information in a message, the communicator gives enough information to point to their intention and leaves the rest to inference. This means that we ALL go through a process of interpretation, and we ALL will have a slightly different set of beliefs, knowledge, cultural assumptions etc that we bring to it.
This also means that what was clear to one audience and involved little processing may be unclear to another audience. They don’t share the same cognitive environment, nor even the same categories, so clarity may require additional words to make it make sense to them in the same way. Those additional words would have burdened the original audience and made the text less relevant, their lack of burden is our burden though

The Bible is an act of communication. To say it can communicate with the same clarity across cultures is to deny the way that humans process information and communication specifically. We ought to approach it as such and recognise that our “clear reading” may be based on something completely different to what is “clear” to others because of the factors above

I ought to point out that this theory is not the only theory of linguistics (pragmatics in particular) out there, but it is one that has a LOT of experimental work going on in it and is well regarded. It has also been extensively applied to biblical studies
The scope of the theory can be seen by the size of the online bibliography maintained by Dr Yus

I don’t think I should go more into this theory right now, although I am happy to flesh out more on elements. I also don’t want to get into examples right now of how I see this applying to specific texts. Until people who want to interact on this one are clear on the approach I am taking then there isn’t much point in me then going on and trying to defend things that I derive from taking this approach

Hope this makes sense


A post was merged into an existing topic: What is “the perspicuity of scripture” and is it soundly Biblical?

I see why you like Hilber’s work. How much of this did you have before?

Also, what are your views on origins? Are you YEC, OEC, TE, or something else? What denomination or theological school do you identify with?

I had a bit of a hard time making sense of it at the beginning, but I particularly see Genesis 1 as God speaking to children. So I believe that would make sense of what you are trying to communicate. :wink:

That is just one of the interpretive steps that we have to take when thinking of the original audience. In the context of a culture though surrounded by different (but terminologically related) beliefs, it is written to those exposed to those beliefs. This means the adult population in the original audience would have been heavily impacted by what was written, perhaps even more so than the children. With numerous corrections to the things they had heard there is the associated need to disregard / reject the deities and religions that they had previously heard of. Unfortunately we see throughout the Bible the tendency to slip back into those beliefs and rituals.

I have been following the theory for a few years now. Hilber’s work is just one of about 10 I have on the theory applied to the bible in general, and a few applied specifically to the Greek the New Testament was written in. I also have about 25 books on the subject itself and a whole stack of journal articles on it. That said, I am still a casual reader and not a proper student of it. I just find it very helpful and interesting in analysing things

Largely in line with GAE at the moment, although some reservations around recency of the creation of Adam and Eve - something akin to what William Lane Craig is pondering



I don’t see Genesis 1 as being unknown until it was written. Why would God withhold the story until then? I see no reason why he would not have told it to Adam who told it to his children and so on.

Which is a possibility of course, even on a GAE perspective, less so on other old earth models (I think). It is, however, a possibility that isn’t derived from anything in the text itself. The text itself makes no such claims as to its history, so we could go a couple of ways there :slight_smile:

It is a bit aside to my main point in the post though - I went down it as it illustrated part of what I was trying to get across. The main point was that there are different factors impacting clarity of a text, this is down to the way that communication functions and humans process it. The Bible on this account cannot be equally clear to all people while remaining equally “relevant” on the terms in the original post.

It is clear that the author didn’t want to make everything equally clear as there are numerous references throughout the Bible that historical artefacts and texts shed light on. These things weren’t explained to the original readers because they didn’t need the explanations, they remained with few words and optimally relevant to that situation. Our understanding of the text though is formed through centuries of theological debate, church schisms, scholarly activity, and even linguistics. Years of scholarly research filters down to the pews and to accessible commentaries and church decisions and we have our current understanding. Give the Bible to someone who doesn’t have access to that body of knowledge and they will struggle with many of the things we believe.

Of course, we could / should say that God interacts with readers differently in his Word than in other acts of communication, and if we want to discuss further then I will need to deal with that

Anyway, I live in the UK; I saw your response so wanted to post something before sleep


Ok, so time to drip in more of the theory and how it applies specifically here as to whether we by necessity go beyond what was written and if so in what sense. Applying this to the Bible, and not taking aim at its inspiration or its authority, if we want to take it seriously as an act of communication then we will need to reckon with this feature of communication.

Relevance theory has a crucial step in it, namely that the act of communication sometimes indicates things that combine with our existing beliefs and knowledge (encyclopaedic / contextual / co-textual). These lead us to form assumptions which combine into a conclusion about what the communicator intends us to understand. These assumptions and the conclusions are NOT in the text itself for the most part.
As an example - you cut yourself as and I say with a certain tone of voice (perhaps unfairly) “It won’t kill you”. You in this situation isn’t aimed at anyone on the board. In this instance you will subconsciously take a few steps e.g. “If the cut won’t kill me then I shouldn’t worry”. You will combine this with knowledge of your current actions e.g. making a big deal of it and will come to the conclusion that “I should stop complaining as much.” That is a simple one, but examples abound e.g. Your partner asks if you want to go out tonight. You reply, “I am tired”. Your partner will probably take a few steps e.g. “If someone is tired they don’t have lots of energy”, “going out takes energy” therefore “my partner is communicating that they don’t want to go out”.
The point of the above, is that according to RT the message communicated is not found entirely in the words said.

Let’s apply this to Genesis. As an act of communication it contains concepts and lexical entries that overlap with the surrounding culture. This doesn’t necessarily entail borrowing, rather it shows that the communication is making their message “relevant” in the technical sense. The recipients of the text of Genesis would have recognised these links, and they wouldn’t have required a lot of explicit information which would have helped us. So, requirements to abandon the religions of the people around them and to serve God only would have combined with their cultural knowledge of the beliefs and practices of the people around them. It would have combined with the understanding of the words used (which we don’t fully share with them - see original post and information about words like nouns and verbs being pointers to a conceptual address). They would have formed assumptions combining with the text, and would have come to conclusions as to how they should modify their behaviour and beliefs.
We do not have access to these assumptions and conclusions, so the specifics of what they take from the message is slightly different to us. The injunction to abandon the practices of other religions / gods is clear, but they would have had different sets of specific beliefs and behaviours in mind.

This doesn’t fully answer the question of whether our “clear reading” of the text of Genesis is the same of their “clear reading”. At the moment I am just trying to build a cumulative case by bringing in the theory
Happy to take this slowly, I want to give chance for objections.

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Not an objection, but just a recognition that this task seems quite complicated and dependent on knowing things about ancient cultures. I wonder realistically how much knowledge we have.

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That is a major issue. Even when looking at the study of lexicography we find our understanding improving over time of what words meant. In Greek this is a thriving area of research, and that has a lot more evidence than some of the Hebrew (or so I understand).
It comes down to whether or not what God intended to primarily communicate can be communicated, whilst allowing for some of the specifics to be dependent on transmission through fallible teachers and therefore in instances lost over time. There are a few steps I would want to take in building the case though before tackling that.

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