In this series, I’m examining how macro-structure analysis (specifically some of the tools of discourse analysis) can be used by the biblical theologian in order to find the themes and categories of Scripture. In previous posts, I’ve examine the relationship between biblical theology and exegesis and the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology. Also, I’ve looked at the methodologies used by several biblical theologians to determine themes in Scripture. In this post, I introduce discourse analysis and discuss how several aspects of discourse analysis can be helpful to the biblical theologian.
DISCOURSE ANALYSIS TOOLS AND METHODS
In his discussion of issues related to biblical theology, Carson suggests that one challenge “is the daunting need for exegetes and theologians who will deploy the full range of weapons in the exegetical arsenal, without succumbing to methodological narrowness or faddishness.” (“Current Issues in Biblical Theology,” 34) He says that biblical theologians should utilize every exegetical tool, including grammatical and literary analysis. One set of “weapons in the exegetical arsenal” which may be helpful to biblical theologians are the tools of discourse analysis. As Carson says, these tools do not solve all of the problems encountered when the biblical theologian attempts to determine themes and categories for synthesis, but these tools can offer additional information on the structure and meaning of the passages at hand. Also, the methods and tools of discourse analysis are part of the exegete’s toolbox, to be used along side of morphological, grammatical, and syntactical analysis, as well as textual, literary, and rhetorical criticism.
Discourse analysis refers to “the linguistic analysis of naturally occurring connected spoken or written discourse.” (Michael Stubbs, Discourse Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 1) Guthrie defines discourse analysis as “a process of investigation by which one examines the form and function of all the parts and levels of a written discourse, with the aim of better understanding both the parts and the whole of that discourse.” (“Discourse Analysis,” in Interpreting the New Testament. Ed. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery; Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001, 255) Discourse analysis provides tools and methods to assist in the interpretation of discourses, either spoken or written. Since each book of the New Testament is presented as a coherent discourse between an author and his recipients, the linguistic tools of discourse analysis may provide additional information for the interpretation of New Testament texts beyond the information available from traditional micro-level interpretive methods.
The tools and methods of discourse analysis interrelate well with the goals of biblical theology, especially when the biblical theologian seeks themes within the texts, because biblical theology often seeks to analyze the macro-level (sentence level and above) of the text. As mentioned above, the background and interests of the theologian can hinder his objectivity. As Louw says,
All people have their own cultural, political, religious, and psycho-personal convictions. These convictions reinforce each other to impose a set of presuppositions so deeply rooted that we hardly question their validity. Our understanding of a text is thus enlarged beyond the word level by reading a text from preconceived perspectives. Even though people may agree that it is important to be aware of not misled by their subjective opinions, sociological, marxist, capitalist, catholic, calvinist, pentecostal, evangelical, and other orientations do offer a framework for reading a Bible text. Such a reading may be called a secondary reading of a text since it entails semantic reinterpretation of the vocabulary, the discourse structure, and the pragmatics of the text. (“Reading Text as a Discourse,” in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation. Ed. David Alan Black; Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992, 17)
These “secondary readings” often remain undetected. Thus, tools and methods such as those offered by discourse analysis help theologians recognize “secondary readings.” As Louw continues, “Discourse analysis is not a recipe that can be applied to ensure a final reading of a passage, void of any subjective notions. It is rather a demonstration, a displaying or showing, first of all to oneself, how the text is being read, then giving account to others how the text is read and used to eventually come to an understanding of the text. In short, it is revealed reading; it charts the course of the reading process.” (Ibid., 18. This seems very similar to what KÃ¶stenberger describes as a “literary-theological reading” of the text.) Thus, analyzing Scripture as a discourse does not remove all subjectivity, but it does provide the theologian with a method of reading and analyzing the text which is one step removed from the theologianâ€™s own background, tradition, and interest.
Discourse analysis depends upon the intrinsic coherence and structure of communication. (Peter Cotterel and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989, 230â€”31) This coherence and structure begins at the lowest levels of discourse: the phoneme, morpheme, and lexeme. Discourse analysis also depends upon grammar and syntax at the sentence (or colon) level, the paragraph level, the section level, and the level of the whole discourse. While introductory and intermediate grammars usually discuss phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, grammar, and syntax to some extent, few include details of coherence and structure above the sentence level.
Because most scholars study the language of the New Testament between the levels of the phoneme and the sentence, those who utilize the methods of discourse analysis primarily focus on the development of discourse above the sentence or clause level. (Stubbs, Discourse Analysis, 1) By studying the relationships between words and sentences, analysts can describe how the author developed his communication at the level of the paragraph, section, and even the discourse in its entirety. Therefore, the analyst must study the text in relation to the other parts of the discourse.
Louw suggests that discourse analysis begins with the colon. By definition, the colon represents a unit of thought that is characterized by certain grammatical structures, similar to a sentence in English. (Semantics of New Testament Greek. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982, 95) Primarily, a subject and an independent verb delineate a colon, whether the subject and verb is explicit or implicit. The colon will also include all lexemes that are dependent upon or modify the subject and verb. Colons relate to one another by content and by various grammatical structures at an intermediate level in the discourse. These related colons are called paragraphs. (Robert E. Longacre, The Grammar of Discourse. New York: Plenum Press, 1996, 101) Similarly, paragraphs link together to form sections, which in turn form the entire discourse.
While Louw recommends analyzing a discourse beginning with the colon, or sentence, he also suggests that meaning is found at the paragraph level. He says,
Though the colon is the basic unit employed in discourse analysis, the most relevant unit for explication of the semantic content of a discourse is the paragraph, since it is the largest unit possessing a single unitary semantic scope. The colon, however, is the most convenient starting point for the analysis of a text, since paragraphs are generally too large to handle from the outset. Though the colon is the most tightly structured syntactic unit, the paragraph is rhetorically more significantly structured than the colon, and since any text must be analyzed both from the standpoint of its syntactic as well as its rhetorical form, both the colons and the paragraphs are of fundamental importance. (Semantics of New Testament Greek, 98)
Tuggy agrees that writers and speakers organize their thoughts into paragraphs in order to communicate their meaning. (“Semantic Paragraph Patterns: A Fundamental Communication Concept and Interpretive Tool,” in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation. Ed. David Alan Black; Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992, 45â€”67) Outside the realm of biblical studies, but within the general field of linguistic analysis, Gee agrees that discourse should be analyzed beginning with the sentence levelâ€”which he calls “lines”â€”and that an author’s meaning is found at the paragraph levelâ€”which he calls “stanzas”:
The information embraced within a single line of speech is, of course, most often too small to handle all that the speaker wants to say. It is necessary usually to let several focuses of consciousness (which lines represent) scan a body of information larger than a single focus. This is to say that the speaker has larger chunks than single focuses of consciousness in mind, and that several such focuses may constitute a single unitary larger block of information… I will call such sets of lines devoted to a single topic, event, image, perspective, or theme a stanza. (An Introduction to Discourse Analysis. London: Rutledge, 1999, 108â€”9)
Thus, we find that speakers and authors general form their themes and categories in paragraphs. By studying the paragraphs of Scripture, the biblical theologian can trace the themes of a book.
Meaning is also found above the paragraph level. Multiple paragraphs combine together to form sections (called units or macro-structures) or entire discourses. Just as sentences form the structure and argumentation for paragraphs, paragraphs form the structure and argument at the section and discourse level. Most exegetes (or commentators, at least) perform this type of analysis when they outline a book or section. As Guthrie says, “[W]hen, in processes of exegesis, we consider ‘literary context,’ for example, we are presupposing that thorough work has already been done on the macro-discourse level. Also, if we attempt to set a unit’s boundaries or outline a passage under consideration, we have engaged aspects of discourse analysis.” (“Discourse Analysis,” 260) The difference, however, is that discourse analysts find semantic information at the section or unit or discourse level, while exegetes sometimes only use their structural analysis as an outline for later exegesis, without considering meaning at the level of the macro-structure. Besides using boundary markers, authors also set apart different macro-structures using overt statements (such as the purpose statements of Luke 1:1â€”4, John 20:31, Hebrews 13:22, or Jude 3) or changes in content.
Sometimes, however, it is not enough to simply trace the themes found in the paragraphs or macro-structures of a document or discourse. Some sentences are more important than other sentences in a paragraph, and some paragraphs are more important than other paragraphs within a section, and some sections are more important than other sections within an entire discourse. Discourse analysts use the term “prominence” to indicate the relative importance of the sentences, paragraphs, and sections.
Determining prominence at the macro-structure level is important because it helps clarify an author’s focus and meaning. Reed describes prominence as follows:
One way to build thematic structure in discourse is by creating prominence (also known as emphasis, grounding, relevance, salience), i.e. by drawing the listener/readerâ€™s attention to topics and motifs which are important to the speaker/author and by supporting those topics with other less significant material. (“Identifying Theme in the New Testament: Insights from Discourse Analysis,” in Discourse analysis and other topics in Biblical Greek. Ed. Stanley Porter and D.A. Carson; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995, 75â€”76)
Since the New Testament was not written with section titles or in outline format, the authors drew their readersâ€™ attention to certain parts of their text using various grammatical and syntactical structures. Each of the grammatical and syntactical structures indicates a choice by the author. These choices represent elements of prominence included by the author for the benefit of his readers. The structures functioned to identify which parts of the text were more significant than other parts of the text.
Other terms often associated with prominence include focus, markedness, grounding, and theme. Westfall suggests that these terms are often used interchangeably, which causes confusion. (A Discourse Analysis of the Letter to the Hebrews. London: T&T Clark, 2005, 31) She suggests that analysts use the terms emphasis and focus to refer to prominence at the level of the colon. Markedness, according to Westfall, should refer to the amount of prominence associated with certain grammatical and linguistic structures such as verbal aspect, mode, tense, and voice. Finally, the grounding categories of background, foreground, and frontground refers to perceptual relationships in the text in relation to the standard pattern of grammar and syntax used by the author using Westfallâ€™s categories.
The various aspects of prominenceâ€”focus, emphasis, markedness, groundingâ€”work together to form zones of turbulence within the text. According to Longacre, the author marks a peak in his discourse by using various devices which are uncharacteristic of his normal patterns. (The Grammar of Discourse, 38) As the author stacks these uncharacteristic devices together, they function as zones of turbulence, identifying significant material within the discourse. By identifying these zones of turbulence, the analyst can identify the important material at the level of the colon, paragraph, section, and discourse.
Prominence functions at all levels of a text. However, prominence operates within a certain domain within the text. Thus, a prominent element within a colon may or may not be prominent within the paragraph, section, or discourse. Brown and Yule suggest that determining “relative prominence” helps the interpreter determine how the author “staged” his discourse. (Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 134) As Westfall explains:
The level of prominence for marked clauses or clause complexes must be determined not only by the identification of emphatic indicators, but also by recognizing their scope: the units which serve as their domain of prominence and their function in those units. The domain of a prominent sentence or entity may be determined in part by the cohesive ties and bonds that are formed with the surrounding co-text. Words, phrases or sentences can be prominent at the level of paragraph, section or discourse. (A Discourse Analysis of the Letter to the Hebrews, 35)
Therefore, once the analyst has identified a prominent element, he must also determine the domain of prominence for that element: the phrase, colon, paragraph, section, or discourse level.
At the phrase or clause level, the author primarily indicates prominence by placing a particular phrase or clause in an emphatic location within a colon. For example, an author can emphasize a word or clause by fronting the word or clause, that is, by placing the word or clause before its presupposed position. The fronted text continues to function grammatically and syntactically within a clause or colon. However, since the author has chosen to front the word or clause, it also functions in a more pragmatic role such as indicating topic or theme. (Robert A. Dooley and Stephen H. Levinsohn, Analyzing Discourse. Dallas: Summer Institutes of Language, 2001, 66)
Above the phrase or clause level, other grammatical and syntactical structures indicate prominence between colons. For example, Porter concludes that verbal categories can be ranked with regard to aspect, tense, voice, and mood. (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood. New York: Peter Lang, 1993, 92â€”93) However, the markedness of the various verbal categories should be compared to the normal verb usage in the discourse, section, and paragraph. Thus, an author could mark a sentence as prominent within a paragraph if the aspect, tense, voice, or mood differs from the characteristic aspect, tense, voice, or mood used by the author within that paragraph or section. By using a different verbal category, the author could create a zone of turbulence that marks one colon as more significant within a paragraph.
Authors group paragraphs into sections that operate as a unit within a discourse. Just as paragraphs allow the author to develop his argument and theme within a section, the section itself allows the author to present his theme or themes across a variety of topics. Authors mark prominent paragraphs within a section using methods which are similar to the methods they would use to mark a prominent colon within a paragraph. Interpreters can identify prominent paragraphs by looking for extended zones of turbulence within the section.
As the first step in biblical theology, and as part of a complete exegesis of a passage, the theologian should analyze a particular text beginning at the sentence level, looking for prominent words or clauses within each sentence. These prominent words or clauses may give a clue to the author’s theme or argument. After analyzing the sentence, the theologian should analyze the paragraph, this time looking for prominent sentences, recognizing that the author may utilize different methods to mark a prominent sentence than the methods he used to mark a prominent word or clause. Finally, the theologian should analyze the paragraphs within a section in order to determine if one or more of the paragraphs are prominent.
Once the theologian has determined the prominent paragraphs, sentences, clauses, and words, he is better able to determine the authorâ€™s theme in that section. Plus, he has the added benefit of having a specific method of determining that theme, thereby reducing the likelihood that his own background, tradition, or interests will affect his decision. Also, by analyzing the text at this level, the theologian will be able to determine subthemes and how those subthemes relate to the main theme of the paragraph, section, or entire discourse. These subthemes may be synthesized with similar themes in other passages of Scripture, but the theologian should always keep in mind the greater context which is found in the section or paragraph level of the text.
In the next post in this series, I’ll examine the macro-structure of Romans 12-15 as a case study to demonstrate how the tools of discourse analysis can help the biblical theologian determine the themes of Scripture.
Biblical theology and discourse analysis series
1. Relationship between biblical theology and exegesis
2. Relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology
3. Methods of discovering themes in biblical theology
4. Discourse analysis in biblical theology
5. Case study from Romans 12-15 and conclusion