The Hard Work of Seeing the Structure of an Author's Hard Work

In his book on the theology of Hebrews, Barnabas Lindars notes that "Hebrews is a most accomplished composition, written with great verve and rhetorical skill." He also observes that "it tends to be neglected by those who read the New Testament for spiritual profit." For him, "one reason why modern readers tend to be put off Hebrews is the sheer difficulty of following the argument. Every reader can see that the author is building up a sustained argument, but it is hard to grasp it as a whole."

Though it can sometimes be difficult to see, the writer of Hebrews does keep "a strong grip on what he is doing from start to finish. To succeed in following the argument is half the battle in seeking for the permanent value of Hebrews" (128).

I like the connection between the structure of the letter and an understanding of its basic message. Especially when encountering a "word of exhortation" (Heb 13:22) like Hebrews, "succeeding in following the argument" is absolutely crucial. 

In the preface to George Guthrie's excellent work on the structure of Hebrews, J. P. Louw highlights this hermeneutical point:
Reading is, in fact, a very complex process--and more so for ancient texts. It is precisely here where discourse analysis reveals how a text is read. It also reveals that such a reading is not necessarily a final reading, but rather a demonstration, a giving account, of how a text is taken apart for its various layers to be seen and appreciated--and how it is then again put together with proper demarcation of its understood intent.

In other words, it shows how and what a reader compares or contrasts in recognizing the various semantic units of a text that are utilized in putting together the argument developed in a text. To a certain extent any competent reader of any text applies, even subconsciously, a sizable number of semantic features derived from the text in order to come to an understanding of what the text communicates. This is why even scholarly commentaries on complicated texts may differ to various degrees. It is finally, to a large extent, due to one's comprehension of the structure of the text.
In basic terms, a reader's understanding of the whole will affect how he or she understands the parts of the text. I like Louw's point about how a reader experiences the effect of the structural framework even if it is not explicitly noted. The structure will have its effect!

You might never think about the design of the staircase or the value of its location, you simply benefit from it being there and accessible enough for you to get to the next floor. When we read, we often simply walk through the textual hallways, climb the stairs, and peer out the windows that the author has placed in our paths. We reap the benefits of this authorial handiwork as we understand the basic meaning of the work.

I also like the emphasis on reading and re-reading. An understanding of the "big picture" of a work is not an end in itself (especially for biblical texts). The "big picture" of the flow of the structural framework does not replace the reading of the text, but rather it serves as an informative guide to aid in future readings.
September 17, 2013


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