A Call for Coherency Scholarship

David Frank posted Reflections on the nature of Bible translation. And I really like what he said. So, I thought I would interact with it a bit (and hopefully encourage him to post more).

What he said there is why my “hobby-horse” is coherency.

The underspecification of the text, and the resulting ambiguity, provides the fuel for us to rip apart the text. We’re then left with pieces of text that we typically reform into a theological quilt of our own making. The fault is ours; it’s not the text’s fault. In fact, the ‘text’ is a ‘fabric’ and ripping harms the text as a text (Latin: textere). But, the ripping is a single step across the two step chasm of interpretation. So, that first step is needed. More on that in a moment. Also, the fault certainly isn’t the author’s (or Author’s). Language is what language is. It is cohesive in its very nature. And communication follows the same maxim. We’re good at this ripping, also known as analysis.

And we certainly need the analysis. In fact we need more of it. As Richard mentions, we haven’t yet analysed the pragmatics (ie. contextual connections where ‘context’ is the original interpretive environment) of the original Koine (let alone the Hebrew of the OT). Richard, we’ll get there–we’re good at analysis. I don’t want to oversimplify, but all we have do is to rip into the soil and unearth the data. We have, we really have, the analytical capability–we just have to do it.

But, we’re astoundingly poor at synthesis. In fact, I suggest that whenever a synthesis of the data is presented, people from all their different factions, whip out their ripped textual fabrics quilted into various theological wall hangings. They hang them up, and they point to chapter and verse, and then claim they have held back the fall of “orthodoxy.” I wish the mere existance of pragmatic data would not only foster, but determine synthetic expertise. It won’t. We have to develop our capability to process the data toward a coherent understanding (ie. comprehension) of the text. We are no good at comprehension.

We need the data that pragmatic analysis will bring; but, we absolutely must gain appreciation of coherency. Without coherency, we simply have more ripped pieces of cloth to sew into our factional quilts (as beautiful as they might appear to each of us).

David, your concern for the current state of factionalism is, in my opinion, well founded. And I believe the only solution is to develop our synthetic capability. We have to learn what it means to practice coherent interpretation. We have to learn what it means to have a text not only cohere with the text around it (cf information flow), but also how that text coheres with its greater context (cf pragmatics). We’re no good at either of these today. But, if we do it, then we will witness the fall of factionalism. We’re really talking about one and the same thing–coherent text, coherent community. I believe these two are joined at the hip.

If I’m right in my epistemological assumptions that truth is inherently coherent, and that truth practised results in godly growth, then the maturation of our capability to comprehend the text will unavoidably defeat factionalism. But, to do that, we not only need the analysed contextual data (so, we need to do the ripping), but we need to develop our capability to synthesize the data into a meaningful wholes. We don’t understand the wholes. We don’t know how to understand the wholes. We can sew our own theological quilts; but, we don’t know how to let the texts as wholes be the fabric as it has been given to us. We don’t know how to interpret the text within its original context. We don’t know how to follow the flow of the text.

This is a deeply philosophical posting. I admit that. So, the connection to Bible translation might not be immediately obvious. So, let me be more explicit. We need scholarship around coherency development so that we have such scholarship supporting translation decisions.

We’re making those translation decisions now without the benefit of such coherency capability. And so our translations jerk and stutter. The text is not coherency informed. And the factionalism is simply more evidence of such uninformed decisions.

Our translations are not inaccurate (sorry for the double negative) as if they are drunken men meandering around in sloshed stupors. It’s not that they aren’t on the right path. They are more like an unoiled tin-man, jerking with stuttering movements as he tries to walk the road laid with gold. With coherency scholarship we could make much more informed translation decisions. We would oil the translated text for the reader. The result would be linguistically smooth renderings, accurately capturing the intended meaning in the language of the audience. This incarnation of the intended meaning would produce godly growth as the Spirit fills the soul. It would fan the flames of unity because people would comprehend the Biblical text.

This is what I believe. I wish I could do it. But the only thing I can muster right now is to call for it to be done. May this little piece be part of the whole.

7 thoughts on “A Call for Coherency Scholarship

  1. Eddie says:

    NT Wright has called for the development of a new epistemology, one based around relationships rather than around the enlightenment concepts of truth and falsehood. This might allow us a way of approaching the synthesis that you are calling for here, Mike.

    That being said, epistemological shifts don’t come quickly.

  2. David Ker says:

    Coherency per the author’s original intention is elusive (some would say a mirage). Even so it’s a wonderful aim provided that we’re able to humbly acknowledge the multivalency of the text and its inherent ambiguity.

    You use the word “cohesive” once. I wonder if you hold to the common distinction between coherent and cohesive (Half the time I can’t keep them straight).

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Even so it’s a wonderful aim provided that we’re able to humbly acknowledge the multivalency of the text and its inherent ambiguity.

    David, when you have time, please give us a good number of examples of both of these. I’ve often heard this claim about the biblical text, but I haven’t seen many examples, especially examples that still remain if we recognize coherence in the texts (which are based on authorial intent). I’d like to find out how much multivalency and inherent ambiguity there is in the biblical text compared to what typically occurs with human communication, namely, fairly straightforward univalency and no ambiguity. (Yes, multivalency and ambiguity both often occur, also, but I would suggest that ambiguity does not occur as often as we analysts, esp. punsters like me, find in what people say.)

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    David, I tend to use the word ‘cohesive‘ to refer to the formal elements. ‘Coherency‘ refers to the thing going on in one’s mind. Coherency in the author generates cohesion in the text, and cohesion in the text generates coherency in the reader. This isn’t original with me, but I can’t remember from whom I obtained it.

    Eddie, over 30 years ago I read some articles by John Zens on a topic he called the “Community Hermeneutic”. I think he coined the phrase, though I might be wrong. I thought he was right then. I still do.

    I’m also familiar with NT Wright though I haven’t followed him closely and I’m unfamiliar with his viewpoint on epistemology. However, some of his theological insights I find refreshing. He’s also a “large text guy” in that he prefers to first grasp the bigger picture of the text. When studying Romans he nailed a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood to the back of his desk and stapled the entire Greek Romans letter to it. He would use different colored markers to connect various cohesive elements in the text. It’s that approach to the text which I find so valuable. (He also thinks Romans 9-11 is quite connected to the entire epistle. What a refreshing idea given some viewpoints that suggest those chapters were part of another letter and redacted in!)

    Having said all that, I think an exegesis of the text that is done within a community characterized by mutual, loving respect, based on analysis of the cohesive elements within the text (here’s where the scholarship is needed), and purposed to achieve a coherent understanding of the meaning (particularly of paragraph sized texts), will, in the end, be self-healing. ‘Self-healing’ in the sense that it will mature the community as well as heighten people’s ability to understand the text as a text. It seems to me there is a natural, positive, reinforcement loop within such an environment and process which would produce a strong sanctifying influence across the community. As the community becomes more holy, it’s insight into the coherency would naturally grow which in turn would foster greater maturity.

    So, I too hold to an epistemology which is much more community oriented. I would not, however, define truth in terms of “what the community discovers or determines.” I hold to an objective reality which is true whether or not any community understands it. That true objective reality is personified in the Ideal Human (Son of Man). That is, Jesus, the Christ. He is the Message (LOGOS) given to all the rest of us.

    For what it’s worth, I’m beginning to think the major issue (and solution) with word-for-word versus equivalence methods of Bible translation lies in the exegetical method and not with an alleged poorly defined translation method. If we understood cohesion, and the coherency in the author which generates it and which it produces in the reader, and utilized that understanding in our exegetical method, then I suggest the different perspectives on translation method would coalesce. We already see that in word-for-word translations which in many cases do not translate word-for-word.

    We need scholarship teaching us about the cohesive elements in the text and scholarship that discovers the cognitive elements of coherence within the mind.

    Thank you for interacting with this. It’s a…ummmm….big topic, to say the least. 🙂

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Mike, to get back to David Ker’s final comment to you, it’s sounding to me that you are speaking of connectivity within texts, including the Bible. There are two confusing technical terms, as David points out, coherence and cohesion. Coherence has to do with whether a text makes sense. Cohesion has to do with how the different parts of a text connect with other parts. Obviously, a text which has good cohesion will have a higher degree of cohesion.

    I suspect you are using the term coherency as a synonym for cohesion. And the general public probably has little idea of any difference between any of these terms. They are technical terms and not self-explanatory.

    A text which coheres hangs together well. But if we turn the verb “cohere” into an adjective we get “coherent” which refers to whether a text makes sense, not to connectivity. The adjective referring to connectivity is “cohesive”. I don’t know of an English verb that corresponds to “coherent”. Etymologically, I would guess it was “cohere,” but there seems to have been a semantic shift for that word, which is a part of what happens to words in any language.

    Are we confused yet about the terminology? If so, we are not alone. All this shows, IMO, that we really need to use more Germanic, more common language, English words (English is, at its core, Germanic), rather than Latinate ones, as labels for concepts, and in Bible translations. But if I write even one more sentence I’m going to be preaching on my soapbox again–so I’ll stop. 🙂

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    Thanks Wayne. Your further explanation is helpful. For me, what helps me keep the two technical terms straight is to answer the two questions, “Where does coherency occur?” and “Where does cohesion occur?“.

    I think it might be helpful to our broader readership if I expand on that a bit.

    For example, you state, “Coherence has to do with whether a text makes sense. While that statement is true, for me it doesn’t really clarify the distinction between the two words. It’s very easy for me (and I think others) to think of the sense to be in the text. And I suspect that is what generates some of the confusion.

    Within my framework of understanding I ask, where does the text make sense? Does it make sense in the text itself? Does a text just lying there on the table make sense? No, the text, if you will, has to be consumed and it is in the mind where the text makes sense.

    Cohesion, on the other hand, is part of the formal fabric of the text. There are devices used within the text by the author, and he or she intends them to signal a coherent response within the reader. A text, just lying there, does have cohesion (to one degree or another). It needs to be seen or analyzed in order to be talked about, but it nonetheless is in the text. It would be wonderful to have a formal delineation of these cohesive devices. And for exegetes to more fully focus on bringing these devices to bear on their hermenteutics–much the same way as the analytical Bible student “labels” a word as genitive, singular, or participle.

    In short: Cohesion is syntactic. Coherence is semantic.

    Halliday develops some of the syntactic devices (antecedents are examples). But, he barely scratches the surface. There’s cohesive elements within the lexicon, for example, which need to be better understood.

    For example, the points you make in your so-called “soapbox preaching” of using Germanic versus Latinate words illustrate this. Latinate words do not co-operate with the fabric of English as well as the Germanic ones. There’s a coherence relation going on in the mental lexicon when using either Latinate or Germanic words within the fabric of a text. Therefore, in my opinion, you’ve accurately made the point (and I hope you’ll continue) that the consistent use of Germanic words will produce a more cohesive text. The result is a more coherent understanding (or, at least, a more readily coherent one). So, don’t lose the so-called soapbox. 🙂

  7. Bob MacDonald says:

    These similar sounding words are both from the same Latin root. I have some sympathy with the idea of co-herence being ‘hanging together’ – the result of consumption of the text, for the ‘hangings’ seem to be in the body of the consumer. Does the text co-inhere with its incarnate form after consumption? (Borrowing that similar sounding word from Charles Williams).

    Cohesive on the other hand suggests the original meaning of the shared root, glue – how does the text appear to be glued to itself outside of consumption, i.e. as an object of observation. The observable form of the text is most obvious in nested structures – letter wise, word-wise, phrase-wise, and in larger macro forms. For instance the assonance of Psalm 1:1 – ‘asheri ha’ish ‘asher, or the circles of Psalm 51 – still there even if we haven’t seen them, each group of circles surrounding a core repetition – 3 times – of God’s righteousness.

    Or take this as a third example, the thread of a cognate word-set within an epic poem like Job. E.g. spoken what is ‘right’ (Job 42) – that word ‘right’ does not hang together with the other 14 uses of the Hebrew that are visible in the text all of which are used as ‘establish’ or ‘prepare’ something.

    If – and it is a big ‘if’ – the text is cohesive then to allow it to stick within a consumer (avoiding the hanging metaphor in case I choke on my own associations), we must pay attention to the sound of the original. The only way to do this is to dramatize it – speak it – and hear rather than dissect. Then not only will we consume the word but it will also consume us.

    Of course, if the text is incoherent then we are chasing our tails. Lots of people have written off Job as incoherent. Most people read Psalm 51 as about repentance – but that is not the concept that is circled, and translations of assonance are nearly impossible, so micro-word-play, the foundation of cohesion, is lost.

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