An Apologetic For Stylistics In Biblical Studies -- By: Aída Besançon Spencer

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 29:4 (Dec 1986)
Article: An Apologetic For Stylistics In Biblical Studies
Author: Aída Besançon Spencer


An Apologetic For Stylistics In Biblical Studies

Aída Besançon Spencer*

“There was never a more nimble mind than that of Paul, and he knew how to adapt himself to every mood of his readers or hearers without any sacrifice of principle.” So A. T. Robertson captures what so many other people have also sensed about Paul’s writing style. He continues: “It was no declaimer’s tricks, but love for the souls of men that made him become all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22). He could change his tone because he loved the Galatians even when they had been led astray (Gal. 4:20).”1

Paul’s style does seem to change. Robertson aptly describes his style as “abrupt, paradoxical, bold, antithetical, now like a torrent, now like a summer brook.”2

But how do we go beyond merely expressing our intuitive and subjective reactions to the style of a text to having more objective and quantitative data with which to test our intuitions?

Stylistics (as a secular discipline) is a very helpful tool for Biblical scholars in order that we might realize the potentiality of style to disclose meaning. This essay will introduce stylistics, discuss why stylistics is appropriate for both NT and OT studies, and suggest why stylistics is a viable methodology for evangelicals.

I. What Is Stylistics?

“Stylistics” denotes the use of linguistics as a tool of literary criticism by which to investigate the aesthetic effects of language. Both literary and linguistic studies are interested in the study of language and, more particularly, style. Linguistics, however, may employ a literary work only as a source or document by which to compose a history of a language. Linguistics becomes a tool of literary criticism when it too studies the aesthetic effects of a language. To be part of literary criticism, “style itself must be the object of contemplation.”3

1. A brief history of stylistics. The English term “stylistics” first appeared

*Alda Spencer is assistant professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

in 1882–83. Interestingly its introduction was in NT studies, when Philip Schaff wrote in the Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge about “giving proper place to New Testament stylistics and rhetoric.”4 “Stylistics” as a di...

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