Review of Sandra Wachman Perpich’s A Hermeneutic Critique of Structuralist Exegesis, with Specific Reference to Lk 10.29-37

by Vern Sheridan Poythress

[Published as a book review in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 28 (1985):343-344. Used with permission.]

Sandra Wackman Perpich.  A Hermeneutic Critique of Structuralist Exegesis, with Specific Reference to Lk 10.29-37.  Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.  ix+253pp.  Paper.


Perpich’s book attempts to bring together structuralism and phenomenological hermeneutics, and to apply the synthesis to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37.  She finds deficiencies in classic French literary structuralism (Bremond, Greimas, Todorov) and therefore undertakes to supplement structural analysis with phenomenological reflection on a text’s references to the world, reader involvement, and application.  Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics provides a philosophical and hermeneutical framework, and Karl Rahner’s view of divine mystery provides a theological framework for the task.

Perpich rightly criticizes classic structuralism on several grounds:  its reductionistic philosophical assumptions, the assumption of the closed character of linguistic systems, the lack of attention to a discourse’s reference to the world, the ambiguity and sometimes falsity of some of the claims about universal principles of discourse (pp. 27-72,90).  Her criticisms as well as her supplementary phenomenological reflections on the Parable of the Good Samaritan are full of useful insights.  But Perpich herself, relying on Ricoeur, falls into reductions and sloppy overgeneralizations, so that the positive theoretical potential of her work is vitiated.

First of all, a number of fairly obvious distinctions appear to be simply slid over or blurred over throughout most of the work.  Denying that a text refers to the world (in the narrowest forms of French structuralism) is not the same as denying (in a particular case) multiple reference, ambiguous reference, or indirect reference (as in a parable’s reference to the kingdom of God).  Allusions or significant connections are not the same as direct reference.  Reference using a metaphor is not the same as reference to a fictional world (though both can occur together).  Application to oneself as a reader is not the same (in every sense) as reflection on a text’s reference to the real world.  People are capable of talking about God and other matters of religion directly as well as indirectly, both by fictional and nonfictional, metaphorical and (relatively) nonmetaphorical language.

In addition, fictional and nonfictional works are both capable of altering our convictions (1) about parts of the real world, (2) about the real world as a whole, (3) about ourselves, and (4) about God.  To be sure, these four are involved in one another, but it is needlessly befogging not to keep in mind the ability of texts to do primarily one of these.

Next, Perpich has some more technical assumptions about parables which are sloppy overgeneralizations.  Perpich knows that there is a difference between readers imaginatively completing an omitted event of a plot and readers applying the story to their own lives.  But she nevertheless makes unjustifiably strong statements about the former being a spur to the latter (p. 205).  Sometimes this is the case (Luke 13:6-9) but other times it is not (e.g., Luke 10:35).  Conversely, parables with relatively complete plots may have strong impact (Matt 13:47-48).  It is ridiculous for Perpich to claim that in the Parable of the Good Samaritan the omission of mention of recovery of the wounded traveler has a vital function in stimulating reader involvement.  The obvious primary reason for omission is that it can easily be inferred, and therefore its inclusion would distractingly prolong a story which has already made all its main points.

Again, relying on Ricoeur, Perpich claims that all parables have an element of extravagance in the story line (pp. 174-75, 199).  This is sometimes true (Luke 15:20-24), sometimes not (Mark 4:26-29).  Moreover, whether or not there is extravagance says very little about whether the parable teaches that the kingdom of God overthrows all traditional reckoning in an extravagant reversal.  Some of Jesus’ parables do this (Luke 14:12-13), but an element of extravagance in the story-line may have many functions, depending on the way in which the total situation invites the reader to set up a metaphorical correspondence.

Moreover, Perpich wrongly agrees with John Dominic Crossan that Luke 10:25-29 must not have been the original setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Supposedly, the parable was originally a metaphorical statement about the kingdom of God, resting on the worldview-shattering effects of the juxtaposition of “good” and “Samaritan” (p. 198).  Luke 10:25-29 has toned this down by turning it into an exemplary story.  Perpich here assumes an out-of-date reductionistic view of literary genre.  Why may not Jesus do something subtle?  Why may the story not be an exemplary story with an additional “kick”?

One assumes that somewhere in the back of her mind Perpich knows the obvious.  But this book, for all its appearance of philosophical “depth,” neglects to pay attention to the obvious.  The villain may be the tendency to think of everything as either a matter of structural analysis or multiple phenomenological application.  Ricoeur seems to be behind this, inasmuch as many of the nondistinctions in Perpich are backed up by quotations or references from Ricoeur.

If Perpich intended to construct a rich hermeneutic, she chose her starting points poorly.  Classic French literary structuralism is an impoverished linguistic starting point in comparison with contemporary text linguistics, discourse analysis, tagmemic theory, or systemic grammar.1  Likewise continental phenomenology, including Ricoeur, is a poorer starting point for reader involvement than the evangelical Wittgensteinianism of Anthony Thiselton and the presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til.2  Structuralism leaves out reference, and continental phenomenology minimizes the role of propositional statements.  Inadequate as these approaches are, they are still attractive to main-line scholarship because they allow a pure reductive view of God’s immanence, and a pure nonpropositional view of his transcendence.  That is one more reason for declaring the intellectual bankruptcy of Kantian and neo-orthodox views of transcendence.

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania




1 See, e.g., Robert de Beaugrande, Text, Discourse, and Process: Toward a Multidisciplinary Science of Texts (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1980); idemIntroduction to Text Linguistics (London: Longman, 1980); Michael Stubbs, Discourse Analysis: The Sociolinguistic Analysis of Natural Language (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983); Robert E. Longacre, The Grammar of Discourse (New York: Plenum, 1983); Kenneth L. Pike and Evelyn G. Pike, Grammatical Analysis (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1977); idemText and Tagmeme (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1983); Vern S. Poythress, “A Framework for Discourse Analysis: The Components of a Discourse, from a Tagmemic Viewpoint,” Semiotica 38-3/4 (1982) 277-98; idem, “Hierarchy in Discourse Analysis: A Revision of Tagmemics,” Semiotica 40-1/2 (1982) 107-137; M. A. K. Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning (London: Arnold, 1978).

2 Cf. Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980); Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974); idemThe Defense of the Faith (2d rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963).