Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part II)

Having taken the award for most time betwixt two portions of a book review, I’ll round out the summary of  Westphal’s book Whose Community?  Which Interpretation? and conclude with some critical reflections.  With  chapter six Westphal commences his presentation of Gadamer’s view of interpretation, underscoring Gadamer’s  notion of tradition:

We belong to tradition by virtue of our thrownness into it, our immersion in it, and our formation by it.  This is an ontological claim about our being and an epistemological claim about our understanding of ourselves and our world (70).

Westphal notes three features of the role of tradition: 1) it enables the enterprise of human thought by giving us  a place from which we can explore and attempt to understand the world; 2) each of us is shaped by multiple  traditions; 3) tradition cultivates prejudice, or pre-judgment, rendering every interpretation of a text “relative to  the traditions that have formed the perspectives and presuppositions that guide it,” though this doesn’t entail  “anything goes” relativism as some interpretations remain more illuminating than others (71).  Westphal also  unfolds three theses that are corollaries of Gadamer’s take on tradition: 1) the alterity thesis (texts are voices  with an otherness from which we must be willing to learn); 2) the authority thesis (the traditions that shape us  deserve a measure of respect and deference); 3) the fallibility thesis (the traditions that shape us are subject to error and may be critiqued and revised over time).

The seventh chapter centers on the inescapability of the relativity of the reader.  Authors, say Gadamer and Westphal, cannot free readers from their relativity for two reasons: 1) authors are unable to deliver determinate textual meaning because they lack the wherewithal to discern fully what it is they’ve actually written; 2) authors can’t deliver determinate textual meaning because the power of tradition is ever unconsciously operative in the author’s labors, which reinforces the author’s limitations indicated under reason one.  Similarly, while method remains important, it too cannot rescue readers from their relativity for several reasons: 1) the emphasis on deploying a scientific method itself arises under the contingency of a particular tradition; 2) rigorous application of method can lead us to honor only our own conclusions and thus blind us to the findings of others; 3) total distanciation is impossible for us since we remain situated within our traditions.

In chapter eight, Westphal highlights Gadamer’s appeal to the humanist tradition.  Probably the most significant item here lies in the proposition that the being of a thing reaches its full flowering only when it is understood by human knowers.  The presentation of something “does not stand like a copy next to the real world, but is that world in the heightened truth of its being” (95).  Indeed, “[t]o be is to be shown, manifested, revealed” (96).  For texts in particular, this means that interpretation belongs to the very nature of the text.

The ninth chapter locates interpretation under the rubric of performance, characterizing literary works as events to be completed and tracing out several implications.  First, there is a pluralism inherent in a text in the sense that, while retaining its identity over time, it is susceptive of being represented differently in different circumstances.  A text’s “own original essence is always to be something different” (103).  Second, while the goal is to perform the text at hand, a performance is a unique event and, therefore, enjoys a measure of originality even akin to that of the work itself.  Third, a textual work, like a piece of music, is still itself even as it is diversely performed.  Performances are necessarily bound to the works they construe and exhibit, but because of the productive, original moment here a variety of performances may be “correct” in view of their “illuminating power” (105).  This brand of “hermeneutical pluralism” finds an analogy in the task of translation, the best efforts of which display “a combination of discipline and freedom” (106).

Westphal also discusses the place of application in Gadamer’s thought.  For Gadamer, understanding entails application, without whose practical concretizing of textual meaning there can be no legitimate claim to the discernment of meaning.  Gadamer and Westphal aver that past and present textual meaning cannot be separated and that the former is only the penultimate object of interpretation, whereas the latter, what the text says to us here and now functions as the ultimate object.  Along with construing interpretation as performance, translation, and application, Gadamer considers it as a matter of conversation.  Westphal accentuates four characteristics of interpretation as conversation: 1) it requires genuine listening to the voice of the another; 2) it includes reciprocal questioning between text and reader; 3) it is often led by the spirit of conversation, in which both parties are “surprised to discover where the conversation leads” (116); 4) like conversation between two persons, it has as its goal communion and attendant personal transformation.

Reflection on the concept of conversation anticipates the next two chapters, which deal with the usefulness of conversation among readers.  Chapter 11 probes the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification penned by Roman Catholics and Lutherans as a model of healthy conversation.  For Westphal, it exemplifies several things.  First, it is an authentic expression of unity.  Second, it indicates a way of managing theological differences without resorting to violence or condemnation.  Third, it honors the fact that each collection of believers belongs to something larger than its own company.  Westphal pairs these virtues with certain commendable commitments he uncovers in communitarianism (as outlined in the previous chapter).  First, the comprehensiveness of doctrinal frameworks should be reverenced rather than stripped away for the sake of superficial agreement.  Second, virtue ethics should inform interpretive conversation, cultivating epistemic humility, good listening habits, and a desire for friendship.  Third, the reality of our perspectival situatedness should be checked by the practice of listening to those of other perspectives.  In fact, “[t]he way to objectivity is not to flee perspectives but to multiply them” (142).

The final chapter of the book touches on some hermeneutical implications of Scripture being the word of God.  Westphal suggests that those who espouse the “no interpretation needed” approach to reading the Bible do so in part because they believe in its divine origin.  While he judges that revelation doesn’t eradicate the influence of our presuppositions, he does stress that it has the transcendent power to break through our presuppositions, calling them into question and eliciting reform.

After finishing this volume, I’m left with mixed feelings and I’ll first recognize some positive features.  First, for the overly confident reader, the book does offer a reminder of our noetic limitations and an exhortation to listen carefully to others before becoming entrenched in our own conclusions.  Second, I am sympathetic with the notion that understanding textual meaning is not to be separated from applying or embodying it.  We are indeed situated creatures who inevitably approach the text according to the conceptual resources and needs of our situatedness.  It seems to me that we would have to deny this in order to bifurcate understanding and application via, say, an appeal to a pristine, aperspectival principlizing wholly antecedent to considerations of concrete application.  However, I think Westphal goes in the wrong direction when he suggests that the concreteness of our understanding somehow affects the meaning of the text (more on this below).  Third, in a little section entitled “Conversations Closer to Home” Westphal gestures toward the power of parents modeling virtuous biblical interpretation before their children and I was quite taken by the prospects of this family dynamic.

I’ll venture some criticisms and hesitations as well.  First, Westphal persistently labels those with whom he disagrees, especially Hirsch, as “anxious” and even “hysterical” (85).  I regard this as uncharitable as it is a cheap way to discredit one’s opponent.  The subtle effect is to make the uncritical reader muse that if the poor fellows would only take some Zoloft they would finally wise up and agree with Westphal.  It is less pejorative to speak of so-and-so’s concern about such-and-such, their contention that, and so on.  One can observe a similar phenomenon in relation to, for example, the new perspectives on Paul wherein critics are characterized as archaic or opposed to fresh research when perhaps they simply disagree with the exegesis of Dunn, Wright, and others.

Second, Westphal never attempts a definition of “meaning” and, thus, his proposal is both incomplete and difficult to evaluate at certain points.  Third, though he insists that his and Gadamer’s angle on hermeneutics doesn’t entail an “anything goes” relativism, he fails to move beyond generalizations (“flexible criteria,” privileging interpretations with “illuminating power”) in mapping out just how it doesn’t entail this.  This isn’t to accuse Westphal of secretly subscribing to hard epistemic relativism but to note that he doesn’t clarify how it can be avoided in his theory of interpretation.  Fourth, Westphal’s use of the story of the blind men and the elephant without an acknowledgement of its frequent employment in buttressing religious pluralism is, I think, unfortunate.  The problem with using it to propound religious pluralism lies in the fact that the world religions don’t offer limited descriptions of one dimension of ultimate reality but instead set forth comprehensive outlooks on the whole of reality, making their perspectives open to, not merely complementarity, but contradiction.  I think Westphal would have done well to address the baggage that accompanies this analogy.

Fifth, I would suggest that his advocacy of “Kantian antirealism” is misguided.  On the one hand, epistemic antirealism supposes that human subjectivity and situatedness is incompatible with human cognitive contact with the real world.  On the other hand, this seems more pessimistic than Westphal’s own view of the possibilities of human knowledge.  Sixth, and here is where I let the cat out of the bag, I am far from convinced that meaning is shaped by what readers bring to the table.  Frankly, I would prefer, in the vein of Vanhoozer or Jeannine Brown, to define meaning in terms of what an author wishes to communicate in the text.  I welcome the insights of relevance theory, but I disagree with the proposition that a text escapes the horizon of its author and assumes in quasi-agential fashion a life of its own.  Though Westphal implies that the determinacy of meaning renders the text a cadaver or a mere object over which the reader seeks to gain mastery, a number of happier descriptions are readily available.  We could speak in terms of a text being ongoingly animated by the voice of its author (especially in the case of Scripture) or the determinacy of meaning as a greater impetus for humble listening and submission than the indeterminacy of meaning to which we can and must actively contribute something.  Seventh, and following from the previous reservation about the book, I am skeptical of interpretive performance heightening or consummating the being of a text.  We might say that by enacting the intended perlocution(s) of the text we are realizing the author’s will for the author-text-reader communicative interchange, but Westphal treads beyond this in contending that diverse realizations of meaning are integral to the nature of the text itself.

Eighth, there are several instances in which the distinction between ontology and epistemology is elided.  One of the most glaring examples occurs when Westphal reasons that upholding the determinacy of textual meaning entails that readers are set up then to claim that they have the one true interpretation and need not be open to the readings of others.  Maintaining that textual meaning is complex but ultimately fixed by the author properly concerns the being of a text rather than readers’ ability to access that meaning.  If one keeps in mind the crucial distinction between ontology and epistemology, then one can affirm both the determinacy of textual meaning and our notably restricted noetic powers and consequent need to lean on the help of others.  Ninth, and finally, while the final chapter provides some reflection on interpretation rooted in Christian doctrine, the liabilities of the general consignment of biblical interpretation to the sphere of “de-regionalized” philosophical reflection are apparent at certain junctures.  Nothing is said of the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture in historic Protestant theology.  Westphal’s assertion that authors have no God’s-eye-view of even their own writing, and, therefore, cannot determine textual meaning runs into trouble when one considers the divine authorship of Scripture.  For my money, Jeannine Brown’s Scripture as Communication is the better option if one is looking for something that shares many of the aspirations of Westphal’s project.

Any thoughts?


15 thoughts on “Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part II)

  1. Steve, very nice engagement of Westphal’s proposal, which I have not read myself. I think Westphal does a good job of presenting the best that Gadamer has to contribute as over against Hirsch, and yet (if I read you correctly) he replicates Hirsch’s main error of not clearly defining meaning and then falls prey himself to an inability to keep indeterminacy from degenerating into total relativism. Vanhoozer does a great job of being charitable to Hirsch while exposing the substantial problems of building such a high wall between meaning and significance, which seems to deny prima facie any role for “performance” in actually sharpening the reader’s recognition of authorially intended meaning.

    I especially like this:

    Westphal accentuates four characteristics of interpretation as conversation: 1) it requires genuine listening to the voice of the another; 2) it includes reciprocal questioning between text and reader; 3) it is often led by the spirit of conversation, in which both parties are “surprised to discover where the conversation leads” (116); 4) like conversation between two persons, it has as its goal communion and attendant personal transformation.

    This is nothing less than a fairly classical rendition of the notion of the “hermeneutical spiral.” As to the somewhat infelicitous “both parties surprised”—which would imply that the A/author could be surprised—I would be inclined to cut Westphal some slack as implying the human author’s “surprise” over how a text might be “performed” in some transhistorical or trans-cultural context. Along these lines, Hirsch himself conceded an aspect of “transhistorical intention” to the author’s intended meaning in two more recent articles (cited by Vanhoozer in his Is There a Meaning in this Text, p 261). So I think Hirsch’s model continued to undergo helpful evolution beyond both his “Validity” and “Aims,” though this is not commonly acknowledged. I wonder, does Westphal interact at all with this later work of Hirsch’s?

  2. Hey Jim,

    It looks to me like Westphal is focused on just Validity in Interpretation by Hirsch. I do think Westphal’s failure to venture a definition of “meaning” is a serious flaw. It would be going too far to say that he plunges into unchecked relativism, but he only insists that he doesn’t without really specifying how he doesn’t. Regarding the section you italicized, I think you’ve given Westphal a very charitable read. Connecting the reciprocal questioning piece to the concept of the hermeneutical spiral could be fruitful, but I don’t think that Grant Osborne would approve of the idea that in this hermeneutical process the reader’s engagement with the text serves to actualize its meaning. In addition, I have some questions about the spirit of conversation, a seemingly impersonal force, guiding the interpretive endeavor.


    • Steve,

      I’m not sure Osborne would have quite so much indigestion over Westphal’s construct as you might anticipate. Have you read the substantially Revised Edition of Hermeneutical Spiral? Osborne has added a hefty double Appendix entitled “The Problem of Meaning,” in which he engages the strengths and weaknesses of both propositionalism and the postmodernist challenge to address the question of reader and text. He then drinks deeply from Vanhoozer to offer a mediating position. After reading the following in the penultimate paragraph of that Appendix, it would be nice to see Osborn interact with Westphal over the issue of determinacy from his strong position on authorial intention:

      The reader is a positive, not negative, force in interpreting a text. I have argued here that the original meaning of a text is not a hopeless goal but a possible and positive and necessary one. A text invites each reader into its narrative world but demands that the person enter it on its own terms. The creation of a new text is of course often (perhaps even usually) the result, but it is not a necessity. (p 520)

      I would argue that Osborn fully supports the notion of text “performance” by the reader in order to sharpen the intended meaning of that text. In reply to your comment, Steve, I guess it depends on what you mean by “actualize” the meaning of the text. Vanhoozer would insist that authorial intent must be respected when the meaning is “actualized,” and this is where I think Westphal needs to let us see how many trump cards he really has in his hand. Is the author fully “respected” in this “conversation”?

  3. Jim,

    By “actualization” I mean to indicate that, for Westphal, the meaning of a text, not merely our appropriation or enactment of it, does in fact vary from reader to reader. That’s a direction in which I’m not prepared to go and without having read the section of Osborne you referenced, I suspected (perhaps wrongly) that he wouldn’t go along with Westphal here. I would say that, in terms of epistemology, our understanding and our diverse appropriations of a text are very much tied together. However, I think that meaning (I like Jeannine Brown’s definition: “the complex pattern of an author’s communicative intent”) is multi-faceted or multi-layered but nevertheless fixed by an author, though he or she need not be able to foresee all the potential implications and contextual appropriations of the text.

    • Thanks for the clarification, Steve. In that light, I think your initial hunch about Osborne was right; I agree with your appropriation of Brown, and I think Osborne would follow suit, considering his vigorous defense of authorial intention.

      It might be worth reviewing his piece, “The Problem of Meaning”—it does draw some finer distinctions in light of Vanhoozer’s contributions and is IMO one of the clearest explorations available on this issue. And thanks for the detailed review of Westphal.

  4. Personally, I like Postmodern hermeneutics. Though to be sure, I have slightly more respect for original authorial intention than many postmoderns.

    So how do I find a compromise between Authoritarianism, and Postmodern freedom? I may have an unusual solution for this: I respect the original authority of the authors of the Bible … but largely because I perceive that by the time of Paul and Basil, the original authors and editors were already themselves, self-critical, “postmodern” writers.

    Paul told us that he himself was not yet “perfect,” and often presented himself as an unreliable narrator, a “fool” … even as he wrote his half of the New Testament.

    While Jesus himself, when asked who he was, 99% of the time did not firmly tell us he was God, or Christ; but instead merely asked “who do you say I am?” Almost inviting us in fact, to collaborate as readers, in validating or constructing his significance.

    I honor the Authority of the Bible therefore; but see the Author(s) as already self-critical/”postmodern,” as early as 55 CE.

  5. That is an interesting proposal, but I’m not sure that you can avoid the charge of anachronism. Furthermore, you’ve taken Paul’s admission of imperfection in Philippians 3 and his designation “fool” in, I believe, 2 Cor. 10-13 quite out of context. Also, though the Gospel of Mark is well-known for its “messianic secret,” you’ve exaggerated Jesus’ reticence to identify himself and misconstrued its purpose. The goal was more heuristic and didn’t signal that he wanted others to construct his identity or significance. One has only to read, e.g., Jesus’ confession before the high priest, his response to Peter’s confession of his messiahship, or the Gospel of John to glimpse Jesus’ certainty about the the determinacy of his identity.

  6. What he said: Respecting the “original authority” of the authors means respecting what they were saying in context, and textual clues are not lacking here—it’s pretty obvious for anyone with [literary context-sensitive] eyes to see.

    Brett, you have hinted before at this notion of human fallibility as somehow worthy of primary consideration in the task of hermeneutics. As I’ve suggested before, this is the very proposal that Kent Sparks was trying to float in God’s Word in Human Words, but IMO he failed to adequately address the authors’ own self-understanding as they wrote under inspiration. If we can’t credit the authors with reliably seeing their own role as they wrote, then the guidelines provided by the objective “rules” of literary genre and textual design employed by these same authors can also be jettisoned, and we are indeed left with complete indeterminacy and the most extreme variety of “reader response” hermeneutics (“anything goes in the games we play”). What kind of confidence does that inspire in our perlocutions? If there is no determinate range of suitable perlocutions that can be specified by the messages of Scripture in context for the people of God in their context, then we’re on a ship with no rudder or sail.

    I say No. If the same Spirit that inspired the Word does not reliably “line up” with the Word as he prompts our perlocutions, then can you really suggest that he is a god worthy of trust, worship, or obedience?

  7. Can we live with the results, the uncertainty, of a postmodern hermeneutic and Philosophy?


    You raise cogent objections – which however I believe are being answered elsewhere; in soon-to-be-published works. I believe that the “Messianic Secret” is eventually defensible; even in the examples you cite. Sorry I can’t be more specific at present. Pending publication.

    Briefly though: consider at least, the vast number of self-questioning remarks in the Bible; along with the vast number of warnings about sins, “false” things, in nearly every aspect of religion, priests, churches. Even false things in those that follow a “Christ,” crying “Lord, Lord,” etc.. Given all those warnings, I suggest that finally, the Bible looks even for the beam in its own “Christian” eye. In that way, the Bible is self-critical. And “postmodern” in that sense. To use non-anachronistic language: in the sense of being “humble” regarding its own authority. Looking for the “beam” in its own eye.


    Granted, if anyone actually, totally followed the radically skeptical, questioning view allegedly endorsed by mostmodernism, it would seem to be unlivable. But our authors here did technically back off full endorsement of total skepticism.

    And in practice, most modern/postmoderns reject many traditional religious or ecclesiastical dogmas; but they privately retain a sense of at least some kind of generalized transcendent Nature; and of workable, provisional islands of stability in life. They retain a positive future for mankind somewhere in the Universe; even a sort of God. Though not as narrowly, strictly defined as most churches would like to define all that.

    In the meantime, should we follow those who demand complete obedience to a given church? Suppose we follow a Church that declares itself to be holy and perfect, and finds arguments to justify that – even as the priests are sexually mollesting little boys? While essentially all the bishops are lying about it? (Essentially every bishop had at least one such case in his diocese; but covered it up; and continued to use sophistries to insist our Church was somehow still holy and perfect). Nor as it turns out, are Protestant churches much better. When you consider their extravagent promises of miracles and so forth.

    Finally, genuinely good people ask themselves this question: is it moral, to follow such churches? Clearly not. And so, many of us simply leave institutional religion. While many can live with at least a degree of resultant indeterminacy. Better that, than follow firmly-propounded but clearly hypocritical and even false doctrines.

    The God many see today, is more Postmodern. More encouraging of an openness; less dogmatism. He even allows a degree of agnosticism (in Job and Ecclesiastes). This God suggests that even our holiest men often doubted themselves – and for that matter, sinned and erred, even in their moments of holiest inspiration. So that we might loosely follow previous holy men – but only loosely. While trusting as much perhaps, to other intuitions of a greater Nature than what we heard in church.

    Sorry for not getting into specifics much here; this might give you both a rough idea of how many people are even now confortable enough, to live with at least a healthy dose of the skepticism and relativism, of a postmodern hermeneutic.

  8. Brett,

    I don’t know what you think I espouse regarding the Ecclesiastical issues you brought up in your response to me, but I certainly don’t feel like you addressed me, my views of the church’s appropriation of Scripture (or lack thereof), or the points I tried to make about determinacy, except insofar as you explicitly mentioned the author(s) of Scripture. I don’t share much of the majority opinion about the role of church dogmatics that the main interlocutors on this blog seem to share, so much of what you said in your response to me regarding the church amounts to a straw man. I have already indicated on a previous blog some of the areas where you and I might potentially agree, and in some respects, there might also be some overlap on these issues, but that thread kind of died out, and I don’t see the relevance to my comments here.

    I am not concerned whether postmoderns can find “workable, provisional islands of stability in life” because I see all Scripture inspired by a God who always offers a better version of life than whatever they have “found.” And this “offer” or “invitation” to more life (cf. e.g., John 10:10b), and to follow His voice, speaks to God’s core identity as primarily compassionate, merciful, forbearing, patient, and ultimately redemptive, even with the most stiff-necked of His people. They are always given the choice—be they postmodern or not—of whether to accept or reject these invitations to more life; that is, until their time runs out.

    As to the alleged implicit agnosticism in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, I am aware that many expositors have drawn that inference, which does in fact speak directly to the points I was trying to make above about determinacy and authorial intention. I would advise you to read my commentary on Job and Ecclesiastes (single volume, already published, so there’s nothing for me to be “hush-hush” about) which presents a view that supports authorial intention and determinate meaning in every thought unit of those two books. If at that point you still want to tango over their alleged agnosticism you are more than welcome to try.

  9. Here’s my simplist argument against determinate meaning in the Bible: consider History. Which records a vast number of different, competing theologies, competing churches; that all insist the Bible says different things. And that have carried that argument to the point of burning each other on the stake for deviations.

    Or, in the words of our present text: there are many “interpretative communities.”

    Clearly, you cannot argue that the message of the Bible was always easily, clearly determined (or “plain”); History clearly proves otherwise.

    What I like about the postmodern hermeneutic of this book, is that it backs off our Historical errors, our historical hubris. And institutes the Christian virtue of “humility” within Christian theology; advocating in effect what has been recently called an “epistempological humility.” That is, since experience, History, suggest that there are hundreds of different opinions on the message of Bible and God, then we should all be more humble about proncouncing on “the” meaning of the Bible. We should be more carefully consult and qualify, a vast number of different interpretative strategies and communities, before allowing ourselves even a tentative statement about what the Bible might mean.

    Is it’s core or “plain” meaning “compassion” or “love,” as we often heard in church sermons? Oddly enough, we just had an extended conversation on this blog, on this possiblity. But there I’ve argued that at least regarding our own human notion of “love,” the Bible itself often warned that even the source of love, the “heart,” is often “deceived” or deceptive or false.

    For these and other reasons, I prefer to think of the message of the Bible as being always rather open; always partially indetermined. And open for discussion, therefore, by theologians and religious scholars.

    Indeed, if the message of the Bible was all that plain, what need would we have for theologians? (Borrowing here from Paul, on the need for priests).

    Theology itself depends on the fact that such things are not plain, and always need to be discussed, investigated. If things are all that “plain” – or, here, “determinate” – then why so much discussion?

    • Let me take just one of your comments which I think will illustrate our most fundamental divide on this:

      . . . since experience, History, suggest that there are hundreds of different opinions on the message of Bible and God, then we should all be more humble about pronouncing on “the” meaning of the Bible. We should be [sic] more carefully consult and qualify, a vast number of different interpretative strategies and communities, before allowing ourselves even a tentative statement about what the Bible might mean.

      The first of these two sentences is fine, as far as it goes. But it betrays an erroneous underlying epistemic presupposition: it falsely conflates the message and the underlying meaning that might be adduced from a given text or the whole Bible. The message per se depends on one’s approach to the composition of Scripture and view of determinacy and authorial intention (or lack thereof). But as Steve and I have argued (variously) above, the meaning of Scripture entails divine telos, or in our terms, performance of the text. I see no place in your account for the reader’s accountability to perform the text. The problem with your postmodern view is that because of sin, interpretive approaches are pressed into service to allow people to justify their chosen sinful commitments rather than to change in response to the voice of God.

      Your second sentence, again, has a “useful” side to it but betrays a false ontology of Scripture. Employing a number of different strategies and communities would itself be a great meta-strategy for approaching Scripture, if people were committed to the fundamental premise that Scripture is indeed the voice of God and is given for the purpose of changing those whom He has created. Assuming this ontology, then the use of various strategies and communities can help maintain the epistemic humility that you advocate. The difference between us is that the honest and humble employment of those various strategies should lead to convergence and fine-tuning of authorial intention and determinate meaning, rather than “anything goes in the games we play.” Goldingay has made a good case for this approach in his Models for Scripture, but it is really nothing more nor less than Osborne’s view of the hermeneutical spiral, whereby the text and presuppositions continue to interact with one another as understanding converges progressively closer to authorial intention and determinate meaning. This is also one way to view
      Gadamer’s “two horizons” that end up “fusing.” There is always some inchoate truth in our presuppositions, and the more different presuppositions we allow using this “meta-strategy” of interpretation, the more likely we are to converge on determinate meaning—which I acknowledge is polyvalent and context-appropriate, but nonetheless determinate, as long as we embrace the premise stated above.

      But this is not the only “meta-strategy” available to us. I would submit that the very humility you advocate—as long as we share the above premise—will ultimately lead to a respect for the A/author(s) of Scripture, making us vulnerable enough to the force of textually embedded illocutions that we can perform appropriately in response to those illocutions and in turn converge toward authorial intention and determinate meaning in our lives. If people are more alike than unlike (which I am convinced in implicit in Scripture) then hermeneutic concerns like “distanciation” and Lessing’s “ugly ditch” are less of a problem than they have been made out to be with this alternative meta-strategic approach to Scripture.

    • Bretton,

      You’re confusing ontology and epistemology and because of this your historical objection is moot. A variety of interpretations in history pertains to the enterprise of human knowing but, strictly speaking, says nothing about whether or not the meaning of the biblical text is determinate. Ascribing the dynamics of human understanding to the being of the text is a misguided move.

  10. Simplified, there are at least two or three ways to characterize the ontological and epistemological positions often taken here and elsewhere. But note that it may be that ontology and epistemology, cannot be realistically separated.

    1) Here’s a simple one, that I thought might be closer to what Steven was talking about: a) ontologically, there is presumed to be a world, God, as they really, really are; like Kant’s “noumena,” or the “thing in itself.” But b) can we as mere human beings, really know this ultimate reality, perfectly? Here comes epistemology: we must consider the way we as subjective human beings, perceive that reality, that ontology; not as “noumena,” but as “phenomena.” As subjective human perception and ideas about God.

    It is usually assumed that our own minds are not quite capable of really appreciating the whole complexity of nature, of God, as they really are; all we have are subjective impressions. But it is thought, we should try to get to know real, ultimate reality – or say ontology? – as well as we humanly can.

    So here note, ontology and epistemology seem rather inevitably linked. How do we KNOW that anything we say about ontology is correct? We must look into the science of knowning things. As a practical matter, ontology therefore seems almost inextricably connected to epistemology.

    2) That’s one way of looking at this stuff. However, here you seem to outline another idea: a) there is, but now as primary, the “message”; our perception of the text. And b) then there is the “meaning”; the fact that we must then ACT strongly on, “perform,” our perception. But I suggest this rush to action, seems precipitous.

    The rush to action, “performance,” leaves begging a critical question: aa) which of our perceptions is RIGHT? If I believe that God wants us to kill all non-Christians, will you fault me, if I am hestiant to quickly carry my perception of the “message,” into performed deeds?

    Or for that matter, bb) in fact, just by talking publically about my perception, I AM engaging somewhat, in acting on – publicising – my beliefs.

    But cc) especially and critically, it seems to me that the real core message of the Bible, finally, was not to rush to “judge” others; and therefore, to rush too quickly, too precipitiously, into action against them, or for them either. But to adopt a kind of circumspect, prudent philosophicality, and philosophical distance. The mood that is typical of holy men and monks – and liberals – as a matter of fact. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus himself, Jesus himself did not act against them. Indeed, when Peter tried to use the sword to defend them, Jesus himself stayed his hand.

    Is your “performance” therefore, always consistent with the BIble itself? (Or another view: maybe we are merely talking about the contrast between a military and an academic point of view?).

    It is commonly said among conservatives today, that “liberals” are just arguing about the meaning of the Bible, as a smokescreen: they really just want to obsure its message, so they can get down to sinning with impugnity. But what if the Bible itself, delivered as its very core message, a certain … philosophicality? A disinclination to precipitious action and “judging” others? And what if it even advanced something like the Academic’s perspective? To advancing epistemology and ontology; but presenting them not as simple fixed, well-known things; but as perpetually open fields for continuous investigation.

    There are many good reasons for a kind of philosophical distance and disinterestedness, apart from maintaining our objectivity. The study of History, Sociology, suggests that though different communities each had their own very fixed idea of what the Bible meant, there were many different communities, with very different fixed ideas. Their set dogmas conflicted – and therefore, when they enacted or performed them, there were many religious wars.

    Wouldn’t it be better, to be a little less precipitous and dogmatic therefore? And simply note that many various ideas about God, were entertained by many different interpretative communities.

    And while we might express a mild preference for one or the other, how adamant should any such expressed preference be? In light of what History teaches: that so many of those with very simple, clear opinions of truth, were so often simply wrong. And/or their opinions were fatal; precipitating one religious war after another.

    Better to speak of what this or that specific community believes; and following our own mild preferences mildly. Than reproduce the religious wars of the past.

    But finally, as a practical matter, I myself don’t end up with an “anything goes” opinion. I do follow Christian tradition roughly. But still I read a certain openness, a rather academic philosophicality, even a disinclination to precipitous action, in the very, very core of the text itself. Turning the cheek even to apparent enemies.

    Whatever determinate meaning there is in the Bible it seems to many of us, is far, far less than what conventional churches have fought over for so many years. In fact, it seems to me that the Bible is finally rather determinedly indeterminate. So that therefore, you might say that by apparently failing to firmly support traditional religious ideas, I am doing exactly what you call for; I am rigorously following the Author, as I have induced him from the Bible.

    But that Author as I see Him, did NOT command us into absolute loyal obedience to any local preacher of Church. Instead he allowed many of us – those who perceive the equivocal message – a certain freedom; the “freedom we have in Christ.”

    The “Heremenetics of Suspicion,” the self-questioning of a believer, the Historical Method, are not mere human methods as conservatives currently are fond of asserting; they were the very message, goal, of the Bible itself. It is the perpetual questioning of alleged firm truths, that makes us humble; and that makes us scientists, capable of questioning all old assumptions, and discovering new and better things. And eventually producing the “new heaven” on earth, foretold so long ago (Rev. 21).

    So we should speak not so much of firmly decided truths; but more relatively, of what this or that community believed.

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