Friday, February 25, 2005

The problem of hermeneutics

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me in the last
18 months, "Oh well, that's your interpretation of Scripture." This is
usually in defense of notions, beliefs, or behaviors that are
innovations within the church in the last 20-30 years.

Then the other day I was at a clergy meeting where the topic was the qualities we are looking for in our next bishop. One of my conservative colleagues said something about wanting our bishop to be someone who believes the bible. I know what he meant, someone who takes seriously the authority and content of Scripture, believing it contains all things necessary for salvation and a worthy Christian life. Yet given the confusion there is over biblical interpretation today, it is clear that we need to be a lot more precise about the appropriate parameters within which to understand the text.

I have in front of me Howard Marshall's enormous "New Testament Theology" that arrived in the mail this week. I have just scanned the first chapter, and like all writers Marshall begins with certain assumptions. He seems to accept doctrinal and theological clarity emerging from from the text as received from God and revealed by God. He also assumes that there is a consistency in words, meanings, content, etc. Within some generous parameters, this is the way that scholars have historically studied Scripture. Marshall working with these presuppositions then uses his own remarkable intellect and scholarly skills to build upon the foundations of the past, placing another line of scholarly bricks on a wall of knowledge that Christians have been building for hundreds of years, thereby shedding light and insight onto the text, perhaps helping us to see things that we have missed until now.

Marshall, like so many other scholars in the mainstream of learning, treats the text as a consistent whole, and takes with great seriousness all the work that has been done with the text since the sub-apostolic period. In the communion of saints, we now stand on their shoulders. Marshall comes to the text as one who handles it reverently, but is prepared to scrutinize it using every tool of learning available to him -- and we are the beneficiaries.

This has been the standard for generations, and it has yielded great fruit -- as well as stimulating tremendous conversations about the meaning of the Word. On the other hand, there are many who would critique Marshall's method and interpretation, increasing numbers of whom have been influenced by a far less historically-rooted way of looking at words, texts, and their meaning.

This is where the deconstructionist movement comes in, and it is a much more subjective way of handling language and ideas. Deconstructionism is representative of a whole different way of viewing words and ideas. Deconstructionism sprang from the fertile, yet troubled, mind of Jacques Derrida who began playing with words, language, ideas, and their meaning when he was working in Paris in the 50s and 60s.

It was Derrida's presupposition that we should be suspicious of words and their meaning, because they carry within them assumptions that we may not want to live with. Deconstruction, Stanley Grenz, suggests "involves the use of certain philosophical or philological assumptions to launch an assault on (what Derrida called) logocentrism." What he is attempting to do is to release us from what he considered to be the imperialisms that are contained in language conditioning us to think and respond in certain ways.

Words are, as a result of this treatment, set free from received strictures which have held them in check in the past, releasing us for "the free play of meaning." Thus, the text "always provides further connections, correlations, and contexts and hence always has the potential to yield further meanings" (Stanley Grenz: A Primer on Postmodernism, Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 1996, page 148).

Derrida wrote, "Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptial order with which the conceptual order is articulated." It was the received predicates that Derrida set out to overthrow, and the outcome of this is that the text will very likely be allowed to yield radical new meanings that we had not seen before. Older understandings on how to read texts are abandoned, and it is we who become the subject of what is written, thereby taking mastery over the text rather than allowing the text to tell us clearly us what it means.

Derrida's approach, alongside the changing mood of the times, has been widely applied in many fields, from literature to the law to theology. We are the ones who take control over what the text says, and are released to interpret it in a manner that is not snarled by the mindset of the author who originally put those words on the page. Thus we have moved from the limited variety of interpretations of a text that might be there in a more traditional handling of the words to as wide a range of interpretations as there are readers. This is the kind of approach that now colors hermeneutics and the manner that we understand Scripture.

Quite a fuss has been made in the press this week over the death of Hunter S. Thompson and his "gonzo journalism." It would seem that Thompson handles data and ideas with the same kind of subjectivity that has crept into literary criticism and biblical hermeneutics, putting ourselves at the center of the story, rather than allowing for the fundamental objectivities in the text and the story.

With philosophies and worldviews that are so diverse vying with one another, it is hardly surprising that we reach impasses. This contemporary way of handling information and knowledge is highly experiential and has carried the popular mind for the moment. We see it in the language of Frank Griswold following the issuance of the Primates' Communique when he spoke of the truth of our experience. When we think this way we are immediately making our own subjective circumstances the touchstone against which we measure things, and are then in a position to read texts in a way that does not do violence to our perceptions and presuppositions. We set ourselves up as masters the text, rather than allowing the text to master us.

Thus, by handling texts in a way that is shaped by my experience I am in a position to turn the received interpretation of any text, but particularly Scripture, on its head. This was one of the reasons why the Windsor Report referred to this approach to Scripture as being a way in which we allow the Bible to echo what we think and believe.

The revisionist will say to the hermeneutically orthodox, "Ah, well, you want to read the bible in that way. You bring with you presuppositions that make you harsh and judgmental." Maybe there is some truth in this, but for myself, if I could make Scripture to mean different things in so many places, then I would happily do so -- but I am cannot, any more than I am able to reinterpret the income tax code to relieve myself of this revenue burden.

I certainly bring presuppositions to the text, and at the heart of them is the belief that in various ways and in various times, culminating in the revelation of Jesus Christ, God has used human beings to provide us with the definitive words for faith and belief. My presupposition is that I should take those words seriously at their plainest and clearest meaning -- and that these words are inevitably going to put their finger on sins and failures in my life that will make me extremely uncomfortable.

I do not seek then to modify what the words are saying because they aren't allowing me to get away with whatever I want to get away with, but I seek to bring my life into line with what these words are saying, whether it be not to commit adultery or whether it be loving my neighbor as myself. These words prod and guide me as to how I spend my money, care for my family, engage in stewardship of the resources God has given us, and exercise my sexuality.

The question I have to answer is whether I am going to interpret these words within the tradition, believing that within them there is a consistency of meaning that passes from generation to generation. Or, am I going to bring my own take on what I want these words, phrase, and ideas to mean? The radical individualism of the current climate prefers the latter approach. I think it is clear where I stand.

1 comment:

Eric Swensson said...

I recently wrote a research paper on hermenuetics and found your essay very interesting. My professor taught that Derrida and that school is a dead end, whereas Hans George Gadamer is not.

Gadamer does great work on the value of tradition. That material is found in the intro section before I go into the Windsor Report. Basically, I say we have a rootless church if we don't consider tradition, and I argue that holiness is the key.