Hermeneutical Flurry

(1) An academic proposing a meaning for some element in the text (e.g., saying ‘Part of what lies behind Mark’s use of ‘Son of God’ is a reference to Old Testament images of God as Father of Israel’s King) is proposing a programme of further work: an attempt to see what further evidence (from this text and from other texts) can be drawn in to the picture. Successful suggestions will be those that allow a wide range of connections to be made (e.g., drawing in a wide range of OT texts about Kingship; drawing in other examples from the Ancient Near East; allowing connections to anthropological discussions about relationships between the language of cult, kingship, and household…). Successful suggestions will also allow refinements and revisions of the original proposal to be made – they will become the bases of conferences, articles, books…

(2) In principle, an academic might well champion multiple meanings (e.g., championing both the OT background of ‘Son of God’, and connections with Hellenistic usages); in practice it is probably inevitable – and may even be necessary, given the sheer labour involved – that individual academics will latch on to particular meanings and run with them. In which case, a well-rounded interpretation of the text will only be found in the argument between multiple academics (not in the success of any one individual or group). The proper form in which the results of academic historical criticism can be presented will be a dialogue.

(3) To an even greater extent, Christian individuals and groups are likely to pursue particular lines of interpretation – grasping hold of some roughly coherent way of taking the texts (and therefore prioritising some of the available meanings of individual elements), in ways which connect to the development of that individual or group’s life. (It might be, for instance, that Christian interpretations of Gospel language about Jesus as ‘Son of God’ get interpreted in the light of OT passages in such a way as to authorise and enable Christian mining of those OT passages – providing a route by which they can become part of the community’s self-identification in relation to the Israel of the OT, and part of its repertoire of ways of thinking about its relationship to contemporary Judaism.)

(4) Even more clearly than in the case of academic investigation, the proposal of particular meanings is a proposal of particular forms of life, particular ways forward. This is not now simply a matter of division of labour, nor simply of the psychology which leads individuals and groups to hold fast to ‘their’ meaning. It is, rather, because at any given time an individual or group can only to live the text by living some determinate subset of possible meanings. Living involves the making of decisions. ‘On the other hand…’ provides no way forward.

(5) In principle, therefore, recognition of the limitation, the arbitrariness, of such decisions, can’t lead to the proposal of a single form of life which interpeted the text ‘properly’ – i.e., interpreted it without such arbitratiness. Rather, the ‘proper’ form in which Christian interpretation of the text can be seen in the round will be in the dialogue between individuals and groups who have decided differently. The proper form of Christian interpretation of the Bible will take the form of ecumenism.

(6) Some of my language here is wrong, though. Individuals and groups end up pursuing particular meanings not (normally) because they select them deliberately, and with acknowledged arbitrariness, from a range of possibilities all seen as equally available – but because they find themselves chosen by those meanings – captivated by them, given them. Other meanings might still be regarded as possible in the abstract – but not as truly live options.

(7) I know that the straightforward ‘academic’ versus ‘believing community’ distinction is questionable, but let’s stick with it for now. For the academic, the interests within which particular meanings can come to the fore can be very broad: interest in the reconstruction of 1st Century Palestinian society; interest in 1st Century Judaism; interest in the development of Christian piety in the first four centuries, and so on. For the believing community, the interests within which particular meanings can come to the fore will be rather different. Formally, attention to a particular meaning is only going to flourish if it makes some contribution to the life of the community – though the ways in which that can happen are more diverse than we might imagine. Substantively – and here I am perhaps speaking more prescriptively than descriptively – the Gospel texts will be interesting primarily as witness to the identity and significance of Jesus of Nazareth.

(8) If we simply concentrated on the formal side – the ‘livability’ of the text – the dialogue of interpretations found in the Christian community might have quite tenuous and ambivalent connections to the conversations of the kind of historical criticism that focuses on the origins and ‘original meanings’ of these texts (though would perhaps retain stronger connections to the kind of historical criticism that looks at the reception history of the text). If, however, we concentrate on the texts as witness to Jesus, the connections to origins are going to remain unavoidably important.

(9) This means, I think, that the ‘conversation of interpretations’ in the Christian community is bound to take a different shape from, say, the Talmudic conversation of interpretations in the Jewish community. Questions of origin, as far as I can see, quite appropriately matter less in the latter case. Law is not the same as witness.

All this is, I know, intolerably abstract. It’s simply attempted as a summary of some thoughts buzzing round in my head at the moment.

3 Thoughts on “Hermeneutical Flurry

  1. Interesting blog. I think I’ll read for a while. Not to be too critical about your employment of historical criticism in order to formulate the above postmodern criticism of Christian communities’ interpretation … 😉 … but isn’t your conclusion just another communities’ (acedemia, in this case) interpretation and therefore subject to the same criticism? ….

  2. Hi Jim,

    This wasn’t really meant to be a criticism of the form ‘interpretation x is invalid because it is “simply” the interpretation of another community’. I was, rather, trying to describe fairly neutrally some resemblances and differences between what counts as a good interpretation in two different communities of interest – and (very hazily, towards the end) some hints that it might not be possible to divide up ‘historical-critical’ and ‘faith-community’ interests too neatly. (I’m just about to do another posts on reading with interest, which may clarify this.) Of course, I do want to claim that interpretation in both communities is faced with a text that resists univocal reading, but I don’t see that as a ‘postmodern criticism’ of either historical-critical or faith-community interpretation – and, in fact, I think of the need for ‘conversational’ interpretation as being a very positive thing.

    Of course, I recognise that I have not really made the case for such resistance to the univocal on the ‘faith community’ side – but I suspect the only way of making the case convincingly is (a) by some attention to the history of Christian interpretation, and (b) some exploration of particular texts – both of which might not explain but would no doubt display the texts’ resistance to univocal reading.

    Thanks for reading the blog,


  3. Mike,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I was being somewhat “tongue-in-cheek” in overusing forms of the word “critical;” Don’t be too critical of me … 🙂

    I didn’t read your post as a criticism of a particular hermeneutical method or even one that defines attributes of “correct” methodology. Quite the contrary, actually, I read it as a recognition of that various communities have their own paradigms which (pre-) determine an interpretation’s emphasis and method (does paragraph (3) not state this almost directly?).

    Anyway, if that’s were case (which now I know it is not – see below), to me this approach is (would be) essentially post-modernism. Not being an academic I perhaps have a less specific definition of the term, though I certainly don’t mean simply “relativism” in its most broad sense.

    Now, however, in re-reading paragraph (3) I’m thinking you actually meant virtually the reverse of the way I took it. Not that a communities (or individuals) paradigm (their “life”) determine the interpretation, but that the interpretation can affect “development of that individual or group’s life,” thier “way forward.”

    And now I feel a bit embarrassed since that is obviously the only way to understanding the entirety of your essay (which I obviously didn’t when I first read it). So what does your essay say about the “way forward” for someone (or a group) that completely misinterprets the text? … 🙂


Post Navigation