Friday, January 27, 2006

Objectivity and Interpretation pt. 2

If objectivity in interpretation is the attempt to examine the text of Scripture with methodological neutrality, namely the effective suspension of emotions, judgments, desires, past experiences and theological convictions, it should be plainly obvious that objectivity is a hopeless chimera. It should also be plainly obvious that it is in fact an undesirable goal. The Scriptures emphatically repudiate the detached observer in affairs divine; in fact, it seems to suggest that such detachment is a result of the kind of proud self-reliance which singularly prevents a person from coming to know the subject of divine revelation. More on that later.

But for now, notice the fundamental presumption upon which the concept of objective interpretation rests, namely that there is a canon of interpretive rules to which we apply to the text in order for it to yield the interpretive goods. A friend of mine recently characterized the proper method for interpretation this way: 1) identify the literary genre, 2) identify the pericope, 3) isolate lexical and syntactical hinges, synthesize and principlize, 4) establish biblical-theological implications, 5) develop pluriform homiletical application (read both the excellent post and the comments in the above link!). But where do these rules come from? Is it common sense to "identify the pericope" or "isolate lexical and syntactical hinges"? How do we know that the intent of the human author should serve as the desiderata of legitimate interpretation? Beyond these problems, how can it be that our earliest Christian heritage reflected in patristic interpretation fundamentally violates and subverts these notions in a hundred ways? More on that later.

But back to this problem of interpretive desiderata. On what basis can a person defend "objective" methods such as the ones above as truly "biblical" norms for understanding Scripture? Without some authoritative source it remains unclear how the application of such principles can ever be truly "objective", especially if it is always up to the interpreter's personal judgment to determine in what manner (and according to what priority) these principles are applied. Ultimately, the inability of rooting a scientific method of interpretation within the Bible itself proves to be the Achilles heel of an objectivist, exclusively author-oriented interpretation. Moreover, neither the apostles nor contemporary Jewish interpreters seemed to be aware that they were saddled with this kind of interpretive responsibility.

More on that later.

But this is not to forsake Scripture as an authoritative divine word in favor of relativistic nihilism (by which queer interpretation is on the same playing field as traditional sermonizing). It is, instead, a recognition that the Bible is in fact not just like any other book. The interpretation of it requires a distinctively theological hermeneutics which understands the Scriptures as more than an artifact to be studied under purportedly objective scientific criteria. The Scriptures should not be understood to contain a communicative act of God which must be dug up, analyzed and decoded, but rather as the very communicative act of God itself. As such the only appropriate hermeneutical method will be shaped by Christian conviction and the dictates of Christian virtue modeled within the historic community of the Christian faith. It will also be a dialogical hermeneutic, in which the reader's context plays some important role in understanding the message, as true communication can't be achieved by an interpretive strategy that only goes one way. Gadamer was right to say that situatedness should not be seen as a handicap to be surmounted in interpretation, but instead a vehicle for understanding. Revelation is apprehended (and transformation is experienced) not by way of some quasi-Gnostic transportation from the self into the heavens, but by the wrestling which takes place in the fusion of the reader's personhood with the "other" of the text. Obliteration of the self in order to understand divine truths is an old heresy which now masquerades as interpretive integrity under the auspices of Enlightenment values.

Far from being an "anything goes" type of reading, it commends that an interpreter continue to do business with the text in order to shape, refine and challenge his understanding of it. Far from making truth inaccessible or glutting the theological task with uncertainty it recognizes that truth comes in covenantal contact with God through the way Scripture acts upon its hearers. The Scriptures facilitate this relationship by the power of the Spirit, not simply by propositions to be believed (though this is one important communicative act of God), but by promises to be trusted, commands to be followed and narratives to be entered into. In all of these ways the text must be seen as more than just a recipe for theological description, but as speech acts which remain relevant not because of some concocted scheme for "application", but through the abiding illocutionary power they contain as performative utterances. Kevin J. Vanhoozer speaks of the illocution of Scripture taking place at the level of sentence, text and canon such that the authorial intention transcends the human author even as human authors mediate the divine discourse. Thus:

To limit oneself to recovering only the human authorial intentions is to fall short of theological interpretation. And to impose one's own intentions or the intentions of one's community is to fail to guard oneself from potential idols (K. Vanhoozer).


exegetical fallacy said...

as usual, great post Raj! Not much to add except just to say that it seems to me that the handy dandy 5 step method by 'your friend' does seem to be impossible (or at least extremely artificial) in a confessional institution (i.e. with a tight doctrinal statement already in place), as Dr. Moorhead seemed to observe in the last post. If you already have to end up with a certain answer before you approach the text (e.g. pre or post trib rapture), then can you honestly approach 1 Thess 4 objectly, ready to go to work with your bag full of exegetical principles? Or if the 'Israel of God' cannot refer to the Church, then does isolating the 'near context' (or whatever) really matter? It seems, then, that the 5 exegetical principles can only be applied with integrity outside a confessional location. Anyway, its way early over here and i haven't had my coffee yet, so maybe i'm way off....

Rich Ryan said...


I think your premise depends more on the man than the ministry (confession). By that I mean a man committed to let scripture teach him "should" be able to move independent of the confession (doct. stmt.). If God changes his conviction, he needs to convince others or take his theo somewhere else. Any church unwilling to move its position when scripture convinces is just being idolatrous, IMO.

Our church moved from a strong Arminian position to a more reformed position when our pastor taught through Eph., 11 years ago.

To hear him tell it, he was coming to new conclusions each week and the text informed his theology. The elders and the church went with him.

It can be done, by God's good grace, through men of conviction. FWIW.

TheBlueRaja said...

Hey Rich!

I would never advocate the at-all-costs defense of a doctrinal conviction in the face of Scripture, and you're right to object to it. But it's important to note that theology informs the exegesis of Scripture just as much exegesis informs theology. Our confessional beliefs we carry into exegesis gives the lie to the idea of exegesis as positivistically foundational for the theological task.

Rich Ryan said...


I've read this 6 times and I can't figure out what you mean? Can you clarify?

"Our confessional beliefs we carry into exegesis gives the lie to the idea of exegesis as positivistically foundational for the theological task."

The lie as in "ground work, foundation" or a lie as in "falsehood?”

Are you arguing that confessional beliefs give root to positivism - I take that as "theory that knowledge can be acquired only through direct observation and experimentation rather than through metaphysics and theology."

Or are you saying that because we have confessional faith we do bring metaphysics and theology into the process?

If I understand positivism isn't it arguing for an objective independence in interpretation –apart from preconditions? Are you saying that's foundational? That would seem to contradictory to the overall post.

I’m just really confused. ;o)

P.S. I took the “I'm not sure yet position” at the Q&A. It was actually well received. Who says there are no miracles today? TIC

TheBlueRaja said...

Sorry Rich, that was unclear. I had a mouth full of subjee and paratha as I was running out the door at my parents house (during my lunch break) when I wrote it.

Basically I was just saying that exegesis is informed by theology and theology is informed by exegesis such that you can't see the process as a strict move from exegesis to biblical theology to systematic theology. It's not that clean a process, and it's not a necessary method for the pursuit of truth in the first place.

Yes, I'm saying that we bring metaphysics and theology (and epistemology, and aesthetics and ethics) to the text in our exegesis, and any attempt to "step inside" a foreign culture (especially a dead ancient culture) does not mitigate these starting points anymore than male speculations about what it must be like to be a woman grant him the genuine experience of a woman.

I would call the idea that we can come to the text devoid of preunderstanding (or the idea that we can somehow "cancel it out" through studying ancient near eastern backgrounds) positivistic. I would call someoen who says that the only legitimate theology is one which begins this way and moves to creating a theology building from the singular ground of exegesis inappropriately "foundtaionalist" (not that I totally reject foundationalism of other kinds in other realms of discourse, like epistemology).

Congratulations on your headcovering discussion. God blesses an honest display of weakness!

Nate B. said...


Intriguing post... I look forward to seeing where you're going with this.

For those who might be reading your post, but are unaware of VanHoozer's hermeneutic, I found the following review to be helpful: Review of Is There Meaning in This Text?.

- Nathan

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks for the link, Nate!

exegetical fallacy said...


This is beautiful...just plain beautiful! So I stand corrected, it can be done. I would still think that this is not the usual case, and that most Professors and/or pastors who exegete against the grain of a 'confession' will end up with a thirty-day notice of empoloyment, or a split church...but as you said, it really depends on the man, or the men (or women) who are the guardians and/or producers of the confession. But praise be to God that there has been some that have truly bent the confession around the word (and the Word) - may your church be an example to us all!


Jonathan Moorhead said...

"It is, instead, a recognition that the Bible is in fact not just like any other book."

Exactly! Good post and good qualifications.
Exegetical fallacy: I'm not a "Dr." yet.

metalepsis said...

Good post, I am enjoying reading them.


I think you miss the point if you think 'objectivity' rules when texts confront and change the addressee. This happens every time we read a text no matter how banal it is.

If you move to position A from position B, there is still the chance that you are moving away from the 'truth' of scripture. What determined for you that your pastor moved you in the right direction? Was it the conformation of the elders; was it the pastors 'seemingly' submission to the text?


If the bible is unlike any other book, how do we know how it works, which canons of interpretation are acceptable? And which are not? This seems like a statement that can be co-opted in an effort to interpret the bible more confessionally than perhaps it ought to be.

Is there a way to eliminate the indeterminacies of the text?

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks so much for your kind appraisal, Bryan! I'm really glad you're posting here so I can suck some insight out of you more than once a year at ETS. As for your question, I intend to try to sketch out my perspective on that a bit more in my next post, when I have time to get to it.

But for now, regardless of theory, you obviously acknowledge the Bible as Christian Scripture. The Old Testament is not, for you, "The Hebrew Bible", and the New Testament is to you more than a development of the "history of religions". I'm curious as to what you believe warrants this confessional stance and whether you believe such a position to be an effort at co-opting the interpretation of the bible more confessionally than it ought to be.

Acknowledging that there are no truly "pre-theoretical" assessments of the Bible, at least not in the sense of "theory-free" (although perhaps in the sense of "pre-critical"), what grounds your reading of the Bible as Christian Scripture?

Rich Ryan said...


Not to pick nits but where did I say we moved in the "right" direction? I hope I did not convey we have it right, just that we moved. My point to EF was simply that people can move independent of a creedal position. And they should, if convinced by scripture.

As for my views on objectivity - I'm just here trying to understand, not posit any position. That's why I read more than post.

exegetical fallacy said...

Raj, Meta, it was great hanging with you dogs at ETS/SBL; its sweet that we can keep up the dialogue.
Don't want to change the dialogue if there is more to be said, but I've got an interesting rabbit trail that you guys know more about than me. To begin, here's a quote by Lee Keck in his new (fantastic!) Romans commentary regarding reading historically and reading canonically:

'We do not read the letter as tis first recipients did, fo rit comes to us already interpreted by its placement. So then, the more we read Romans only in light of its (alleged) original setting, and as a single letter from Paul to believers in Rome, the more we "undo" the phenomenon of Romans in hte New Testament. Recognizing thsi does not invalidate historical exegesis, but expands its horizon by reminding us if the early church had not canonized this letter we would not be reading it at all. The New TEstament Romans is hte only Romans that exists' (Keck, Romans, 20)

The point being, that to try to read any letter of the NT as the original audience did (something that is suggested in so many 'biblical interpretation' courses), then this actually cuts against the grain of how the letter is to be read by the 'post-canon' church (for lack of better terms).
not sure where i want to go with this, but just thought it was an interesting paradigm for reading Scripture (i supposed Keck, being a Yale dude, probably is just echoing Childs here).


metalepsis said...


Sorry for adding more to your post than was there, just an innocent case of overreading!


I was being a little nebulous, but the statement was directed to the notion that the bible is unlike any other book. This statement seemingly could be latched onto, or co-opted, in an effort to maintain the status quo, right. So we sidestep the issue in question, so to speak. I know in the context that is not what a canonical approach is suggesting, but I was speaking more to the statement out of context, as quoted by Jonathan.

Good question? I don’t believe, at least I don’t think I do, that the bible is only Christian scripture. I don’t know if this makes any difference? But you have rightly captured my own uneasiness about my own ‘position’. But regardless the answer is still yes, no matter what warrants me to treat this corpus as Christian Scripture, I am still sure that I co-opt the said corpus, for my own confessional purposes. And this may be where the notion of Generous Orthodoxy comes in to play, not in an effort to absolve the boundaries of confessional communities, but to learn from them.

In short what grounds my reading, right or wrong, is ancient plausibility; but as you allude to, that is not all.

TheBlueRaja said...

Master Lee,

Hopefully I didn't COMPLETELY sidestep the issue! I did say that I was planning to sketch something out in my next post, and hopefully it's become clear that I believe that a neutral reading of the Bible is actually sin, and that the transformation of the Gospel is a necessary condition for understanding it aright (as this wonderful post suggests).

But *I think* I see your concern about how people may use such a notion to justify interpretive complacency. Yet I'm not sure what to make of the concern. In one sense I guess I'm tempted to respond . . . so what? All evils are parasitic upon good, and all goods are perverted by the self-serving evils of some - why should it be any different in the interpretation of Scripture?

I'm also a little confused by your notion of inescapably co-opting the text. What, exactly are you co-opting? Are you co-opting the intention of the author, the ideal author or the text itself? Do all attempts at reading necessitate a manipulative sort of injustice and the readers subjugation of authors or texts? I'm just trying to understand your concern here.

In the same way I wonder if you could explain more about the aim of learning from those who read the Bible with some other interests than Christian ones - learn what, exactly? Are you hoping to learn more about the text, more about the human author, more about the divine author, more about other communities (can't that be done without mention of the Bible?), or more about yourself? I'm not denying that we can learn from others here, but to the degree that others don't regard the Bible as Christian Scripture I would probably say that such a one is going wrong in his reading of it (am I a dinosaur?); so IS the Bible Christian Scripture or is it Scripture AMONG OTHER THINGS, or do you think it's even right to assign any overarching ideology to the canon at all? This obviously relates to the questions above: are you just one usurper of the text among others, or is it even possible to be faithful to a text?

Hopefully none of these questions are seen as throwing a gauntlet down or challenging you - we both know I'm not manly enough to do that. But it would help to have some clarification as to what your worries are about seeing the Bible as Christian Scripture.

I totally acknowledge the dangers of pressing the Bible into the service of a confession, and how the text should shape our confession. My point was that we must also allow our confession (namely that of Jesus Christ as Lord of heaven and earth by virtue of his death and resurrection) to shape our reading of the text.

metalepsis said...

Oh Rightly Revered Reverend Raja

I don't mean to suggest that “you” sidestepped the issue at all, I know that there is more to come, I just thought the suggestion that the bible was ‘unlike’ any other book, well rather banal! And most of the worst confessional ‘exegetes’ already subscribe to such a notion.

I am not sure what to do with my concerns either, so at least we are both tracking. I guess a suggestion is to realize that we are always doing something to the texts that we encounter, just as they are doing something to us, and to be mindful of this symbiosis. I don’t know all the times that I have imposed my will upon the text; I know that I have done it in the past, and thus I am sure that I must still be doing it.

I always read that Hauerwas quote as speaking directly to the condition of non-academics, funny huh.

I really don’t have good answers to your questions; you know what I think of texts, and so I don’t even know what it would mean to be faithful to a text, nor do I care, I just want to know how to be faithful to God.

I wear too many hats, sometimes I don't know which one I am presently wearing. But chin up I agree with you, and like your posts on objectivity!

TheBlueRaja said...

Oh Cunningly Sexy Though Difficult to Bunk With Metalepsis,

When it comes to this subject I'm finding stating the banal to be more and more important! On the one hand, I want to preserve the notion that texts have authors and that they are meaningful inter-subjective communicative actions, which means defending myself against what I see as unnecessarily indeterminate approaches to the text of Scripture; on the other hand I want to see texts as genuine discourse, which means taking the horizon of the reader seriously and the fact that theology DOES NOT simply emerge in a one way train from "objective exegesis" to "universal theological principles". The problem is that many exegetes who obviously DO subscribe to the notion of "confessional exegesis" don't ADMIT that they do! That's some of what I was trying to point out here.

I agree with you that we are always doing something to the texts that we encounter - but I think it's important to hold to the possibility of standing in faithful, Spirit-filled (loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, meek, self-controlled) subjection to them. This stance toward the text, I believe will yield true understanding, though by nature it is open to further understanding. More than just seeing this as important, I see this as a fundamental assumption of communication that we employ with pre-theoretical instinct and in spite of theoretical reflection. At this point in my embarassingly diminutive understanding I see arguing otherwise as an overly anxious kind of fear at best and strangely disingenuous at worst.

In any case, I'm not pressing you to prove that you're right about how interpretation works - I'm really trying to figure out how you think it should and why! Like Jacob, I'll not let you go until you tell me (please disregard the way i addressed you in this comment in picturing this wrestling)! I would wholeheartedly agree that finding warrant for our reading doesn't mean that we're right, and that not having a warrant for the way we read doesn't mean that we're wrong - but it can, at least, facillitate understanding (and provide opportunities for mutual correction)! So c'mon - put some cards on the table! I promise to keep my chin up only if you'll punch it every once and awhiile!

Bobby said...

Truth is relative after all . . . relative to God that is!

Maybe Barth was onto something, i.e. the subjective instrumental nature of scripture; of course he went to far by his emphasis (i.e. denying the inerrancy). But I think this indeed is a helpful insight, Evangelicals would do well to take heed.

Raja said:

". . .In all of these ways the text must be seen as more than just a recipe for theological description, but as speech acts which remain relevant not because of some concocted scheme for "application", but through the abiding illocutionary power they contain as performative utterances. Kevin J. Vanhoozer speaks of the illocution of Scripture taking place at the level of sentence, text and canon such that the authorial intention transcends the human author even as human authors mediate the divine discourse."

Doesn't this lend itself to the denial of the divine/human intentionality model of approaching meaning in the text of scripture; and end up implying some sort of sensus plenior at best? In other words it seems that if divine intention transcends human mediation--the human "instrument" is seen as merely a passive "dictaphone" whom the Holy Spirit manipulates.

When applying this logic to the incarnation of Christ is seems to engage, during the Patristic period, the heresy known as Word-Flesh Christology, which defined by J.N.D. Kelly is:

". . . Making no allowance for a human soul in Christ, this viewed the incarnation as the union of the Word with human flesh, and took as its premiss the Platonic conception of man as body animated by a soul or spirit which was essentially alien from it. . . ."

How is this different than Van Hoozer's Divine intended meaning transcending human mediation? In other words, divine meaning=soul spirit/ while body=human mediation?

What do you think Raja?

Biblical Narratives indeed communicate their own powerful speech act within the lives of the community of faith; I just find it ironic that one must use propositions to communicate such a reality.

TheBlueRaja said...

Bobby said:

"Doesn't this lend itself to the denial of the divine/human intentionality model of approaching meaning in the text of scripture; and end up implying some sort of sensus plenior at best?"

I don't think so, Bobby - at least not in the sense that the authors' hitorically grounded intended meaning somehow become irrelevant for interpretation. I agree with Vanhoozer that divine intention can be seen at the level of the canon, and that this meaning supervenes upon the authorial intent of the individual authors. Notice that this is never a contradictory imposition upon the human authors, but is instead an emergent property which arises from the canonical context.

Notice also that this doesn't violate the human authors' intent but further specifies and contextualizes it within a larger scope that is consistent with the original authors' intentions. None of this, of course, demmands or depends upon a mechanical view of inspiration. The canonical sense breathed into a passage isn't "alien" - it's no more opposed to the text than our spirit is opposed to our body; they were made to work in concert. I don't think it's appropriate to read Vanhoozer as issuing a Platonic dichotomy either between mind/body or human/divine authorship. His view, in my judgment, is incarnational in all of the most important (and orthodox) ways!

Bobby said...

Blue said:

". . . Notice also that this doesn't violate the human authors' intent but further specifies and contextualizes it within a larger scope that is consistent with the original authors' intentions. . . ."

This is where I need clarification from you. What do you mean when you say ". . . further specifies and contextualizes . . .". Is this contextualization of the original human author's intent expanded beyond his historical referent? In other words, when the original author penned his text, or gave oracular utterance, do you believe, in certain promise/fulfillment motifs (i.e. Is 7:14) that he was not only referring to the historical referent in pre-exilic Israel--but also, consciously, referring to Jesus' incarnation (as I Pet. 1:10-12 seems to assert)?

BTW, I'm not trying to question Vanhoozer's orthodoxy--I've actually read his book "Is There Meaning in This Text" a couple times, its been a few yrs--and I've found it quite compelling and meaty.

TheBlueRaja said...

I guess this is where I would say that the human authors intended an openness to completion in ways that were as yet not aware of. Later revelation fills in the openness inherent in the author's original referent with the historical referent and the canonical context serving as delimiting boundaries for interpretation. Both the human and the divine discourse operate harmoniously to achieve the message. The historical referent is thus indispensible in understanding the sense of the text, but not sufficient. Theological interpretation requires that the text be explained in its canonical significance.

I loved Is There a Meaning, didn't you? I just found it breathtaking in both it's critical analysis and positive contribution!

lori said...

Although this is definitely not smash-bang end to this extremely interesting conversation. :) I don't know about any body else but I was personally dying to know what Sharad's mouth was stuffed with as he was running out of his parents house on his lunch hour and replying to "rich" at the same time. Or at least at 4:03am, insomnia girl is interested.
So here you go!
Subjee is the “normal” way of preparing vegetables in India; a curry dish, the most popular being masala, the spicy mixture in which the vegetables simmer.
Paratha is griddle fried bread; Indian breads consist primarily of unleavened flatbreads which resemble thick tortillas. Some are deep fried, and others are baked in tandoors - underground clay ovens. Indian bread is often used in place of silverware.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks Lori! You just won a date night with your husband, TheBlueRaja and his wife to the Taj Mahal restaraunt in Boise. Matar paneer and Indian pale ale for everyone!

lori said...

Yay! I won the prize! That sounds like fun. Isn't Indian Pale Ale the kind with chunks in it?

HZ said...

Raja, I loved many of the things you said here. You said them extremely well.... I will have to think about others. But I think you said them well too.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, HZ!!! How kind of you to say!