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).

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Objectivity and Interpretation

John Walton, professor of OT at Wheaton College, reflects the conservative evangelical consensus about objectivity in Biblical interpretation when he says, "Objectivity is the goal of hermeneutics so that the text of Scripture may speak for itself." For purposes of definition, objectivity can be seen as the brute qualities of a thing which exists independently from any conscious awareness of it. In the fact that objectivity speaks of reality as independent from our perceptions of it, an objective description seeks to state the case "as it is" regardless of anyone's perceptions. Subjectivity, then, is defined as the relative perceptions of a thing viewed through some contingent conscious state.

Before the Enlightenment, philosophers were relatively optimistic about the ability to perceive objects as they really are. Grappling with the essences of things was no easy task, to be sure, and reasoning the "whatness" of objects was a defining characteristic of classical philosophy - but for the most part our ability to rightly perceive the phenomena of objects in the world was taken for granted. During the Enlightenment, the primacy of metaphysics gave way to the primacy of epistemology, where the act of perceiving itself became an object of scrutiny. Immanuel Kant famously criticized the idea of empirical observation as providing the guiding principles of rationality suggesting instead that the categories which exist inside the mind predetermine our observations of objects in the world. From this standpoint the object doesn't simply impress itself on the mind, the mind actively discerns the object through its own (mostly reliable) categories. If that's true, as the Enlightenment project has assumed, it makes the ideal knowledge one in which nothing comes between the vision of a knower and the thing known. This is true even of Kant, since he believed that though the world in itself (outside of perception) could not be known, our minds are still hooked up to the world in a way that speaks truly about objects. Mark Bowald says:
"Objectivity" came to connote the character of the epistemological stance a person assumes while struggling to seek out knowledge of things in their epistemological opacity. That stance is viewed as being, ideally, unaffected by prior beliefs or judgments - in some sense 'neutral' or apart from any particular 'perspective'.
This observation is crucial to the definition of objectivity. It speaks, first and foremost, of a person's impartial disposition toward objects . Moreover this is said to be a necessary disposition in order to arrive at truth. Put another way, true knowledge necessarily involves eliminating (or mitigating) one's own subjective states, such as emotions, judgments, desires, past experiences, etc., from consideration, since all of these things cloud the vision of the knower. If one is to be objective, he or she must yield to the brute facts which present themselves through impartial observation. Once supporting evidence can be marshaled to bolster a claim, it can be called "objective knowledge".

When it comes to reading the Bible it can be argued that Biblical scholarship has carried on according to this definition as well. Exegetes are those who come to the text suspending subjective factors as much as possible, and neutrally allowing the text to guide them wherever it may as it yields to the scientific tools of the exegete, namely grammar, archeology, history, etc. The data mined from their research is then handed off to Biblical theologians who assemble their objective observations into coherent building blocks which can add to the systematic theologian's overarching picture of what the Bible teaches. The inappropriateness felt by any reversal of this process testifies to the struggle for knowledge as a value-free enterprise. Any exegesis which emerges from theology is subjective, and thus illegitimate. Theology which arises from exegesis remains the only gold standard for what can count as true knowledge of the Bible.

Subsequent posts will evaluate that picture, but first I wanted to throw it out there for your reflection and modification. A few interesting questions to ask might be:

"Does it really work this way?" Do exegetes operate with neutrality and suspended judgment?

"Should it work this way?" Is impartiality a Biblical virtue in interpretation? Are there moral implications of objectivity?

"Did the apostles interpret Scripture this way?" Was their use of Scripture just an arbitrary product of ecstatic revelation which ran counter to how God wants Christians to read Scripture today?

"Are these our only options?" Does one have to approach the text "objectively" or be doomed to approach it "subjectively", or is there another way of looking at literary knowledge?

Monday, January 23, 2006


I've had a billion ideas for posts in the last several days (one of which will be a series of posts on the nature of "objectivity" in interpretation), but in light of the recent sale of our home and the hectic nature of moving, I can only offer the picture below as a record of my recievcing the aforementioned ideas:

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Greek students will be familiar with the above title as a form of the word "love". Okay, that's actually "phileo" (pronounced "phil-eh-oh") - but in any case, the word refers to friendship and it's in that light I'd like to explain the deletion of my previous post entitled "Can't We Get Along Damn it?!" In this obviously peaceful excursion I tried to demonstrate what I felt to be shortcomings in the PyroManiac's various theological scuffles, particularly with the emergent Church and the New Perspective. In it I intimated that Phil's frustration with continuationists in the cessationist debate is the very same frustration felt by his opponents in these other positions, and (more importantly), that the admonitions he gave to continuationists might help to improve the debate in these areas as well. Aren't I clever?

Not everyone thought so. Probably the least clever thing about my post, though, was the public way in which I drew attention to Phil's shortcomings, which (especially after seeing his response) I now realize was somewhat un-classy and even less helpful for him than I feared it may be. In any case a retraction is certainly in order. It was severely rash to post something like that just because irony can be so fun. If, in this post, Phil is now enjoying some irony of his own, he can thank me later. I have been unkind more than once in his "comments" section in the past, and doubtless this wasn't the best way to renew my complaints. Seeing how it's proven so difficult for me to point out the problems with the PyroManiac's approach without offending:

Forgive me, Phil.

But take a lesson from me and don't get too greedy in enjoying the irony. Just to be clear, I don't think the irony is the way I "mischaracterized" your handling of issues like the New Perspective and Emergent - it's in the fact that I was so unkind as to point it out in such a public, unconstructive way.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Framing the Emergent Church

I just came across this book review of Generous Orthodoxy from John Frame. It seems to be a critical (though even-handed) jot about McLaren's ecclesial vision. It's encouraging to read a critical review once and awhile without having to dab the subject's spattered blood from one's face, which makes this one worth the read.

Frame has been the author of several interesting essays lately, including his analysis of the fighting instinct inherited from Machen, an appropriately unsentimental article on hurting people's feelings, and a stark recognition of the lack of minority appeal in Reformed Churches.

Go, Johnny go!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ugh . . .

After typing all day long I finally finished tagging all of the MP3s of last year's Evangelical Theological Society Conference lectures. I wasn't interested in about 93 percent of what I was laboriously cataloging, which made the whole process all the more enjoyable. Beyond that, the one panel I was looking forward to listening to again was "joined in progress", which means that someone forgot to turn the microphone on until AFTER the more insightful comments were made (namely Jim Beilby's response to Merold Westphal about theology and the postmodern turn). Still, James D.G. Dunn's session with Scot McKnight, Don Hagner and Craig Evans seems to have been recorded flawlessly, as did some of the sessions by fellow bloggers Michael Bird, Alan Bandy, and Bryan Lee. My iPod is now a whole lot smarter than I am (not that it wasn't before all I had on it was Tom Petty and The White Stripes). Together with my other lectures, I now have about 547 hours of shower-time bliss.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Get Real . . .

One of the many longstanding debates in the world of philosophy is over the nature of existence (metaphysics) - do things exist in total independence from our senses, or can they be said to exist only in light of our perceptions of them? This philosophical scuffle can be called "the realism/antirealism" debate, and (as you might expect) it's got tremendous import for doing theology.

This has been noted most recently in light of the postconservative/emerging/purple theology move being made by several evangelical theologians in which some notions of anti-realism have influenced their understanding of the theological task. In particular, the idea that our language refers to the world the way it actually is has been challenged on a number of different levels. The world, instead, can only be viewed from various perspectives within their theory-laden observations. These observations can genuinely say something about the world, but there is no genuinely objective "way it is". An example I recently heard about this idea was as follows: suppose I have a number of items on a table, and I ask you to tell me how many items exist on the table. The number you give will depend upon things like the way you group the items (you may choose to view the cell phone and the detachable clip as one item; you may choose to count a muffin and it's wrapper as two items) and what you choose to count as an item (you probably wouldn't count individual crumbs as an item; you'd likely not count each molecule as a seperate item). In this case there is no "the way it is", as multiple answers will be correct from different perspectives. Merold Westphal and John Franke are two examples of contemporary evangelical theologians who have adopted some version of anti-realism.

Obviously most traditional theology assumes so measure of realism. Most contemporary evangelicals who have responded to the anti-realist tendencies of postmodern theology might consider themelves noetically specific anti-realists - that is, they deny that the minds of anti-realists exist. What are your thoughts about the validity or significance of realism/anti-realism in doing theology? How would this affect what theologians could call "true" or "false"? Is it possible for an anti-realist to preach an authoritative Gospel, or does this view constitute heresy?