The Problems with Post-Modern Interpretation of the Bible

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I’m working away on a book that deals with Isaiah in the OT and NT, not least because Isaiah is the most frequently cited book from the OT in the NT. In the process of doing this book, I’ve been doing a lot of reading of OT literature on Isaiah, including about the running feud that went on between Brevard Childs and the post-modernists, particularly Walter Brueggemann, particularly over the issue of Christian readings of the OT and whether indeed we should see the Hebrew Bible as our ‘Old Testament’ and if so, in what sense. Underlying these sorts of discussion are certain contradictory theories of epistemology, meaning, and history that undergird much of post-modern discussion of the Bible. In this post I want to point out the most salient problems with this whole approach to the Bible, but first I want to say ways that this approach has provided some helpful warnings against a naive approach to the Bible.

One of the major tenants of post-modern interpretation is the notion that ‘all interpretation is local and partial and comes from a particular point of view’. This is sometimes used as an excuse for an anything goes when it comes to imaginative construals of the Biblical text. What is being claimed is that none of us are omniscient as interpreters of the Bible, and all of us come at the task from our own social location and with our own biases, preferences, interests, and so on. Of course this is true, but it is not the whole story, because a measure of objectivity can be attained especially when one studies the Bible in a community, with other voices, both similar and different from one’s own as a sort of check and corrective.

What is mistaken about this sort of mantra is the idea that no kind of objectivity in interpretation is ever possible, no matter how hard we try, so we should just revel in radical subjectivity. Wrong. Very wrong. And in such an assumption is the anti-Christian notion that God cannot break through our cloud of unknowing and reveal himself in words, indeed in the very words of Scripture. If God is an actor in the human drama and has revealed himself in word and deed, then we are not lost in the morass of radical subjectivity. Nevertheless, the warning about partiality and bias is an important one, and the reason why we need to interact with a variety of interpreters to provide a check to the possibility of bias and distortion of the text. Underneath these sorts of post-modern claims is a defective epistemology. They do not really understand how we know what we know, and the degree to which the human senses and the mind has been set up by God, so that under normal circumstances they can be reliable though not perfect perceivers of objective reality outside the human mind.

A second corollary of post-modern interpretation is that texts do not have meaning, rather meaning is arrived at through an interaction of reader, text, and context. On this construal, the reader is an active reader who is a maker of meaning, while the text is a passive and neutral object that can be molded in various ways like play dough. Wrong, and especially wrong when it comes to the Bible, but it would also be wrong if we are dealing with secular literature as well.

Texts have meanings given to them by their authors, and as such they make an impact upon the reader, and frankly it is the height of arrogance to say that we have a right to tell the text what it means, or a right to construe it however our fancy suggests. Especially when we are dealing with the Bible this amounts to a flat denial that the Bible is a ‘revelation’ of God’s meaning to us, penetrating our sinful human natures with the aid of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Of course it is true that readers are active, if they are not half asleep when they read and they bring their own interests to the readers. Obviously this is true. The question is whether this truth is all there is to say about reading, and the answer is no, and the reason the answer is no is because: 1) the text itself has a meaning which confronts the reader with a challenge, and 2) the reader, (unless they are mentally ill or delusional or on drugs or deliberately obscurantist preferring their own brand of ignorance to any sort of enlightenment) does have the capacity for some objectivity in their reading of the text, especially if they do not do it alone, but in concert with other readers of the text.

I find it rather hilarious when some from the school of ‘reader-response’ criticism begin to complain about the reviews of their books using the phrase “but that is not what I meant…..”. In essence, they are being self-contradictory, because they are supposed to be the people who think that meaning happens in the encounter and it hasn’t been encoded by the author, and so the author has no right to complain about misunderstanding as he wasn’t making any truth claims or historical claims with words. The cry “I’ve been misunderstood” implies a very different theory of meaning than the one assumed in post-modernism, and a far better one.

Here is a basic philsophical maxim worth remembering and abiding by—- any theory of meaning that is inherently self-contradictory cannot be a true theory of meaning. Reality and the encounter with objective reality will eventually ‘out’ such a theory and show its folly and errors. For a more helpful approach see for example K.J. Vanhoozer’s helpful book Is there a Meaning in this Text?'(2009) or my The Living Word of God.

There is much more to complain about in regard to post-modern approaches to the Bible, not the least of which is the rather snarky idea that Bible readers are mostly not truth seekers, but rather power seekers, trying to establish control over some other person or persons by the use of the Bible (for example over Jews by claiming that the OT is the Old Testament and part of Christian Scripture, or over women by claiming that the Bible teaches patriarchy). There is no denying that the Bible is and has often been misused for all sorts of agendas, but the search for understanding and truth in the Bible cannot be reduced to nothing more than such misuses.There is a singular God, who has inspired the whole corpus of Holy Writ, both the Hebrew Bible written entirely by non-Christian Jews and the Christian New Testament and as such the various books should be read together, and progressively as the ongoing revelation of God to his people and to the world as well. In short, a very inadequate and non-Christian theology of Scripture and its inspiration undergirds far too many post-modern approaches to the Bible, though not all of them. Some post-modernists are simply inconsistent since they are also practicing Christians or Jews, and I’m glad they are.

Finally, there is the issue of words only having meaning in contexts, and author’s having intentions in what they write. The Bible is not a mere literary artifact, a mere modern text like say an abstract poem of a post-modern person deliberately written in a way to be suggestive and open-ended in its meaning. It is interesting that the phrase ‘intentional fallacy’ only entered modern discourse from a discussion of abstract poetry, poetry that was by design open-ended, trying to avoid conveying an author’s intentions. That intentional fallacy discussion about modern poetry should not be globalized and used as an excuse to ignore that serious authors have intentions and do encode meaning into their words, phrases, sentences, passages. And we need to listen to their texts prayerfully and carefully and do the original human authors justice (not to mention the divine Author), doing them the good service of allowing them to have a say, even today. A Biblical text without its original historical, rhetorical, social, literary, archaeological texts becomes a pretext for whatever you want it to mean, and this is not a good thing, it’s a bad thing. Nor is the meaning of a text merely ‘a matter of my opinion’ vs. yours. Why not? Because there is an actual meaning in those Biblical texts which can only be discerned with a combination of careful exegesis attending to the various original contexts and prayerful reflection with the guidance of God’s Spirit.

Think on these things.

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