Johnny's Reviews > Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal
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Jun 03, 12

bookshelves: philosophy, theology
Read in May, 2012

Call me a mystic. My epistemology includes external influence which others might diagnose as purely internal influence. There are even experiences in my life which I am unable to classify purely according to psychological causes or mystical causes. I prefer to take a stance of tentative diagnosis with enough reservation to await further evidence. To me, that is the only honest approach to the problem of truth.

My background is rural, conservative, and evangelistic. My formal training includes a strange mixture of fundamental, conservative, and secular education. As a result, I sometimes feel like saying, “A pox on both their houses!” when confronted by dogmatic people on both the rigid religious and the rigid rationalist side. It seems to me that both dogmas go too far beyond the evidence.

Merold Westphal has offered some marvelous talking points to people in my position. His Whose Community? Which Interpretation? is ostensibly a book about biblical hermeneutics (At least, that’s why I became interested. He wisely calls it “philosophical hermeneutics” which widens the horizon.), but it is as much about human understanding of epistemology as it is about anything. He writes that he considered calling this volume, Taking (Hans-Georg) Gadamer to Church, and that would have been as accurate as it would have been unmarketable. His publisher made the right call.

The issue is finding and explicating truth. He begins by citing those people who have a rather naïve perspective of the Bible and say, if I could use a line I heard many times in my youth, “It means what it says and it says what it means.” Does it? Does it mean what it says when it portrays Elijah as the forerunner of the Messiah in a literal sense or does it mean what it says when it suggests John the Baptizer was “Elijah?” Does it mean what it says when it portrays Israel as the “suffering servant” in Isaiah or does it mean what it says when the New Testament appropriates those prophecies for Jesus’ crucifixion? People like me believe that the Bible had meaning for the original hearers, readers, preservers, and for modern believers. Yet, that is the problem Westphal addresses.

I found his illustration of human perception being like a black and white television set to be helpful (p. 19). I’ve heard people (even one well-known radio apologist from Atlanta) assert that there must be ultimate Truth and go on to espouse the idea that if you know God, you know ultimate Truth. Yet, I am very cynical toward the human rational apparatus of interpreting that Truth. I believe we can only know a portion of that Truth and that what we can know within our human limitations can easily be distorted. Does this mean I have no confidence in the Bible as the Word of God? Of course not! I’m virtually “fundamentalist” in my treating of the text. So, that’s why I liked Wesphal’s television image.

See, I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s with a black and white television set. When, in the early ‘60s, networks began broadcasting in color, I knew that Batman’s costume was gray and Robin’s costume had bright colors (from the comics), but I wasn’t sure what color Gene Barry’s Rolls-Royce was in Burke’s Law or Robert Vaughn’s ties and suits were in Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Those items did have color, but I couldn’t know with my primitive reception and set. Did that mean that I assumed that Marshal Dillon’s outfit had no color or that Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie (sic) on That Girl always wore grey dresses? Did that mean that I didn’t believe the red shirts on Star Trek were cannon fodder? No. It meant that I enjoyed the shows for the stories they told and the images I could perceive. I didn’t worry about the colors I couldn’t comprehend.
How arrogant it would have been for me to insist that My Mother the Car was “green” when I couldn’t be sure! (I still didn’t know until I just “Googled” it—I just imagined it that way and it turns out it was red.) Yet, those who are afraid of postmodern relativism insist that if we let one brick of our understanding of a text be pulled out of the wall, the entire wall will crumble. So, even though something like Jastrow’s rabbit (Well, it looks like a rabbit from one angle, but looks like a duck from another!) may be perfectly clear to one audience, it isn’t necessarily clear to another (p. 24).

How then, can we ever be certain that we are interpreting correctly? The classic liberal approach offered two hermeneutical (interpretive) circles: 1) grammatico-linguistic and 2) psychological. In the first circle, one started with (a) a sentence and moved to (b) the larger text unit of paragraph, pericope, scene, or chapter to (c) the genre (or tradition) through (d) the shared vocabulary and language of the author or editor and original hearers/readers and on to (e) the full spectrum of human language. In the second circle, one started with (a) the author’s entire body of work progressed through (b) the biographical information available on the author, and onward to (c) the information we have about the author’s society and the entire world during that milieu. (This is a summary of Schleiermacher on p. 28) The strength of this approach is that it forces one to interpret the “part” of the message (or truth) in the light of the whole (p. 29). But the book goes on to underscore the dangers of following this second circle into the romanticizing approach where one empathically tries to enter the mind of an author or of an ancient people (p. 30). Our black and white television isn’t definitive enough to do so.

Here is where Westphal inserts Gadamer powerfully into the discussion with the same kind of skepticism with which I keep going back to that black and white television. “He doesn’t think that there is a method or set of rules which can extricate us from the hermeneutical circle, which means that our understanding will always be relative to the currently operative presuppositions that shape our interpretations.” (p. 34) Of course, if Westphal (building on Gadamer) is concerned about the classical liberal approach to the text or tradition being bound by recurring circles, he is doubly concerned about the naïve approach which believes (as Harold Lindsell wrote in his very destructive Battle for the Bible some decades ago) that words have definite meanings and which is afraid of the multiplicity of meanings (p. 49). He (and Gadamer) are intensely skeptical that we are capable of firmly grasping the author’s “original intention” (a term invoked in both politics and religion these days as though it was easily perceived) and interpreting from there (p. 49). Of course, in both cases, the interpreter is building a circular argument that the text means what the interpreter has already brought to it—assumptions based on cultural traditions that may not be exactly what the author had in mind.
Westphal speaks of the link between meaning and cultural conventions. “If identical meaning is to emerge and if meaning is tied to cultural conventions, it would seem that the cultural conventions at work in my understanding must be identical with those at work in yours. But this is dubious!” (p. 55) In other words, your simple meaning may not be mine. What is obvious to you may be erroneous to me.

On a different tack, I was particularly enamored with Westphal’s dichotomy between atheistic postmodernism and believing postmodernism. He says that the former says, “I am not God, therefore there is no God.” Whereas the believer says, “Someone else is God, therefore I am not God.” (p. 59)
As obvious as that may read, it is an intriguing way to point out the difference between the “closed” system of the atheist who presumes it is possible to know everything that is and isn’t and the “open” system of the believer who recognizes that it is not possible to know everything that is and isn’t, merely that one is not all that there is.

Alas, I have rambled on so much that I haven’t left room for discussion of Gadamer’s assertion that there is “…no final exhaustion of what lies in a work of art.” (p. 76) Nor have I allowed room to discuss the necessity of a “double hermeneutic” where we work assiduously to discover what an author actually said in his/her context and just as hard to hear what the author might say to us in the here and now (p. 93). This is a vital concept that means we too often autopsy ancient texts (and particularly scripture) and leave the corpse on the table without bringing the insights and lessons from our forensics to our readers or hearers.

Perhaps, like the black and white television illustration, one of Westphal’s best insights is an illustration drawn from photography. On p. 105, he notes that photography as an art is more than mechanical reproduction. Ansel Adams did not have the kind of equipment that is available in the average digital camera (maybe even the average smart phone) today. Yet, he was able to use the equipment of his era to “define” the power of nature. We have the ability not only to reproduce but to modify photographic images today, yet we have lifeless images if we do not allow our artistic side to frame those images to convey a message. That’s what I learned (among other things) from Westphal.
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message 1: by David (new)

David I've used an illustration from photography in my preaching. Do you ever notice how we go on vacation and visit some wonderful wilderness area like Yosemite or Sequoia national forest and we try to take pictures. The pictures may be beautiful, but the camera cannot take it all in. First, the lens, no matter how wide angled it is, lacks the capacity to completely bring in the complete image. In addition, it cannot take in the feel of the sunshine, the cool breeze, the smell of pine, the chirp of birds, etc. In other words, the camera has potential for partial revelation, but only partial. Our human partcipation of the beauty requires our complete participation. I use this illustration to indicate how we have not fully comprehended God's revelation of Himself because we have a limited camera for spiritual perception. Until we enter God's presence, it will always have limitations.


Johnny Here's a quarter to call our mother and tell her there is very serious doubt you would ever be allowed to teach at Southern Seminary. Those guys believe you can know it all from a mechanical reproduction perspective.


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