Liberalism, “Hermeneutics”, and Interpretive Solipsism

hermeneuticsRecently, Richard Beck wrote a post about the practice of Sola Scriptura, reading with a hermeneutic, and our emotional awareness of the process. He notes that everybody reads with a hermeneutic, a set of intepretive principles, biases, and presuppositions that guide our understanding of Scripture. For Beck, though, the mark of a fundamentalist is that they alone believe they don’t have a hermeneutic, even when they do. This is why it’s a fundamentalist move to say something like, “Well, the Bible clearly says”, or “I’m just reading the text, here”–as if things were really that simple. Beck says that this signals a striking lack of self-awareness.

For example, saying something like “this is the clear teaching of Scripture” is similar to saying “I’m not a racist.” Self-aware people would never say either one of those things.

Self-aware people would say things like “I don’t want to be a racist” or “I try not to be racist” or “I condemn racism.” But they would never say “I’m not a racist” because self-aware people know that they have blind spots. Self-aware people know they have unconscious baggage that is hard to notice or overcome.

And it’s the same with how self-aware people approach reading the bible. Self-aware people know that they are trying to read the bible in an unbiased fashion. Self-aware people work hard to let the bible speak clearly and it its own voice. But self-aware people know they have blind spots. They know that there is unconscious baggage affecting how they are reading the bible, baggage that they know must be biasing their readings and conclusions. Consequently, self-aware people would never, ever say “this is the clear teaching of Scripture.” Just like they’d never claim to be unbiased in any other area of life, racism being just one example.

I have to say, he’s got a point. I’ve seen this happen. Many fundamentalists operate as if they don’t have a hermeneutic and it’s naive and unhelpful, precisely because we want to be subservient to the Word of God, not our own blinders.What’s more, as a couple of my progressive friends noted, this sort of fundamentalism isn’t restricted to conservatives. There can be progressive “fundamentalisms” with a similar lack of self-awareness in reading the Scriptures.

That said, I did want to register a few comments, that, while not entirely contradictory, may offer some nuance.

First, the statement “the Bible clearly says…” may have more than one reference point. In other words, I think Beck has put it a bit strongly when he contends than no self-aware reader of Scripture would ever say, “The clear teaching of Scripture is…” or some statement along those lines. I suppose my question is, after study, after prayer, after wrestling, what should they say?

“The Scriptures unclearly say…” Well, obviously nobody wants to be stuck with that.

“My hermeneutic leads me to believe that…” That might seem initially more honest, but the problem is that we’re now in the position where it seems the hermeneutic, not the Scriptures are doing all the work. More on that later.

Instead, it seems entirely possible that someone who is quite aware of their perspective, hermeneutic, and so forth, might read, study, struggle, and arrive at the conclusion that, “The Scriptures clearly say…” To deny that possibility is to bind God’s capabilities as a speaker to our capabilities as interpreters and hearers. It’s to restrict our doctrine of revelation within the confines of our anthropology, rather than our theology.

In other words, for some, the statement “The Scriptures clearly say…” is uttered, not so much in relation to our abilities as a reader, or our lack of hermeneutic, but a statement about God’s ability as a speaker. In acknowledging finitude, sin, and the need for interpretive humility, we need to take care not to chain the Word of the Lord our God with human fetters.

Second, as a friend noted online, there’s a bit of fuzziness as to what we mean by “a hermeneutic.” For some, having a hermeneutic means something along the lines of “proper principles of interpretation” like considering grammar, historical context, literary principles, and so forth. For others, it’s a bit thicker, including theological presuppositions about the nature of the text and what it says. And, for some, it’s about the unavoidable ideological tilt and finitude we bring to our reading of the text. In other words, there are “hermeneutics” as clarifying lens helping us engage the text, and for others, it speaks more of the unavoidable distance and subjectivity of our encounter with it. It’s not entirely clear which Beck means in this post.

Which leads me to my third comment. Earlier this week, I joked online that, if Beck is right and a fundamentalist is someone who believes they don’t have a hermeneutic, then a Liberal is someone who only has a hermeneutic. In other words, there’s a danger to interpretation in both directions.

Opposite Beck’s fundamentalist, it’s possible to end up with the sort of self-absorbed, interpretive, solipsist who thinks it’s interpretation and “hermeneutics” all the way down, with no actual encounter with the sort of Text, or Voice, or Word, that can break through the fog. We run the risk of thinking all we can ever speak of is our differing hermeneutics and not the Text we’re both trying to read. We’re “self-aware” to the point that all we’re aware of is our Self, or Social Location, or Gender, or Community. At that point, our interpretive discussions just become a form of philosophy with Scriptural vocabulary.

I’ll close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Vanhoozer, which, while not exactly speaking to hermeneutics but God-talk more generally, charts a helpful middle-course:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria 

15 thoughts on “Liberalism, “Hermeneutics”, and Interpretive Solipsism

  1. Oh, I do like your piece!
    As an ordinary common-or-garden Christian, I can’t resist saying this…or maybe I could resist it, but I decided not to 😉 :
    My hermeneutics tell me that, in Matthew 5:9, when Jesus addressed God as ‘Father’ ( Pater) , he meant to address Him as ‘Father’, and not ‘mother’ – how dare I say such a thing!
    Christine

  2. What sets Christianity apart from other religions is that we can “know” God. If we are too self-aware to make a decision of who God is then we have created a false religion that can’t “know” God. A nuanced version of what Beck says can be true, but he paints it more black and white. The promise of the Holy Spirit is that we can know Him. The regeneration, sanctification, and all the other words that describe the Holy Spirit is the process of getting there. The scripture then does “clearly say”, it is the Word, it is the point of contact that allows us to “know” God. Well said~
    ” In other words, for some, the statement ‘The Scriptures clearly say…’ is uttered, not so much in relation to our abilities as a reader, or our lack of hermeneutic, but a statement about God’s ability as a speaker. In acknowledging finitude, sin, and the need for interpretive humility, we need to take care not to chain the Word of the Lord our God with human fetters.”

  3. Derek,

    You stated,

    “Opposite Beck’s fundamentalist, it’s possible to end up with the sort of self-absorbed, interpretive, solipsist who thinks it’s interpretation and “hermeneutics” all the way down, with no actual encounter with the sort of Text, or Voice, or Word, that can break through the fog. We run the risk of thinking all we can ever speak of is our differing hermeneutics and not the Text we’re both trying to read. We’re “self-aware” to the point that all we’re aware of is our Self, or our Social Location, or our Gender, or our Community. At that point, our interpretive discussions just become a form of philosophy with Scriptural vocabulary.”

    No comment to make…. just thought that was helpful and also worth repeating. Very well stated.

  4. Hey Derek!

    I really enjoyed your post! I think you’ve done a great job at walking the fine line between confidence in God in humility in ourselves. I’m curious, though: have you ever read Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge”? His epistemology makes a similar argument about avoiding solipsism.

    Blessings!

  5. Pingback: In Response to Richard Beck and Derek Rishmawy: Fundamentalists, Hermeneutics, and Sola or uh Solo Scriptura | The Evangelical Calvinist
  6. I’ve found that viewing reading the Bible as a conversation to be helpful for myself when trying to tackle the issue of hermeneutics. For example, in a conversation, the other person would not appreciate if you put words in his/her mouth or foisted your expectations upon him/her. In a conversation, to be a good friend, we must labor hard to understand them on his/her own terms. Why not with Scripture? Or any other piece of writing for that matter?

  7. “Instead, it seems entirely possible that someone who is quite aware of their perspective, hermeneutic, and so forth, might read, study, struggle, and arrive at the conclusion that, “The Scriptures clearly say…” To deny that possibility is to bind God’s capabilities as a speaker to our capabilities as interpreters and hearers.”

    Well, okay, but here’s the thing: God’s capabilities as a speaker (particularly as a non-coercive one) *are* bound to our capabilities as interpreters and hearers. To deny that is to deny what it is to be human.

    • God accommodates himself to us, but he isn’t bound by us. That’s a key distinction to be made. Beyond that, the Scriptures amply testify that God gives sight to the blind and opens up the ears of the deaf to see and hear the Lord. Over and over again, we see acts of both inspiration and illumination where God (non-coercively) overcomes the sinful human obstacles preventing the knowledge of God.

      I know we have to wrestle seriously with the human element in all of this, but we cannot begin or even end there. It is one ingredient, but not the defining one.

      • Derek, thanks for taking the time to reply.

        “I know we have to wrestle seriously with the human element in all of this, but we cannot begin or even end there. It is one ingredient, but not the defining one.”

        Objectively (ha!), I can agree with that. I suppose where I’m coming from is that, all too often, people *don’t* wrestle seriously with the human element in all of this. I find there is generally a naiveté in Christians’ awareness (or lack thereof) of the “human factor”. Which is why I so appreciate those like Beck who go out of their way to incorporate it, along with scripture, into their worldview.

  8. Thanks for this post- I found it very helpful! I’m reminded of Vanhoozer’s thought in “Faith Speaking Understanding” that God is not play-acting but that revelation is essentially representational. Of course, when saying this he is referring to the reality that the economic Trinity is in fact the immanent Trinity, but I’m wondering if the same line of reasoning can be followed here. Is there a qualitative difference between God’s revealing of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and His revelation through scripture? I guess for one thing, Jesus himself is God while scripture is not. But still, we seem to have no hesitation in interpreting the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s clear revelation while we struggle to confess that we can know God through scripture. What is the difference here? Any thoughts?

  9. Matthew:

    That’s a great question.

    An important necessity to grasp there is the key concept of Transposition.

    Derek beautifully points out that, in fact, it is true – there is that which exists which is the Text, or Voice, or Word that can and does break through the fog. The qualitative difference you ask about may, perhaps (perhaps not), sum to no true difference at all *if* it is the case that whatever it is that we are actually “seeing” (assuming God, and not the fog, is the end of sight) is *not* that which we are seeing through. Perhaps in all our seeing we are in some sense seeing through frail and mutable contingencies and (finally) seeing to the reality itself – there in this or that contour of the Divine. A brief excerpt from the linked essay on transposition:

    “…….This error of conflating the two sides of a transposition is rife within reductionist philosophical theorizing. Think, for example, of Hume’s claim that concepts are “nothing but” impressions or mental images, or Berkeley’s claim that physical objects are “nothing but” collections of the perceptions we have of them, or subjectivist theories of value that claim that judgments about what is good or bad are “nothing but” expressions of various sentiments……….. As [C.S.] Lewis notes, however, it isn’t just materialists and other reductionists who are guilty of confusion where transpositions are concerned. Religious believers are prone to it as well to the extent that they collapse the supernatural into the natural…….”

  10. Derek,

    Came across this from C.S. Lewis ~~~ what is *it* that we in fact *do* as we *read*, so to speak:

    Quote:

    “The true aim of literary studies is to lift the student out of his provincialism by making him “the spectator,” if not of all, yet of much, “time and existence.” The student, or even the schoolboy, who has been brought by good (and therefore mutually disagreeing) teachers to meet the past where alone the past still lives, is taken out of the narrowness of his own age and class into a more public world. He is learning the true Phaenomenologie des Geistes; discovering what varieties there are in Man. “History” alone will not do, for it studies the past mainly in secondary authorities. It is possible to “do History” for years without knowing at the end what it felt like to be an Anglo-Saxon eorl, a cavalier, an eighteenth-century country gentleman. The gold behind the paper currency is to be found, almost exclusively, in literature. In it lies deliverance from the tyranny of generalizations and catchwords. Its students know (for example) what diverse realities – Launcelot, Baron, Bradwardine, Mulvaney – hide behind the word militarism.

    “Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

    “Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affection-al or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loses his life shall save it.’”

    End quote.

    (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism)

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