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 

Is Evangelical Morality Really Solipsistic? A Friendly Defense of Psalm 51

King David, apparently being a solipsist.

King David, apparently being a solipsist.

I love my buddy Morgan. He’s progressive, a Methodist, given to flights of rhetorical overkill, and has a passion for people coming to know Jesus that I deeply admire. But, as you already can guess, we disagree a lot. Take for instance, his recent post on the “solipsism” of a lot of Evangelical Morality (side-note, anytime ‘Evangelical’ appears on his blog, something very, very bad is going to be corrected):

“Against you alone have I sinned.” These words from Psalm 51:4 are attributed to the Israelite king David speaking to God after he knocked up another man’s wife and had that man betrayed and murdered on the battlefield. Many evangelical pastors have praised this verse for how it names sin, but I consider it to be one of the most morally problematic verses in the Bible. It does do a very good job of encapsulating the solipsistic morality that I grew up with as an evangelical, in which sin had nothing to do with hurting other people and everything to do with whether or not I was displeasing God…

Jesus actually has a response to King David’s solipsistic sin confession. King David says to God, “Against you alone have I sinned,” as though he hadn’t done anything wrong to Bathsheba, the woman he raped and impregnated, or Urriah, her husband whom he had killed, or all the other soldiers whose lives were compromised because of the disastrous battle tactic by which Urriah needed to be killed. Centuries later, in Matthew 25, Jesus says back to David and every evangelical who thinks sin is strictly between me and God: “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.”

In other words, yes, you sinned against me as God because I stand with those you sinned against, not because of some stupid abstract “honor God” thing that you use to make other people’s humanity irrelevant to your morality. Matthew 25 is an utter repudiation of a solipsistic “theocentric” morality. God hates sin not because God’s holiness demands purity and rule-following for the sake of his “honor,” but because God’s holiness is his radical hospitality toward and solidarity with the least among us who are the greatest victims of our society’s sin. God demands our honor for the sake of the people who get hurt as the byproduct of our dishonor…

It’s not that God can’t handle our imperfection. He’s not allergic to our sin. He just wants to build a human community where the most vulnerable members will be perfectly safe. This can only happen among people who have put ourselves completely under the mercy of God by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, which makes us humble, teachable, and malleable in God’s hands. Yes, we need to honor God, but our honor for God is never abstracted from its impact on how we treat other people.

Alright, so there’s the gist of it. You can go read the rest here.

Now, I’ll say what I always say with Morgan: the problem’s usually not in what he affirms but what he denies. This situation is no different. I guess some people fall into the solipsism thing. If Morgan fell into it an Evangelical church, I suppose it happens. I don’t see it as a major trend, with many of the conversations about sin that I have with students having to do with the impact of their actions on others (and I’m still in an evangelical church). Still, if it is happening, it needs to stop. Morgan is absolutely right to say that our love and obedience to God simply cannot be separated from our love of our neighbors. Any morality that has us screening out the horizontal dimension entirely simply isn’t biblical.

As Jesus put it (Matt 22:36-40), the two great commands are to:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. AND…
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus lists them both together with the implication that neither can be separated from the other. That said–and this is key–neither can they be reduced to the other. God doesn’t just hate sin because it hurts people, though that is one reason. God also hates sin because he himself is one of the offended parties, if not the chief offended party in any sin. This is the case because as Creator, Lord, Judge, and Lover of creation there is no moral situation in which he isn’t a directly interested party.

This is what David’s confession acknowledges in a hyperbolic and poetic fashion on Psalm 51:4. (Incidentally, that’s another relevant point to remember, the Psalms are songs.) The force of the lyric comes from the fact that everybody knows this is a horizontally grievous sin, which is why it’s unnecessary to pit David against Jesus here. What David’s confession acknowledges is that underneath that, the deep reality is that all sin has a directly Godward orientation even when it has a horizontal one. This is in keeping with a broader biblical understanding that every sin against another is a sin against God (2 Sam 12:9, 10, 13; Gen 39:9; Prov 14:31; 17:5). As Bavinck notes, though not all sins are equal, every sin violates God’s laws and constitutes a rejection of God’s law–which is an expression of his good, loving will–in toto. What’s more, as such, every sin is a personal rejection of God. Every sin, then, is a declaration that at some level we have judged God is not good enough, righteous, beautiful, and everything else that he is. This is no “abstract” standard of honor we are offending against, but the personal justice and goodness of the Triune God.

Part of the problem with definition is that sin seems to be equated to its results construed primarily or solely in terms of harm. Sin is wrong because it harms someone. But because God isn’t “harmed” by our sin, that means he isn’t the offended party, or he can only be so in relation to us. But that’s manifestly false.

Consider a silly example: Say I have superpowers. Say I’m secretly Superman and I’m invulnerable to physical harm. Now say nobody knows that I’m Superman and a neighbor who hates me for no good reason takes out his gun and shoots me. Now, am I harmed? No. Am I still an offended party? Is there still not a situation that needs to be redressed? Has this person who shot me still committed a very grievous act against me even if the only harm he’s caused is put a hole a t-shirt? Yes. Relationally, even though I’m impervious to his assaults, he still stands in the wrong in a very serious way.

In the same way, simply because God is not “harmed”, or can “handle’ our various sins and so forth, that doesn’t mean that every act of hostility committed against his law isn’t a serious violation towards him that he has every right (indeed, as Rector of the universe, a possible duty) to deal with. Yes, God’s life is one of overflowing perfection that cannot be unseated or overwhelmed, and yet that doesn’t mean he can’t have claims related to his own person with respect to sin that extend beyond us. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Triune God has a proper, divine self-regard that we need to acknowledge if we are to have a fully biblical understanding of sin. The danger of forgetting this is actually its own form solipsism. It’s good for us to be reminded in our spiritual walk that not everything is secretly about us.

Again, I’m all for Christians not being solipsists, but false dichotomies are tired, unhelpful for our walk with God, and need to be dispensed with quickly.

Soli Deo Gloria