Monday, May 13, 2013

Lots of Thoughts and Ten Pastoral Suggestions on Postmodern Interpretation of Scripture

            Once upon a time—long before modernism or postmodernism, long before even the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, the world was a very different place than it is now. People – including theologians and preachers—just didn’t think the way they do now.

            So, for example, when they had to write a creed that all of them could agree on, the underlying philosophy of the creed was based on a long Greek tradition of substance theology—on the theory that all that is divine, and all that is material, has to be made out of something. It was this substance, according to the creeds, that can’t be confounded or confused. Today you will be hard pressed to find any scholar, Christian or not, who has any use for such “pagan” philosophical presuppositions (with apologies, of course, to the Thomists among us). And yet, for most Christians today, these documents still define how the three persons of the Trinity can be one God, and how the one person of Jesus can have two natures.

            Or again, there was Saint Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, and a great hero to both Martin Luther and John Calvin. He was a scholar in the old mold, too—a thorough-going Platonist with Manichean prejudices. Augustine was a dualist who believed in the Platonic myth of the superiority of soul to body. And Augustine was sure that Plato learned much of what he later wrote after visiting with Jeremiah, in Egypt.

            In his magisterial but idiosyncratic book on Biblical interpretation and preaching, On Christian Doctrine, Saint Augustine commends to us the seven laws for interpretation as handed down by Tychonius the Donatist. For example, Augustine explains a rule described as “Of the Lord and His Body.” According to this interpretive rule, people in the Bible sometimes should be understood to symbolize both Christ and his church. So when scripture speaks of a bride adorned with jewels, even though only a single person is mentioned, the bride must refer to the church, and the jewels that adorn the head, to Jesus. If you are not sure that this interpretive rule is really helpful, and if you therefore have some issues with Augustine’s hermeneutic, you are in good company.

            I raise these three cases: the creedal dependence on Greek notions of substance, Augustine’s Platonism, and Augustine’s affirmation of Tychonius’s allegorical hermeneutic to make a point before I wade in with some criticism of both modernist and postmodernist approaches to scriptural interpretation. The Christian church has a long history of orthodoxy that predates today’s modernist notions of what orthodoxy must be. The point to keep in mind, then, is that no human intellectual movement—premodern, modern, or postmodern—likely has a corner on the truth.

            During the premodern era, before Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotle delivered us of Augustine’s Plato, Christian life was very different. However, that first thousand years of the church’s history was also incredibly successful. The church spread from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome, and even as far as India, China, and Siberia.

            At the same time, the vast majority of Christians could not read or write. So, even as priests and academicians and politicians wrestled with what scripture taught about a host of difficult matters, most Christians had an extremely simple faith. It had to be, because Christians only knew of Jesus what they could remember. Most made do without the doctrines of atonement, sanctification, inspiration, or election. People only knew the best of the stories their priests told them, or the moral lessons traveling bands of actors taught them, or the passion plays acted out before Stations of the Cross. Ancient Christians depended on paintings, music, relics, sculptures and windows to remember the old, old story.

            Before modernism, most Christians believed because the church told them to. Doubt is an intellectual project few could imagine. One didn’t discuss doctrine, but merely gave assent to the few one learned about from the pulpit. It was the rare Christian who had ever heard of Armageddon, or a personal relationship with Jesus, or predestination.

            But again—this church—one we now have a hard time valuing, because it was so alien to our modern ways—this ancient, odd church thrived before modernity. Oh, sure, there were excesses and weaknesses. Clergy sometimes preyed on the vulnerable, church leaders often became rich, and the church and secular politicians were often in bed together (or maybe, some things never change).

            When modernism took hold of the European mind, modernism forever changed that ancient form of Christianity—sometimes for the worse, but not always. Still, before I get to modernism, I want to reiterate that the premodern church of these “ignorant” peasants, of these bumbling church leaders, this premodern church was historical proof against any claim that orthodoxy needs modernism.

            In any case, scholars offer many, sometimes conflicting, accounts for the triumph of modernism. I’ve already mentioned one, the effect of Europe’s rediscovery, largely on account of the work of Saint Aquinas, of Aristotelian rationality. On a popular level, the rise of modernism was, at the very least, bolstered and encouraged by another development—a key development for us Christians, who are people of the Word. I’m speaking of the invention of the printing press. Over the space of one or two hundred years, most Europeans became literate as books and pamphlets proliferated. They fell in love with the current ideas—Aristotelian—ideas about rhetoric, about persuasion, about power, about rationality, and about what humans are all about. Science, in particular, flourished—and human ability to do good, and evil, with technological flourish, multiplied.

            Over time, this modernistic seed inspired most of the great philosophies and movements of the past several hundred years: from Scottish Common Sense Realism to Communism and from Reformation to the “God is Dead” meme. Modernism is so big that it is difficult to define, so confident that its one word slogan might be “progress,” so triumphant that it is difficult to see any competition, and so pervasive that, like fish in water, we hardly realize anymore that it surrounds us all the time.

            Still, a hundred word summary is called for. Modernism insists that the right combination of reason, objectivity and Western colonial or military intervention will inevitably lead to human progress on all fronts. Modernist Biblical hermeneutics presumes that as long as you apply the right grammatical and historical—that is, “scientific” or “rational” instruments, ancient texts will reveal authorial intention. Modernists suppose that most scholars can be objective, and that people have always been pretty much the same. That means that even if the horizon between the ancient text and the modern interpreter is huge—say 2,500 years—human nature being constant, we can make the jump.

            Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton, writing in Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be (IVP) suggest that a nice symbol for modernity might be the Tower of Babel. The builders said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise we shall be scattered over the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). According to Walsh and Middleton, modernity believes that there is only one way—the scientific method—to guarantee progress and joy and peace for one world and one humanity recreated in the image of North America and Europe. This culture of progress is built on the foundation of rationality, rises from the earth on walls of technology, and is crowned with the jewels of a one-world market economy. Modernity is an exercise in humanist pride.

            Ironically, biblical scholars—whether of the most liberal or the most conservative type it matters not—have generally adopted these sorts of modernistic presuppositions to scriptural studies. Among liberal Christians, this has led to the treatment of scripture as a history source book rather than the revelation of God, who cannot be known by science, in any case—a problem with theology that the likes of Kant and Schleiermacher struggled whole life times to figure out. Liberal theologians focus on ethics, on the psychology of religion, and on the history of scripture and the veracity of its stories—the search for the historical Jesus, for example.

            But, according to the evangelical scholar Hendrik Hart, “To counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, [conservative] Christians responded with the (equally rational) infallibility of revealed propositions. But a focus on [rationalistic] propositions was common to both sides” (Setting Our Sights By the Morning Star, 95). Thus Haddon Robinson, for example, argues that “expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers” (Biblical Preaching, 21). The same emphasis on truth, the same emphasis on method, on rational propositions, and interestingly enough, on experience, or psychology that characterizes modernity characterizes most of contemporary, Western Christianity. Where this is a conflict between the two, conservative Christians, using modernist-looking methods, create their own private parallel worlds—everything from Creation Science instead of evolution, Theophostic Therapy instead of EMDR, Premillenial Prophecy instead of Futurists, and Christian Contemporary music instead of just plain good music. 

            But more should be said of modernity. Modernity has given us freedom of movement compliments of Honda and Boeing, but also so much pollution that our oceans are dying, people in cities like Manila are choking, and skyrocketing skin cancer. Modernity has given us modern medicine, but also WWI’s mustard gas and WWII’s first use of atomic weapons by the United States, and now military drones unleashed not against mere military targets, as Augustine’s premodern just war theory would require, but mostly civilian targets as the exigencies of pragmatism ruled. Modernism has given us great cities but also British concentration camps in the Boer War, as well as even more terrible Japanese and German concentration camps in WWII. Modernism has given us the bureaucratic efficiency that has allowed me to put together a family history based on Dutch records conveniently put on line; but also efficient holocausts of Jews, Serbs, Croats, and Cambodians. Modernity, to put it bluntly, has failed.
            Many years ago, I visited Rwanda. I saw bodies left to rot in a church, only hair and rags clinging to their skeletons. Their pastor betrayed these people when they sought refuge in the church, as one tribe of Rwandans mercilessly tried to kill all members of another. In Bissaro, Rwanda, I saw a mountain made up of the bones of 50,000 murdered Rwandans. The genocide was encouraged via speeches broadcast on the radio, it was carried out with the help of guns and knives forged in modern factories. Rwanda’s conservative Christians—more than 90% of the population—gleefully participated in the carnage, often with the encouragement of conservative, Western educated pastors who knew all about hermeneutics and objectivity and atonement theory. What is more, the tribal animosity that sparked the genocide was largely the result of Belgian racism and exploitation. 150 years ago, the Belgian colonial conquerors set one Rwandan tribe against the other by favoring the Tutsi tribe over the Hutu tribe. You see, the Belgians thought the Tutsis looked more European, and so they thought the Tutsis could more easily learn new European methods of colonial management and oversight. Another gift of modernity. Those same pastors are now, in countries like Uganda, encouraging their parishioners to believe that gay people should be imprisoned, or killed.

            After Rwanda, I will never be the same again. I agree with Hendrik Hart, who says that, “The overriding concern of our times is not so much to understand right doctrine as it is to find our way. Our concerns are more pastoral than theological” (Hart, p. 13).

            Enter the postmoderns. They are united by a deep and abiding suspicion of the secular humanist premises of modernity. How they deal with that suspicion differs, from one postmodernist to another—just as moderns differ in their affiliations to Marxist or Freudian or Democratic or Republican visions of how rationality can deliver on progress. Still, there are some presuppositional themes common to postmodernity.

            First, rather than faith in reason, postmoderns are suspicion of the ways reason and its stepchildren—science and technology—has been used to oppress, to trick, and to rationalize on behalf of the powerful. I’m reminded, once more, of Plato and Aristotle. Both recognized the power of words to persuade people. But where Aristotle the modernist hero worried little about how rhetoric might be used for good or ill, and merely explored its power, Plato—premodern Augustine’s hero—constantly fretted about how rhetoric could be used for bad ends. Postmoderns recommend intuition, faith, passion, experience, and love as better guides to action than reason.

            Note that postmoderns do not deny reason’s power to create new things, discover new cures, or for that matter, develop new weapons. It is just that Postmoderns suspect that reason is mostly used by governments and corporations and texts to enslave rather than liberate, to deceive rather than illuminate, and to invite surrender rather than empower—as Aristotle’s rhetoric would be.
            Second, rather than faith in human progress, postmoderns mourn human loss, suffering, and inequity. They are concerned for the weak, the minorities, the hurting; they groan, with all creation, over what progress has meant for the environment, for ocean life, for city life, and for warfare. They resonate with Christians and Marxists and environmentalists—just about anyone who is willing to put principal ahead of profit when it comes to social justice, people, and the earth.

            Third, rather than trust in methodologically secured objectivity, postmoderns believe that all data, all texts, and all of creation is value laden. We usually see what we want to see, what our prejudices have taught us to notice, what our pocket books think will be profitable—we see whatever will keep the status quo on our side of the table. Postmoderns deny that there are scientific methods of exegesis that can guarantee a true reading of scripture. They point to the Christian failure to agree on matters such as the role of women, baptism, the relative importance of charismatic gifts as evidence that not even the a rationalistic, rule-bound hermeneutic can guarantee people will agree on key doctrines. So postmodern Christians want a new hermeneutic, one that focuses on the poor, the widow and the least of these; one that challenges the status quo, the rich, and the powerful that the old hermeneutic usually figured out how to excuse.

            Rather than submit to the powers, to the rational bureaucracies, to parties or corporations or denominations—all rationally and scientifically conceived to keep people in line, postmoderns tend to be very suspicious of human institutions and the power the wield. They think of Vietnam War and Fundamentalist Islam and Communist China and of cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic and other churches when people try to defend institutions. Instead, postmoderns are preoccupied with self—self-discovery, self-empowerment, self-fulfillment.

            But finally—why does this all matter? How, in view of the face-off between modernism and postmodernism—against the backdrop of premodern Christianity, might this matter for preachers? I have ten pastoral suggestions.

·      First, something about the interpreter. Postmodernity has made a forceful case for pointing out that every interpretation, every observation, every reading of the text is inseparable from the interpreter’s personal prejudices, priorities, and philosophical presuppositions. Ultimately, you can’t hide behind the grammatical-historical method, or the best commentaries, or how you were raised, or what you think must be the plain sense of the text. If you try to do so, you’ll just be kidding yourself. And there is nothing so dangerous on the pulpit as a pastor just kidding himself. Postmodernity is a movement that takes seriously something that we Protestants have confessed for a long time—that as much as the image of God and his grace resides in great measure in many of us, we all struggle with sin and prejudice and stupidity too. What we need is a lot more humility about our interpretative skills.

·      Second, something about the author. According to the most postmoderns, people like Roland Barthes and Paul de Man, the author is always dead to the interpreter. Little to nothing can be known of the intentions of writers because words are slippery when it comes to passing along meaning, motives, and are always prone to misunderstanding. I think we need to be humble about what we can know of authorial intention in light of these assertions

·      Third, something about the audience. Never forget that sermons are for audiences often reeling under the blows of modernity—people who have been downsized out of work, people who have asthma or bronchitis on account of the pollution, and people who have experienced—or engage in—violence of every kind, people who feel like a number, or a bar code, or dehumanized by the system. Remember that for modern audiences, the message of gospel is basically simple. Jesus loves them, embraces them, and wants to use them in his world to make it a better, more loving, more heavenly place.

·      Fourth, modernist science insists that the data can mean only one thing. The church doesn’t insist, however, that a text can mean only one thing. Long ago Augustine pointed out that any interpretation of scripture that accords with scripture’s central message is appropriate. “Whoever finds a lesson [in scripture] useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way” (I:36). Postmodernity never totally rejects traditional hermeneutics. It does, however, insist that restricting ourselves to a single, literal interpretation based on what the author meant limits our understanding of the endless depth of scripture. Of such literalism, Saint Augustine wrote, “There is a miserable servitude of the spirit in [the] habit of taking signs for things, so that one is not able to raise the eye of the mind above things that are corporal and created to drink in eternal light” (III:9). Let’s not get hung up with finding the one true interpretation for any one text; let’s enjoy the multiplicity of meanings in scripture that are consistent with the heart of God revealed throughout scripture—lets learn from the premodern saints in our tradition and let’s use some postmodern interpretive techniques like intertextuality and strong readings as heuristic means for multiplying interpretations, and thus our depth of understanding, into scripture.

·      Fifth. Let’s learn from postmodern advocacy for God’s favorites, the poor. I suspect that pastors who work in inner cities or with marginalized communities will resonate more with postmodern concern for the poor than with the modernist concern for maintaining the prerogatives of our great institutions and programs—like free trade and free markets—that most obviously benefit the middle class and rich in the most powerful nations on earth.

·      Sixth. Let’s focus on orthopraxis—especially when it comes to love—rather than orthodoxy. The orthodoxy I've been talking about to this point is a mirage, homage paid to a "true," meaning that always recedes the sharper we hone our rationalistic, interpretive tools. Church institutions, in particular, need to engage in social justice, in advocacy, and in love of neighbour - orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy. My favorite book on this topic is actually a study of Christian orthopraxis in the premodern era—Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus and Community.

·      Seventh. The best way to preserve the gifts of modernity is to make sure that literacy belongs not only to those with power but to the people. Beware of how television and the Internet and poverty and poor schools rob people of the analytical tools then need to take on the principalities and powers. Remember that ultimately, in both literate and in illiterate societies, it is the highly literate who are inordinately represented among the rulers and among the prophetic fringe. As people of the Word, having once received the gift of literacy, we should not turn our back on it now, like most are in the habit of doing.

·      Eighth. Postmodern readings of scripture will always need to consider the church’s traditional interpretations and exhibit a deep respect for authorial intention. But postmodern readings are also a way of looking at texts in new ways, revealing new things, encouraging new prophecies, dreams, and visions. Scripture is full of play, reversal, laughter, irony, as well as darkness, fear, oppression and reversal. From Abraham and Sarah—two old crones who should have been looking for grave plots to buy but had to settle on a baby crib instead; to Moses who was chosen to speak a liberating word on behalf of the Israelites to Pharaoh—even though he had a speech impediment; to the righteousness of Tamar, who played the harlot . . . scripture should not be boxed in by our insistence that it play by our rationalist rules.

·      Ninth. So try on some postmodern readings and question modernism’s notion that it is the only kid on the block.

·      Tenth. And play. The right attitude to interpretation is that interpretation is a playground, not an exam. Have fun, and if you trip and fall, count on someone bigger and wiser to pick you up, dust you off, give you a hug, and send you back for more fun. 


  1. "The point to keep in mind, then, is that no human intellectual movement—premodern, modern, or postmodern—likely has a corner on the truth." Wow, now that's a postmodern statement! I love it! There's nothing that beats postmodernism!!! I guess I believe that it's not for no reason that postmodernism is winning out over other previous paradigms.

  2. As Walter Brueggemann says somewhere: “Interpretive humility invites us to recognize that reading in a particular time, place and circumstance can never be absolute, but is more than likely to be displaced by yet another reading in another time and place, a reading that may depart from or even judge the older reading…The Spirit meets us always afresh in our faithful reading, in each new time, place and circumstance.” Or,

    1. Or,...? Now that's postmodern!!!! Did you do that on purpose?

  3. Well, it was an error. But you know what postmodern readers say--meaning is found in the traces. So, what does my "or," mean to you?

  4. "Or..." To me, it means that there are other options. That there may be a different explanation. That maybe we don't really know. That I don't have to figure it all out right now. And that is comforting, since the answers that we have been operating with have not really resolved everything. So the little word "or" is the essence of where I'm at right now. And I like it!

  5. Thanks John for laying out a lot of material in a helpful way. I also find a lot of wisdom in you ten points. Pvk


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