White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

"But That's Your Interpretation"

Published Monday, July 16, 2007 By Kevin J. Vanhoozer

There is a subterranean issue that bedevils contemporary debates over the interpretation of Scripture. This fault-line is not geological but philosophical, and ultimately theological. On one side of the chasm are those who believe that texts have a specific message, a determinate meaning-in principle knowable-which the author verbally conveys to the reader. On the other side are those who deny this belief, maintaining that what the reader finds in the text is largely a function of one’s interests, background, creativity, and skill. For the first group, interpretation is embarking on a voyage of discovery with a clear destination: the author’s intended message. For the second group, interpretation is only a virtual voyage where one explores self-created worlds. Whereas the former hope to set foot on dry land, the latter are content to drift. But sailing without a compass is a risky endeavor, for some “have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).

Realism in the Reformation Tradition

The technical name for the subject is “realism,” but it is hardly a technical matter. Realism is the view that what there is (in the world; in the text) is independent of human language, thought, and action. All realists agree that “x is mind-independent,” though “x” could stand for the external world, moral values, numbers, concepts, other minds, or God. For the sake of clarity, then, it is helpful to distinguish between various kinds of realism (e.g., metaphysical, moral, theological). What happens if “x” stands for “meaning”? We then speak of hermeneutical realism, a meaning that is independent of the interpreter’s interpretation.

There is a strong bond between Reformed theology and realism. The Creator-creature distinction, for instance, affirms the fundamental independence of God from his world, as well as from human thought and experience. God is God no matter what humans say or think about him. Revelation discloses the nature and will of God; the task of theology is to say of what is (e.g., God) that it is. The whole point of speaking of the knowledge of God is that we can know, thanks to revelation, the way God really is. Theological realists intend their formulations to correspond to fact, rather than be idolatrous projections of what one may prefer God to be like. Something similar is true of the Reformed view of biblical authority: our theologies are to receive and conform to the Word of God, not revise or create it. The authority of the Scriptures follows from God’s authorship.

The Postmodern Protest

In our postmodern times, however, realism in all its forms has taken a beating. Words, we are repeatedly told, do not reflect reality but structure it. Language is not a tool that hooks onto the world, but a screen that blocks our access. Indeed, language is thought so to problematize the mind-world relationship that the second term (the real world) virtually drops out. Language so shapes the way we see, interpret, and experience life, that the “world” corresponds to human words rather than vice versa. To the postmodern anti-realist, this insight is liberating: if there is no “one way” that the world is, then we are free to create our own worlds. Similarly, if there is no “one way” that the text is or means, interpreters are free to create their own interpretations. In each case-God, world, text-the “death of the Author” leads to the demise of authority as well. Henceforth, no one-not even the author-can say that things are one way rather than another. We are sailing on the open sea under a starless sky.

Why would any intelligent person not be a realist? The postmodern response to this query is worth pondering. Absolute truth corrupts absolutely. The belief that one possesses the single correct interpretation-of the text, of the world, of God-is a powerful motive for suppressing the views of others. Nietzsche expresses the postmodern suspicion: “Ultimately, man finds in things nothing but what he himself has imported into them.” There you have it: rhetoric is the secret of reason, anthropology the secret of theology, and eisegesis (personal imposition upon the text) the secret of exegesis. Postmoderns thus expose the truth claim “The meaning of x is y,” for the personal preference they believe it really is: “I like seeing x as y.” Make no mistake: reading the Bible is an exercise of power, as the authors of The Postmodern Bible assert, “Biblical scholars have been slow to awaken from the dream in which positivist science occupies a space apart from interests and values, to awaken to the realization that our representations of and discourse about what the text meant and how it means are inseparable from what we want it to mean and how we will it to mean.” (1)

Why Realism Matters

The postmodern critique of absolutism is essentially correct. Human knowers do not enjoy a God’s eye point of view, even (especially!) when this concerns biblical interpretation. However, we shouldn’t have needed Nietzsche and the postmoderns to remind us; the doctrine of sin should have done that. Moreover, the biblical condemnation of idolatry stands as a permanent warning not to think too highly of our own thoughts. But if we agree that the will to power-violence-is the crucial problem in interpretation (as I am inclined to agree), does it follow that anti-realism is the most appropriate remedy?

Biblical authority still demands a hermeneutical realism for three reasons-theoretical, practical, and spiritual. First, realism reminds us that there may be more to “x” than we know at present. Stated more vigorously, the realist holds that we may be mistaken about “x.” For realists, a proposition is true or false regardless of whether we can know it as such. In short: there can only be a false interpretation if one assumes something is really there to get right.

Second, realism matters because we believe that we may encounter something beyond ourselves through interpreting the Bible (or any other text). If we cannot, if we are condemned to self-discovery only, then it is difficult in the extreme to see how we could be transformed by Scripture.

Finally, realism is the best response to the postmodern protest against absolutism. As we have seen, postmoderns object that knowledge claims really amount only to the rhetoric of power (or the power of rhetoric). Might it be, however, that much of the appeal of postmodernism itself derives from an anti-authoritarian ideology? The philosopher John Searle, himself no friend to Christian theology, suggests that the ultimate appeal of anti-realism lies in its ability to satisfy the human desire for control and autonomy: “the motivation for denying realism is a kind of will to power.” (2) Whereas Searle imagines the anti-realists as rebelling against the constraints of the real world, the Christian theologian knows that the basic rebellion is directed against God and God’s created order. Anti-realism is a symptom of a theology (or an “a-theology”) that denies any order to the world that is not of one’s own making. Theologically speaking, anti-realism is the attempt to play god.

It is impossible, in hermeneutics (as in anything else) to turn back the clock. Our time bears the post-age stamp. On the one hand, biblical authority seems to demand an affirmation of a fixed meaning in the text. On the other hand, the postmoderns point out the all-too-human biases and blind spots of the biblical interpreter. How then can we reassert biblical authority “after realism”?

What follows are four approaches to biblical interpretation. The first two-objectivist and deconstructionist, respectively-do not even pretend to offer theologies of interpretation. Indeed, the latter is explicitly “a-theological” in its skeptical thrust. Neither gets us beyond “secular reason”: the epistemology of modernity. Accordingly, the real interest lies in the third and fourth positions. Each of these claims to represent a theological hermeneutic, and each has recently been presented in a book-length study: Stephen Fowl’s Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation and my Is There a Meaning in this Text? the Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Each book represents a possible way forward for churches in the traditions of the Reformation.

Naive Hermeneutical Realism: Determinate Interpretation

Naive realism is the view that our ordinary perception of the external world is pure and direct, uncontaminated by subjectivity or language. As far as the naive realist is concerned, the world just is the way it is experienced: colors and sounds are not in the head of the observer but are rather properties of the objects themselves. This position is realist because it holds that the world is independent of the mind for its reality. However, it is naive because it assumes that the way the world appears in the mind corresponds exactly to the world as it is. It is objectivist because it assumes an objective observer who is able to “read” the world without allowing subjectivity (or language) to get in the way.

Against naive realism, modern philosophers of science point out that all data are “theory-laden” and postmodern thinkers contend that observers always come to the data with a linguistically structured system of ideas-an ideological framework-already in place. Kant says we approach the world with a conceptual framework, Derrida says we come with an arbitrarily constructed vocabulary, but the point is the same: we have no unmediated access to the way things-the world or texts-actually are.

The naive hermeneutical realist approaches texts with the same optimistic faith in his or her powers of observation. The good commentator gives objective descriptions of textual phenomena. The non-realist protest should by now be familiar: interpreters actually impose categories on the text that are not intrinsic to the text itself. Again, this is a salutary caution. Hermeneutical naiveté is a dangerous thing if and when interpreters confuse textual meaning with “what I think it means.” In sum, naive hermeneutical realism refuses to recognize the problem of interpretation in its haste to equate the appearance with the reality of meaning.

The naive hermeneutical realist typically believes in determinate meaning. On this view, the goal of biblical interpretation is to gain clear, even certain, knowledge of the specific propositions conveyed by the text. As Stephen Fowl characterizes the position: “The operating assumption here is that matters of doctrine and practice are straightforwardly determined by biblical interpretation and never the other way around.” (3) According to Fowl, the fundamental weakness of this approach is that it presupposes some definition of meaning (e.g., author’s intention) which is the very point at issue. The real problem, says Fowl, is that interpreters disagree as to what they should be doing, so that appealing to “determinate meaning” amounts to the less obvious claim “my way of reading is the only way of reading.”

Hermeneutic Non-Realism: Anti-Determinate Interpretation

The second approach we will consider is the deconstructionist. Non-realists, as we have seen, refuse to believe in mind-independent realities. Now it is quite possible to be a realist with regard to the physical world but a non-realist with regard to morality or to God. What all forms of non-realism have in common, however, is the assumption that the mind and/or language get in the way of our apprehension of the world. The categories and the vocabulary one uses for thinking about “x” do not reflect the nature of “x” but rather shape, indeed create, “x.”

Transferred to the realm of meaning, the hermeneutical non-realist rejects the notion that there is something determinate “in” the text, waiting to be discovered by an inquiring mind. The practical implication of this theoretical position is that no one’s interpretation has more legitimacy than another’s. What is the point of hermeneutical non-realism? It is, I believe, an extreme “Protestant” point, namely, a protest against any claim to have attained the single correct meaning of the text. Hermeneutical non-realism, like antitrust laws, seeks to break up monopolies: monopolies of meaning. Read charitably, these postmoderns undo determinate interpretations for the sake of preserving the otherness, indeed the freedom, of the text.

Yet hermeneutic non-realism ultimately disappoints. For a consistent emphasis on anti-determinate interpretation ultimately prohibits any encounter with a meaningful word that is not of our own making. If we do not encounter anything other than ourselves in a text, we will go away as empty as we came. On this unfortunate result, Fowl and I agree: hermeneutic non-realism “will paralyze actual attempts to order one’s life in accordance with one’s interpretation.” (4)

Internal Hermeneutic Realism: Underdetermined Interpretation

Third, consider Stephen Fowl’s proposal for theological hermeneutics. Fowl believes that interpretive debates are better served by eliminating claims about textual meaning in favor of offering more precise accounts of interpretive aims and practices. Biblical interpretation is under-determined: there is no one thing that meaning is, thus there is no one task that interpreters have to do. What governs biblical interpretation is not a definition of meaning but rather the interests of the interpreting community. Fowl himself advocates the properly theological aim of engaging Scripture toward an “ever deeper communion with the triune God and with each other.” (5)

To his credit, Fowl acknowledges a possible objection to his proposal. If meaning is not a property of the text but rather the result of a community’s engagement with a text, what prevents the Bible from being used to underwrite oppressive or harmful practices? How, in other words, might Fowl respond to the postmodern protest that all interpretation is simply an exercise in the will to power, in this case corporate power? More pointedly: if meaning is always underdetermined, could Fowl ever say that any particular interpretation is wrong?

We should not underestimate the gravity of this objection. For if there is no determinate textual meaning, and if theological interpretation is only a matter of one’s general goal (rather than a particular method), then there is no way to distinguish “what it (really) means” from “what it means to me.” Fowl’s response to this objection is intriguing. He rightly reminds us that, from a Christian perspective, interpreters are sinners. What we need, therefore, are vigilant and virtuous interpreters who are intent on fostering the kingdom of God rather than their own fiefdoms. “If Christians are to read and embody scripture in ways that result in lives lived faithfully before God, they will need to recognize themselves as sinners.” (6) These virtuous interpreters must be prepared to repent of their sometimes forced (and sometimes lazy) readings, acknowledging that all interpretations are provisional and subject to correction.

This is Fowl’s basic position. Does it count as hermeneutical realism? As theological interpretation? The answer, I fear, is “no” on both counts. At first blush, Fowl seems merely to have recovered and updated Augustine: read for the meaning that most fosters love of God and neighbor. Concerns for charity and fellowship outweigh disputes over which exegetical tools or hermeneutical approach to follow. Upon closer inspection, however, it appears that Fowl’s method tacitly relies on two other, less Christian, theoretical supports.

Fowl draws firstly on Jeffrey Stout’s celebrated neo-pragmatist essay, “What Is the Meaning of a Text?”, which advocates eliminating the term “meaning” in favor of describing interpretive aims and interests. (7) Attempts to define meaning do not capture some objective essence but should be regarded as ways of doing things with texts. This is similar to Princeton professor Richard Rorty’s suggestion that we abandon attempts to “get it right” and instead concentrate on “making it useful.” Meaning and truth for Rorty are merely descriptions of specific social practices, ways in which communities seek to cope with life. What one understands by “truth” is a matter of the linguistic habits of this or that community. Truth is like a designer label that communities attach to beliefs or practices which serve a useful purpose. It is not a matter of what is, but of what works in a particular context. If that context happens to be the Christian community, then truth is what facilitates fellowship with God and neighbor. While Fowl wants to use the Bible in the admirable project of spiritual formation, the hermeneutical realist nevertheless responds that to use a text is not yet to interpret it.

A second possible theoretical support comes from the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam’s notion of “internal realism.” On the one hand, Putnam rejects a naive objectivism where the mind simply apprehends the world (or meaning). On the other hand, he rejects the relativist claim that we simply create the world (or meaning). Putnam proposes a middle way: we can still talk about the world (or meaning), but only from within a conceptual scheme or interpretive community. Whereas the external realist distinguishes the way the world (or meaning) is from the ways we know it, Putnam collapses the distinction: “the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world.” (8)

It is difficult to know where Fowl himself stands on the issue of realism vs. anti-realism. Yet what he says about the relation between interpreter and text bears more than a passing resemblance to what Putnam says about mind and world: “I wish to argue that theological convictions, ecclesial practices, and communal and social concerns should shape and be shaped by biblical interpretation.” (9) Fowl is perhaps best construed as an internal hermeneutical realist: text and interpretation jointly make up text and interpretation. For Fowl, the meaning of the text is partly dependent on the practices and interpretive interests of the ecclesial community. His claim that the text is underdetermined is equivalent to asserting the hermeneutical insufficiency of Scripture.

Against Fowl, theologians in the tradition of the Reformation point out that the very practice of biblical interpretation doesn’t make sense except on the assumption that we are encountering something independent of ourselves and our own interests, namely, an authoritative and transformative text: a Word of God. Though Fowl is right to seek a distinctly Christian hermeneutic, his house of interpretation includes a good bit of the mud and straw of Egypt. Fowl’s thesis, though well intentioned, has been shaped by what are largely secular, non-theological assumptions about knowledge, truth, and meaning.

The Reformation Critically-Realist Resistance: Overdetermined Interpretation

Finally, I would like to offer an alternate way forward. The Reformation bequeathed a number of important principles relevant to contemporary biblical interpretation: sola Scriptura, the priesthood of all believers, Word and Spirit. Together, these principles provide the means for resisting the contemporary trend toward hermeneutic non-realism, namely, the tendency to substitute the encounter of text and reader for the authority of the text itself.

Sola Scriptura. The reformers were careful not to assign final authority to the opinion of the interpreting community, or even to the encounter of that community with the text. No, final authority belongs to Scripture alone. For bereft of determinate textual meaning, how can we distinguish the Word of God from merely human words, Scripture from tradition? Sola Scriptura is a rallying cry for hermeneutic realism.

Priesthood of all believers. This principle-that biblical interpretation is the privilege and responsibility of individual readers-likewise challenges the authority of interpretive communities. At the same time, to affirm the priesthood of all believers is not to say that textual meaning is just anything individual readers say it is. It is common today to hear that how one reads the Bible depends largely on one’s cultural context (or race, gender, and class). How then can we affirm the priesthood of all believers without falling prey to interpretive relativism? The answer is to see the Bible as overdetermined in meaning. There is a single meaning in the text, but it is so rich that we may need the insights of a variety of individual and cultural perspectives fully to do it justice. To speak of overdetermined interpretation is, thus, to attest to the abundance of meaning, to a richer hermeneutic realism. The single correct meaning may only come to light through multicultural interpretation.

Word and Spirit. What about new meaning? For instance, is Fowl correct when he says that Paul’s and the Galatians’ experience of the Spirit led them to impute new meaning into the story of Abraham? Should Christians today follow Fowl’s example when, upon seeing the Spirit’s work displayed in the lives of homosexuals, he draws the same conclusion as did Peter when faced with the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles? (10) Is it true that a new experience of the Spirit can change the meaning of the Word? Is theological interpretation a matter of determining the ecclesiastical sense (what it means now to the Church) rather than the literal sense (what it meant then)?

It is just here that the Reformation insistence on Word and Spirit has an important bearing on contemporary hermeneutical debates. Where is the Word of God, and hence authority, in biblical interpretation? Is it in the literal sense of the Bible (the Word written), or is it in the encounter of the Spirit-led community with its Scripture (the Word interpreted)? Fowl identifies the Word of God with the believing (and practicing) community’s reading in the Spirit, a reading that may or may not correspond to the literal sense. The church enjoys charismatic authority, expressed in the principle “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). The question that remains is whether Fowl can prevent this principle from being reduced to the anti-realist, relativist principle “It seemed good to us.”

What is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation? I believe, firstly, that the Spirit does not abolish the letter but ministers it. Thus, the spiritual sense is simply the literal sense, understood in all its fullness. (11) Far from creating a new meaning, or suggesting that the original meaning is somehow defective, the Spirit’s task is to render the authorial meaning effective. In sum, the Spirit is the Word’s empowering presence.

Secondly, the Spirit sanctifies the reader, removing pride and prejudice and creating the humility of heart and mind ready to receive something not of its own making. In short, the Spirit transforms us from being non-realists who prefer our own lies to realists who desire to hear the Word of God. Reading in the Spirit, therefore, means letting the letter accomplish the purpose for which it was sent (Is. 55:11). The interpretive interests and practices of the Church are important, but only when they help foster the desire and ability to reach understanding-not, as Fowl would have it, because readers contribute to the meaning of the text. The Holy Spirit leads the Church, in all its cultural and racial variety, into a deeper appreciation of the one true interpretation of the Scriptures. This should not surprise us, for the event of Jesus Christ itself takes all four gospels together to articulate it. This is a “Pentecostal plurality,” as it were, which believes that the objective textual meaning is best approximated by a diversity of reading contexts and communities.

Conclusion: Hermeneutic Responsibility

Hermeneutical realism implies hermeneutical responsibility. The interpreter’s task is to seek understanding, to follow the text where it leads, and to bear true witness to authorial intention. The interpretive imperative may be briefly stated: “do not bear false witness.” To be sure, biblical interpreters would do well not to read their own ideas into Scripture. Yet it is not enough simply to avoid the interpretive vice of anti-realism. Readers must actively seek to cultivate the interpretive virtues as well: openness, honesty, humility, attention, thoughtfulness. These spiritual qualities are conducive to knowledge and to reaching understanding of what the divine Author, through the human authors, is saying. Cultivating these interpretive virtues will lead to the practice that best corresponds to hermeneutical realism: interpreters never ceasing to submit their interpretations to the authority of the Word written. Hermeneutic realism thus demands nothing less than an interpretive practice regulated by the prime Protestant principle: “always reforming.”

  • Kevin J. Vanhoozer


1 [ Back ] Elizabeth Castelli, Stephen Moore, and Regina Schwartz, eds., The Postmodern Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 14.
2 [ Back ] John R. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 19.
3 [ Back ] Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Inquiry (Malden, Mass.: Blackwells, 1998), 34.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., 55.
5 [ Back ] Ibid., vii.
6 [ Back ] Ibid., 81.
7 [ Back ] Jeffrey Stout, "What Is the Meaning of a Text?", New Literary History 14 (1982), 1-12.
8 [ Back ] Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), xi.
9 [ Back ] Fowl, 60.
10 [ Back ] Ibid., 119-26.
11 [ Back ] For a fuller exposition of this and other points in this section, see my Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), especially chapter 7.