Postmodernism and the Bible II: Reading Scripture from the Center
By David Lose
Excerpted and adapted from Preaching at the Crossroads copyright (c) 2013 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission of Augsburg Fortress.
Many problems in preaching in a postmodern age arise from the historical demand (whether modern or premodern) for absolute certainty about the accuracy of one's interpretation. Such certainty was usually acquired through an extreme confidence in either the divine nature of Scripture or the self-evident character of one's hermeneutic (or both!). To reappropriate a practice of interpreting the whole of Scripture in light of its central content and witness, or "reading scripture from the center," one must-with postmodernists-surrender any demand for absolute certitude while simultaneously refusing-with modernists-to despair about the possibility to discern and speak the truth. In such a pursuit, interpreters will be aided by adopting what I would call an incarnational understanding of Scripture and an intentional and confessional understanding of one's interpretive key to Scripture.
Paul Ricoeur offers significant help in approaching the Bible incarnationally. He distinguishes between two nearly opposite ways to approach a passage. The first, which he calls a hermeneutics of restoration (and is sometimes called a hermeneutic of trust), invites the interpreter to treat the text as a sacred symbol that deserves to be believed completely and unquestioningly. From this point of view, the interpreter reads the text with absolute trust and aims to listen to the passage as closely as possible in order to detect and share the message residing within it. In the second approach, which Ricoeur describes as a hermeneutic of suspicion, the interpreter is far less accepting of the claims of the passage. Realizing that all texts are influenced and even corroded by the historical and cultural biases of their writers, the interpreter brings external critical criteria to bear in order to penetrate beneath the surface meaning of a passage and discover its "real" meaning.
In contrast to a number of biblical interpreters since his time, Ricoeur advocates employing both a hermeneutic of trust and a hermeneutic of suspicion simultaneously. Walter Brueggemann, following Ricoeur, similarly argues that interpretation is more complex than some make out because the whole "life" of a biblical passage-from its composition by an author, its interpretation through history, right up to its reception by contemporary readers-is what he describes as "a mixture of faith and vested interest." Indeed, this is what makes interpretation necessary . . . and also challenging and at times frustrating. . . . The Christian interpreter, in other words, simultaneously trusts that God speaks through the biblical witness even while recognizing that God's speech comes through humans and therefore is always distorted by human sin.
It is precisely by admitting and naming the dual character of Scripture-both entrusted to humans yet accomplishing divine purposes-that the preacher can approach Scripture incarnationally. Further, the hermeneutic of restoration that Ricoeur describes is built around the material criteria, or interpretive center, of Scripture. In other words, one's interpretive key is precisely one's sense of God's most clear word-Christ, the living word-in the midst of faithful, yet sinful, human speech.
But what about the criticism often leveled at those who intentionally employ such a method? Are we doomed to trumping, whether consciously or unconsciously, the distinct and varied witness of Scripture with our theological criteria? Does Scripture, in other words, have nothing more to say to us than what we have already heard and perceived?
These are important questions. To address them, and in this way to avoid the pitfalls inherent in a modernist approach to interpreting from the center, preachers and other interpreters must make two interrelated moves. First, they must intentionally make the hermeneutical criteria they employ as explicit as possible, and second, they must regard these criteria as a confession of faith rather than a self-evident, rationally demonstrable, and timeless truth.
By intentionally describing our interpretive criteria, we invite others into a dialogue, not only about the results of our study, but also about the premises and presuppositions of our study itself. This means, among other things, that criteria that differ from our own can never be silenced or ruled immediately out of bounds. Conversely, it also means that our own criteria can never be removed from the pale of critical review, revision, and even reversal. By making our convictions about Scripture's core witness evident, we invite others into a meaningful, dynamic, and ongoing conversation about what we believe is at the very heart of Scripture. Conducted carefully and regularly, such a conversation will not only lead to keeping the preacher "honest" (as the voices of other members of the community can more easily point out some of our unconscious biases or presuppositions), but it will also invite our hearers and partners to think more holistically about what Scripture has to say to them and to our world.
To enter into this conversation, we not only need to be intentionally honest about our convictions, but must also name them as such. That is, we must confess what we believe to be at the heart of the biblical witness, rather than attempting to prove it once and for all. By confessing one's interpretive center, interpreters and preachers avoid the totalizing and aggressive penchant of modern interpretation, where every differing interpretation is a rival for the one, true approach. At the same time, confessing one's hermeneutical assumptions allows preachers to retain the strength of their convictions, thus avoiding the despair and confusion of postmodern interpretation, where every interpretation is equally a matter of self-projection.
This kind of vulnerable disclosure (for confessing, rather than proving, one's position always entails the possibility for disagreement and rejection) not only provides a key to reclaiming a vibrant understanding of interpretation but also invites a more communal and conversational approach to the task of proclamation.