Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Reading the Bible

Ordinary Time
Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr

Today I got up, made breakfast, cleaned the kitchen, proofed my draft, ate lunch with (the other) Kyle, edited my draft, went to the store, and edited my draft. I'm about to cook dinner. Salmon briqettes, or croquettes, or whatever. Read this paragraph from my paper:
While not all practitioners of historical criticism have been sympathetic toward the church, the methods have encouraged readers to ask new and often helpful questions. Confessional reading often assumes that a theory of divine inspiration guarantees a ‘Word from the Lord’ that is immediately contemporary and free of ancient cultural distortions. Historical criticism has brought readers to take seriously the problem of the ‘two horizons,’ the distant gulf between original recipients of the New Testament and present-day readers. Instead of asking initially, ‘What does this text mean,’ interpreters must ask, ‘What did the author of the text mean, and how did the original hearers receive it?’ Historical criticism takes various forms. Textual criticism seeks to discern the earliest sources behind the final versions of the texts. Literary criticism seeks to determine the original use of those sources and locate the documents in particular times and places. Form criticism seeks to identify writings within particular genres for comparison, while redaction criticism attempts to trace the work of various biblical editors through history. Because the post-Enlightenment West highly values the idea of systematic, objective approaches to all disciplines, the academy has privileged historical criticism in biblical interpretation for most of the modern period. ‘Meaning’ is a matter of what the author wished to communicate, and to read something beyond that is to do violence to the text. Similarly, even churches considered anti-modern often insist that while a text does possess a contemporary meaning, it is a singular meaning determined by their analysis of authorial intent; even they rely on some form of historical critical reading.
It would make my point stronger if I could cite a particular book to demonstrate the part in bold, so:

1. Can you offer a book that makes this argument? If you can give me page numbers, that's better yet.

2. I'm essentially making the argument that a pious reading of the Bible which insists that a text has one meaning determined by the intentions of the author (and that we can somehow know what that is) is very near to being historical criticism by another name, and has every bit as much validity - which, depending on your viewpoint, could be a little or a lot.

What do you think of that?

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katie said...

Have I ever mentioned that I love how you ALWAYS specify "the other Kyle" as if we might otherwise all assume that you've lost your mind and gone out to lunch with yourself? Well, now I have. I really like the point you're making in this paragraph all though I'm afraid I can't help much as far as books and page numbers go. At the moment I'm pretty engrossed in appropriately using references myself!

Adam said...


The distinction you're trying to make in bold seems a little fuzzy. You say that (some people say that) a text has a "contemporary meaning" but that this meaning is a "singular meaning determined by...authorial intent."

Isn't this saying that the "contemporary meaning" just is the "authorial meaning"--that the two are somehow synonymous or coextensive?

But if that's the case, why would anyone bother distinguishing between them? It seems that you would only want to distinguish contemporary meaning from authorial meaning if the two were importantly different. On this view, they're not. In fact, they're exactly the same thing (or, based on what you say, I can't see how they're different).

I guess I'm thrown off by your use of two words: (1) meaning and (2) determined. So let me suggest some new terminology. Suppose we replace "authorial meaning" with "meaning" and
"contemporary meaning" with
"significance." On this view, a text's "meaning" would be whatever its author meant (his intentions), while its "significance" would be something like "how-the-text's-meaning-can-be-applied-to-contemporary-life."

Now, on to "determined." I don't know exactly what you mean when you say that the text's "singular meaning [is] determined by...authorial intent." But it would be nice if you mean't something like this: author A's meaning X can be legitimately said to have significance Y with respect to some contemporary situation Z just in case it is reasonable to assume that, given X, A would adopt Y if he were to confront Z.

Now, something concrete. Paul doesn't say anything explicit about abortion. So it is unlikely that any of Paul's texts could ever be interpreted as meaning (in the sense described above) "Abortion
is wrong." But we still might be able to make a Pauline argument (from significance) against abortion just insofar as we could say that, given what Paul has actually written, he would likely adopt the stance "Abortion is wrong" if he were to confront the issue (in our context).

On my model, we firm up the distinction between meaning and significance ("contemporary meaning" and "authorial meaning" in your terminology) and we have a relatively precise way of deciding whether or not the significance we ascribe to the text is legitimately "determined" by its meaning (in the sense described above).

This model would also allow you to make your point--namely, that "anti-modern" churches who want to admit the category of "contemporary meaning" are still enslaved to authorial meaning (that is, to historical criticism).

Kyle said...

Good luck on your work, Katie! And I think you might be surprised; (the other) Kyle and I have been friends for years, but for the longest time, whenever one of us would talk about the other, many of our other friends would get confused and assume we'd gone nuts, talking about ourselves in the third person...!

Hey, thanks, Adam. Your points are well made, and I'll change my language and tweak my argument according.

Thank you. :0)

J Hearne said...

It's so pleasant to read Adam's linguistic philosophy (I'd even venture to call it "analytic"). He's come so far from the land of continental blather.

As for books, Kyle, I think that Theissen and Merz make some similar statements in their "Historical Jesus" in the first couple of chapters. Plus, doesn't Furnish make some of these points in "The Moral Teaching of Paul?"

Rob Leacock said...


This is very interesting. I tend to agree with Adam's perspective. However, I came to a slightly different distinction, that is, between meaning and intent. For me, that area is quite fuzzy. I suppose that, in my own understanding, one has at one's disposal the text and only the text from which one may ask, "What does this text mean?" Yet, for me, there seems to be a gap between that and being able to ask the question--not as you pose it necessarily (What does the author mean?)--but, I think, more appropriate, What is the author's intent? To me that is an extraordinarily difficult question to address. For myself, I must ask--on top of drawing some meaning from the text--not only can I discern the author's intentions from the text alone, but also should I care to? I think one could start debating over which is more important, the (perhaps contemporary) textual meaning or the author's intent, the implication being that the two are only related but are not the same. Is 'meaning'"a matter of what the author wished to communicate" or is it a matter of what the author DID communicate/what was communicated? Are these the same and, if not, is one superior to our ability to find a contemporary meaning?

(As an aside I am reminded of preaching workshop in seminary in which we would take turns crtiquing one another's sermons. Often when someone was getting their sermon critiqued the conversation typically followed

Critic: I was a bit unclear when you said...
Preacher: Well, what I MEANT to say
Critic [unspoken] Well, you may have MEANT that, but you didn't SAY that...)

I think as soon as one starts to ask questions about authorial intent especially from a historical critical perspective, it opens up the door to a lot of other questions and consequently other forms of historical criticism. How can one arrive at authorial intent without examining cultural and temporal context, form and genre, redaction and editing, etc? I guess the question that remains for me is can one arrive at that singular meaning without employing these other critical methods or scholarship? Aside from purely close reading of the text, I'm not sure...

But you raise and interesting question. I hope that I've understood you well enough to offer my opinion.


James Church said...

Could you clarify? Are you making the distinction between modern critically savvy readers who take serious the gulf of history between the text and contemporary life and pre-modern non-critical approaches that assume that what the text means today was the authors original intention? If my understanding is correct have you considered the arguably postmodern view that suggests post freudian interpretation must surely take seriously the opinion that the author may have had several meanings not all of which he intended.

peregrinator said...

I have read this post numerous times, wrestling with its authorial meaning. But the distant gulf between California and Kentucky encouraged me to privledge my Sierra Nevada Pale Ale rather than to do violence to your post.

Or something like that.

Actually, what I think you are trying to point out is that the practioners of higher criticism and more conservative "anti-modern" readers share the same basic modernist presuppostions.

Couple of points:
If that is indeed what you want to show, the basic text that suggests the modernist foundation of both liberal and fundamentalist readings of the text is probably Newbigin's "Proper Confidence" (a personal favorite).

And yet, I am not sure if the example you give is actually indicative of what you suggest. I have been reading Tom Wright's little book "The Last Word" and browsed ahead to his section on Reformation readings of scripture. I note that he spends some time with the "literal" reading of the text favored by the reformers, which holds to authorial intent as the defining sense of the meaning of the text. The Reformers held this over and against the Catholic readings with the four sense of the text.

This would suggest that both higher critics and and more conservative confessional readers are both - dare we say it?? - PROTESTANT!

Now where your comments really do grab my attention is in how we understand the "distant gulf" between the text and ourselves. The critic holds to an almost insurmountable gulf while the confessional reader anticipates an immediacy between himself and the text.

This distance concept is pursued by Rusty Reno in his "Church in the Ruins", which I wish I had nearby to consult. He makes some interesting points about distance as it affects both liberal and fundamentalist. (As I recall, dispensationalism is the way the latter often construes the problem of distance.) It might be worthwhile to consult him.

Kyle said...

Thanks, everybody!

I thought it best to write a new post...