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Merold Westphal: Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

To arrest the “vertigo of relativity and its fears” (p.45), Westphal proceeds to review the position that right interpretation gives meaning of the text (known as objectivism), whereby the author determines the meaning and the text limits the scope of interpretation. However, contrary to this view, Westphal raises questions about the indeterminacy of meaning in various contexts, and argues that Hirsch’s approach opens the door for revoking authorial privilege. Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida taught that, readers often “make meanings” beyond authors’ explicit articulations. Although drawing from the richness of continental philosophies, Westphal explains that a careful reader must not infer from “X is not responsible for Y” to mean that “X is not in any way responsible for Y”; which unfortunately is a fallacy committed by both atheists and biblical readers of the “I see plainly, you interpret” paradigm (p.58-59). As Westphal puts it, “‘the death of the absolute author’ is not ‘the death of the author’” and while authorial intent is important for deciphering the meaning of the writings, there is, as Gadamer rightly explains, a “productive aspect to interpretation” (p.62, 83). From Paul Riccoeur, we learn that interpretations involve authorial intent, understanding how texts came about, and seeking how the original audience understands the texts before we explore its significance for our contemporary time. As Wolfterstorff eloquently puts it, interpretation seeks to know what “someone says something to someone about something” (p.64). Beyond the aforementioned, our role as students of Scripture is also to ask, what is God saying to us through the texts today. The complexity of reading then is that the reader must remove any “pretensions of absolute knowledge” (p.66) and acknowledge when there may be more than one way to construe a text. Westphal is quick to explain though that to claim the above does not mean that all interpretations are valid (p.67). Throughout his treatment, he repeatedly draws out when a reader would do well to distinguish between recognizing the “relativity of [one’s] finitude” and the absolute-ness of a thoroughly-going relativism.

From Gadamer, Westphal also explains that because of the finite and spatial nature of our “historically-effected-consciousness” (p.74) that shapes our perspectives, we would be foolish to presume that we can stand in total objectivity at any one time, and/or all the time: in truth, we were located as finite beings in time and space, and even if we can somehow distance ourselves from our present and past time and space, we are never able to be totally objective as if we can stand outside the totality of time and space. As such, even if we can distance ourselves, the removal of prejudices is not entirely possible; we always read through some presumption and bias whether we have reflectively considered it or not. Likewise, standing within a tradition when a tradition reads another, no tradition can claim final, absolute and exhaustive authority (p.76, 85). Consequently, our interpretations will always be subjected to revision, and/or replacement (p.76). To claim that God speaks to us infallibly, implied in the paradigm that “I see plainly” whereas “others interpret,” is to make the fundamental mistake of an imaginary and unjustifiable hermeneutical truism and arrogance. We must then guard against “clinging to prejudice against prejudice” (p.77), which is the philosophical mistake of the Enlightenment project (ch. 7).

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2015

About the Author: Timothy Teck Ngern Lim, M.Div. (BGST, Singapore), Ph.D. (Regent University), is a Visiting Lecturer for London School of Theology and Research Tutor for King's Evangelical Divinity School (London). He is on the advisory board of One in Christ (Turvey) and area book review editor for Evangelical Review of Society & Politics. He is an evangelical theologian ordained as a Teaching Elder with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has published in ecclesiology, ecumenical theology, and interdisciplinarity. A recent monograph published entitled Ecclesial Recognition with Hegelian Philosophy, Social Psychology, and Continental Political Theory: An Interdisciplinary Proposal (Brill, 2017).

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