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Merold Westphal: Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

There is no cause for hermeneutical despair. As Westphal explains, the revelatory nature of the biblical text – God spoke and still speaks (p.148) – presupposes that readers come to the text to seek and obey its injunctions, and not to subordinate the text to a method or procedure of interpretation in order to prove the superiority of their readings of the text (p.85). Thus, because of this, we do not need to nor do we have to have guarantees regarding the correct interpretation all the time. Rather, we should be mindful of the essential role and purpose of reading the text in light of the abovementioned, as well as our situated relativity as a reader (p.86). The manner of interpreting Scripture then is to re-learn how we look at the complex structures of unity in diversity, of texts and worlds, and to pay attention to not just the different degrees of interpretations – wrong readings, right readings but poorly explained, as well as the superior interpretation (he calls it performances) (p.105). It entails recognizing the place of drawing from multiple translations, concretizing meanings through different applications in the many possible conversations this dialogical nature of truth quest can be recovered and produced in understanding the classic text (p.106, 109, 118). Westphal’s broad affirmation of an ecumenical reading is grounded in the posture of “hermeneutical humility” (p.143) in light of all of the abovementioned. Since the divine voice is also able to break through our prejudices, we must be ready to revise our human interpretations and conceptions which are never ultimate or absolute (p.153). From Levinas’ treatment of transcendence disclosing itself through the faces of the marginalized, suffering and oppressed, Westphal reminds readers of the often unconscious “oppressive” nature of a “hermeneutical arrogance” and therefore brings readers once again to recognize the various tensions in biblical interpretation, from philosophical perspectives.

Westphal also explains that the church’s reading of Scripture may be analogous to a Liberal-Communitarian conversation, which pays attention to the different currents left and right that finds some validity in a broad doctrine of the church. Perhaps here we see Westphal’s weakest link – though he shows familiarity with the various historical development in political ideology – it is too brief and vague for any reader to evaluate his assertion that the church operates best with the analogy of such a Rawlian Liberal-Communitarian approach (ch. 10).

I recommend reading the Bible with Whose Community? Which Interpretation? without reservations! Drawn from philosophical traditions, Westphal explains some fundamental fallacies in the reading of Scripture among others in only 156-pages. You will enjoy Scripture more, and you will no longer fear philosophical-hermeneutics, let alone Postmodernity; because Westphal explains these philosophical depths in accessible and plain English!

Reviewed by Timothy Lim Teck Ngern


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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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