Hermeneutics: Not an Either/Or

December 27, 2012 — 4 Comments

Here is Westphal, not succumbing to a view of communication that either neglects or overemphasizes the receiver.

Hermeneutics is not a radical either/or. Either the author alone determines meaning or the reader alone determines meaning. In the first case, objectivity and universal validity are possible in principle; in these second case have an “anything goes” relativism in which there is no terra firma.

But are these the only two options? Might not the meaning of a text be co-produced by author and reader, the product of their interaction? Might not each contribute to the determinacy of meaning without requiring that it be absolutely determinate? If the author has a legitimate role, without it needing to be an autocrat, then the text cannot mean just anything that any reader takes it to mean. There will be boundaries. But if the reader also plays a role, these boundaries will be sufficiently generous to allow that a given text might legitimately mean somewhat different things to different people in different circumstances. Moreover, this way of viewing understanding would help us to make sense of the obvious fact that differences of interpretation are the rule rather than the exception in literature, law, and theology.

Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 53–54.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

4 responses to Hermeneutics: Not an Either/Or

  1. Westphal states his position clearly, but I believe he is mistaken. Functionally, his position grants the authority to the receiver. How much does ‘some’ become? Who then draws the legitimate parameters for imposing meaning? In the end, the reader will declare truth according to preference or prejudice.
    Yes, interpretation varies considerably but that is due to human frailty, not due to divine enabling.
    Westphal’s both/and approach is clearly palatable to our inclusive times but in the end, his method makes truth unsound.

  2. Eugene

    Thanks for the comment. I too was hesitant when I first starting reading hermeneutics more influenced by postmodern theories.

    However the book argues we do not have to go down the “anything goes” road. In fact Westphal says he thinks this is a straw man for very few actually hold to the reader separating himself/herself from the author and declaring truth.

    Rather reading/communication is a co-produced process. Now one may ask, where are the boundaries? Great question. I think this is a discussion worth having.

    But what is clear to me is that if it is not a interaction between author and reader then why don’t we already have all the answers? In other words, it seems like we would have gotten the point already. Why not just have one sermon on every text? How can there be 100’s of good sermons on a single verse which all are different from one another?

    I think the answer is because reading is a interaction, and one comes out of the text with traditions, church needs, passions, and weekly discouragements influencing how one reads the text. These issues should never rule the interpretation, but they influence it, and I think they rightly influence it.

    It is a complicated issue and I am glad you chimed in, but I do not think Westphal or this theory necessarily necessitates that we need to go down the path of giving the reader sole authority, although surely it can be a danger.

  3. I think Stein offers a simple but astute distinction that helps. He distinguishes between meaning, implication and significance. The first is determined by authorial intent. The second is bound by the overarching meaning. The third is found in the personal & circumstantial particulars of the body. Sermons vary because they spend time in the last two.
    So a sermon can be true to the authors meaning, but highlight a yet unforeseen implication and drive home a set of legitimate ways to find significance in what Paul teaches. In this way, Paul’s meaning in Romans is secured by his intent and the sermon is made pertinent to a people in a different age.

    I simply think that claiming disagreement as a proof for multiple meanings is off the mark.

    But my real concern lies in the practice of such a hermeneutic. Who gets to say where the lines of legitimate meaning lie? It all becomes subjective and truth becomes unintelligible. Lets grant the author authority over the meaning of his words and devote ourselves to drawing right implications from it.

  4. Eugene

    You raise some good points. I differ from Stein in that I do not think the distinction between application/implication and meaning stands up under closer scrutiny.

    Meaning = application.

    You cannot arrive at meaning without applying it. John Frame has made a similar point, others as well, although only a few talk about this issue.

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