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“Whose Community? Which Interpretation?”

In this short and rich work, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, Merold Westphal dialogs with and appropriates the views of numerous philosophers, arguing that human reasoning is inherently limited and perspectival; he draws out the implications of this truth for Biblical interpretation. Many readers may find the daunting list of names that appear in this book (Schliermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, Riocoeur, Austin, Wittgenstein, Levinas, Rawls, Habermas, etc.) intimidating. Westphal, however, is careful to clearly explain the relevant aspect of their ideas for his argument, making this book an excellent introduction to philosophical hermeneutics, and Christian “post-modernism.”

Interpretation, textual or otherwise, according to Westphal, is unavoidable. Furthermore, all interpretation is conditioned by the presuppositions we bring to a given text. We inherit these presuppositions through the tradition(s) that have inevitably shaped us. “Unless we confuse ourselves…with God, we will acknowledge a double relativity: our interpretations are relative to…the presuppositions we bring with us, and those presuppositions, as human, all too human, are themselves relative (penultimate, revisable, even replaceable) and not absolute,” Westphal claims (15).

Undoubtedly, many will find this conclusion provocative, especially when applied to interpretation of Scripture. Westphal argues, however, that this is actually the outworking of the teachings of Scripture, which affirms that humans are finite and fallen. We see “in a glass, dimly”, “knowing only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). This makes our best interpretations, ultimately, fallible. Furthermore, with Scripture, we encounter a text rich enough to require a multitude of different readings, not just permit it (26). No one interpretation can exhaust it. In Scripture, we encounter an overflow of meaning (26).

We, however, seek to avoid this creaturely state, and to domesticate Scripture by securing “certainty” and “objectivity.” Westphal examines the ways interpreters have tried to do this. Two ways are through developing a proper method and/or by appealing to authorial intent. Spatial constraints limit an examination of Westphal’s arguments in detail. Briefly, however, Westphal denies both moves. He claims that an appeal to method puts us in a problematic relationship with a given text, one where we seek to “dominate by subordinating it to our procedures” (85). Truth is beyond method (98-99). Similarly, against the idea that the author determines the meaning of a text, Westphal argues that the author, along with the reader, are co-producers of meaning (61-63).

This is understandably disconcerting—“No doubt all of us some of the time and some of us all the time would like guarantees that we’re the ones who have gotten it right. But it does not follow either that we need such guarantees or that that they are available” (86). All too often, our fear of relativism coupled with a desire for an objectivity that is unavailable to us hardens into an unjustified dogmatism. Or in Westphal’s words, “Anxiety about relativism morphs into arrogance” (47).

The relativity of reasoning does not entail radical relativism, however. “We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation) are the only alternatives” (15). The second part of Westphal’s argument is constructive and he tries to articulate a middle option.

First of all, Westphal clarifies that interpretation is not arbitrary and still bounded by the constraints set by the text. The fact that we interpret does not entail all interpretations being equally correct. Westphal explains:

[I]f I am playing Hamlet I am not free to say “To fish or not to fish” instead of “To be or not to be.” Nor am I free to play an A-flat every time the score of the Hammerklavier Sonata calls for a C-sharp (104).

Good interpretation must submit to “the constraint of the script, the score, the text (105). In the world of performing arts, there are classes of performance: some simply get it wrong. Others are technically right, but uninspired. Yet, others are judged to be masterful performances. There can be a plurality of performances that fall in this last category, each being different from each other, although they are faithful presentations of the same work (105). “Accordingly,” Westphal reasons, “it would be foolish to claim that there is one ‘definitive’ theology that is right while all the others are wrong (though theologies, like other interpretations/translations, can be wrong). Rather it would be wise to consult a variety of the ‘best’ theologies if we want to understand the Bible and ultimately its subject matter: God and our relation to God” (107).

In other words, “The way to objectivity is not to flee perspectives but to multiply them” (142).

Westphal, however, does not advocate a hodge-podge amalgamation of “best” theologies; he seeks convergence. Drawing on the work of John Rawls on political liberalism, Westphal looks for areas of “overlapping consensus” (Chapter 10). Christians should enter into conversation with each other looking for commonalties instead of difference. “We may find,” Westphal conjectures, “that our disagreements are more like family quarrels than all-out warfare. We may be less inclined to religiously legitimized violence and to linguistically violent religious rhetoric, language that seeks to denigrate, manipulate, or seduce our opponents…We may be less inclined to close Communion to those who do not interpret it as exactly as we do” (129-30). This does not mean that distinctions are denied, or abolished, only relativized in importance.

Convergence, however, is not the final arbiter of meaning. Westphal ultimately wants to open readers to the voice of the divine Other that speaks through Scripture—revelation, in the Barthian sense. “It is not enough to affirm the role of the Spirit in the production of Scripture…It is equally necessary to listen for and to hear what the Spirit says (present tense) to the churches. Word and Spirit. As this slogan becomes practice and not just theory, the divinely transcendent voice of Scripture will become incarnate in human language, and we hear the very voice of God in our finite and fallen interpretations” (156).

Westphal’s book is written for “the church” and has obvious implications for the way Christians relate both to Scripture, as well as one another. I think this book is especially timely for the Adventist community. All too often, within our church, we, reciting the misused and misunderstood principle of sola scriptura, appeal to “the plain meaning of Scripture” assuming that our reading is the plain one! Those that deny the reality of interpretation need not read Westphal’s book to be convinced or venture beyond the doors of their own churches (or this website). Those to “the left” or “the right” of us, both cite the same texts to buttress their respective positions. Westphal suggests that ALL our interpretations are just that, interpretations and should be open to possible revision and/or replacement.

Beyond this, this book has implications for our community at large, and our relationship to other Christians. Our attitude collectively has often been one of, what Westphal would call, “hermeneutical arrogance.” We approach other believers with our “definitive” (and present) truth, unwilling to listen or learn. In assuming possession of the truth, we, ironically, shut ourselves off from the truth.

Because the book is specifically about the interpretation of the Bible, assuming it to be a (the?) source of divine revelation, Westphal does not broach, at least directly, an important, but related issue. The argument of this book raises important questions for Christians as they encounter religious communities that also appeal to different scriptures. What is the relation of Christian Scripture to other kinds of scripture? Westphal argues for possibility of multiple of correct interpretations of Christian Scriptures; would he take another step, if the book addressed the wider public, arguing in a similar fashion that Christian Scriptures themselves are just one possible interpretation of/revelation from a greater divine reality? (Several times in the book, Westphal uses the story of six blind men grasping at different parts of an elephant to illustrate the limited nature of human reasoning (25-26); John Hick uses the same illustration to argue that respective religions are similarly perspectival.) Why or why not? Admittedly, this raises difficult questions about the nature of revelation and religious pluralism, and ones I will not attempt to address here, leaving the question open, hopefully, for discussion below.

In closing, the goal of this book is not to raise controversy, although it may be taken to do that by some (especially by those that are certain they “possess” the truth). Rather, Westphal’s goal is pastoral. This is a book for the church and seeks to instill the virtues of humility, openness, and dependence toward each other, the Scriptures, and, ultimately, the Holy Spirit, opening the possibility for true personal and communal transformation.

Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches philosophy courses at Kennesaw State University.

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