AKMA: Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs (an article well worth reading.)
. . . Once I settled into my seminary studies, however, I discovered that my fascination with biblical studies engendered a baffling problem: the more I learned in my biblical courses, the less my studies seemed to enhance my ministry and preaching. Like any good academic apprentice, I tried at first to redouble my efforts. That only aggravated the problem; I knew more and more, but the technical apparatus of my learning always seemed to stand between me and the fluent, compelling, preach-able biblical theology for which I thirsted. My increasing technical expertise did not help me inhabit and proclaim the traditions I was studying.
. . . My way forward involved learning to explore the Bible and Christian tradition without participating in the ceaseless power struggle over whose interpretation is authoritatively right and whose is wrong. This means sidestepping — recuperating from — a fixation on the illusory authority of claiming the “correct” interpretation. I offer instead a way of thinking about interpretation that still involves deliberation about better and sounder interpretations, but without pretensions to decisive interpretive authority.
. . . I’ll summarize my postmodern therapy — a way out of the power struggle — in a quick tour of a promising alternative to the familiar landscape of modern critical biblical studies. Such an alternative may necessarily appear unfamiliar, and defy some deeply embedded imperatives of modern academic biblical study.
. . . One distinguishing mark of this alternative approach is the shift from hermeneutics oriented around the written word, to the interpretation of signs (semiotics) that is oriented toward communication and meaning in general, of which the interpretation of words is but one instance.
. . . Everything signifies, and in the economy of signification, words make up only a small, specific ingredient.
. . . The illusion that “meaning” lies within our control tends to blind us to how partially we understand our interpretations, even interpretations of our own words and actions.
We thus have no overarching criterion that separates legitimate interpretive sheep from misconceived goats. We can always assert that this or that interpretation passes muster — but we cannot display an ultimate criterion that gives decisive legitimacy to our favored interpretations. This should come as no great surprise. A truly universal criterion would meet with no dissent, since its status as a transcendent, universal criterion would render dissent incoherent. Critical readers have tried to define a hermeneutical method that results in unassailably legitimate interpretations, but none has attained a consensus that befits a universal or transcendent standard.
. . . Our communications function predictably and (on the whole) quite successfully because they rely on our participation in powerful patterns of shared behavior and custom. The more thoroughly one complies with one’s neighbors’ expectations, the more likely one’s communication with these neighbors will play out to mutual satisfaction.
[Note: this is where Relevance Theory can come in.]
. . . Signifying practices constitute subcultures with their own rules of engagement, jargon, expectations, etiquette. We learn how to participate in these distinct practices by inhabiting them, acknowledging the extent to which the subculture’s traditions and axioms prevail over our own bright ideas, and learning to express our ideas in the idiom of the particular signifying practice.
We have to get used to the idea that we have no access to an “objective,” universal criterion for deciding the absolutely right interpretation. [Emphasis mine.] We need to allow an elasticity, a mutual generosity, that neither historicists nor inerrantists can account for. We shouldn’t be looking for “the right answer” but should rather arrive at answers by which we can live and, in the end, by which we can stand before God’s throne of judgment. Each of us has to recognize that there are plenty of people smarter and more pious than you or me who will come to conclusions about scripture that we won’t like. So — thanks be to God — we who interpret scripture in the church have centuries of the saints’ teaching to show us ways of living, embodying, these answers.
I have made these points in public forums and time after time the upshot has been lost. What people hear and fear is relativism, chaos, indeterminacy. . .
. . . Jesus did not bring the gospel by coercion. He laid out the gospel so that people were free to decide. God vindicated him, as God will vindicate all who in faithfulness perpetuate the gospel in their lives.
. . . There isn’t some esoteric meaning in Jesus’ sayings that takes an academician to explain; the gesture of teaching to give, the gesture of giving, and the gesture of living frugally all communicate something about how we put this world’s resources to use. Thus, the disciplined study of the Bible and of its interpreters over the ages leads some practitioners to deeper, sounder faith, while it leads others to church-less skepticism. It’s not the apparent facts that determine interpreters’ reception of them, but the ways that interpreters fit them together — or can’t. . .
By shifting our interpretive attention slightly away from words’ allegedly intrinsic meanings, and noticing the world’s vast interwoven fabric of expression and apprehension, offering and uptake, we can recognize biblical writings as gestures on the part of generations of storytellers and lawgivers, authors and editors and scribes, toward helping us recognize God’s ways and God’s character. The earliest audiences for these gestures perhaps misconstrued them; subsequent generations misconstrued them; and we too are likely to misconstrue them. We cannot stave off error by intensifying our attention to methods and facts in a futile effort to impose or control correct interpretation. We can, however, work toward minimizing our errors by . . . [click on Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs]
Late draft for an article published in the Yale Divinity School alumni/ae magazine Reflections, Spring 2008, pages 53-57. I reckon this draft differs from the final copy in some respects, but the differences should be slight