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Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church

Merold Westphal
Published by Baker Academic in 2009

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? belongs to a series by Baker Academic called “The Church and Postmodern Culture.” The editor, James K. A. Smith, provides the rationale for reading Merold Westphal’s contribution: “For ‘peoples of the Book,’ whose way of life is shaped by texts, matters of interpretation are, in a way, matters of life and death” (9). Based on “To Read or Not to Read,” a 2007 report from the National Endowment of the Arts, we are living in a post-literate or sub-literate culture where, it is safe to conjecture, the biblical text plays a diminutive role in the formation of Christian identity. Friedrich Nietzsche’s once controversial claim—“there are no facts, only interpretations”—seems irrelevant in the absence of a text to interpret.1

For the remnant of Bible-reading Christians, “matters of interpretation are, in a way, matters of life and death” (italics added). Do not miss the qualifying clause. While we are no longer witnesses to the violence behind sixteenth-century Protestant and Catholic persecution of Anabaptists, such violence is sublimated behind present-day Orthodox anathemas of iconoclasts or Emergent denunciations of Calvinist creeds. In short, interpretative practice often fosters animus among brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

Enter Merold Westphal—a leading continental philosopher who teaches at Fordham University. Aimed at academic, pastoral, and lay theologians, his new book fights against the hermeneutics of violence in the church, proposing instead a hermeneutics of peace, the goal of which is to discover what political theorist John Rawls named an “overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines” (126), a consensus that should achieve not only peaceful coexistence—“I won’t bomb if you don’t bomb me” (128)—but also peaceful cooperation between “enemies” like Jim Wallis and Jim Dobson or Brian McLaren and D. A. Carson.

Sound too good to be true? Westphal cites “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine ofJustification,” a 1999 document signed by the World Lutheran Federation and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, and The Meaning of Jesus, a book coauthored by revisionist scholar Marcus Borg and traditional scholar N. T. Wright, as salient examples of Christians who eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

The title of the book, adapted from Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, implies that each tribe in Christianity—“the desert fathers, the Geneva Calvinists, the American slaves, and today’s Amish” (47)—has a relative interpretation of Scripture, as in the case of the six blind men from Hindustan who grasp different features of an elephant but lack total comprehension. Put differently, the interpretation of Scripture does not occur in a vacuum; it is always situated by the particular history, language, social class, gender, culture, and tradition of the interpreter.

John Caputo, another philosopher who has written for the series, emphasizes the Derridean distinction

between arche and archive, between the Bible as “timeless archetype” and the Bible as an historical “prototype.” The former views the Bible as something that can be directly and decontextually copied and pasted into the present, while the latter understands the Bible to be something that must be hermeneutically interpreted, inserted with hermeneutic sensitivity into a contemporary context.2

Taking “the second commandment very seriously,” Caputo and Westphal disabuse Christians of treating Scripture as arche because it puts the false god of “biblical inerrantism” before a wholly other God.3

Drawing on speech act theory, Westphal offers an alternative to this false god: biblical double discourse. God performs speech acts (such as assertions, commands, and promises) through the deputized and authorized speech of human writers. Consequently, a double hermeneutics will ask: “‘What did the human author say to the original audience?’ and then‘ What is God saying to us here and now through those human speech acts inscribed in Scripture?’” (64). Biblical inerrantists assume the two questions have the same answer, which fails to recognize that “human readings are always partial and perspectival” (26).

The burden of Westphal’s book is twofold: to acknowledge the “double relativity” of interpretation—“our interpretations are relative to (conditioned by) the presuppositions we bring with us, and those presuppositions, as human, all too human, are themselves relative (penultimate, revisable, even replaceable) and not absolute”—and to show that such relativity is not identical to the relativism in which “anything goes” (14-15).

Fearing “different-strokes-for-different-folks hermeneutics” (48), Christians usually uphold “naive realism,” which maintains that our knowledge of reality is direct and not mediated, or appeal to method, which strives for rules that stabilize the “vertigo of relativity” (32). Both responses are themselves interpretations of interpretations, further proof of our incontrovertible status as hermeneutical creatures: to be human is to interpret.

Westphal offers three reasons why we should resist the fear of relativism. First, while the history of biblical interpretation in the church reveals plurality, it does not reveal that “each viewpoint is as good as any other,” hence the formation of orthodoxy through the condemnation of heresy (15). Second, “except for a recent pizza ad,” there are no actual candidates for an “anything goes” relativism (43). “Not even Nietzsche, one of the mostradical philosophical perspectivists, thinks that Christianity and Platonism are just as good as his own philosophy of the will to power” (15). And third, “we end up thinking ourselves (our interpretations) to be absolute (at least in principle). But only God is absolute. Both because we are creatures and not the Creator and because we are fallen and not sinless, our vision is imperfect, at once finite and fallen” (15).

Like an ancient mariner, Westphal navigates between the Scylla of “hermeneutical despair (‘anything goes’)” and the Charybdis of “hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation),” sailing toward—dare I say—the hermeneutical relativity of the apostle Paul, who was a Gadamerian avant la lettre (15). He reminds his audience that

we see and interpret “in a glass, darkly” or “in a mirror, dimly” and that we know “only in part” (1 Cor.13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all to the Holy Spirit (15).

Three sections divide the book. The first section gives the reader an accessible crash course in philosophical hermeneutics. Beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey, four features of “romantic” hermeneutics are detailed: (1) deregionalization, the application of hermeneutics beyond law, classical philology, and theology to all cultural texts; (2) hermeneutical circle, the notion that parts are interpreted vis-à-vis the whole, including grammatical-linguistic (textual) and psychological (authorial) dimensions; (3) psychologism, the assumption that language is primarily the outward expression of inward life, so that the purpose of interpretation is to reconstruct the author’s state of mind; and (4) objectivism, the aspiration for scientific, universally valid, rule-governed interpretation “to overcome the anarchy of opinions” (31-32).

Under the influence of postmodern thinkers, the first two features remain accepted while the last two have been challenged. Residual adherents to objectivism privilege the author as “the determiner of textual meaning” (47), because they are anxious about interpretation becoming autobiography. Westphal identifies this move as “my-way-or-the-highway hermeneutics (author as absolute monarch of meaning versus reader as textual terrorist)”(54).

The French trio—Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida—revoke authorial privilege, announcing the death of the godlike author. Neither author nor reader should be apotheosized; both are finite “cocreators of textual meaning” (61). Meaning arises in the I-Thou conversation between author and reader, so that interpretive practice is not merely reproductive but also productive.

Paul Ricoeur revokes authorial privilege by insisting on the autonomy of the text. Lest we fear the specter of relativism, he argues: “The text is a limited field of possible construction. . . . It is always possible to argue for or against an interpretation, to confront interpretations, to arbitrate between them, and to seek for an agreement, even if this agreement remains beyond our reach” (67). His dialectic of belonging—“the embeddedness of (human) author and reader alike in contingent and particular horizons, contexts, and perspectives”—and distanciation—“the adoption of methods of testing interpretations that render the reader as objective as possible and that treat the text as an object to be explained”—supplies “the indispensable ‘guardrail’ to interpretation, a necessary protection against lapsing into an ‘anything goes’ attitude” (67-68).

The second section lucidly expounds Hans-Georg Gadamer ’s theory. His fundamental thesis is that all interpretation belongs to tradition; “we would have to be either God or dead not to stand in some such particular and contingent place” (71). Westphal notes we are enabled and limited by multiple, equivocal traditions, inheriting “‘true’ (legitimate, enabling) and ‘false’ (illegitimate, misleading) prejudices” (75). “The fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment,” to which American evangelicals are particularly susceptible, “is the prejudice against prejudice itself” (77). Neither author nor method can rescue us from the reader’s relativity.4

The third section explores the implications of Gadamerian hermeneutics in the context of the church. In a brief excursus, Westphal recommends political liberalism as a model for the invisible church, which aspires for an “overlapping consensus,” and moral communitarianism as a model for the visible church, which safeguards the integrity of tradition. When “rhetoric can be as violent as any armaments” (133), both models equip the church to establish a witness of peace, however fragile, rather than “a cold war modus vivendi”(138).

Regarding “the church as a communal conversation of interpretation” (120), Gadamerian hermeneutics helps Christians recognize—at the descriptive level—that we always read the Bible from somewhere as opposed to nowhere, thus we cannot escape “hermeneutical circularity” (129). At the prescriptive level, we should practice “epistemic humility” (129) when interpreting the Bible by listening to the instruction of the Holy Spirit through the resources of other traditions, thereby befriending Christians with whom “we may find our disagreements are more like family quarrels than all-out warfare” (129).

Scripture, Westphal reminds us, is a mirror at once capable of showing us an honest reflection, if we obey the truth (James 1:22-25), and a dishonest reflection, if we “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Masterfully appropriating the insights of postmodern hermeneuticists, Westphal brings greater honesty to the interpretive practice of Christians by robustly acknowledging how “the divine nature of Scripture lives in dialectical tension not only with its own human origins but also with its ongoing human interpretation” (149). Only fear would suppress this dialectical tension, and what makes Whose Community? Which Interpretation? a gift to the church is precisely its fearlessness. Westphal is a philosopher who has heeded the command of Jesus, “Do not be afraid!”

This book, along with C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism and Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading, should be disseminated at the threshold of every church and seminary because the reader is not likely to read in the same way again. Gadamerian hermeneutics encourages habits of biblical interpretation that are, regrettably, in short supply today, cultivating a reader who will become more transparent than opaque, more questioned than questioning, more led than leading, and more irenic than irate.

Cite this article
Christopher Benson, “Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:2 , 243-246


  1. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (GrandRapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 25.
  2. Ibid., 110-111.
  3. Ibid., 110.
  4. Westphal has argued elsewhere that an author can no more dictate the interpretation of a text than acomposer can dictate the musical performance of a score. The score is autonomous from the composer,awaiting actualization in performance, where “there is no such thing as the interpretation of a given piece,since a variety of interpretations are compatible with what the score clearly requires and are judged musi-cally competent and sensitive by those best able to make discriminating judgments.” He adds this caveat:“While texts may well be too weak to determine their own interpretation single-handedly, they do have arather remarkable recalcitrance in the presence of arbitrariness.” See Merold Westphal, “Post-Kantian Re-flections on the Importance of Hermeneutics,” in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Per-spective, ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 60, 66.

Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson (St. John’s College, M.A., Missouri School of Journalism), writer and teacher in Denver, Colorado