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This is not quite the book I set out to write. My interest in hermeneutics initially arose out of my attempt as a theologian to clarify the role of Scripture in theology. What does it mean to be 'biblical'? As a systematic theologian with a number of forthright exegete friends, I have long been aware of how easy it is to use Scripture to prove this or that doctrine, or to justify this or that practice, only to be accused of distorting the text. Of course, one does not have to be a scholar to misread the Bible; it can happen during daily devotions as well as during deconstruction. However, recent trends in hermeneutics may themselves be inadvertently aiding and abetting such misreading by propounding theories of interpretation that, in my opinion, drain the biblical witness of authority. I thus began writing this book with the aim of defending the Bible from its cultured hermeneutic despisers. If theology is largely biblical interpretation, then it is important to work with sound hermeneutic principles.
In the course of writing the book, several things happened. First, I came to appreciate certain aspects of deconstruction in a way that I had not anticipated. Second, I came to see that I was dealing with questions whose reach extends far beyond the realm of biblical interpretation alone. Insofar as postmodernity is a 'culture of interpretation,' I found myself dealing with issues at the very heart of the debate about the postmodern.(1) I have come to think that the way individuals and communities interpret the Bible is arguably the most important barometer of larger intellectual and cultural trends.(2) Third, and most important, I became increasingly convinced that many of the contentious issues at the heart of current debates about biblical interpretation, about interpretation in general, and about postmodern interpretation in particular, were really theological issues. I began to see meaning as a theological phenomenon, involving a kind of transcendence, and the theory of interpretation as a theological task. Instead of a book on biblical interpretation, therefore, I have written a theology of interpretation. To be precise, it is a systematic and trinitarian theology of interpretation that promotes the importance of Christian doctrine for the project of textual understanding. What started out as a work in hermeneutic theology has become a book on theological hermeneutics.
N. T. Wright, in his excellent work on interpreting the Gospels, is under no illusion about the scope of the task facing today's student of the Bible, whether academic exegete or preacher. Fully to account for how to read the Gospels as historical, literary, and sacred texts demands much more than looking words up in a dictionary. The serious student of Scripture needs to develop an epistemology (theory of knowledge) and hermeneutic (theory of interpretation): 'Any philosophically minded literary critics looking for a worthwhile life's work might like to consider this as a possible project.'(3) My own view of the project is even more ambitious than Wright's, involving not only epistemology, but the metaphysics and ethics of meaning as well. Such is the task I here undertake --- to respond, from an explicitly Christian theological point of view, to the modern and postmodern challenges to biblical interpretation by marshaling a host of interdisciplinary resources and bringing them all to bear on the problems of textual meaning: Is there a meaning? Can we know it? What should we do about it?
I am aware that contemporary debates concerning theories of interpretation can be as intimidating to the lay reader as discussions of non-Euclidean geometry or quantum mechanics can be to the nonscientist. Nevertheless, meaning and interpretation are too important to be left to the specialists. Indeed, it follows from the Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers that every Christian wrestle for himself or herself with the complexity of biblical interpretation. Reading Scripture is both privilege and responsibility.
The present work challenges what amounts to an emerging consensus that sees meaning as relative to the encounter of text and reader. The interpretation of Scripture, on this view, owes as much to community tradition as to the canonical text itself. The view here defended --- that meaning is independent of our attempts to interpret it --- is a minority opposition view in the parliament of contemporary literary theory.
Several groups have, at different times and places, read or heard portions of the following arguments. Students at various institutions endured the gestation of many of its arguments. I am grateful to those who participated in the 'Biblical Interpretation' seminar at New College, Edinburgh, to my erstwhile doctoral students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who took part in my seminar on 'Meaning, Truth, and Scripture,' and to Tim Ward, one of my current doctoral students, who read most of the manuscript and offered helpful suggestions. Thanks also to those comparative literature students in Edinburgh University's 'Literary Theory' course for allowing a theologian to pose awkward questions concerning the ethics of interpretation. A word of thanks is also due the Working Party on the Interpretation of Scripture of the Church of Scotland's Panel on Doctrine for their ecumenical toleration of my attempt to draw a distinction between right and wrong interpretation. I especially appreciated their alerting me to the dangers of abstruseness inherent in my project of reinvigorating author-oriented interpretation through a creative retrieval of Reformed theology and speech-act philosophy.
1. The term 'interpretation' appears in the present work with two very different senses. The more positive sense (call it realist) treats interpretation as a mode of knowledge. The more negative sense (call it nonrealist) views interpretation as an exercise in human ingenuity and invention and fails to carry the connotation of knowledge.
2. This is so especially, but not exclusively, in Western societies. Had time and space permitted, I would have liked to have dealt more with the way emerging African and Asian theologies interpret the Bible and to explore how their approaches also reflect broader social and intellectual trends.
3. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 61.