Is Objectivity lost, or just playing hide-and-go-seek? Smith, Derrida, Carson, and maybe even Sailhamer

[This is a guest post by Tim Hankins and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

In the second chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-modernism, Smith argues that Derrida‘s assertion “there is nothing outside the text” is not the villain that the caricaturization by some in the Church have made it out to be. He does so by examining “whether Derrida’s claim that everything is interpretation is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.” Indeed he posits that Derrida’s assertion is appropriate and useful. His argument can be framed in the contrast between his fictional renditions of the events of the cross as seen by two fictitious natives of Jerusalem. The first is from the perspective of a Jew who saw Jesus as a pathetic Nazarene whose followers were deluded, the second from the perspective of a Roman centurion who proclaimed that truly this man is the son of God. He argues that both saw the same events and yet each had differing interpretations of those events. From this model, Smith argues that the Gospels themselves are interpretations and that is a good thing.  Conversely, Smith disagrees with Carson’s argument in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, that if the Gospels are only an interpretation then we can’t know if they are true. Smith pronounces that Carson’s argument “simply conflates truth with objectivity”. He posits that truth does not require objectivity.

I will readily admit that I have not read a translation of Derrida’s On Grammatology in English much less in Derrida’s French, so I have to assume that Smith accurately represents Derrida. Having said that, Smith presents Derrida as arguing against the trend to get at the events behind the text, that the reader’s access to those events is through the text itself, so that “there is nothing outside the text” (p.38). At this point it seems that Derrida is in cahoots with Sailhamer, so that Sailhamer’s Text or Event argument in Introduction to Old Testament Theology is simply a biblical application of Derrida’s principle. Yes the events themselves happened, but scripture is the divine interpretation, the “God’s Associated Press” news articles on (then) current events. This idea does have much to commend it. First and foremost, as Derrida and his sidekick Sailhamer profess, attempts to reconstruct the events from the accounts given in the text miss the point, it is the text that informs us, the text that is inspired, the text that we learn from, not the events. We cannot access the events themselves. We have no window, no fourth dimensional rewind to use to go back and watch the events of which the Bible speaks for ourselves. What is more, even if we did, we might have a very different take than what is written in scripture!  So we necessarily are to rely on the text because it is God’s interpretation on those events, and thus by definition TRUE. Apologetically then this view might provide Christians a way to refute differing claims, other interpretations of the events depicted in scripture; that just because someone else interprets the events differently does not invalidate the divine scriptural interpretation or make it any less TRUE.

I am quite comfortable with Smith’s argument thus far, at least assuming I am correctly understanding and representing him here. But within the larger discussion of subjectivity and objectivity, Smith is identifying the events as the objective, and interpretation of those events as subjective interpretation. Yet it is at this point in his argument that I find Smith’s argument to become a bit . . . squirrely. Up to this point he has pretty solidly used the events as the object, text as subjective interpretation, but without warning he shifts the object to the text (scripture) and the subject to the readers of scripture (p.51 Texts in Community). He suddenly starts “applying” his principle in interpretation of scripture, a distinctly different subject than scripture as the interpretation of events. Yet he does not even camp out here, but the shifts once again (p. 54 Seeing the World through the Word) so that the object is the world and we are the subjects interpreting the things we see, which he argues should be through the interpretive lens of scripture. While objectivity is not necessarily Smith’s main point, he makes enough of an issue about it that I am surprised that he abandons it without much ado.

While I agree that scripture is a TRUE “subjective” interpretation of “objective” events, when we shift things to look at scripture as the object, would scripture not then be “objectively TRUE”? It would seem that Carson’s argument is not necessarily antithetical to Derrida’s (as presented by Smith). They simply have differing objects. Carson (again as presented by Smith) seems to be arguing that when it comes to scriptural interpretation, reading and understanding the Bible, that the authority lies in the object, the Bible. which is TRUE. This means that scripture can be both the subjective divine interpretation of events, without threatening its truth as the object of Christian study. Thus the Bible remains objectively TRUE and subjective interpretation simultaneously.

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Posted on November 27, 2010, in Philosophical Theology, Th.M. Program, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.

  1. @Tim Hankins,

    It almost seems as if you’re speaking of “Scripture” as if its a person; and that you’re attributing to it traits that seem more applicable to God’s self-interpreting ‘Word’ or Jesus (cf. Jn. 1.18) — vs. an inanimate text.

    Why not shift what you’re saying about Scripture to Jesus, and simply recognize that the Text of Scripture is “The” set of ‘spectacles’ that authoritatively bear witness to the “Living Word,” by the Holy Spirit’s ministry of pointing beyond Himself?

  2. Bobby, I am trying to address how James Smith is dealing with “the text” in his effort to use Derrida in a positive light for the Church. Since Smith’s argument deals specifically with the Bible as a text, rather than Jesus Christ as the Living Word, I must do likewise to criticize him fairly on his shifting subject/object. To do otherwise I think would be to miss Smith as badly as he has Carson.

  3. a3w275,

    I realize you’re doing descriptive stuff, mostly; but your last paragraph gets a little into your own “constructive-like” musings, I just thought I would prod you a little further on that to see what you think 😉 .

    I think your description and interaction is good.

  4. I think we should first clarify what Derrida means by ‘there is nothing outside-text’. As I understand it he does not accept the dichotomy of ‘written’ text v. ‘speech’ or ‘text’ as either writing or speaking as a mediation v. a so-called ‘unmediated’ ‘event’ as something experienced directly without mediation. Rather, he is playing games with us here saying that essentially ‘everything is mediated’.

    There is a misconception that, let’s say, if we were present at an event to witness it that this would free us from ‘text’, or mediation by which we understand something. So if we were present while Jesus spoke a parable we would understand it better than if we read it as described in one of the canonical gospels. While I am not sure if Derrida would see proximity as providing any sort of benefit he does say that this being present, this hearing, is still mediated and therefore–this is where his statement comes into play–“there is nothing outside-text”.

    I don’t think the either-or of this post captures Derrida’s juxtaposition. Derrida likely would not say “the Bible is as good an account as being present” or “the Bible is as good a source read directly as it is by someone with a knowledge of the social-historical context from which the text derives” (he may or may not say this; I don’t know). He is saying that everything is “read”, all is “text”, there is always “interpretation/reading”.

    • Thanks Tim for a helpful summary of the book. Thanks also Brian for offering some clear distinctions. I feel like the quote ‘everything is mediated’ really sums up what Smith is trying to say. However, let’s not forget the application that he is trying to communicate. Seems to me that Smith desires to call us all to remain in a humble posture.

      In his estimation (and mine), if everything is mediated, we are called to a life in faith, and not empiric knowing (modernity). I feel like that’s important to point out, especially in a culture like Portland that has felt the wrath of the black and white all too often. I guess this is where it gets a little tricky, this whole faith business is difficult.

    • Brian – perhaps I will change my other post opposing neuro-chemical medication for normal people like me because I am agreeing with your ‘interpretation’ Derrida’s notion of ‘there is nothing outside-text’. It is always about mediated interpretation.

    • If you are agreeing with me I do recommend making some changes! 😉

  5. I may add that, as I understand it, Derrida was attacking the preference given to speech over against writing. Since Plato it seems people have preferred hearing directly because it is not mediated. The person speaks, the sound of the voice is the only lesser-mediation (along with other non-verbal expressions), and therefore we have a more ‘direct access’ to the meaning of the speaking. Derrida did not see this as being any more direct than written text, therefore, “there is nothing outside-text”. Spoken word is just as easy to misinterpret as written word.

  6. @Brian –
    Given that I have not read Derrida directly, I cannot comment on the mediated/unmediated distinction you have noted. However your take on what Derrida means by “Nothing outside the text” is different than that of Smith. Are you critiquing Smith as missing Derrida’s actual point, or of leaving out a critical nuance? Or are you saying I missed or misrepresented Smith’s argument?

    I must say I certainly did not catch that nuance in Smith’s argument if it was there, however I am curious how you see this impacting Smith’s argument that Derrida’s assertion should be embraced by the Church as useful rather than anathema.

  7. @a3w275:

    Smith is an expert on Derrida so I don’t think I’d be qualified to challenge him. That being said, I have been reading Derrida, and a dozen or so of his interpreters, for my term paper. The context in which his statement was written–I believe first in On Grammatology–does not argue that (a) there is no meaning outside of marks-and-dashes type texts or (b) that we have no need to think of authorial intent, audience, or historical context.

    If fact, Derrida was a strict reader. He had a method called ‘double reading’ which, as I understand it, (1) sought the authorial intent prior to (2) watching for the deconstruction of the text (Derrida did not believe he deconstructed texts but that texts deconstruct themselves). So all the things that we think matter when we communicate mattered to Derrida.

    I tried to give a full-bodied interpretation here: http://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/interpreting-derrida-there-is-no-outside-text/

  8. Nice post, Tim. I thought the connection to Sailhammer was particularly interesting.

    I do think Brian’s done a good job pointing out Derrida’s idea that “everything is mediated.” I think that’s what Smith was trying to get at with his discussion of event/text, text/reader, and world/individual. All three cases involve an interpretation of some kind and in none of them does the individual knower have direct (unmediated) access to the “object” in question. (Anyone hear Kant in there anywhere?) So, interpretation is just about “reading texts” but about all of life.

  9. So, the key questions become do you agree that all of life is interpretation and, if so, do you think this causes any problems for Christian theology? As Andreas points out, Smith thinks this is actually a good thing and should lead to greater theological humility. Do you agree or do you think it might actually result in undermining our confidence in the truth of Scripture?

  10. And, while I’m throwing questions out there, what do you think of Derrida’s understanding of deconstruction? Brian mentioned that briefly in his comment and it comes up in the chapter as well. Do you find this to be a useful idea?

  11. @Marc: It is funny that as I do my paper contrasting Gadamer and Derrida it has become evident how Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and others impact hermeneutics. The “subject-object” divide is an important topic. It is especially important in regards to how we interpret the “text” of the world around us (not just marks-and-dashes on paper).

    Honestly, I do not see how subjectivity is avoidable. This does not mean that we don’t seek to communicate. It doesn’t mean that we don’t seek to interpret. But for Derrida, and Gadamer, and most everyone post-Heidegger, it seems that there is no avoiding that interpretation includes the interpreter as much as the interpreted.

    For both Gadamer and Derrida interpretation finds an analogy in “play”. Like when you “play” baseball. You are not standing outside of play, you are not able to just watch play, but play is something that consumes you. Interpretation is the same way. We don’t control language; language controls us. Once we enter into discussion we become part of the process.

    It seems many want to maintain a Schleiermacher-esque approach where the text has a static meaning that we must withdraw with glove, brush off, and show to the world. But text are “living”. Every time a text meets a new interpreter the “play” resumes and since it has new participants it will have new “meaning”.

    When Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was read aloud it surely had something that Paul wanted to say, but there is no doubt, like any modern sermon, everyone in the room heard Paul differently. This subjectivity doesn’t ruin truth if we realize the whole of the hermeneutical circles matters.

    Finally, I will say, after studying Derrida a bit, I do find value in deconstruction. Derrida was raised an Algerian Jew under the influence of the Vichy government of France. He knew what it meant to be an outsider. In an interview I watched Derrida says of deconstruction that it is, in part, “to not naturalize what isn’t natural–to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural.” In other words, deconstruction will read a text waiting for the absurdness of Vichy French antisemitism to expose itself.

    I think we Christians could learn from Derrida. When Republicans or Democrats; MSNBC, CNN, or FOX; MTV or VH1; Paris, New York, or D.C.; tell us the “universal truth” of the world we should allow the internal contradictions to expose themselves. Too often we are too quick to swallow all that the media shoves in our face. If we can learn anything from Derrida it is to “not naturalize what isn’t natural”.

    • Brian, great comment. You’re right, the subject-object issue is one of the most fundamental questions of philosophy (and theology), and one that fundamentally shapes your hermeneutic (at the very least). I’m looking forward to reading your paper.

      I’m curious what you think about the constant “play” of language and the continual “deferral” of meaning that it entails. Many people are bothered by the fact that this suggests there is no “real” meaning to be understood, but at best just an ephemeral meaning that always recedes into the distance. All we’re left with are socially-constructed (and politically imposed) meanings. And, they’re concerned that this really robs interpretation of any real significance. You’re really not understanding the text, you’re only using the text to construct your own meaning.

      Similarly, how does deconstruction play out with respect to the biblical texts? Since all texts inevitably deconstruct themselves, why would the biblical texts be any different? Correspondingly, if the biblical texts don’t deconstruct themselves, then wouldn’t this suggest that deconstruction and deferred meaning are not as inevitable as Derrida suggests?

  12. @Marc: I have been wrestling with these questions, especially since at the end of my paper I want to explore whether Gadamer and/or Derrida have anything to contribute to Christian hermeneutics. Let me say what I think now though I admit it is not fully developed.

    I think what must be understood about the “play” of a text is it does bring itself. Some see play as a slippery-slope to pure reader response. Neither Gadamer nor Derrida would affirm such a thing. Both would say that the reader’s participation in the reading process is simply unavoidable. Gadamer seems to provide safeguards to help the reader like tradition; Derrida is skeptical of tradition though he too works within tradition and it seems he didn’t even see his own “radical” views as being possible without a tradition from within which he could work.

    So play demands that we try to understand the text.

    A good example of this would be to enter “1 Corinthians commentary” into Amazon.com. Then see all the results. If we take a look at each commentary we will note a seemingly infinite amount of differences, though some less drastic than others. That being said there also seems to be a sense that most people have a similar idea of what 1 Corinthians is “about” though each reader’s particular emphasis will determine there overall interpretive framework.

    So our ability to get the “gist” of something seems possible, and it should be what we seek, and it is only fair to the author of a text to do so.

    As regards deconstruction this is difficult. It would be begging the question to assume that Scripture is immune. That being said, we Christians hold a higher view of Scripture than other forms of literature from one degree to another. Equally, we realize Scripture is the story of God through humans voices and human language so as with any piece of literature, since “text” is never perfect or static, there may be a sense in which it does deconstruct itself–but then we must ask what emerges from this deconstruction and where the Holy Spirit comes into play as another “reader” in the process. Very difficult to answer.

  13. I’ve wondered if the ideas of play and continuous deferral could be placed within an eschatological framework for hermeneutics – i.e. the meaning of the text is continuously deferred toward an eschatological telos of more complete understanding. (Did that make any sense?) I don’t know how adequate that would be for capturing what Derrida was trying to say, but I like the eschatological perspective.

    Re: deconstruction, you’re right that this is where many would simply deny that we can understand Scripture using a “general hermeneutic” derived independently of Scripture. Instead, we need to use a hermeneutical approach appropriate to its own particular reality. But, I like that you pointed out how easily this can lapse into special pleading. What we need is a more robust “ontology” of Scripture (to use John Webster’s language) that accounts for the difference.

  14. @Marc
    My concern with the idea of eschatalogical deferral idea is that the Bible gives a certain amount of instruction and direction as well as commands that seem to require present knowledge & understanding of scripture. I heartily agree that none of us will be able to fully understand scripture this side of the eschaton, nevertheless it does seem that not only can we know & undestand scripture but we must know & understand scripture now. Brian mentioned that “play” demands that we try to understand the text, but I propose that not only do we try, but scripture implies that we can indeed succeed in that effort this side of eternity.

    For example take the Gospel. You may read it one way, and I slightly different, yet we agree that if we vary too far from a certain point that the Gospel has been changed and is no longer the same thing. Therefore there has to be a core “objective” understanding of what the Gospel is that remains constant beyond the interpretive differences that we as readers bring to the text.

  15. I don’t understand why there must be an “objective” understanding. I think this minces the word “understanding” to mean that it is this object that the subject can observe and understand from a disconnected posture. Any time we interact with the gospel, or a text describing the gospel, it has a meaning and a significance that is altered.

    When a Christian reads Jn. 3.16 and when an atheist reads Jn. 3.16 the meaning is not the same. There is not an “objective” neutral ground. We may be able to agree on some grammar, syntax, context, and maybe, just maybe, a hypothesis for author, authorial intent, original audience, and the like (though a survey of all the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel seems to only further prove the seemingly impossible task associated with this approach to reading Scripture). But that doesn’t mean that all interpretation is inherently “play” and that each engagement is a new engagement.

    That being said, this does not force us into a reader-response hermeneutic as some would want us to believe. Every engagement includes the text. The text does say something though because the nature of language is so unstable it doesn’t say it as Romantic literary theorist would have us believe.

    • Brian, I think I understand what you’re saying and your posts on Deridda (I’ve been reading at your blog) are helping me further so thanks. My only problem at this point is that although I can agree with Deridda that everything is interpretation, I cannot agree that this implies that objective truth does not exist or cannot be arrived at. We all bring natural biases to a text and we all intepret through a grid of presuppositions that we carry. Thus, Deridda’s appeal not to make the unnatural natural is highly appealing to me. I think he is just calling everyone to think! If this implies though that objectivity is dismissed or incapable of being arrived at, then I don’t see how this isn’t relativism. Indeed, Deridda seems to think (According to Smith) that “deconstruction” does not imply that we cannot know – thus the need for things like community and tradition – but I”m having trouble seeing where you stop deconstruction. Does that makes sense?

  16. I think I was struck, in reading Smith’s comments on Derrida, that he is not as relativistic as he is usually made out to be. This seems to be the biggest problem we hear from Christians in regard to Derrida, deconstruction, and Postmodernism as a whole. This stems from this question that Marc brings up of all life being interpreted because then one could conclude that everyone has their own equally valid interpretation of a particular thing.

    Thus if I see something in front of me that has all of the attributes of a coffee mug, I will interpret it as a coffee mug. However, if someone else sees it and has no interpretive framework to equate it to a coffee mug, perhaps they see it as a neat planter with a convenient handle. Both are interpretations of the same ‘text’ but one would be different from what the coffee mug community determines this thing to be. In this sense, the second person has an interpretation and there is some validity in it because you could use a coffee mug to do this, but the interpretation in community shows it should best be understood as a coffee mug.

    I think this is what Derrida is getting out (if I am understanding this correctly). There is a plurality of interpretations, but this doesn’t mean they are equally valid. Instead there is a better interpretation tied to the community understanding. I think this aspect has been overlooked by those critiquing Derrida, at least from what I have heard.

    I think it can be a boon to our interpretive method stressing the various interpretations and evaluating them based on what the community understands or agrees upon. Thus we have a well established Christian ‘community’ over the centuries that we can evaluate scriptural interpretations. Of course we are also a community of the Spirit who brings understanding to scripture. I think there is no threat here to interpretive method.

    To me this was illustrated in Smith’s use of The Matrix (loved his movie choices by the way). He spoke of the Platonic aspects of the movie. Someone who was familiar with these would have seen this elements right away in the movie, just as many Christians saw the Christian references. in the same way there are also references to Eastern religions. Therefore these ‘interpretations’ are all seen separately in the same ‘text’ and all are valid. However, when we communicate with those with these other interpretations, we can get a deeper understanding of the symbolism and allusion that the Wachowski brothers were channeling and thus appreciate the movie more. there is still a community of movie watchers that can evaluate interpretations and determine which are way out there and which are on target.

    In the same way a particular text of scripture may have a few different interpretations. Some of these can be unfamiliar to my own, but when I hear it it can add to what my understanding is. There is also still a interpretive community to evaluate what seems off base. We actually pretty much already do this.

    Anyway this went longer than intended, but I think Smith’s point in addressing Derrida is to show that we have misrepresented and that there is value in seeing everything as interpretive and that it does not necessarily create purely relativistic readings of “texts”.

  17. @Andy: What I find valuable about Smith’s analogy of The Matrix that you have relayed here is that it is an example of the fact that language controls us, we don’t control language. I am sure that the Wachowski brothers embedded ideas that many of us miss. Likewise, I am sure many of us see things that may rightly be there that the Wachowski brothers did not consciously intend.

    While “authorial intent” matters it is not the last word. It assumes the authors control language, always choose the best symbol, and never say things that can be so multifaceted that they extricate multiple readings. We should seek to hear the author for the play of hermeneutics isn’t a reader alone in a room but we should not think we can (a) reconstruct the psychology of the author or (b) assume that the author had full control of the language s/he used.

  18. Tim, I think the mistake is to suppose that the objectivity resides in my knowledge rather than in the thing being known. No matter how well I know something, it is still me doing the knowing. Hence, knowledge is inherently subjective (i.e. involving the subject in a way that necessarily shapes the content of the knowledge). Objectivity isn’t lost, it just isn’t located in me (ever). We find common ground in the fact that we are both trying to understand the same reality. But, we recognize that insofar as we are distinct subjects with distinct perspectives, our knowledge of that reality will always differ importantly from the reality itself and from the understanding of the other person.

    The Gospel is a great example here. I think I understand the Gospel rather well. But, I guarantee that I understand it differently than you do. Even if we used the exact same words to describe the Gospel, we would still be understanding it differently. There is common ground, not because we have grasped truth objectively, but because we are both committed to understanding the same reality. (And, because we operate within the same interpretive community – as Andy points out.) The eschatological deferral of meaning doesn’t rob us of understanding, but it’s a chastened understanding that always recognizes the incompleteness. (Indeed, I find the idea rather appealing because it gives me basis for talking about a deferral of meaning that continues on into the eschaton, thus allowing me to envision eternal growth understanding the one who is Truth.)

  19. Brian, regarding your point about authors not having full control of the language that they use, what implications do you think that might have for understanding the biblical authors themselves? Would that suggest that they also meant more than they realized and that we are justified in finding truths/meanings/implications in the text that would not have been in their minds or the minds of their intended readers?

  20. @Marc: I do. I think any time we speak/write we do our best to provide a signifier that corresponds to the signified (i.e. a word, sentence, phrase that conveys our thought process). But as anyone who has ever “misspoke” knows, or been misunderstood knows, the correspondence is far from perfect.

    The gist is often conveyed (sometimes not) but each element has its imperfections. When a biblical author writes he is limited by his own categories (e.g. if he sees a vision he can convey it using only those things he knows…like in the Book of Revelation). Our symbols and metaphors are never the thing in itself. Often it is essential for the hearer/reader to have some common ground (e.g. language, “worldview”, shared symbols) for communication to occur. But since all this happens in a “play” between two it is inevitable that at times a reader/hearer will grasp something better than it is communicated.

    A funny example is in the Gospel of John where Caiaphas says that it is better that one man die than all the people perish. The evangelist seems to say, “No kidding! If only you knew what you mean by that.” Caiaphas is thinking the survival of the Jews as a whole under Roman occupation is better than letting Jesus go. The evangelist thinks those words are better fulfilled in seeing the people as rescued from the judgment than if Christ would be spared.

    Did Isaiah mean there would be a suffering servant, singular, one person or the nation? Well, if you are the Apostle Paul you say, “If Isaiah only knew how Israel would fail at her vocation he would really know the true meaning of his words…this is Christ!”

    In part, the hermeneutical circle includes the hearer/reader as well as the speaker/writer. The data, the place in history, the scenarios involved…these leave language in control of us. Language morphs, moves, and is living. I think this has great implications for Scripture and I think it may be in part why we have such a hard time understanding apostolic exegesis because our lens of “objectivity” is something we have imported on the communicative task.

    • Brian, would you be comfortable drawing the conclusion, then, that we can and should find meanings in the text that might not have been in the minds of the biblical authors or the original hearers/readers? In other words, if people always communicate more than they intend, shouldn’t this impact how we read Scripture today?

  21. Yeah, I’d be comfortable with it.

    One great case study: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” is a line written and affirmed by men who had slaves. Authorial intent seems to nuance this statement but a full meaning, an authoritative meaning, a constitutional meaning, is more than the author’s but also the readers’ that built upon this statement.

  22. What?! Have you not seen the ‘Jefferson Bible’?

  23. I have found this entire discussion fascinating. I am completely out of my comfort zone though b/c I still hold to “objective” truth that may be known and is universal. I have to agree to many of the things I’ve read from Brian about the text being a living organism that morphs and can have different interpretations. The one thing Deridda does that seems to help is that he ties these interpretations to community and tradition and so does not give license for one to interpret however they want. He does say that there is such thing as good interpretation (which is not usually ascribed to PoMo stances). Some interpreations are better than others.
    However, I’m not comfortable with saying that we can find meanings in the Biblical text that may not have been in the mind of the authors or hearers, but at the same time I can’t deny that this is exactly what happens in places like Psalm 22 (and places that Brian notes). Did David know that he was speaking about the crucifixion of the Messiah? My question would be, can we still do this today? It seems we can look at what the authors said and know they meant more b/c of revelation that was still being given. Revelation carrying the authority of Jesus or apostolic writing no longer exists. We live with illumination. If that is the case, then can we continue to read more into the text than what the author intended b/c we do not have the revelation that the authors did? I’m being torn apart by this, seeing the validity of the argument but questioning at what point you say “enough!” If we believe this, can we really criticize guys like McClaren and the doctrine of Open Theism? They are interpretations, and although some community would say not good ones, what authority are we standing on? Can you say the authority of revelation if revelation is interpretation? I’m not as enthusiastic or convinced that “objectivity” should be as discounted as I hear some people claiming. Would someone please set me straight?!

  24. @bcash32 – I guess it is a matter of who “sets you straight”. I can guarantee even among the faculty there are differing opinions on how this works out. However, as you may have figured out already, I too believe that there is indeed a universal objective truth which is knowable. Blame it on my naivete and philosophical simplicity. 🙂

    I do think though that it would be argued that the authority of revelation comes from the fact that it is the divine interpretation of historical events, where divine = perfect/true/authoritative. The text then becomes the Object which we as readers (including McLaren & Open Theists) interpret. As I noted earlier, I do think it is important to keep that distinction. Blurring the lines between events/history as object and text as object is something which has been happening in the church for far too long (see Sailhamer ref above).

  25. I am still waiting for the person who actually knows the universal objective truth so they can display it to us all! 😉

  26. Tim: The problem seems to be that if there is objective truth (revelation), but interpretation is always subjective (and all communication is interpretation), there would be no way to convey objective truth. This would include divine revelation.

    Brian: Is this where we make the Barthian appeal to Jesus. He always gave that Sunday School answer!

  27. Brian, what are you talking about? I’ve been delivering objective truth all semester. Apparently you missed it. Sorry about that.

  28. I still think there’s a bit of a tendency to blur the line between the existence of objective truth and whether or not we can have objective knowledge of that truth. Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that there is objective truth (there is). I’d like to see more about what it means to know something “objectively.” Does it mean that the content of your knowledge matches precisely the truth being known (i.e. everything you know about X matches precisely the reality about X)? I suppose there are things that can be known in such a way (e.g., mathematical formulas, tautologies, etc.). But, that still leaves the majority of our knowledge in a different state.

    Let’s consider a fairly straightforward theological example, the proposition “God exists.” Is it objectively true that God exists? Yes. But, if I believe the proposition “God exists,” do I have “objective” knowledge? I would say no. That’s because the truth of my belief is necessarily shaped and limited by what I understand by “God” and what I understand it to mean that “God exists.” Since my understanding of both of these is limited and colored, necessarily falling short of the reality it seeks to apprehend, then the truth of my belief is also limited and colored.

    Now, this is different from saying that my belief is false. That’s what we would say in the case of a person who believes that God is the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When that person believes “God exists,” their knowledge is not true. Same proposition, “God exists,” but two radically different results based on the cognitive state of the knower.

    So, I would say that my knowledge of the proposition “God exists” is not “objectively” true, but I would still say that it is adequately true (i.e. adequate to the reality it seeks to apprehend).

    Thus, none of this means that we need to affirm epistemological relativity either. There is still a reality that we seek to apprehend, and the adequacy of our knowledge can still be assessed with respect to that reality. What it does mean is that we cannot draw a straight line from our knowledge to the objective reality that it seeks to apprehend. At the very least, that line goes through our own cognitive framework and the community within which we understand and make claims. That necessarily makes the process of assessing truth claims messier, but such is life.

  29. Marc,
    So if objective truth exists but we cannot have objective knowledge of it, does this mean that all our understandings, or claims of truth, are flawed and incomplete? I can see how this can be argued for, especially in the realm of God (God exists. How? In a Trinitarian relationship. How? and the questioning of the two year old goes on indefinitely). But, if this is true then how can we be certain that anything we know is legitimate or adequately true? Through the filter of community? Why should we trust that if their understanding of “truth” is just as subjective and “not adequately known” as mine? There would always be a huge question mark around every affirmation of “truth” we claim to know, and this is relativism to me. (Maybe Socrates was onto something)

  30. @Billy: Why do we need to know if something is absolutely certain? We don’t live that way. We don’t know absolutely if our spouses will love us till death do us part, but we live on the basis of our limited knowledge combined with hope. We cannot prove the resurrection but we can combine positive data with a lot of faith and hope.

  31. Brian: Agreed, but this becomes a circular argument for me. For example, Smith says at the end of chapter one that deconstruction “should push [Christians] to ask ourselves whether the biblical text is what truly governs our seeing of the world.” He still hasn’t answered the question, Why we should see the biblical text this way? Why should we consider it better than a Buddhist interpretation? Or a Muslim interpretation? It seems that he undercuts the appeal to authority based upon subjectivity. Thus, live your life according to this “truth” b/c it’s your best guess and is a better interpretation of life? I may not be certain that my wife will love me till death do us part, but my wife never claimed to be God and “truth” (did Jesus mean this objectively in Jn. 14:6). She never claimed to be completely just, holy, and righteous and free from any association with lying and wrongdoing. God did! It seems we’re left to conclude that some interpretations are better than others (Christianity is better than Buddhist), but we can’t know this “truely.” This may be where Smith appeals to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. He might agree with me and say, Yes, that’s why we need the Holy Spirit convicting and convincing us that the gospel is a better and more true interpretation than Buddhism and giving us faith and hope. But, I can’t tell if he’s saying that or if he even would.

  32. Acknowledging subjectivity doesn’t equate to relativity. Also, I wouldn’t say that just because we are the subject that this means there isn’t knowledge or truth. Gadamer for instance would find the meaning in the interaction between the object-subject (something he calls “play”). So if God is a personal being when we seek him as truth it is not just us putting some inanimate object under a microscope applying scientific method to understand it. In fact, God may be the object for us but for Him we are the subject and He knows us perfectly while we know him progressively. I think the break down of much evangelical theology is that is almost speaks of God as an “it”…as an impersonal “truth” like 2 + 2 = 4.

  33. First some disclaimers: I don’t know much about Derrida, and I didn’t read through the comments.

    While there may be some overlap between Sailhamer and Derrida (I have no comment on this), a close association between the two seems to me to be going too far. I have never heard or read the former cite the latter in my interactions with him over the last 7 years. I heard and read him cite Ernesti (see his JETS article on this person) and Frei, although he puts his own twist on things in the end.

    What I would say from my experiences with Sailhamer is that understanding him has taken and continues to take a long time (i.e., years). I’ve gotten into the habit of taking detours into his footnotes so that I can better understand what he is saying. Reading the articles and books that he cites (or mentioned in conversation) is a lot more work, but personally I can understand his writing better that way.

  34. Thank you Tim for this post it helps.
    As Marc mentioned (somewhere above–by the way does Tim get extra credit for having so many responses associate with his post?) I like the connection to Sailhamer. I look in his book and he doesn’t mention Derrida directly but it seems that Hans W. Frei and his book on The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, place a role in Sailhamer’s development (notice p 36 in Introduction to Old Testament Theology).
    Also Marc thanks for the clarification on objective truth and our ability to know it. I can’t deny that interpretation plays such a significant role but at the same time I can’t deny that there is objective truth.

  35. Late comer to the discussion, I’ll copy my response where this discussion was linked to on a discussion at greenbaggins of Sailhamers new book:

    YIKES!!! Here are some telling lines:

    I will readily admit that I have not read a translation of Derrida’s On Grammatology in English much less in Derrida’s French, so I have to assume that Smith accurately represents Derrida.

    The problem is that any good conservative interpretation of Scripture stands on the extra-textual referentiality of the Scriptural passage to the events which the narrative points. That is, according to the correspondence theory of truth, do the texts refer to the historical event faithfully? If so, in which way?

    Drawing a straight line between Sailhamer and Carson to Derrida is preposterous. I assume the author of this post hasn’t read Carson’s tome The Gagging of God where he demolishes the postmodern hermenutic as a fundamental “de-godding of God”. They probably haven’t listened to his Biblical Theology lectures where he call’s Brevard Childs and the Yale school of interpreters “bibliolotrists” for erroniously refusing to deal with anything other than the text itself. To Childs and many of the Dialectical theologians such as Barth and OT scholars such as Eichrodt, Von Rad, and Link, it doesn’t matter if the text doesn’t faithfully depict real events, since the text merely points to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God, and not to the history of Israel itself.

    This post is an uncharitable depiction of Carson and Sailhamer. Sailhamer is attempting to posit an intelligent account of the composition of the Pentateuch, while maintaining that the meaning and extra textual referents (real events) are true on both theological and historical planes. Sailhamer’s essential position that the point of the Pentateuch is to encourage faith as opposed to merely administer Law is in keeping with Pauline and Reformed theology. His insistence that the Pentateuch is not only theological (noumenal), but also historical (phenomenal) flies directly against the Kantian and exestential categories that find their ultimate conclusions in postmodern hermenutics.

    The article you provided has only obscured the fundamental points for which Sailhamer and Carson write.

  36. @jed –
    I thank you for giving me perspective on all the authors I have read and misrepresented, because I now understand how they must feel when it happens to them. I am sorry you find my post “an uncharitable depiction of Carson and Sailhamer” because in truth I have nothing but the highest respect for both. Indeed, I use Sailhamer’s argument in text vs. event as a guiding principle in hermeneutics. But I have to wonder if you have read Smith, the primary source which I am dealing with here. If not, it might help you understand where I am coming from with this post. I most certainly affirm both the reality of the events of scripture, and the truthfulness of Scripture’s recounting of them. But what the Bible says is the divine perspective on the events. I am confident that there were others who lived through the events of scripture that had differing opinions on what the events of their lives meant. Yet scripture gives us a specific perspective, and that means that it is an interpretation. That is Smith’s argument. You and & I cannot view those events for ourselves, and even if we were able to watch them first hand through some sort of time-travel TV, how we view those becomes OUR interpretation of events! Yet it is the fact that God is perfect and holy and good that makes His interpretation the right one, the one which we believe and embrace.
    Now as for drawing a straight line between Sailhamer & Derrida, that just isn’t so since it goes by way of Smith’s representation of Derrida, unless you take too literally my sidekick reference in which case you too have fallen afoul of my sense of humor. 🙂

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