in Hermeneutics

The Inescapable Subjectivity of Hermeneutics. Part 1: Posing the Problem

In any serious study of the biblical texts, one inevitably comes across many different and even contradictory positions both on (a) what the texts actually say; and (b) what we are to do with those texts.  Pick any number of biblical passages — even passages that many of us assume are obvious or straight-forward — and it is possible to find a great host of very intelligent, well-intentioned people in complete disagreement about what is said and what it might mean (for us today).
Upon first recognising this dilemma, a common reaction is to turn to questions of methodology.  Yet, what one finds is that there are a good many ways of reading Scripture — utilising everything from lectio divina, literary, and canonical approaches, to studies of rhetoric, of redaction, of social sciences, of theology, of narrative, of tradition, of linguistics, and so on — and there is no clarity on which methods to combine with which other methods, or which approaches to privilege above others.  Furthermore, although one may be tempted to try to master all of these approaches (and treat them all equally), one will quickly find that there is so much research to study and so much fruit to be found, in each approach, that one must inevitable choose to focus more in one area, and less in another.
Yet there is no clear or universally compelling criteria for selecting an hermeneutical methodology (if there were, one would not be confronted with this dilemma).  Consequently, no matter how internally consistent and logical any hermeneutical method might be, once one enters into it, one must still make the uncomfortably subjective choice to enter into that method and privilege it.  Thus, those who privilege rhetorical criticism find arguments based upon lexical studies to be compelling, but those who privilege a reading based upon the history of the Christian tradition might find such arguments to be less compelling, and those who privilege a reading in the style of the lectio divina might think such studies are entirely worthless.
Of course, most people will accept some arguments and reject other arguments from each of the methods represented and (despite each person’s protestations to the contrary) this is also a fairly subjective endeavour.  What might appear to be a logical process of selection to one person, will look illogical to another.
Now some might want to suggest that the dilemma I am mapping out is related to the ‘rampant individualism’ of our Western culture.  This, they might say, is what happens when individuals prioritise their own thoughts above the authority of the magisterium or the authority of the Church, or the authority of the early ecumenical councils, or the authority of the Reformers, or the authority of the Church Mothers and Fathers, or the authority of tradition, or… do you see where I am going with this?  Those who raise this sort of objection have made the equally subjective decision to prioritise one (or some combination) of these things as an authoritative guide to hermeneutics.  So, this dilemma is not so easily brushed aside; it is  one that confronts all of us.
Furthermore, this dilemma isn’t subsumed or brushed aside by the (increasingly) standard hermeneutical resolution of the poles of objectivity and subjectivity within ‘critical realism’ (or some derivative thereof).  While this is an handy general approach to recognising both our own internal subjectivity and an historical reality external to us (which we can know, at least, in part) it doesn’t, itself, map out how we gain access to historical knowledge or to what is said and meant by any given text.  ‘Critical realism’ provides those who accept it with some comfort that something can be known about that which we believe exists outside of ourselves, but it doesn’t tell us much about how that something can be known.
If this isn’t bad enough, we are also confronted with the observation that none of us comes to hermeneutics as a blank slate.  We are all inescapably shaped and molded by the people around us, and by the environment into which we are born.  Of course, we are usually blind to the extent of these influences — we tend to think that we are simply following ‘common sense’ and thereby forget that this form of ‘sense’ is only common to certain people in certain places at certain times.
The result of this is that any of our attempts to determine what a text says, and means, is never as objective or logical as we think it is, or want it to be.  More often then not, it is these cultural influences which determine which readings we prioritise, which methods we prefer, and which examples of other methods we accept or reject.
We are, therefore, confronted with the inescapable subjectivity of hermeneutics, and of all of our efforts to read, understand, and apply Scripture.  The question, then, is where we go from here.  Once we accept this, how do we go about determining what Scripture says, and what it means (for us today)?

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  1. Thanks for these thoughts Dan – I look forward to part two. I have found Thiselton’s approach useful – in his ‘The Two Horizons’ he ends up commending a thoughtful openness to a variety of hermeneutical methods. Of course, this doesn’t do away with any subjectivity – but it encourages an orientation of self-awareness and breadth. Thiselton has a brand new text on hermeneutics due out soon – he finished writing it a few months ago.

  2. Good beginnings. Like Matthew, I also can’t help but be moved to be open to a plurivocal account of meanings; I think that the nature of truth itself is abundant to have multiple ways that are all true. So, instead of this being a “problem,” I would see such a situation as an opportunity for sharpening and exchange.
    Cynthia Nielsen has helpfully written about this a few times concerning Augustine, from whom I am indebted on this account (and Cynthia also adds Gadamer in the mix there as well).