Kenton Sparks, in his God’s Word in Human Words, gives us a condensed history of interpretation, that is, the movement in the western Christian world from premodern to postmodern understandings of how to interpret texts.
In the premodern world the interpreter had to be humble and submit to authority and tradition. As regards the Bible, this meant a firm belief that its author was God and that human interpreters needed to accept the mystery of God and the gap between his great understanding and our little understanding. One of the features of this kind of interpretation was the use of allegory. This ignored the intention of the human author who did not matter much, since God was the real author of scripture.
If a passage was incongruous with a churchly and traditional understanding of morals, the allegory helped people understand what must have been God’s real intention.
An amusing example of this that Sparks cites is St. Jerome. Jerome was not as given to allegory as some of his contemporaries. But when he tried to interpret the scripture right at the beginning of 1 Kings where the elderly King David could not keep warm so they got a beautiful young woman to sleep with him, Jerome had no qualms about claiming that this was unhistorical. It would have been immoral if it had happened. But what it must mean, said Jerome, was that Wisdom, which Proverbs says is a woman, attended David in his dying days.
The Reformation challenged the authority of church and tradition. Reason needed to be used in interpretation over against tradition. This opened the way for a modern understanding of interpretation. Until the eighteenth century most challenges to tradition in scriptural interpretation remained moderate. But with the Enlightenment, Descartes introduced methodological doubt. If at all possible tradition and authority should be debunked by reason.
Foundationalism has become the name given to the way of thinking that started out with a few “foundational” truths and built upon them. Some build modestly. But a thinker like Hegel tried to develop a rationalist system that encompassed all knowledge. Historians who followed Hegel had confidence that you could write accurately reconstructed history. This is because human societies develop according to uniform stages. So you could reconstruct past events and even predict future ones (Sparks does not mention this, but this puts Karl Marx and people today who talk about the right and wrong side of history in Hegel’s camp).
In his condensed history of interpretation Sparks jumps over the existentialist response to this and goes directly to postmodernism. According to Sparks there are two kinds of postmodernist.
There are the antirealists. These thinkers believe that our reality is something we construct. They have in common with the allegorical interpreters of the premodern era, a lack of concern about the intention of an author. This is not because God is the real author, but because the author has unintended meanings that derive from social position, gender, nationality and so on.
So postmodernists often use a method of deconstruction to undermine the authority of tradition. In practice this usually means judging a text by the interpreter’s idea of justice. Thus if deconstruction leads to the conclusion that the Bible has traditionaly been used to oppress people, the task is to offer interpretations of the text that counter tradition. Not that the new interpretations are true. They are better because they are against oppression.
But Sparks also speaks of another wing of postmodernism. He calls this practical realism. Antirealism and foundationalist philosophies assume that tradition is bad or, at least, problematic. But practical realism does not hold that tradition blinds us to the truth. Rather, holding some kind of common traditions is what makes it possible for two people to even have a conversation. Traditions involved in language and discourse are subject to many difficulties. But in the end, they make it possible to find truth. So the practical realist acknowledges that our knowledge of history will never be perfect. But there is a reality out there and we still talk about it if our claims remain modest and subject to correction.
Even summarizing this condensed history is taking more space than I expected. So I am going to come back to this chapter next week.
But to recount the basics, we have moved from
1) deferring to tradition
2) to questioning it
3) to deconstructing traditional narratives.
Sparks wants to claim postmodernism but to deny the near nihilism of the antirealists.