Postmodern Hermeneutics and Theology

One of the more interesting postmodern philosophers, in my opinion, is Merold Westphal. Below I have reproduced a selection from his article “Appropriating Postmodernism” in his Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (NY: Fordham, 2001), pp. 78-80.

Originally a lecture to an evangelical college board, he attempts to illustrate how postmodernism, hermeneutics, theology and the Bible correlate. He argues that postmodernism is a healthy corrective to modern theology (even modern theology in its evangelical…and we might add Stone-Campbell…versions). I found what is reproduced below particularly poignant and it also serves to round-off my series on “Created for Hermeneutics” quite well.

Westphal writes:

Let me illustrate….with reference to three theologians I encountered a few years ago during my undergraduate studies. All wanted to base their theology on the authority of biblical revelation, and all thought the right account of that authority was the theory of biblical inerrancy. So it is clear that all were far too conservative to have any sympathy for theological liberalism. Yet two of them, ironically, had wedded their conservative theologies to precisely that modernity with which that liberalism had sought accommodation. In terms of theological content no one would have called their theologies modernistic. But the metaclaims they made about their theologies, to which, it should be noted, they gave theological status, were born of the Enlightenment, children of Athens rather than Jerusalem.

One of them said, “With the help of biblical revelation we can achieve a knowledge of God wholly on par with God’s own self-knowledge. Our knowledge does not extend as far as God’s, of course, but what we know is not in any way inferior to God’s knowledge of the same truths [univocal knowledge, JMH].” This means that theological knowledge, with the help of revelation, achieves the ideal of objectivity and perfect correspondence that science was thought to achieve in relation to nature. This knowledge is entirely free from prejudice or perspective, is wholly conditioned by interests and desires, and is relative to no human culture.

N.B. Our theologian is not saying this about the Bible, but about his own theology, at least in principle, at least when he gets it right.

As a hint toward the possibility of theologically motivated postmodern protest against this metatheology, I remind that it is not just Nietzsche but also Kierkegaard’s Climacus who wages a sustained polemic against claims that human knowledge can operate sub specie aeterni [under an eternal kind, JMH], can peek over God’s shoulder and see things from the divine perspective.

Our second theologian lectured on the perspicuity of Scripture. He said, “It is not necessary for us to interpret the Bible. The Bible interprets itself. When we use the proper grammatico-historical method, the means that result are, if not untouched by human hands, at least uncontaminated by human cultures in their finitude and fallenness.” Truth in advertising might have required that the lectured be titled “Cartesian hermeneutics.”

N.B. Once again, by a curious osmosis, the absoluteness first claimed for biblical revelation has been claimed for a particular theology, at least insofar as it has been methodologically rigorous.

In its general form, this non sequitur is anything but rare. One does not even have to listen very closely to those who present themselves as defenders of Absolute Truth or Absolute Values to hear the all too frequent follow-up: “And since we are the defenders of Absolutes, it should come as no surprise that we are the ones in possession of them. Our theories are the Truth and our practices are the Good.” One of the tasks of a theologically motivated appropriation of postmodernism is to challenge this move in all its forms, blatant and subtle. For just as I do not become purple by speaking about violets, so I do not become absolute by speaking about God. The divine character of revelation does not cancel out the human character of my attempt to say what it means.

If our first two theologians would be surprised to discover how thoroughly Cartesian they are, our third would be surprised to find himself linked to postmodernism. But he used to say, “The Bible is the divinely revealed misinformation about God.” This means that his theology, based on biblical revelation, will never get it right, no matter how methodologically rigorous. His beliefs will never simply correspond to the object they intend; they will never be the adequatio of his intellect to the divine reality. He is a theologically motivated anti-realist [he does not mean that he denies reality, rather that we have no independent, absolutely objective access to reality; we contribute to what we see, we “see as” rather than “see absolutely” or “see objectively”, JMH], and just to that degree we can say, a bit anachronistically, that he has appropriated postmodernism.

This does not mean for a moment that he is an anything-goes theologian, to cite an all too standard straw-man critique of postmodernism. He was as concerned with theological methodology as our second theologian and as explicitly dependent on Biblical revelation as the first. But he thought the goal of theological rigor was to think about God as humans should think about God rather than to think about God as God thinks about God. To think God’s thoughts after God is not to see anything through God’s eyes or to peek over God’s shoulders. It is to be the best possible human approximation to a divine thought that always transcends our grasp of it.

In trying to think through the notion of the Bible as the divinely revealed misinformation about God I have often come back to this homely analogy. My three-year old son is sucking on a quarter. I tell him not to put coins in his mouth. He asks why not. Since he lacks an understanding of viruses and bacteria, and doesn’t even have those words in his vocabulary. I tell him, “Because they have little, invisible bugs on them that can make you sick if they get inside of you. Remember how awful you felt last time you were sick?”

This is the parentally revealed misinformation about sucking on coins. It is false, but it is how the boy ought to think about the matter. But just for that reason, we probably shouldn’t simply call it false. Rather, we should notice that a good epistemologist would give an anti-realist account of the boy’s knowledge and suggest that his belief is phenomenally [as it appears to us, JMH] correct, by comparison with the belief that sucking on coins will cause the cat to die, but noumenally [what is absolutely real, JMH] false, relative to adult human knowledge as the criterion of the thing in itself.

JMH Comment: 

So what resonates with you?  Is the Bible so immediately obvious that it does not need interpretation?  Does the Bible, as understood by humans, give us univocal knowledge, that is, knowledge equivalent to God’s own knowledge? Does correct interpretation, despite our human situatedness in finitude and fallenness, give us access to the Truth through the Bible’s own self-interpreting? Or, as with the third theologian above, does the Bible give us true but human ways of thinking about God that are appropriate for human limitations–it is not univocal knowledge, but neither is it equivocal guesses. Rather, it is analogous knowledge–God is like this but not exactly because our human limitations don’t permit us to know God exactly as he knows himself.  “There are bugs on it that will make you sick” is true in an analogous sense–appropriate for the limitations of a three-year old and preformatively sufficient for the three-year old. God speaks to us, it seems to me, in the same way through Scripture. It is true, but not the Truth (absolutely identical with what is in God’s own head) but sufficient to equip us to missionally participate in God’s work in the world as his imagers.


22 Responses to “Postmodern Hermeneutics and Theology”

  1.   Gardner Hall Says:

    Isn’t the Bible so diverse that the question of whether it needs interpretation is itself too broad?

    I think that the terminology of Peter and the writer of Hebrews regarding “milk” and “meat” can be helpful here. The “milk” would be self-evident truths in the Bible that can be easily understood with little interpretation. “Meat” would be the difficult parts such as those referred to by Peter in 2 Peter 3:16 that require great effort to interpret.

    I suppose my answer to the question in the last paragraph would be that parts of the Bible reveal easily understood truths. Remember, its general message was designed to be understood by “babes” and not the “wise and prudent.” (Matt. 11:25) Other parts, of course, require struggle to interpret correctly and indeed our cultural backgrounds will affect such efforts. That doesn’t mean that there are no erroneous interpretations (as classic postmodernism might imply) or that one is good as the other. It does imply patience with those who disagree.

    Thanks for the thought provoking (and vocabulary expanding) posts. I feel like I’m taking a free course here.

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Gardner, for the response. I would agree that there are levels of difficulty within the text itself–milk and meat is a good illustration of that.

    However, I would also suggest that even the “self-evident truths” need interpretation themselves, at least in the sense of subjective understanding, intersubjective communication and individual appropriation.

    Further, the “self-evident” truths are also analogous in character. For example, “God is love” needs interpretation. The meaning of the term “love” is not univocal between my mind and God’s mind. God’s depth of understanding is far beyond my understanding of love. Further, understanding the meaning of “God” and “love” are classic examples of objects of interpretation…and, of course, we all know the meaning of “is” is disputable. 🙂

    Seriously, every word from God is subject to interpretation, but we also have a story in which to interpret those words (a grand context in which to discerning the meaning of “love” in the deth of Jesus, for example). There are levels of difficulty and there are different depths of understanding of even the most “milky” of truths.

    I agree that there are good and bad interpretations. They are not all the same; there are norms of interpretation as I mentioned in a previous post.

  3.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    The extended quote is interesting. I might need to try and pick this book up somewhere, though I am not sure if I am totally with Westphal.

    I agree that there is a sense where scripture is equivocal rather than univocal. Perhaps a good illustration would be the Genesis creation narrative (unless one is a strict literalist when it comes to the creation narrative, I am not a literalist). When you start reading other creation narratives from the Ancient Near East and then read how God choose to explain where the Israelites come from and who brought them and all they see (the world) into existence, it is not too difficult of a stretch to see this as a equivocal text. Thus, the Genesis narrative is trying to explain creation in terms that Ancient Israel understood rather than trying to explain its full picture which is still beyond the comprehension of humanity (does anyone comprehend how God created a universe so large that in scientific time, the universe is still expanding or in development?).

    Having said that, this is in one sense an admission to saying their is ‘truth’ and behind that is the real ‘Truth’ which is unknowable. That seems like a partial development of gnosticism with it special knowledge that is not revealed in the normal knowledge (apostolic teaching). Does that make sense or am I just reading too much into what Westphal is saying?


  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think you are reading too much into Westphal. “Truth” (God’s own knowledge of himself) is something we will never know as finite creatures. We are on a journey into the mind/heart of God that will never end and never exhaust him. So, there is no correlation with Gnosticism where there is a terminus or a special knowledge.

    I would suggest that all biblical language in relation to God is analogous (we know something true about God in a human, limited way–like a little boy knows he should not put a coin in his mouth because there are bugs on it) rather than equivocal (which is ultimately skepticism since it says that we really can’t know anything about God but only express feelings about him) or univocal (which is to say we have the same idea that God has and know it like he knows it).

    When you write of the Genesis narrative, I think you are talking about the hermeneutics of reading a narrative. But when I talk of analogy, univocitity and equivocitity, I am thinking about epistemology. The net result of reading Scripture, epistemologically, is analogous knowledge no matter what the nature of the genre is because the nature of human language cannot univocally speak of God but the act of divine revelation that bends down to speak to us reveals truths to us in ways conducive to our finitude and fallenness (analogy).

    I think I shall post something more about this to further explain myself before I go on my limited hiatus. I need to clarify my meaning. Thanks for the impetus to talk more specifically about it, Rex. I appreciate your attention to the posts.

  5.   markus z Says:

    can we then, in our finite status, discover what Truth is when we think we are confronted with it? i am not thinking about the bible alone. olson (and others) in his book “reformed and always reforming” claims “all Truth is God´s truth.” in our humble approach to Truth then, how can we be sure we recognize it in the bible and in life in general? if it always appears equivolcally, then, can i ever be sure of anything? i think that even self evident truths need interpretation, but don´t they still speak to an easily recognizable and more universal intent of God? “God is love” needs to be interpreted, to be sure. but it speaks to an universal level in my heart that grasps the intend of the message. has not the death of christ paved the way for us (in redeeming part of the fallennes that stood in the way of embracing God´s Truth) to now be able to accept grace and faith and kernels of Truth? maybe i am just not postmodern enough…

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    When I use “Truth” with a capital “T,” I am referring to the Absolute Truth–the Truth as it exists in the mind of God, fully known and comprehended by God himself. I don’t think we will ever comprehend or know that Truth. Rather, our lives–both now and upon the new earth–are jouney into that Truth but we never come to a fullness…and that is what keeps the journey going as we dive deeper into the well of God’s own being.

    However, I do believe we can apprehend truths about the Truth as they are revealed by God–whether revealed in his story (Scripture) or in his creation (“general” or “natural” revelation, as termed by some). All truth is part of God’s Truth but it is given to us in accomodated ways that humans can grasp.

    I would suggest that we apprenhend this truth analogically rather than equivocally (which is ultimately a form of skepticism so that we know nothing actually) or univocally (which is a claim to know it just as God knows it). “God is love” is something known analogically but not just by rationality but experientially and existentially as well. Yet, it is also known rationally though analogically and there is a story about God’s love which contexualizes the affirmation “God is love” so that we can understand it for the purpose of embracing that love as well as missionally living out that love.

    I do not advocate skepticism (equivocal language about God) but neither do I advocate a kind of absolutism where we think we know just as God knows (univocal language about God). Rather, we know about God in ways that humans are able–due to their finitude–to know about God. At the same time, knowing about God is insufficient if we don’t also know God relationally and existentially. It involves the whole person–mind, spirit, body and soul. And our knowledge of God equips us to become the people of God…but it does not give us an equivalent knowledge with God.

    I hope that clarifies, my friend. Modern or postmodern, I think the claim of analogous language is rooted in the nature of God’s relationship with humanity–the relationship of Creator to creature.

  7.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    when is the last time you had a good laugh.

    besides looking at my posts and trying to figure out what i am trying ….
    ha ha

    what you need is a few good giggle buddies.

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Yeah, I am a bit too serious these days. 🙂 A bit fragile with the anniversary this week…but I have people around me who will call my hand and liven up my countenance. 🙂 Thanks, Rich, I needed the giggle in this “heady” material.

  9.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    just every once in a while fart,
    like i do around famly and their friends
    while their having a serious dissussion
    and say,
    “we all just herd from the voice of reason”

  10.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I will need to get Westphal’s book because this is something that is of interest to me but something that I feel is still flying way over me head (in some ways).


  11.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    I bought a machine about five or six years ago it had a little remote control it was called fArt machine.
    You cannot imagine the laughs my wife and I got with that thing.
    Of course she would stand way back like a Home Depot, we laughed until we cried.
    Pick one up and take it to the golf course with you.
    Take one to your next lecture.
    And of course there’s always your graduate students.
    Oh the looks you would get, actually should be placed on a video.
    I can only imagine, as much is I am sure,
    if you allowed yourself you would giggle to.
    Anyway have as much fun as fun you can John Mark.

    Sorry Rex pardon me,
    rich in California

  12.   markus z Says:

    thanks, john mark, that does make it more clear. i like your analogical approach. i am just really diving in this hermeneutical thing. haven´t given it much thought before. keep up the good posts and comments.

  13.   Matthew Says:

    I enjoyed the Hermeneutics posts. I semester or two ago, I had a class on this which we had to read T.B. Warren’s “When Is An Example Binding” and “Reading the Bible for all its Worth.” This was a graduate class. Fortunately, Bobby Valentine sent me some great articles from the RQ which helped me a long the way. Thank you for your work in this area.

  14.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    If the creation is good as God said.
    And if we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the of the world…
    then the creation was created to give glory to God, out of gratefulness.
    This gratefulness seems to predicate a choice.
    There seems to be a great deal of tension created in the garden.
    This seems to continue because man’s messing up.
    But also because a few beings, Angels in the heavenly’s decided not to be grateful.
    It would seem to me that a lot of the allegories and metaphors, are put forth ln our timeline, not because God can’t communicate to us.
    But because not only is he communicating to the men of creation he is also communicating a mystery that is not to be revealed to anyone or anything until the right time.
    God is being responsible for the good of creation by using metaphors that in hindsight can be looked at by men who are grateful to God.

    I could go on and on John Mark but hopefully you get my drift.
    It would seem that every turn Satan is there to deceive men to lie about God just in general upset gods applecart and God knows.
    He deals with creation and a righteous manner.
    With balanced scales.
    That includes the heavenly ‘s
    there will be retribution even to the eternal ones who left their principalities.
    When you’re talking about somebody looking God’s shoulder.
    I think it’s kind egotistical to think that Satan was not there trying to screw up this mystery as much as he possibly could.
    On that day you shall surely die Satan didn’t know he was cutting his own throat in the process of deception

  15.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    p.s.On that day you shall surely die Satan didn’t know he was cutting his own throat in the process of deception?question mark oops
    rich in ca.

  16.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Also God knows possibilities.
    Solve them all in Christ
    no more evil John Mark

    I used this Scripture as a character quality of godliness.

    Mat 10:16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye

    Plan A , harmless as doves.

    Plan B wise as serpents

    Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness:


  17.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    oooh noooo eternal ones.????? sorry bout that
    how bout heavenly one’s.

  18.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    the challenge it would seem to me that Satan gives to God,
    is the creation is not good and there is none righteous. none,righteous even God so? who is he to judge..and when the the fullness of time came…

    Rom 3:1 What, then, is the superiority of the Jew? or what the profit of the circumcision?
    Rom 3:2 much in every way; for first, indeed, that they were intrusted with the oracles of God;
    Rom 3:3 for what, if certain were faithless? shall their faithlessness the faithfulness of god make useless?
    Rom 3:4 let it not be! and let God become true, and every man false, according as it hath been written, `That Thou mayest be declared righteous in Thy words, and mayest overcome in Thy being judged.’
    Rom 3:5 And, if our unrighteousness God’s righteousness doth establish, what shall we say? is God unrighteous who is inflicting the wrath? (after the manner of a man I speak)

    Even taking care of those in the heavenly’s
    reserved for judgment..

    somebody stop me!!!!

    Really it’s raining in California.

    Blessings rich I’m done

  19.   Dan Paden Says:

    I am sure this is an over simplification, but I approach the knowledge of God and His Truths similarly to, if not the same as, the mystery hidden for ages, understood only slightly until Jesus revealed it to His apostles and prophets. And even then we see only poorly, as in a mirror, but afterward [we] will see face to face, knowing fully, even as [we] are known…

    I really appreciate the discussion on this topic and how it sharpens us to deal more appropriately with God’s Word.

    Dan Paden

  20.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I would add, Dan, that even in the eschaton we will not fully know the mind of God or else we will be gods ourselves. Rather, it is an eternal journey into the life of God as we know him ever more deeply.

    Certainly the veil of this life will be lifted as well look dimly into a mirror due to the fog of fallenness. With that fog removed, we will see more clearly but still in a finite way. But that will make the joureny all the more interesting, wonderful and deeply mysterious. It is is a never-ending journey into the loving community of God.

  21.   Dan Paden Says:

    I really don’t disagree John… how can we ever attain to the perfect and complete knowledge of God… we can only better appreciate Him when all is clearer.

  22.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Absolutely, my friend. Good to have you as part of the blogging community.

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