The hermeneutical spiral
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The hermeneutical spiral

Mr. Phelps takes issue with my characterization of Stanley Fish’s position as amounting “to a philosophical denial of realism.”

Let me first digress a bit and place this comment within the larger context of my post. My identification of a position that “words and texts have no meaning in themselves” is really just an aside within the larger and more important question about what measure of authority authorial intent has in the interpretation of documents, specifically public documents like the Constitution.

This aside is essentially a further claim than I need to make to demonstrate the flaws in Fish’s analysis. All that needs to be done to expose Fish’s error is to show that authorial intent or acontextual (deconstructionist?) interpretation are not the only two options. I argued, along with Ramesh Ponnuru and Ann Althouse, that the contemporary corporate understanding of a public document is the most definitive human factor in determining the meaning of a text. One way of putting it would be to say, it isn’t the Sitz im Leben of the author of a public document that norms meaning, it’s the Sitz im Leben of the document’s ratifiers, adherents, affirmers, et alia that is normative (or should I say “more” normative).

The illustrations I am most familiar with as a theologian that show this happen to involve the interpretation of confessional documents, which I see performing similar functions in the sacred realm as documents like the Constitution do in the secular. I alluded to one instance in my previous post, regarding Philip Melanchthon’s attempts to modify and alter the text of the Augsburg Confession in the years following its affirmation at the Diet of Augbsurg in 1530.

This was met with outrage by other Lutheran theologians, and the original (unaltered) text was codified in the Book of Concord in 1580. Their outrage was not only at the substance of the changes, but the audacity Melanchthon displayed in feeling free to change an already agreed upon confessional document. It was not simply a display of bad theology, in the Lutheran’s opinion, but also a violation of process and corporate authority. These same issues (disagreement over the content of the changes and the process by which they are implemented) are what largely constitutes the controversy surrounding the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed. The question of doctrinal accuracy and the authority to change confessional documents are therefore two separate issues.

I also alluded to the second example (or third if you count the filioque clause) in my previous post. In this case, Karl Barth authored the Barmen declaration in 1934, which was presented at a synod in Barmen and later ratified by a synod in Dahlem, as the confessional stance of the Confessing Church, which opposed the German Christians and the Reich church. Barth understood this declaration to be the codification and authoritative explication of his famous rejection of natural theology, its Roman Catholic roots, neo-Protestant relatives, and Nazi “blood and soil” progeny. All of these, in Barth’s view, are renounced in the first article of the declaration:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation.

But this was not the view of the ratifying members of the Synod. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a staunch proponent of the Barmen declaration puts it, is representative of the other view, when he states that the Confessing church “confesses in concretissimo against the German Christian church and against the neo-pagan divinisation of the creature; for the Confessing Church, Anti-christ sits not in Rome, or even in Geneva, but in the government of the National Church in Berlin.”

All this, I think, does enough to show that Fish’s construal of the interpretive situation is highly deficient (and ultimately fallacious given his false dichotomy). A defense of my further statement that to deny that the text can have meaning “apart from anyone’s intention” is a “philosophical denial of realism” is therefore not necessary.

But I’ll attempt to defend it anyway. The interpretation of Holy Scripture, I think, is a special case that will illustrate my point the best. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22 NIV).

Jesus is interpreting the OT scriptures here, specifically Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. Does Jesus impose new meaning on these words “Do not murder” when he interprets them this way, or does he show a previously hidden or unknown meaning?

I think it is clear that Jesus is explicating or showing the true meaning (which was always there, but never recognized). This gives us a way to understand why, for example, “Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it” (Romans 9:31 NIV). The fact is that Israel misunderstood what the Law required and their resulting inability to ever achieve it. So when the people affirmed the covenant, “Everything the LORD has said we will do” (Exodus 24:3 NIV), their understanding or interpretation was wrong.

The people thought they were ratifying one thing, but they were really ratifying another. That’s because the words have a meaning that is independent of any human agent (author, affirmer, or audience)…a reality of their own. You might say that the words are given their meaning and authority by God, who is their ultimate author. But do do so would deny Fish’s claim that the text cannot have meaning “apart from anyone’s intention” (I’m assuming Fish is talking only about human intentionality here, not God’s).

It is, in fact, this God-given meaning to words that gets at the “element of mystery in language, in the Word,” as Mr. Phelps puts it. This mystery is in fact the reality that words have meanings of their own.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.