Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Deconstructioinism: Theology's Black Hole

Realism is the metaphysical position which asserts that certain things are mind independent. Hermeneutical realism is the position that believes meaning to be prior to and independent of the process of interpretation. For example, take Gilbert Kaplan’s recordings of Gustav Mahler. Gilbert Kaplan was an American business man, former journalist, and amateur conductor. Kaplan was so wealthy that he was able to teach himself how to conduct, and to hire, his own orchestra. He had a passion for authenticity. He desired to recover the original works of great composers like Gustav Mahler. He hired his own orchestra to perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. After studying Mahler’s manuscript (which had cost him $300,000) he reinserted an F-note which had been emended to E-flat by conductors before him. Kaplan was clear, “My goal was to come as close as possible to what Mahler had in mind.” Kaplan also came to believe that Mahler’s famous Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony was actually not a dirge as so many before him thought. Instead, he saw in it an expression of love. He stated, “All I’m saying is that this piece has to be played in a way that is consistent with the composer’s intention. It’s not just enough to read the score.”

So it is with the task of hermeneutics. Our goal in examining the biblical text is to recover the meaning intended by the original composers of the sacred text itself. However, there is a toxic poison that has entered the interpretive landscape. This poison denies the slightest possibility that anyone can get to the intended meaning of the author. This is because such a meaning doesn’t really exist. In her work, The Comical Doctrine: An Epistemology of New Testament Hermeneutics, Roselind Shelby wrote,
“The ontological dimension is presupposed—that nothing short of realism is adequate in Christian theology and idealism can only arrogate to the human mind decisions which it is not entitled nor qualified to make.” [Selby, R. M. (2006). Comical Doctrine: An Epistemology of New Testament Hermeneutics (11). Milton Keynes: Paternoster]
 Yet for the hermeneutic non-realist,
"There are no facts, only interpretations." [Neitzsche, Will to Power, par. 481]
E.D. Hirsch, a champion for the determinacy of meaning in a text writes,
"A word sequence means nothing in particular until somebody means something by it...There is no magic land of meaning outside human consciousness." [Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, pg. 4]
I stated at the very onset of this blog that Hermeneutical realism is the position that believes meaning to be prior to and independent of the process of interpretation. For non-realism, which is what Shelby criticizes in her remarks above,
"human language and thoughts do not correspond to the objective realities or to stable meanings. What we cavalierly call “reality” is rather a human construction, at least in part." [Shelby, 48-49]
If this is true, then truth itself vanishes from the scene. All that is left are signs and texts which come from nowhere and lead to nowhere. Humans become enslaved to some mysterious form of communication, about which they know nothing. All they can do is exist in this state without any hope of arriving at any meaningful understanding of what it is to be human in the first place. As one writer put it,
“The doctrine largely imported from Paris would have it that persons are simply linguistically encoded machines and that, far from being the impresarios of language, they are its slaves.” [Scott, The New Trahison des Clercsi, 417]
Hence, the metaphysics of meaning are destroyed by this idea. There is no longer a meaning in the text. The author dies, along with his authority to control the meaning of his own text. Hence, the text itself becomes a playground for the reader to take as much liberty with it as he or she pleases. In effect, the authority of the author must make way for the autonomy of the reader. No longer will the reader be enslaved to the traditional idea that interpretation involves a slow, tedious, and methodical process of getting to the intended meaning of the author! Moreover, the reader will no longer be a slave to the principle of single meaning. Instead, the reader is liberated to use the text, in whatever way they please, to enhance their life in whatever way they please. Truly, in deconstructionism, it is all about the reader! But while deconstructionism promises liberty, what it delivers is quite the contrary. It would appear that the reader has simply exchanged one prison for another. He has moved from the prison of author authoritarianism to the prison of meaningless and an authoritarianism about which he can know nothing other than the fact that he is a prisoner and that any hope for escape is futile.

As one might imagine, such views spell doom for Christian theology. Like a black hole that destroys everything it touches, deconstructionism destroys every text and all meaning that lay within its path. Moreover, the fact that it is coupled with the powerfully seductive force of reader autonomy makes it a formidable foe for any defender of biblical truth. William Robertson Smith was tried for heresy because he denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He was removed from his professorial chair in Aberdeen in the late nineteenth century. Those responsible for his removal seemed to understand this basic principle all too well: without authors, texts have neither authority nor determining sense. The death of the author has grave consequences for biblical truth and authority. Without the authoritative revelation in the text, we have no stable, reliable knowledge or understanding of God. And without any reliable understanding of God, there is no understanding of self. And if hermeneutics is about self understanding as much as it is about understanding the other, then it follows that hermeneutics becomes an impossible task. Hence, it follows that if hermeneutics is impossible, theology becomes a field littered with relative ideas and speculations about God, none of which are reliable, let alone authoritative. Theology is sucked into the black hole of deconstructionism.

But this seems quite alright with those who argue as of late that doctrine or theology is unimportant. What really matters is relationships! But there is a glaring inconsistency in this view. For the very fact that relationships are important is itself built upon the abstract notion that humans, above everything else, are relational beings designed to relate to one another in very specific ways.

Truth is unavoidable. This is due to the nature and fidelity of God. After all, this is HIS creation and it bears HIS fingerprint. Try as we may, human beings will never be able to erase the fingerprint of God from anything in His creation, most especially, His most valued creation; mankind, whom He created in His very own image and His very own likeness.

Grant R. Osborne writes,
“Yet human efforts can never properly divine the true message of the Word of God. While Karl Barth wrongly taught that Scripture possesses only instrumental authority, he was certainly correct that it speaks to humanity through divinely controlled “flashes of insight.” We must depend on God and not just on humanly derived hermeneutical principles when studying the Bible.” [Osborne, G. R. (2006). The hermeneutical spiral : A comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation ]
What is needed for an understanding of truth, of God, of self, is faith: the kind of faith that is the result of God’s regenerating power. Secondly, divine illumination of the Spirit must provide the necessary foundation upon which to build an adequate knowledge of God, self and reality.

"What we have in God is an agency and intelligence that stands outside language and controls it, making sure that words correspond to the world and guaranteeing the reliability and truth of speech." [Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?]
 The apostle Peter warned that anyone found guilty of twisting the intended meaning of the author, Paul, did so to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). In interpreting Christian Scripture we are bound by a higher ethic; a hermeneutical ethic which translates into a regard and respect for the text and the intended meaning of its author. The great commandment, “You shall not bear false witness” comes to mind when I think about how we are witnessing to the meaning of any given text of Scripture. When we bear false witness against the Scripture, we are bearing false witness against God. The words mh genoitai come to mind: may it never be!

In the final analysis, the main goal of hermeneutics is communion with God. This is not an exercise of the purely abstract. What good is it to understand what one should do if one in fact does not do it or even intend to do it? Zimmerman writes,
“Thus a proposition in the biblical text can be fully understood only when it is grasped in light of the meaning the divine author gave it: and this meaning is always one that demands the context of communion with the Divine. Understanding does not merely entail the grasping of propositions but includes their appropriation. Both the understanding and the general attitude toward the text must be changed before a genuine dialogue with the Divine is possible.” [Zimmerman, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, 106-107]
In order to truly understand the meaning of the biblical text, it must be appropriated, and weaved into our thinking and actions. Otherwise we truly do not understand it. And this requires the work of the Holy Spirit who creates within the human being the capacity for faith. Augustine said “I believe in order to understand.” Vanhoozer writes,
“Interpreting Scripture theologically involves more than dealing with biblical words, more even than rules for textual interpretation. Interpreters must have receptive sprits as well, a possibility that depends on the work of the Holy Spirit.” [Vanhoozer, First Theology, 11.]
Deconstructionism then is the desire for absolute literary autonomy. What needs to be understood is that autonomy, in order for it to be true autonomy, must be total. That is to say, it must extend to every area of the human person. Any authoritarian elements always risk the loss of, not just some autonomy, but of total autonomy. Moveover, autonomy by definition must be total, otherwise it isn't autonomy. What deconstructionism is most concerned about is the metaphysical impulse to totalize. Totalizing sets out to acheive a unified perspective, to gain mastery over something by reducing it to the size of something one can grasp. [Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in the Text?] Derrida and Neitzsche held that the desire for totalizing was a desire for power. Then reason deconstrucitonism resists "the author" is because it rightfully views authorship as an authoritarian concept to which it does not wish to submit. Hence the ultimate desire of deconstructionism is to undergird the human desire for absolute independence, or autonomy.

James 4:7-10 provides us with clear instructions regarding autonomy: 1) Submit to God; 2) Resist the devil; 3) Draw near to God; 4) Cleanse your hands; 5) Purify your hearts 6) Do not be found rejoicing in your ungodliness; 7) Humble yourselves in the presense of the Lord!

The goal of hermeneutics is recovering the intended meaning of the biblical text. The goal of understanding the meaning of the biblical text is to develop a system of right beliefs, which we call theology. The goal of theology is praxis. That is to say, it is to practice right beliefs in our daily thinking and acting in all matters. The reason wrong beliefs are so dangerous is not only because they run the risk of bearing false witness against the revealed truth of the biblical text, but because people practice what they believe and if their belief is wrong it follows that their practice will be as well. Oswald Chambers says it well:
"We are not meant to spend our lives in the domain of intellectual thinking. A Christian’s thinking ought never to be in reflection, but in activities. The philosopher says, “I must isolate myself and think things out”; he is like a spider who spins his web and only catches flies. We come to right discernment in activities; thinking is meant to regulate the doing. Our destiny as spiritual men and women is the same as our destiny as natural men and women, viz., practical, from which destiny there is no escape." [Chambers, O. (1996). The Moral Foundation of Life, pg. 189]


  1. Hey, Ed. Great post! Thought you might be interested in a new pre-publication from Logos Bible Software: http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/5984

  2. Hi Ed,

    Saw your blog listed on the blogroll of Dusman's. I like what you have to say and write. Keep going!

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