04 – Current Trends in Biblical Interpretation

Current Trends in Biblical Interpretation

New Criticism


Once biblical interpreters and theologians searched for absolute, objective, and universal truth in their study of the Bible. John Calvin said that the primary duty of the biblical interpreter is to let the Bible say what it says, not try to make it say what we think it ought to say. However, “Progressivism” has influenced interpreters to view the Bible as a “living document” with meaning that changes with time. This has encouraged interpreters to exercise their ill-conceived “individual right” to subjectively look at the Bible with a view of making it say whatever they feel they need it to say, want it to say, or think it should say. Many seem to think that “truth in interpretation is a matter of personal preference.”

In times past, there was a sense that there is truth and right and the opposite of truth is error, and the opposite of right is wrong. The masses believed that truth was objective, absolute, and attainable. Today’s prevailing thinking is that there is no universal truth, but truth is individual and personal. The trend is for people to believe that there is no absolute and universal truth, or if there is truth, no one is able to know what it is. Therefore, one person’s conclusion is as good as the other, and a biblical text has as many meanings as it has interpreters.

I. Philosophy’s Contribution: The process for interpreting literature and conversation is greatly impacted by “postmodern” thinking.  “Modernism” was basically anti-supernatural in its approach.  It rejected the idea of knowledge gained through revelation of God or any intervention in the events of history by any transcendent being.  It said that we could know only what we had examined or observed, with our senses, in the physical realm.  But, they did accept the idea that we could know through observation of adequate date and reasoning upon these data.  This is why the scientific method (or empiricism) made sense to them.

Postmodern thinkers see modernism (i.e. the idea that we could know things) as arrogance, and have decided that we cannot know anything.  They think that the best we can do is to arrive at a biased perception.  They see all truth as relative.  For them, there are no absolutes.  They assert that authorial intent and whatever evidence indicates are beyond our reach.  They assert that our history, our feelings, and our present circumstances color all perceptions or interpretations and make knowledge an elusive dream.  So far as they are concerned, “truth in interpretation” is a matter of personal preference.  They see a rational approach to interpretation and claims of knowing truth as absurd or, at best, naive.  If they do engage in rational activity, and they do, they feel that their interpretations are personal and private, most certainly not universal.  The consequence of this is that there are no universals, only personal and private truth.

So, to them, everyone has a right to her/his own truth.  They are committed to pluralism; every view is as good as the other. In fact, the necessary consequence of this kind of thinking is that everything is good.  Everyone is right, if acting out of good motives.  The only wrong would be wrong motives and bad attitudes.  Worst of all is saying someone or some ideas are wrong.  But alas, if there are no absolutes, by what “standard” can we judge which motives and attitudes are good or not good?  How could people think this way?  Philosophers gradually contributed to the ideological ingredients of which the “new criticism” or “New Hermeneutic” is made up.  In fact, by influencing the way people think, they have created the climate in which such “thinking” survives and thrives.

A.  The Contributions of Plato (427 – 347 BC)

1.  Absolute Ideas – existing apart from man – of which our experiences are crude imitations.

2.  Elitism – the superiority of the philosopher who knows.

3.  Neglect of the individual

4.  Ignored common man and women

5.  Can’t know – cannot have knowledge, just opinion – the only knowledge is in the great ideas.

6.  Knowledge is power that leads to freedom.

7.  His ideas reigned for twenty-five hundred years – all other thinking was just a footnote to Plato (Whitehead)

8.  The reaction against Plato’s universals, absolutes, elitism:

a.  Individual focus

b.  Reaction against authority

c.  Exactness is fake – A. N. Whitehead

d.  All formulae is dangerous – Wittgenstein

e.  All words are vague.

B.  The Contributions of Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)

1.  Resolved to doubt everything.

2.  One thing he could not doubt, the fact that he doubted.  Concluded, “I think; therefore, I am.

3.  This led to a new premise for human thought–man rather than God became the fixed point around which everything else revolved.

C.  The Contributions of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778)

1.  Rousseau argued that man’s problem was civilization, not human nature (Discourses on Inequality).

2.  He thought man should follow “the voice of nature.”  He believed that societal constraints on personal conduct actually caused immorality.

3.  He also believed that human passion superseded God and reason in determining conduct.

4.  He had a taste for self-expression; this liberated him from traditional restraints.

D.  The Contributions of David Hume (1711-1776)

1.  Epistemological Skepticism – i.e., the empirical method (or reason) could never lead to certain knowledge.

2.  All we know are our own biased perceptions colored by our own history and situation.

3.  No causal relation to effect (i.e., no cause and effect relationships) – example of queue ball hitting other balls in pool game.

E.  The Contributions of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

1.  Agreed with Hume’s cautions about human ability to know truth in the epistemological process.

2.  The custard cup gives pudding its shape – so man gives truth its shape, as he perceives it.

3.  Knowledge is given the shape we have in our interpretive constructs (conceptual categories) – shaped by our own experiences

4.  He divided concepts into Phenomena (i.e., objects within human experience) and Noumena (i.e., objects lying beyond human experience (e.g., God).

5.  Knowledge begins with our experience, but it is a result of experience and the shaping and forming that takes place in our minds – thus, we make our own reality.

6.  We contribute truth to our experiences.

7.  We cannot know anything beyond the material realm.

8.  We make God and the soul what we want them to be – we are gods.

F.  The Contributions of the Enlightenment Thinkers (18th Century)

1.  Power of human reason–making man’s thinking the most important element in interpretation or establishment of truth.

2.  Distrust of tradition–making ideas that have roots in antiquity suspect.

3.  New freedom–leading to the right of every individual “to have it his/her way.”

G.  The Contributions of John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

1.  Advocated a code of morality based on self-expression.

2.  Believed that only self interest and personal interests were important.

3.  Thought man should pursue whatever maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain.

4.  “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way” (essay On Liberty).

H.  The Contributions of Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976)

1.  Heidegger contributed to the development of the “New Hermeneutic” of some of Bultmann’s disciples.

2.  He, an existential philosopher  accepted certain continental views of language and thought–applied philosophy to language–freedom and individual choice.

I.  The period of the “Celebration of the Individual”

1.  In 1979 interviews, Robert Bellah (sociologist) found many had no sense of community.

2.  Masses of people manifest commitment only to self, nothing else.

3.  This self-centered approach to life is called “Ontological Individualism.”

4.  Bellah found that masses have no sense of community or social obligation.

5.  Charles Colson called this a “new barbarianism.” He also says that he new barbarians were bred and raised in our homes and educated in our schools.

J.  Relativistic thinking has roots in a reaction against Plato.

1.  Plato focused on absolutes and universals to at the expense of particulars and individuals.

2.  Platonist philosophy divorced the absolutes and universal ideas from the individual.

3.  In Plato’s system the individual, especially the common man and women did not count.

4.  The reaction against Plato focuses on the individual and women and rejects the absolutes and universals.

5.  There is a feeling that absolutes and relevance to the individual cannot exist together, so people tend to choose relevance and the individual–thus, believe that truth is relative and individual.


II.  Theologians and their Contribution: Many theologians bought into the thinking of the philosophers mentioned above.  Some of them brought the ideas of these philosophers over into the area of biblical studies.  In fact they often enlarged upon these ideas and applied them to the process of biblical interpretation.

A.  The Contributions of Karl Barth (1886 – 1968)

1.  Barth was educated in classical liberalism.

a.  Liberalism taught that a social gospel could bring peace and proper relationships between people.

b.  Those committed to this thinking held an optimistic view of human nature.

2.  In the local church Barth found that his training was of little or no value for the life of the church.

3.  His optimism about human nature was destroyed by WW I.

4.  Even his teachers disappointed him by adopting political views he thought contradicted what they taught.

5.  He broke with his theological past and focused on the relevance of the text while ignoring the historical meaning of the text.  He focused on relevance at the expense of authorial intent or historical meaning.

6.  His commentary on Romans set a new trend in theology that ignored the historical meaning of the text and focused on relevance.  He jumped context, moved from statement to application without seeking meaning–historical meaning or authorial intent.

7.  This set in motion a dramatic change in the way theologians viewed biblical interpretation.

B.  The Contributions of Rudolph Bultmann (1884 – 1976)

1.  Bultmann was a New Testament scholar with a focus on the history of religion.

2.  He agreed with Barth’s emphasis on the relevance of the text.

3.  He departed from Barth with his existentialism.

4.  Bultmann held that exegesis could not be performed free from presuppositions, noting that everyone comes to the text with a world view.

5.  Bultmann’s view of history is very significant in this matter.

a.  He held that history is a unity.

b.  He stated that history is a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected as causes and effects.

c.  He said that these historical happenings cannot be interrupted by supernatural or transcendent powers; therefore, there is no miracle.

6.  The problem with Bultmann’s view is that we cannot hold to the basic assumptions of biblical Christianity and accept his view of history–that there were no supernatural interruptions in the events of history or no miracles.

7.  Bultmann’s Theological view included the following:

a.  The supernatural in the Bible are only myths used by the early church to express their faith.

b.  That we need to communicate our faith in myths that have meaning to people of today.

c.  Study of Scripture involves a demythologizing process, maybe better be described as a remythologization process.

d.  The Bible is a mere human production that expressed the faith of the time in myths.

8.  His existentialism would lead him to focus on the individual and feeling in biblical interpretation.

C.  Bultmann’s Disciples became involved in a movement called “the new quest for the historical Jesus” and attempted to bring the Jesus of history and the faith of later Christians closer together than Bultmann had allowed.

III.  Literary Criticism’s Contribution: Naturally literary scholars must deal with meaning and how to determine meaning.  They look at how writers express and enhance meaning, the understanding of meaning, and the creation of desired attitudes towards meaning.  They, as well as theologians have been influenced by prevailing philosophies of meaning, knowledge, and interpretation.  Under the influence of prevailing philosophies relative to reality and knowledge, many literary critics adopted what was called the “New Criticism.”  Many assert what is called the “intentional fallacy.”  They do not believe that we can attain a dependable view of the intent of an author.  Therefore, they favor “reader-centered” meaning over “author-centered” meaning.  This view claims that the reader and his context has more to do with meaning than the author and his context.  They grant a literary work autonomy, i.e., freedom from its author’s intent.  This gives the interpreter, not the author, control over meaning,

A.  The New Criticism leads to conclusions that are startling to those who hold a high view of the Bible.

1.  New Critics hold that concern with the author and his intended meaning is not important.

2.  They view Scripture as being autonomous in relation to the author and rely on the response of the reader for its meaning rather than to the author’s intention.

3.  They treated the text as an artifact independent of the author.

B.  The Contributions of Hans-Georg Gadamer (2/1900-3/2002 )

1.  Gadamer is mostly associated with relativistic approach to interpretation.

2.  Held that truth in interpretation is a matter of personal preference.

3.  He was primarily concerned with refuting the claim that the scientific method alone can arrive at truth.

4.  Rejected science’s doubt that claimed that only that which has been repeated and verified can be true.

5.  He reacted to science’s claim that the humanities and history cannot be subject to repetition and verification; thus, cannot arrive at truth.  Science saw the humanities and history as only tradition and prejudice which cannot arrive at truth.

6.  He held that prejudice cannot be eliminated, but are essential to consciousness and understanding–even in science.

7.  Gadamer held that the past is not fixed and texts change as they are continually being interpreted.

8.  Thus, he held that meaning cannot be simply identified with the author’s intended meaning.

9.  Gadamer’s thinking led to changes in science that now agrees that even science must involve interpretation and is necessarily subject to tradition and prejudices.  Thus, even scientific truth is viewed as subjective and relative.

IV.  The “new criticism” claims that the text is autonomous–free from the author’s intentions.

A.  There are three elements to consider in interpretation: author, text, and reader.

B.  The author’s (and the first readers’) previous knowledge becomes involved in interpretation.

1.  It is often difficult to put ourselves in the place of the author, so we tend to place the text in our own situation.

2.  Sometimes the cultural and linguistic distance between the author and the reader makes it difficult to move into the situation of the author.

3.  However, we should always seek to bridge the gap and come to an understanding of what the first readers understood before we make application to our present situation–find the historical meaning before we make application–and not be dogmatic in difficult cases where evidence is skimpy or unclear.

4.  The problem is that many new critics see these gaps not as a problem, but as an opportunity for creativity and consider the text as autonomous from the author and his intent.  They use this as an opportunity to assert their personal preferences or grant personal choice as the proper consideration or assert their right to personal choice and claim relativity of truth–make truth a matter of personal choice rather than a matter of authorial intent.

V.  Postmodern thinkers subscribe to an epistemology that supports the “New Criticism” and places the meaning of the text under the control of the interpreter rather than the author. Postmodernism is a reaction against “modernism” and its claim that through good methods of observation and sound reasoning on data, various kinds of scientists can come to knowledge.  But, the very idea of knowledge implies absolutes.  If there are absolutes, then whatever contradicts absolutes is wrong.  Many just cannot live with the idea that there is right and wrong.  They want everyone to be given so much individual freedom that everything is acceptable and nothing and no one is wrong.  Relativism and pluralism control the lives of masses of people in today’s cultural milieu, even without their being aware of it.

A.  To the postmodern thinker, truth is not absolute and universal; it is relative and individual.

1.  Truth is not a public (universal) matter, but private–it focuses on the individual and is relative to the individual (subjective).

2.  Truth is not objective, but subjective–not absolute, but relative.

B.  Postmodern thought does not look to the author nor the text for meaning, but to the interpreter and the meaning given by the interpreter.  Truth is considered as a matter of perception.  Therefore, truth in interpretation is not a matter of the author’s intended meaning, but a matter of the interpreter’s perception.  Following are some characteristics of their theory of how we come to knowledge and their view of limits to knowing truth.

1.  Truth is not inherent in the text.

2.  Truth emerges from the encounter of text and interpreter.

3.  The meaning of a text depends on the perception of the interpreter.

4.  A text has as many meanings as it has interpreters.

5.  We should give up the search for truth and be content with interpretation–individual perception.

6.  Truth is not limited to its rational dimensions.

7.  Postmodernism dethrones the intellect as the arbiter of truth –there are other valid paths to truth besides reason: emotion and intuition.

Conclusion: The current trend is to declare that authorial intent is out of the reach of interpreters.  Thus, meaning in interpretation is a matter of the interpreter’s preference–the interpreter gives shape to truth according to his/her individual epistemological constructs or interpretive concepts or pre-knowledge (i.e., background, feelings, current situation).  These lead to the idea that there are as many meanings (i.e., truths) as there are interpreters.  According to this approach, meaning is relative.  Actually, meaning is determined by human preferences (i.e., by human feelings, passion, or intuition).  Authority resides in man, the interpreter, neither in the text nor God).  And authority is individual–everyone has a right to believe and act as he/she pleases.  Human passions and preferences are supreme, not God.

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Current Trends in Biblical Interpretation

© William T. (Bill) Lambert, EdD, 2004
Professor Emeritus – New Testament Literature and Interpretation
Harding University
Searcy, AR 72149-0001

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