by Eduard Sablon Leiva
Interpretation plays an enormous role in our world. Behind every statement, concept and belief lie certain interpretations. Very often they are inaccurate, even distorted due to various factors. Whether we realizeit or not,behind even eachlabel like“God’s Word. Today’s Bible translation that says what it means,”or preacher’s phrase like “the Bible says this” or “this is what the LORD says” there is a certain hermeneutical approach.This raises the question: Are the inaccuracy and limitations of human interpretations entirely the consequence of human sinfulness, or also an intrinsic element of humanity as part of our finiteness?
Since there are many traditions and conceptual frameworks, within both Christianity and the schools of philosophy, that relate to interpretation as something essentially sinful, associated with the Fall, it raises the quite pertinent question: What is interpretation? Is it a necessity caused by the Fall or is it a part of human nature?Could man dispense with interpretationbefore the Fall, and will it be superceded in the eschatological future?To these and many other questions James C. Smith attempts to answer in his book TheFallofInterpretation: PhilosophicalFoundationsforaCreationalHermeneutic, which is a verygood introductionfor Christian readers topostmodernism, in particularthe dialoguebetween the Church and postmodernism. He provides critical evaluations of evangelical and deconstructual approaches to interpretation.
Smithweighs various understandings of interpretation in light of the theological and philosophical categories of “creation” and the “Fall.” He examines how interpretation has been linked to the Fall within evangelical theology and continental philosophy. Involving a philosophical hermeneutic, he considers finitude and language on the basis of an affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation.Throughout his research he examines how various authors and traditions understand interpretation itself, not how they interpret certain texts.In other words, he is much more interested in what the task of hermeneutics, or interpretation, means to different authors and traditions than in how they practice it. Smithcritiques the “present immediacy model,” that means “a mediation that is to be overcome, restoring prelapsarian (pre-Fall) immediacy.”The core thesis and argument of the book is that, in accordance with both Heidegger and Derrida, “interpretation is part and parcel of being human”and “[t]o be human is to interpret.”God has created man to be an interpreter.
Smith outlines four different views on interpretation itself. In part 1, heevaluates so-called “present immediacy” which is a view that states that hermeneutics is a result of the Fall, and “[i]nterpretation, from this perspective, is a mediation that is to be overcome, restoring prelapsarian (pre-Fall) immediacy.”The next interpretation of interpretation is eschatological immediacy (the “dim mirror” model) which says that mediation or interpretation is overcome not in the present, but in the eschaton. In both these views, interpretation or mediationis fallen and must be overcome. In Part 2 Smith discusses the “violent mediation model,” which considers interpretation as “always already a violent act,” because “human being-in-the-world is ‘essentially’ fallen.”According to this point of view, interpretation cannot be overcome. The last one is the “creational hermeneutic” or “creational-pneumatic model” which is proposed by Smith, in accordance with Augustine. The Author is trying to prove that, in fact, interpretation is not a consequence of the Fall or “violent act,” but, on the contrary, “an aspect of a good, peaceful creation” which is “very good” (Gen. 1:31).Thus, there is no need to overcome interpretation, which is a perfectly wholesome human function.
From my point of view, Smith is sufficiently substantiated and convincingly indicates the logical errors and fallacies of other philosophers and theologians in understanding interpretation per se. I agree with his thesis that behind “the clear teachings of Scripture,” within “core orthodoxy,” even pervading the apparently “crisp, unadorned voice of God,” certain theological presuppositions and a hermeneutical tradition (a denomination, Church, Seminary, etc.) are operative.Behind every text of Scripture will always stand the language problem and various possible interpretations.In contrast to Koivisto and Fish, Smith is arguing that “everything is a matter of interpretation, including those interpretations described as core orthodoxy. We never have the “crisp, unadorned voice of God” because it is always heard and read through the lens of our finitude and situationality.”In fact, we must accept that the ubiquity of interpretation is confirmed by the existence of multiple Christian denominations with diverse, and divergent, theological systems and traditions of Scripture interpretation. This diversity penetrates even to core, fundamental teachings on the Trinity, atonement and justification, and it is enshrined in the shape of competing ecclesiologies and theological-academic institutions. Thus, it is difficult to accept the view that there is, in the language of Smith, ‘pure reading’ without any interpretation.
I also concur with Smith’s rejection of the notion that the very act of interpretation is a consequence of the Fall. In my opinion, his creational hermeneutic is more consistent and more convincing than other types of hermeneutics considered in this connection. To me, Smith makes a compelling and biblically grounded case that the lure of the temptation in the Garden was a false freedom from hermeneutics, from the burden (and gift) of interpretation, the un-human freedom of unmediated knowledge – becoming “like God” by knowing as God knows (Gen 3:5-6, NIV).In reality, people will always have limited knowledge and, by definition, cannot have perfect knowledge as God (which would preclude all need of, even nullify any cogent meaning of hermeneutics). Mediation does not betray a human defect; rather, it defines our God-ordained humanity, distinguishing and establishing us as contingent upon the Creator. There are no rational grounds for the notion that interpretation is a function to be finally transcended by man. To know as God does means to be God Himself. Un-mediated knowledge is forever proper and inherent only to God. With regard to the biblical text, in light of the above, it is hard to disagree with Derrida’s assertion that we can never get past interpretation to arrive at interpretation-less ‘pure reading’ of the text.Behind every human reading/interpretation of a biblical text or dogma there will always be preceding/prior interpretation(s) generated and influenced by more factors than anyone can grasp, so that critical rethinking – or, in the language of Derrida, deconstruction – is a perpetual necessity.
Smith sees the way out of the situationinecclesiology.He believes thatScripture isbest interpretedwithin a Christian communion.However, there will always be the “risk of communication” even in the understanding of the “core orthodoxy.”In my view, this idea of Smith’s on the interpretation of Scripture within the Church requires further discussion. Smith does not address this importantandvery topical subjectfor the Church a great deal in this book.On one hand, interpretationwithin ‘our community’ isa reasonable answer to the question of how, then, we are to interpret the Scripture, given human limitations. The author says that, because we as a creation do not have perfect knowledge, we always have to be in the process of interpretation–which is also notideal. Thus, we need community, we need each other in order to more comprehensively approach the truth, using a variety of methods.On the other hand,despite the factthat there may bea variety oftrue andcomplementaryinterpretationsof the same passage,there is always room forfalse interpretationswithin the samecommunity or churchdenomination. Thus, the question of the truth and normative interpretation even within the community remains open.What if the whole congregationor denomination errsinanymatter of faith?What then of the claim or pretension to possession of the truth? I think this is an issue that requires more detailed discussion. In addition,it is very importantto consider in more detailthequestion of the authoritativeness of Church preaching,based on herinterpretation. How shouldthe Church directlyapply principlesof deconstructioninthe interpretation of Scriptureand preachingof the Gospel?These questions require a more thorough discussion with a focus on the practical aspects of interpretation and preaching based on Scripture within a community.
James K.A. Smith,The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Pub. Group, 2012), 38.
Mark Alan Bowald,Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 149. The problem of language is discussed in detail in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, where he argues that the most of both philosophical and interpretation problems are caused by the incorrect understanding of the logic of our language(Ludwig Wittgenstein,Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.003,International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method (London: Routledge, 1990), 22-3.
Smith,The Fall of Interpretation, 43.
James K. A. Smith,Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 37-8.
Smith,The Fall of Interpretation, 221.
Smith considersthis issue explicitly only in chapter 7 (which is absent in the first edition of this book). He says that“[s]pace does not permit a full account of this [the question of scriptural authority and interpretation] specific case.” For this reason, he offers only a sketch of this topic(Smith,TheFallofInterpretation, 219).