The Knot

On one hand, people want to interpret the Bible literally, as opposed to figurative or abstracted readings; the literal sense provides a bulwark against caprice and an assurance to humble readers. On the other hand, people want to distance themselves from literalists, who read the Bible too literally. As a result, interpreters devise elaborate defenses of what counts as “literal” (in a good sense) that’s nonetheless different from what’s literal (in a bad sense); they ascribe figurative force to the literal sense (“at this point, the literal sense is a metaphor”) and locate the determinative qualities of this literality in the text, even though the literalist is making the same appeal to “the text itself.”
It needs to be this way, because such readers insist that it can’t be that the Bible’s meaning is underdetermined, that the communicative gestures represented in a Bible might plausibly be apprehended differently by different readers who weight the different aspects of the representation (and indeed, “different representations”) differently.

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. this is a nice way to frame the issues, and i especially enjoy the last paragraph. i am a big fan of the underdetermination thesis, combined with a pretty high view of inspiration. i think that “the meaning” (with appropriate plurality, etc) may well be something that the “original author” was unaware of because i believe that God works through the text.

    for example, take Ellul’s reading of Jonah. it is no argument against his reading that (1) there are other readings which don’t mention Christ, or (2) that the author of the text surely could not have recognized Ellul’s meaning in his own text. those two things are surely true, but they are irrelevant to the truth–as i see it–of Ellul’s reading.

  2. Thanks, Thomas and Alan. I haven’t had time to read all of what Thomas wrote, but I’ll turn to that soon (I hope).
    Alan, I’ll agree that the use of “literal[-ism, -ist]” as a pejorative term misses the point; frequently the people who throw that term around use it quite selectively: negatively, to condemn the readings they disdain, but positively, to affirm the readings they prefer.
    I think your commenter has a strong point, though, about the phrase “to lie with a man as with a woman.” I don’t think I’m confused about what the Torah-author wanted me to understand by the phrase, but neither do I think he was worrying about “lying” (understood “literally”). That doesn’t mean anything particular about sex or biblical authority, as far as I can tell; it means that we get into direly swampy messes when we use the term “literal.” I can’t think of a circumstance in which that term clarifies a disputed point; it’s too entangled in assumptions that we need to deploy as part of our interpretive practice for us to locate some discursively neutral spot for “literal” to occupy. All the more so, since our theological discourses have assigned cardinal importance to this elusive category.
    I’ve been thinking about “literal” for a long time, most recently in yesterday’s re-reading Jason Springs’s article on Barth, Wittgenstein, and Frei in Modern Theology 2007. I sympathize so strongly with much of what Frei wanted to get at (it’s closely related to what I mean by “exoteric” or “demotic exegesis”), but we part ways to the extent that he seems to think that a “plain,” “literal” sense can help us resolve conflicts. The closest I can come to a useful definition of “literal” for these purposes (and for doctrinal-historical interests) would restrict it to grammatical/lexical studies.
    But part of the point of posting ideas here lies in the value of having them kicked around by people who aren’t hindered by the impediments to clear thought that afflict me, so by all means, Dear Readers, feel all encouragement to show me an irenic-but-effectual usage of “literal,” one that doesn’t engender as many problems as it resolves.

  3. What then of “lexical” readings? If there is a “plain and simple” meaning to/reading of scripture (Note: I am not suggesting there is, but once you read enough Calvin…whew!) should interpreters not consider that in their theologies? Isn’t there something to be said for not constantly residing in the cumulonimbus variety of interpretations? I would think that one would have to look at the various meanings to a single text that an individual reader might express and experience.

  4. Thanks, AKMA. Perhaps we’re not on precisely the same page here, but I took it that my commenter was reaffirming my point, which is that in any imaginable debate about the phrase “lie with a man as with a woman” we’re not going to be faced with the decision to choose between a “literal” and a “non-literal” meaning. Which, in turn, I take to be an affirmation of your point, which is that the word rarely does any useful interpretative work.

  5. Ah, Alan, very good, yes. Few things please me so much as attaining a common mind with you on a point of interpretation.
    Tripp, characterizing a reading as “plain and simple” is either trivially true (no one disputes it) or is true at the cost of some Pickwickian torsion in one’s usage of “plain and simple.” If Scripture plainly teaches you that a communion service is solely a memorial occasion, and Scripture simply teaches me that the elements of the Eucharist are the very Body and Blood fo Christ, what work are “plain” and “simple” doing?
    That’s why I suggest restricting the sense of “literal” to a grammatical function—not that that solves interpretive problems, but because at least the field of semantics and syntax offer us some conventional standards of evidence. If a particular reading seems “plain and simple,” then we presumably ought indeed to pay attention to it in our theological reasoning. Finally, I doubt that anyone abides very long in a cloud of possible interpretations; part of my argument about signifying practices involves the conclusion that eventually one has to live by certain interpretive judgments and not others. The evidence of holy lives testifies to the best readings of texts, just as the testimony of heedless, greedy, maleficent interpretations constitutes evidence for pernicious readings of texts.

  6. Thanks, AKMA. Where I would push back a little is in light of signifying practices. As I understand this, one could also say “interpretive action.” Thus interpretation is lived and not simply deduced (?) from scripture as if it were a logic puzzle or a mystery to be solved. This is how I have always understood the injunction toward literal interpretation. How else is one to achieve a moral/Godly life? Of course this takes us down the track of what “moral” means and the various pitfalls that await us there. I’ve been teaching a book study trying to get my congregation away from moralist thinking…even liberals can be moralists.

    I think that there has to be clarity of the goal of interpretation. Is it to find meaning? Discern the will of God? These are not mutually inclusive notions. More literal/lexical interpretations may not achieve either result. I am not sure that’s a bad thing…or a good thing for that matter. But it is my underlying question of late. Why do we interpret scripture? It sounds so very odd to ask, but that’s where I am.

  7. With regard to:

    interpretation is lived and not simply deduced (?) from scripture

    Is there not a possible model interpreting a text (e.g., scripture) that would be analagous to what happens as a musician interprets a musical composition – involving both strenuous attention to the “sense” of the notes as well as a creative making of the performance within the free activity of one’s inspiration?

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