Understanding Aberrant Interpretation

My work in hermeneutics has always sought out explanations for interpretive divergence — in the first instance, for proximate disagreements among well-qualified readers who generally share their premises and conclusions, and in the second instance, between ‘mainstream’ and ‘off-beat’ interpretations. It’s easy enough, and rewarding enough, to come up with a theory of hermeneutical correctness. Everyone wants to be right, and most people want to have a theoretical apparatus that justifies coercion directed against those who aren’t right. Fewer people, though, want to understand why one would reach wrong interpretive conclusions in the first place.
For a while, I corresponded with Lee Perry, the author of Holy Grail: Cosmos of the Bible; he was a genial and patient correspondent, who understood that I declined to assent to his conclusions, while he did not ever waver in his own confidence that he had discovered the true meaning of the Bible (among other cultural phenomena). Perry, and other conspiracy theorists, national treasure hunters, Bible code-hunters, and sundry outsider interpreters, can be literate, erudite, ingenious, articulate, and 100% wrong. What hermeneutical reasoning can give an account of intelligent, well-intentioned people arriving at bizarrely wrong conclusions? The problem is doubled when you look at interpretive change from a historical perspective (as does Frank Kermode in ‘Can We Say Absolutely Anything We Like?’ in The Art of Telling/Essays on Fiction 1971-82); ideas that seem outlandish in one decade turn out to be tiresomely obvious in another.
In the course of exploring outsider biblical interpretation*, I’ve now come to pay particular attention to Hutchinsonianism, a peculiar intellectual affliction that beset the north of England and Scotland in response to the Enlightenment.† Hutchinson taught that the unpointed Old Testament text anticipated New Testament teachings, but that hostile Jews had introduced misleading vowel points into the Hebrew Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity was specifically set out there as well, and all manner of natural science (since all truth was revealed, Hutchinson was ardently anti-Newtonian). Hutchinson’s works influenced an interesting stratum of marginal English and Scottish clergy and educators (apparently including the founder of King’s College/Columbia University, Dr. Samuel Johnson), which is how they came to my attention.
OK, I have to get back to research — trust me, if I come up on any irresistible Hutchinsonian tidbits, I’ll share them here. The point, though, is that a hermeneutics that can’t give a plausible, respectful account of difference — even bizarre-to-the-point-of-hallucinatory difference (I’m looking at you too, Muggletonians) — fails in one of its most important tests. A hermeneutic of self-congratulatory correctness does little to advance mutual understanding, and much to aggravate interpretive conflict. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, our first desideratum in hermeneutics should be to clarify the basis on which reasonable, lucid, erudite minds may reach divergent conclusions,


* Anyone who has ever observed me turn purple and splutter over the terrible writing and utterly vacuous biblical interpretation of The da Vinci Code will understand that I undertake this research not out of any fondness for interpretive implausibility, but strictly out of an obligation to take outré interpretations seriously as part of my hermeneutics.

† I also may be supervising a thesis on Blake’s christology, and Blake may have been influenced by Hutchinsonianism — so there are two reasons.
** William Van Mildert, Bishop first of Llandaff and subsequently of Durham, after whom the disinguished chair in Divinity was named (once occupied by my Doctrine Committee colleague David Brown, now held by my Chicqago-area Episcopal colleague Mark McIntosh), appears to have been strongly influenced by Hutchinsonian theology.

3 thoughts on “Understanding Aberrant Interpretation

  1. Yes, I regularly have difficulty with evangelicals here who think that hermeneutics is misleading because there is only one possible interpretation (despite their own plurality of interpretations over the years of sermons). There is a strong need in theology for a ‘hermeneutics of difference’ to displace older and outdated notions of ‘biblical exegesis’*. However, I think this is only possible through a critique of rigid orthodoxy and the acknowledgment of a pluralism of doxa (be it heterodoxy or polydoxy).

    *NB: I’m not discounting the practise of exegesis, only calling into question the assumed univocity of such an enterprise.

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