An Interpretive Realist

Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge Here are some great words about texts and their meaning in our postmodern context.

“The basic problem with the postmodern liberation of the reader from dominant interpretations is that it fails to free readers from themselves. The irony of this liberation from fixed orders is that the postmodern self becomes free and responsible only by emptying out everything that opposes it. That meaning is not ‘really’ there, but only an imposition of institutional ideologies and practices, is a liberating insight for the postmodernist; for if nothing is really there, then nothing can make a claim on my life. Must we say, amending Derrida, that there is nothing outside oneself? This does seem to be the logic behind much postmodern thought. An independent reality with its own intrinsic order would limit my creativity and call my freedom into question.”

“Theological hermeneutics, on the other hand, is unabashedly realist about meaning.  A theological interpretation of interpretation contends that there is something in the text that transcends me.  It believes that readers can receive something from the communicative act of another that can engage, and perhaps enlarge and enhance, their being.  How do hermeneutic realists deal with the phenomenon of textual otherness?  If there is indeed a meaning in texts that transcends the process of interpretation, what is the readers obligation toward it?  Just this: the reader ought to acknowledge it as other, to respond to what is there, to what Steiner terms its ‘real presence.’  Concretely, this means acknowledging a communicative act for what it is, namely, a verbal work whereby an author says something about something to someone.  It means acknowledging the text’s matter (the sense and reference), energy (illocutionary force), and teleology (perlocution).”  For example, with regard to Jesus’ parables, one must acknowledge that these texts metaphorically describe the kingdom of God and challenge the reader to espouse a way of life commensurate with it.  Thiselton rightly highlights the speech act nature of the parables: ‘They attack, they rebuke, they claim, they defend.’  …The ethics of the interpretive realist is characterized by responsibility to another, not freedom from it (p. 394-395).

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

shane lems

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