Thursday, August 27, 2009

Authorial Intent and Theological Interpretation

I'm currently engaged in multiple thought adventures, from studying the sermon on the Mount (exegetically, theologically, and ethically) to a historical-critical analysis of Philippians, to teaching an introductory course on the New Testament, to arguing with friends about hermeneutics. Amidst my reading, thinking and research I stumbled upon this, by Stephen Fowl:

To claim, as many biblical scholars do, that Paul never would have thought in such metaphysical terms is not in itself theologically relevant. Later creeds and confessions are best understood as scripturally disciplined ways of coherently ordering claims, inferences, and implications of scriptural language about God, the world, and God's purposes for the world. Scripture by its very diversity requires such an ordering. The question is not whether Paul thought this way himself. Rather, the question is whether one uses historical-critical, sociological, philosophical, or christian theological categories for order that diversity.

Fowl, Philippians, pg. 95-96.

First things first. Fowl's commentary is like a breath of fresh air for those wanting more than just careful historical and exegetical analysis. His interpretation of φρονεω, as a common pattern of thinking, feeling and acting, is accurate and instructive. However, Fowl has problems with the notion of authorial intent, and in his essay for Between Two Horizons, "The Role of Authorial Intention in Theological Interpretation" he advances his position on this matter. As one may guess, I cannot understand this position. Perhaps it is to complex for me, but having read Umberto Eco's The Limits of Interpretation and Kevin Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in this Text?, I am persuaded that any death or denial of authorial intent undermines the meaning of a text.
More specifically, the context of Fowl's quote above intrigues me. The discussion revolves around Phil 2:5-11. Fowl advances a plausible reading that suggests the "form of God" should be taken as a reference to God's glory. He does some good historical analysis, and then forsakes it in his theological construction. Now, if the creeds and confessions are scripturally disciplined, what does that mean? That we have read the scriptures and understood their intention, and formulated what we believe based on them? That seems most likely. However, were we to deny authorial intent, we could come up with any creed and just forsake what Paul says. When we claim that what Paul meant (or any author for that matter), is irrelevant, we sink into the despair of relativism. And that just won't do. Fowl himself constantly appeals to what Paul meant, and intends throughout his excellent commentary. But here, retreating into Philosophical particularities, loses the plot when he suggests that it doesn't matter if Paul himself thought this way or not. Reader-response criticism, despite Fowl's, and Wall's claims to the contrary, have no "controls" that are valid if one denies authorial intent as the governing dynamic.
For a better proposal, one need look no further than Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, which outlines a suitable hermeneutic which allows for careful theological reflection within the bounds of good exegetical work. Of course theology (especially systematics) will always want to go further, but it cannot go against what the authors of Scripture said. Nor can it claim much validity once the voice of Scripture's teaching is silenced. As Hays sees it, there are four steps: (1) The Exegetical Task, Reading the Text Carefully; (2) The Synthetic Task, Placing the Text in Canonical Context; (3) The Hermeneutical Task, Relating the Text to Our Situation; and (4) The Pragmatic Task, Living the Text.
It is therefore utterly relevant whether or not a particular Scriptural author thought in particular categories. Since failing to attend to those categories, could entail in a misunderstanding and misapplication of their teaching. I find myself increasingly sceptical of theological claims that are far removed from the categories of Scripture. They may have good ideas, but is it good theology?


Bryan L said...

I've been reading E.D Hirsch lately and thinking a lot of the same thing.

Bryan L

Sean said...

Hey Bryan, you should post some thoughts/a review on Hirsch, I've not read his book. Is he arguing a position similar to Eco/Vanhoozer or Fowl/Patte?

Bryan L said...

I might post some thoughts on his book. In his book "Validity in Interpretation" he's arguing for authorial intent as the goal of interpretation and one of his big contributions seems to be his insistance on the differance between meaning and significance. I have Eco's book but haven't gotten to it yet.

Bryan L

Eddie said...

Biblical Theology is the attempt to organize the theology in the Bible by use of its own categories. Systematic Theology seeks to do so by employing its own categories, often philosophically determined.

But, I haven't read too much systematic theology so I should be careful what I say about it...

Eddie said...

I just don't get how people can deny the importance of authorial intent. Yes, the reality that authors speak of has implications beyond what they express, Yes, what they write has implications beyond what they had in mind, but NO, the text means what they meant and any denial of this lead us where? Into flights of fancy where the reader decides what a valid reading is.

Anonymous said...

Read Gadamer. Hirsch and Derrida are both wrong, at opposite ends of the extreme.