Monday, May 25, 2009

Humble Realism and Reformed Hermeneutics

Below follows a guest post by Ben Faber (B.A., McMaster; D.Phil., Oxford), who teaches Renaissance and 18th-century English literature at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. He and his wife, Rita, with their five children, are members of Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton. We thank Ben for his contribution, and welcome the engagement of our readers.

In a comment on a previous entry, I noted three points of intersection between Phillip Broussard’s “Humble Realism” and a Reformed approach to hermeneutics. This is an elaboration on these connections.

“Hermeneutics” is the term used in theological, philosophical and literary contexts to “clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place” (Hans-Georg Gadamer). As such, “hermeneutics” usually refers to the assumptions which undergird the theories of interpretation that drive various practices of textual analysis—assumptions about language, reality, agency, perception, and so forth. Conflicting interpretations of Biblical or literary texts can often be traced back to the assumptions that constitute the hermeneutic behind the differing readings. One can go even further back, of course, to the worldview in which the hermeneutic arises that shapes the theory governing the practice. In the following comments I will focus on language since the nature of language continues to be the pivotal issue in hermeneutics. For further reading on these and other aspects of hermeneutics, I highly recommend Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Zondervan, 1998).

So how does a Reformed hermeneutic align in key areas with a Reformed approach to science as expressed by Dr. Broussard?

(A) Realist ontology: When Augustine in On Christian Doctrine refers to the correspondence between the two books of God’s self-revelation, he is suggesting that this correspondence also relates to the means by which God reveals Himself in world and Word. Creation declares the glory of God by natural signs (things); Scripture declares the glory of God by artificial, or conventional, signs (words). In a general sense, although artificial or conventional signs may be secondary to natural signs, they nevertheless refer to real objects, actions, states of being, observable and nonobservable phenomena, etc. Language is representative of the reality to which it refers. Radical poststructuralist literary theory, which absolutizes Derrida’s famous expression that “there is nothing outside the text”, argues that the “reality” to which language refers is inaccessible as such because it is always mediated by language itself: we cannot step outside of discourse to apprehend reality in a pure, unadulterated form. In fact, the postmodernist would add, this “reality” is not given but constructed. A Reformed literary hermeneutic responds by saying that the fact that our apprehension of reality is mediated by language does not negate the reality of that “reality”. That aspects of our understanding of reality are constructed from our being situated in time and place also does not negate that reality. The classical realist position in the sciences is similar to an unproblematic view of language (modernist), while the antirealist position sounds like an excessively bleak take on language (postmodernist). Broussard’s “Humble Realism” echoes the Reformed view that language makes reality accessible, expressible and apprehensible.

(B) Humble epistemology: For all its wonderful properties as a means of making this reality accessible, however, language is neither a neutral instrument nor a perfect vehicle. The good gifts with which God endowed Adam and Eve, including language, were desecrated by the fall into sin. The finitude of human understanding, together with the effects of sin on that understanding, leaves us with no alternative but to acknowledge that the analogy between language and truth is often shaky and fraught with uncertainty. Nevertheless, even while a Reformed hermeneutic recognizes the effects of sin on language, incarnation and inscripturation both point to the real possibility of a correspondence between language and truth. Postmodernist views of language suggest that we are always already caught helplessly between incommensurability and plenitude. In response, the Reformed view of language suggests that we have reasonable grounds to trust language as an analogy of reality, yet without making claims for its absolute reliability. For that we will have to wait for the return of our ascended Lord to complete the redemption of Babel that He began at Pentecost.

(C) Image-of-God anthropology: The covenantal character of the triune God is one of the key themes of Reformed theology, especially as this is expressed in the doctrines concerning the triune Godhead, creation, election, revelation, sacraments, etc. As Nicholas Wolterstorff has suggested, true human flourishing takes place when one lives in peace with God, neighbour, environment, and self. Human beings are fundamentally relational creatures—what Reformed Christians might prefer to call “covenantal creatures” to emphasize the spiritual and ethical responsibilities that accompany our relationality. Language, too, as a means of communication is intrinsically covenantal in its exchange of promise and obligation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, there is no such thing as private language. Therefore, without diminishing the importance of other aspects of being made in God’s image (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3; Belgic Confession, Art. 14), a Reformed literary hermeneutic would highlight the covenantal elements of speech acts in relation to imago Dei. Kevin Vanhoozer, James Smith and Anthony Thiselton do precisely this in emphasizing trust, obligation and responsiveness as the conditions of language-use.

While the foregoing observations relate to general hermeneutics, the implications for special hermeneutics are intriguing. For instance, the idea of the covenant of language portrays our mundane actions of giving and receiving meaning as an exchange grounded in trust, obligation and responsiveness. When something profoundly characteristic of the triune God (His covenantal relationships) is also intrinsic to the ordinary means (language) by which God reveals Himself, surely something significant is going on. Given the covenantal structure of language, how does the fact that God spoke creation into being affect our relationship with the natural world? What does this mean for our understanding of John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”? Is the covenantal structure of language merely a coincidental and convenient analogy for the covenantal nature of the Bible with its promise and obligation? Or does the covenantal structure of language derive from God Himself, not as an accident, but as a corollary to the nature of His creation (ontology) and as a function of our being made in His image (anthropology)? How does the covenant of language relate to the language of covenant? Perhaps a general Reformed hermeneutic may have something to contribute to our understanding of the covenantal nature of God’s revelation in His Word and world. And of preaching, prayer, praise, profession of faith, and a whole host of other covenantal acts of language in our lives as people of the Book.

Some References

James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

Anthony Thiselton, Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works and New Essays. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.


Arnold Sikkema said...

Ben, thank you very much for your unpacking of these three themes. I have two areas of interaction.

A. I want to tie together two points within your discussion of “realist ontology”. First, you explain how both world and Word reveal God, the first by “things” and the second by “words” referring to realities. The two revelations cohere. Then you note that “the classical realist position in the sciences is similar to an unproblematic view of language (modernist), while the antirealist position sounds like an excessively bleak take on language (postmodernist).” What struck me about this is that when I reflect on the thinking of Christians who have the most antirealist interpretations of science, they at the same time assume a thoroughly unproblematic view of the language of Scripture. For them, Scripture is absolutely clear on all points it touches (modernist) but our consideration of nature is completely unclear (postmodernist). How can the modernist and postmodernist tendencies can, apparently, co-exist comfortably in the same person (or community)?

B. The two revelations of God through world and Word mutually inform and enhance one another, perhaps not unlike how theory and observation function in science. While a simplistic view suggests that observation precedes theory, a more faithful consideration shows that observations are theory-laden as well. Now, in terms of revelation, some say that we must be careful to let the Word be primary, so that the world is rightly interpreted. Interestingly, the Belgic Confession (Art. 2) says God reveals Himself to us first through the world, and second through the Word. What approach ought we take when interacting with those who do not see that their understanding of the Word has already been influenced by their understanding of the world?

Ben said...


My initial comment on Broussard's "humble realism" was intended to alert readers to similar issues in philosophical hermeneutics relating to assumptions about reality, knowledge and humanity. That was the context in which I generalized about the correlation between modernist and post-modernist views of language (technically, Structuralism and Poststructuralism) with realist and antirealist positions in the sciences. So I would hesitate to correlate this generalization with a further generalization about Christian antirealism and a literal interpretation of Scripture. I would have the same hesitation with the corollary to your comment that scientific realists who interpret Scripture less literally are modernists in their science and postmodernists in their Biblical interpretation. Further, I don't know enough about Christian antirealism in the sciences to comment on its affinity with postmodernist ontology.

Regarding the relationship between our understanding of the world and our understanding of the Word: all would agree that Scripture would be meaningless without our prior understanding of the world. How would we understand the anthropomorphic language used to describe God's attributes, for instance, without our experience of humanity? We have been conditioned to eradicate our biases and prejudices from interpretation, but I think that we do better to demonstrate positively how our experience of the world makes our understanding of the Bible possible.


George van Popta said...

Arnold said that the two revelations, world and word, mutually inform each other.

I wonder whether that's completely right. Most assuredly, one's view of the world will affect one's view of the word (presuppositions always have a significant controlling function on one's conclusions). But BC 2 says that God makes himself "more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine word...." I'm not sure that general revelation (GR) and special revelation (SR) are mutual. GR is the lesser of the two.

A further question about presuppositions and hermeneutics. What hermeneutic should we use when reading the first chapters (say, 1-11) of Genesis? Should we view them as factually historical? Myth? A polemic (I've read the articles of TJ and FGO)? Etiology? What are the thoughts of the Reformed academics?

Arnold Sikkema said...

Thank you, George; yes, in terms of God’s self-revelation, word makes God more fully and clearly known than world. By “mutual”, I only mean that both interpret one another, not that word-world and world-word are fully identical reciprocal relations.

My hermeneutic approach to Scripture, granting that I am not a theologian but hopefully a theologically informed believer, is redemptive-historical. The passage under consideration should be examined as to how it fits into the grand narrative of Scripture and of God’s plan of redemption as progressively unveiled, paying particular attention to the historical and cultural situation in which the inspired human author speaks to his first audience, and to how Scripture interprets Scripture. I reject as un-Reformed other alternative hermeneutic approaches, such as divine dictation theory (the human author being reduced to a tool used by God to write down, word for word, God’s direct message) and modernist notions which assume that Scripture’s message is that which is specifically targeted to addressing questions arising from our culture’s scientistic, materialistic tendencies.

For these reasons, I am eagerly looking forward to reading John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity, 2009) when it comes out next month. I heard Walton speak last year at Regent College, Vancouver, and one of the main things I took from him is that Genesis 1 is not about material ontology (a modernist notion, that the existence of a thing is established and understood by considering its material composition), but functional ontology (an ancient near-eastern concept, in which existence of a thing is established and understood by considering its purpose or function).

I’m intrigued by your reference to “factual history”, as the concept of “fact” is problematic, with our culture’s understanding of this term highly influenced by the modernist scientistic fact/value distinction. But I will have to defer to our resident historian (Freda Oosterhoff) to discuss this point further.

Dennis Venema said...

Arnold, have you seen these lectures?

Walton's lecture might tide you over until the book arrives - although I'm guessing the lecture linked here is similar to the one you heard at Regent. I haven't listened to it yet, but I plan to. I see that Deborah Haarsma also has a talk in the program (same link, above).

Dennis Venema

George van Popta said...

Thanks, Arnold, for clarifying.

As to my reference to "factual history"... well, I wanted to steer around opening up a discussion about "historie" and "geschichte" and leave that in K. Barth's Church Dogmatics.

I don't subscribe to the dictation method of inspiration (either) but, rather, to what is usually called the organic method.

Assuming that Gen. 1-11 are a product of organic inspiration, do they report historical events as they objectively happened? Or is it “history” embedded in myth, legend, polemics, and etiology? Or something else?

Ben said...

Rev. Van Popta,

(A) I would only add to Arnold's comment that one could make an argument for the mutuality of GR and SR on the basis of the fiduciary character of evidences in both GR and SR. The signs by which we read God's eternal power and divine nature in creation are credible for the same reason that the words of Scripture are trustworthy--the authority for the testamentary function of both GR and SR is God. In that respect, at least, GR and SP are mutual, having their basis as revelation in God's truthfulness, trustworthiness, and covenant faithfulness. Rather than "greater" and "lesser", perhaps it's best to stick with "special" and "general" as the distinguishing marks of the two books of revelation.

(B) Further to Arnold's note about fact/value distinction re Biblical interpretation. The discussions concerning Gen 1-11 usually involve two contrasting sets of value-laden words: "factual", "historical", "literal", "true" vs. "poetic", "polemic", "metaphorical", "false". We should probably re-think these binary opposites. As Dr. Oosterhoff has argued in Clarion, Biblical historiography should be read with the conventions of ANE historiography in mind: a passage of Scripture may be "historically true" even though it fails to meet the requirements of accuracy in the modern historical method. Likewise, poetic passages in the Bible can be said to be absolutely true, even though they are literally false. Thus, the opening chapters of Genesis may very well have elements of all the genres you mention without contradiction, although I would use the term "myth" advisedly, given the confusion this word may cause in popular contexts. (When "myth" is understood to refer to a class of "stories or narratives told about God or divine beings, narrated in a communal setting as of permanent or repeated significance, and believed to be true within the community in question" (A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion), then one could reasonably see aspects of Gen 1-11 in this light.)

Ben Faber

Arnold Sikkema said...

Thanks, Dennis, for posting the link to those four lectures from the Scientific Cosmology and Christianity Symposium at Wheaton College in March 2003. Yes, Walton’s lecture I heard at Regent in 2008 was basically the same.

Fritz said...

In an above comment to this thread, Arnold mention the book:
"The Lost World of Genesis One" by John Walton,

A couple of days ago, I came across this essay by Howard Van Till (author of The Fourth Day) entitled:
"Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity"
Is Walton's idea of functional ontology similar to Van Tills idea of functional integrity?
And, thanks for the link to that Walton lecture, Dennis. I'll be sure to give him a listen.
--Fritz Dewit

Arnold Sikkema said...

In response to Fritz’s question:

Walton’s discussion of “functional ontology” and Van Till’s notion of “functional integrity” are completely unrelated except for the use of the common word “functional”.

Walton describes how for the peoples of the ancient near east (ANE), when thinking about the existence of something, it never enters one’s mind to consider the structure or composition of that thing, but rather what that thing does, how it functions, what its purpose is. This is quite foreign to our post-enlightenment way of thinking which immediately asks, usually unconsciously, what the thing is made of, what its physical properties are, what its structure is. An interesting example is that for the ANE, the desert doesn’t exist (as it has no function), and so when the sins of the people are placed onto the scapegoat which is then sent into the wilderness, those sins too cease to exist. (I don’t remember now if Walton used that example, or if I came up with it myself after listening to his talk, in which he also explained how the sea doesn’t exist either for the ANE.)

Van Till, by “functional integrity”, or later in his “fully gifted creation” model, means that God in creation gave to each element in creation all that is needed for its further development and functioning without the need for any action on God’s part.