the first place, we may use the term traditional to describe the general
approach to biblical interpretation that characterized the Christian church
prior to the development of modern scientific thought in the seventeenth
century; with some qualifications, such an approach continues to be used by many
readers of the Bible. This viewpoint affirms that the Bible is primarily a
divine book, that, therefore, it is characterized by perfect unity and
infallible teaching, and that recognizing this unique character is essential for
proper interpretation. Thus, for example, any reading of Scripture that entails
contradiction or error would seem to be precluded.
Within this traditional approach, however, a variety of theories has been used. According to the allegorical method, which was especially prevalent during the ancient and medieval periods, the Bible as a divine book is characterized by multiple meanings. A competing viewpoint has emphasized the importance of the "literal sense" intended by the author (senses literalis), but many - especially Roman Catholic scholars - who are not satisfied with the allegorical approach have nevertheless argued for the validity of a "fuller sense" (senses plenior - that is, a meaning intended by God but not necessarily understood by the biblical author). Another important issue in dispute pertains to the role of the church and its tradition in the process of interpretation; the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century argued, in distinction from the teaching of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, that ultimate authority resides in Scripture alone (sola scriptura) and that, therefore, tradition must play a subservient role (1).
2. A second major approach is the historical method, which arose in the context of the Age of Enlightenment and has dominated biblical scholarship even to this day (2). Of course, interest in the historical meaning of the Bible had characterized important groups of biblical interpreters for centuries, and much of what developed in the modern scientific period was clearly compatible with earlier approaches. Nevertheless, the new emphasis on human reason and on the task of "criticism" entailed treating the Bible as one would treat any other book. This principle meant different things to different thinkers; for some, though certainly not for all, it meant abandoning the traditional notion of biblical authority.
In any case, belief in the divine character of the Bible, even when not rejected, became irrelevant to historical criticism, which insisted on using an approach that is not prejudiced by dogmatic assumptions. And since the Bible, like all other books, was subjected to the judgment of human reason, the historical-critical method normally assumed the existence of biblical errors and contradictions. As this approach matured in the nineteenth century, it made dramatic progress in textual and philological analysis, but at the same time the theological significance of the Bible receded more and more into the background.
In addition, the desire to develop a method that was consistently historical led many biblical students to embrace the "history-of-religions" school (3). Because this method viewed Christianity as simply one among many religious phenomena of antiquity, a belief in the uniqueness and divine authority of the Bible seemed to be excluded. Consequently, biblical interpretation became dominated by the attempt to explain the text on strictly naturalistic grounds.
3. In reaction to these developments, many influential thinkers began, soon after World War I, to argue for the importance of theological interpretation. Associated primarily with the name of Karl Barth (1886-1968), this approach denounces the sterility of the historical method (but not the method itself), seeks to restore confidence in the unity and authority of the Bible without abandoning the advances of historical-critical scholarship (hence the label neo-orthodox), and stresses the relevance of the Bible for today. The implications of this movement, which were considerable, will be examined below.
 4. A fourth major approach takes us back to the beginnings of the nineteenth century. Mainly through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the concept of general or philosophical hermeneutics was introduced into the theological discussion but did not play a prominent role until the twentieth century. The term hermeneutics, at least in its earlier context, meant simply "the science [or art] of interpretation." The term general emphasizes the need to develop a broad theory of understanding that is applicable to any text, but to accomplish such a task we cannot dispense with philosophical tools and concepts. Almost by definition this approach involves a strongly interdisciplinary perspective. Indeed, one of the most influential figures in the development of general hermeneutics, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), was primarily concerned with the process of understanding in all of the humanities and the social sciences. More recently, as we shall see, this approach has been developed vigorously within the framework of existentialist philosophy.
5. Quite a different perspective is that provided by modern linguistics. The scientific study of language made some extraordinary advances in the nineteenth century, and these were appropriated by biblical scholarship. At that time, however, the focus of linguistics was on the historical and comparative method: How have languages developed and how are they related to one another? A fundamental change in approach is usually credited to the Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who argued that linguistic study should be primarily synchronic in character, focusing not on the evolution of a language (diachronic perspective) but on its system or structure at a particular time. These and related ideas had a crucial impact on the development of so-called structural linguistics, but it was not until the 1960s that biblical scholarship began to appropriate those insights (4). (Saussure's work also served as a springboard for a broader and quite distinct movement known as structuralism, which in turn has influenced some aspects of biblical interpretation.)
6. Interestingly, a parallel development known as linguistic analysis took place about the same time in the English-speaking world. Also known as analytic philosophy, it may be viewed as a reaction to certain speculative and abstract currents of thought that were popular at the turn of the century. According to the proponents of the new approach, the real task of philosophy should be the clarification of concepts, which requires a careful analysis of language. Later developments in this philosophical tradition - such as "speech act theory" - have strongly influenced the contemporary theological debates.
7. Another discipline that has obvious contacts with biblical interpretation is literary criticism. Several approaches that emerged in the twentieth century will need to be taken into account below. The dominant tendency, however, has been one of minimizing the significance of the author so as to emphasize either the independent value of the text or the active role played by the reader.
These seven major approaches do not constitute an exhaustive list, and readers of the Bible are often discouraged by the very complexity of the subject. Nevertheless, some overarching ideas can be identified that may help to isolate the most fundamental questions.
Literary Theory and
Philosophy. Even as these developments were taking place in biblical and
theological scholarship, a parallel set of ideas was coming to expression in the
field of literary criticism. As early as the 1930s, important literary scholars
were arguing that the traditional approach to criticism was
- that the usual concern with the author was misguided. What a poet may have intended in writing a poem, for example, may be of some historical interest, but that has little relevance to our understanding of that poem. Known as the "New Criticism," this approach treated the text as an artifact independent of its author and thus reopened the question of textual meaning.
The interrelationship among the disciplines of literary criticism, philosophy, and theology has deeply affected the debate during the past several decades. Perhaps the most prominent figure has been the German philosopher Hans-George Gadamer, whose name is usually (though not always fairly) associated with a relativistic approach to interpretation. Indeed, Gadamer went so far as to give the impression that truth in interpretation is a matter of personal taste (9).
It is important to keep in mind, however, the context of his argument. What Gadamer was most concerned to refute was the claim that the scientific method alone is able to arrive at the truth. At the root of this method is doubt-that is, doubt about anything that has not been repeated and verified. Accordingly, tradition is "prejudice" and must be eliminated. But the humanities, and history in particular, are not subject to this kind of repetition and verification, so the inference might be drawn that the humanities cannot arrive at the truth.
Over against that viewpoint, Gadamer argued that "prejudice" cannot be eliminated. Indeed, "prejudice" is essential for consciousness and understanding. His intent was to rehabilitate tradition (particularly the classics), which provides the presuppositions that can be tested as they are applied to the texts. Gadamer also placed much emphasis on the view that the past is not fixed, that prior events and texts change inasmuch as they are continually being understood. If so, it is not possible to identify the meaning of the text simply with the author's intention.
Ironically, soon after the publication of Gadamer's work, modern science underwent some radical changes, largely as a result of the work of Thomas Kuhn (10). It is now generally recognized that the sciences are not so fundamentally different from the humanities; the former no less than the latter are deeply involved in hermeneutics, so that no field of study can escape some measure of relativity. Be that as it may, Gadamer's thought had a deep impact not only on philosophical discussion but also on the study of literature and, therefore, on theological and biblical scholarship.
Particularly well-known in this connection is the work of Paul Ricoeur. Among his numerous suggestive ideas, we should take note of his emphasis on the distinction between the speaking-hearing and the writing-reading relation. In spoken discourse, the meaning overlaps the intention of the speaker. "With written discourse, however, the author's intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide .... The text's career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text means now matters more than what the author meant when he wrote it (11)." In written texts, there is a ``surplus of meaning" not intended by the author. While Ricoeur himself is not a biblical scholar, he is  deeply interested in religious thought, and so many theologians and biblical students have been affected by his work.
J. S. Croatto is an especially interesting example, since his writings, which arose in the context of Latin American liberation theology, have become popular in the English-speaking world (12). According to Croatto, the Bible must not be viewed as a fixed deposit that has already said everything; it is not so much that the Bible "said" but that it "says." In committing their message to writing, the biblical authors themselves disappeared, but their absence means semantic richness. The "closure" of authorial meaning results in the "opening" of new meaning. Croatto even tells us that the reader's responsibility is not exegesis - bringing out a pure meaning the way one might take an object out of a treasure chest - but properly eisegesis, that is, we must "enter" the text with new questions so as to produce new meaning.
One can hardly overemphasize the radical character of these developments. To a practitioner of the historical method, it is simply shocking to hear that eisegesis may be a permissible - let alone the preferable! - way to approach the text. For nineteen centuries the study of the Bible had been moving away from just such an approach (especially in the form of allegorical interpretation), so that with the maturing of the historical method a great victory for responsible exegesis had been won. But now we are told that historical interpretation is prise. And although no one is arguing that we should return to the uncontrolled allegorizing of some ancient and medieval interpreters, the search for a meaning other than that intended by the original author does seem, at first blush, as though one is giving up centuries of hermeneutical progress.
But the situation is even more complicated. During the past several decades we have witnessed the arrival of a variety of more specialized, even esoteric, approaches, such as structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and so on (see below, "The Role of the Reader"). At their most extreme, some schools question the very foundations of Western thought and thus suggest the impossibility of interpreting texts.
To be sure, there have been some eminent defenders of "authorial intention" in the contemporary scene, best known among them E. D. Hirsch. Arguing for a distinction between meaning (the invariable sense intended by the writer) and significance (the changeable application of a writing to different contexts), Hirsch believed he could preserve the crucial role of the original author against the attacks of thinkers like Gadamer (13). Moreover, the vast majority of books and articles dealing with the biblical text continue to place priority on its historical meaning. Especially puzzling is the fact that, from time to time, one may hear a scholar at a professional meeting who seems to adopt the newer approach theoretically but whose actual interpretive work does not appear substantially different from standard historical exegesis. The abandonment of authorial and historical interpretation would be difficult to document from the usual articles published in the recognized journals of biblical scholarship.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to infer that the contemporary debates in hermeneutics are mere games. The challenges to traditional approaches are serious and need to be weighed carefully. In particular, these challenges have a direct bearing on the relevance of the Bible for the communities of faith. After all, whatever the scholars may be doing in their specialized publications, one must still ask what is the responsibility of preachers as they address their congregations and of individual believers as they approach their reading and study of Scripture.
Structuralism. One of
these was French structuralism, a movement that derived its name - but little
more than the name and some terminology - from modern linguistics. Even in
linguistics, the term structuralism is not free of ambiguity. If all we mean is
the recognition that language is a structured system (so that individual sounds
and forms have value not simply in themselves but in relationship to the whole),
then virtually all modern linguists are "structuralists." The term, however, is
more often applied narrowly to several schools that dominated the linguistic
landscape in the first half of this century (19).
The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, finding some of the structuralist concepts helpful, borrowed them, possibly in an attempt to give scientific credibility to his cultural analyses. In the process, however, terms were stretched well beyond their use in linguistics. It was this watered-down terminology that became the source for key intellectual developments in France in the late 1960s. One historian has commented: "But the linguistics of French structuralism and poststructuralism was a mirage. Those who used its notions understood neither the technical aspects of linguistics nor the theoretical stakes involved (20)."
In any case, these new ideas began to be applied to biblical literature in the 1970s, often under the rubric of "structural exegesis." Much use was also made of semiotics (the theory of signs), since the approach puts great emphasis on language as a network of symbols. The structuralist jargon was daunting, and many biblical scholars who expended the effort to learn the method were greatly disappointed with the results (though at the hands of some moderate practitioners the questions asked can shed new light on the text). Part of the reason was that structuralists focused their attention not on what a text means but on how it produces meaning; indeed, their concerns fall more easily under the category of epistemology (or even the study of culture) than that of traditional hermeneutics.
The significance of this movement for the purposes of the present article lies in the fact that it embodies, sometimes in a radical way, the principle of the semantic autonomy of texts. In the view of structuralists, biblical criticism had been much too preoccupied with both the original author and the historical referent of the text. Instead, they proposed to examine the text independently of those considerations and to determine the self-contained value of narratives.
At its most extreme, structuralism gives way to deconstruction, a point of view normally associated with the name of Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction is nothing less than an attack on some fundamental concepts of Western culture, since it appears to call into question the very possibility of literary communication by insisting on the absence of a fixed language. As applied to the parables of Jesus, for example, this approach emphasizes the polyvalence (multiple meanings) of metaphor. The reason a parable can mean numerous things, we are told, is not precisely that it has a "surplus of meaning" (Ricoeur's phrase) but that it has a "void of meaning at its core." Having made that point, and a few others, one will be drawn to accept
Text versus History. One
of the more controversial elements in this modern emphasis on the autonomy of
the text has been the tendency to play down the extraliterary, particularly the
historical, reference of literary works. In other words, an emphasis on the
text's autonomy means that the text is cut off not only from the author but also
from the extralinguistic reality to which the text apparently refers. Earlier
biblical scholarship (both liberal and conservative) is often criticized for
paying too much attention to the question of historicity. If conservative
scholars wonder what may have motivated a biblical character to act in a
particular way, they are chastised for focusing on the historical event rather
than on the literary skills of the biblical author. If liberal scholars take to
task a conservative reading of some historical portion, they too are criticized
for missing the point. In short, the very asking of historical questions is seen
as basically irrelevant. One proponent of this point of view suggests that "the
new literary criticism may be described as inherently ahistorical." He further
comments: "Consideration of the Bible as literature is itself the beginning and
end of scholarly endeavor. The Bible is taken first and finally as a literary
As is usually the case when a provocative new idea makes its appearance and is taken hold of by enthusiastic thinkers, the notion of the autonomy of the text has proven to be a mixed blessing. Both positive and negative results are clearly discernible. Predictably, formulations that appear extreme tend to prejudice our acceptance of the positive elements. Even the most objectionable views, however, are likely to reflect some important truth, and the effort must be made to do justice to it.
Undoubtedly, historical exegesis - in spite of some notable exceptions - has tended to ignore the intrinsic literary quality of the biblical documents. The New Criticism and later developments related to it have taught us to pay attention to the "texture" of biblical literature. One need not view this quality as the beginning and end of our interest. To do so would be to undermine what traditionally has been recognized as a foundational element of biblical religion - namely, its essentially historical character.
Nevertheless, biblical narrative, as well as other biblical genres that include historical reference, must not be treated as neutral in character, free of interpretive and theological "bias." (Belief in biblical inspiration and infallibility does not preclude-in fact, it intensifies-the importance of this interpretive element.) Now the theological perspective of the biblical authors is seldom expressed in explicit terms; rather, it is reflected in their composition of the text. Accordingly, close attention to the literary quality of narrative, even if considered in relative independence from its historical reference, can be of immense value in understanding the significance of the history that narrative presents.
Interpretation. The old retort "I've made up my mind - don't bother me with
the facts" is usually spoken tongue-in-cheek, but there is more truth to it than
we realize or are willing to admit. And this is not necessarily a matter of
willful obstinance or dishonesty. When someone misinterprets what we say, we may
find solace in the fact that "people hear what they want to hear." Perhaps more
accurately, we could say that people hear only what their minds are already
prepared to hear. It is impossible for us to understand and assimilate new
information except by relating it to what we already know - that is, by
filtering it in a way that fits our "pre-understanding." A few wise individuals,
however, seem able to identify an anomaly quickly, to recognize that they are
unable to assimilate it, and to adjust their interpretive framework in a way
that takes account of the new fact.
Be that as it may, the point is that contemporary thinkers have learned to accept the role played by the subjectivity of the observer in scientific research (24). But now, if these things are true in the "hard sciences," where objective measurement lies at the core of research, what shall we say with regard to the humanities, and particularly the interpretation of literature, where the subjective factor seems so much more prominent? For one thing, these developments tell us that we probably have overestimated the differences between the sciences and the humanities. In both of these broad disciplines, the researcher is faced with a set of data that can be interpreted only in the light of previous commitments, in both cases, therefore, an interpreter comes-consciously or unconsciously-with a "theory" that seeks to account for as many facts as possible. Given the finite nature of every human interpreter, no explanation accounts for the data exhaustively. And in many, many cases, it is a set of  prior commitments, rather than the weight of the evidence, that determines the final conclusion.
That much is widely agreed upon in our day. Some thinkers, however, will argue that, at least in the case of literary interpretation, we need to go further. It is even suggested that the role of the reader is and should be virtually the only thing that matters. For practitioners of both the historical method (which emphasized the original author's meaning) and the New Criticism (which disregarded any such authorial intention), the one thing that could be relied on was the objectivity of the text. For proponents of "reader-response theory," however - at least in its more extreme forms - there is no such thing as an objective text. Insofar as every reader brings an interpretive framework to the text, to that extent every reader generates a new meaning and thus creates a new text.
This approach, moreover, does not stop at describing what happens when a text is read; after all, traditional interpreters might recognize that there is a sense in which that description may be accurate - just as long as an effort is made to control the tendency! The message of reader-response theorists, rather, is that this way of reading is legitimate and should be encouraged in all its many-splendored varieties. Accordingly, specific points of view become self-conscious hermeneutical strategies. Prominent in the last decade or two have been Marxist readings of the Bible, feminist approaches, and studies in African American hermeneutics; but in principle there should be no objection to taking any ideology as a point of departure (say, an explicitly capitalist approach to the prophecy of Amos, or a self-consciously racist reading of the Gospel of John).
Edgar V. McKnight, a respected proponent of reader-response theory, suggests that, since we cannot completely break out of our self-validating systems, ultimate meaning is unreachable: All we can hope for is to discover and express truth "in terms that make sense within a particular universe of meaning." We may, therefore, continue to discover or create meaning, "which is satisfying for the present location of the reader (25)."
A specific exegetical example helps to understand what all of this means for the actual interpretation of Scripture. In 2 Samuel 11 we are told that, after committing adultery with Bathsheba, David tried to get her husband, the soldier Uriah, to go home Uriah, however, refused to do so. Since the rest of the army was in the open fields, he protested, "How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife?" (see v. 11). Most readers, of course, will wonder whether Uriah had found out about the affair, but the Hebrew narrative, so often characterized by gaps of information, does not tell us. "The gap may be filled legitimately by both affirmative and negative answers .... The text demands that both hypotheses be utilized to shed their different light on details in the text; different plots must organized on the basis of the hypotheses. Moreover, the text requires the reader to maintain both hypotheses simultaneously (26)."
Stated in that fashion, it is difficult to object to the approach, for it simply attempts to do justice to the literary power of the narrative. Behind this example, however, lies a commitment to the relativity of truth in human experience and, therefore, to the validity of multiple, perhaps even contradictory, meanings. While McKnight himself is care to deny that "anything goes" (27), it is not always easy to see how an extreme application can be logically avoided. In a famous essay that argues against the determinacy of meaning, Stanley Fish concludes by assuring us that we need not worry that such an approach leads to relativism; after all, in spite of indeterminacy of meaning, people continue to participate in communication with confidence because their beliefs are communal (28)." Yet, it remains unclear whether Fish's reassurance works out in practice
The Theological Factor.
The application of this principle to biblical studies inevitably becomes
embroiled in fundamental theological disputes. For most of their historical
existence, both Jewish a Christian communities held - and substantial groups
within them still hold - that the Bible does communicate and make accessible to
us ultimate  truth. How is that commitment to be
reconciled with the notion that conflicting interpretations of the Bible, since
they have behind them the authority of their respective communities, are all
Is a Roman Catholic believer, for example, supposed to acknowledge the truthfulness of a Protestant doctrine even if that doctrine contradicts and thus undermines an important Roman Catholic tenet? And if an interpretive community decides that the reader-response approach is invalid, is that community's interpretation valid too? The term valid is seldom if ever defined in these contexts (29). According to what may be described as a "soft" approach, the point is that no community has a monopoly on the whole truth; therefore, diverse communities, recognizing that their respective traditions have emphasized different aspects of biblical truth, may prove mutually enriching. Given human finiteness, such an emphasis is unobjectionable. What remains unaddressed and troubling is whether any two views may be mutually exclusive and, if so, whether it is helpful to regard them both as valid.
Unquestionably, current emphases on the role of the reader cover a wide variety of approaches. Included under the general category are profound insights into the process of interpretation as well as faddish ideas. The danger is that, troubled by what appear to be extreme formulations, we may close our eyes to the invaluable contributions made by this movement. Such an overreaction would be particularly unfortunate in view of the character of Scripture as a book that speaks to all generations. If there is anything demonstrable in the history of biblical study it is the vigor and consistency with which believers have "actualized" its teachings in their lives.
This relevance is not the result of the Bible's "timelessness," if we mean by that a transcendent meaning totally unconditioned by historical factors. The very fact that the biblical message has proven relevant to remarkably diverse people living in different ages and different lands is itself evidence of its essentially historical character; it was given to people in the context of their life situation, and it has been readily contextualized by subsequent readers. (To me, the theological explanation is that the same Holy Spirit who authored the Scriptures - thus biblical inspiration - is the one who brings understanding to the reader.) It is worth pointing out, incidentally, that Stanley Fish, whatever other controversial things he may say, places a premium on the contextual aspect of communication (30).
Some thinkers view the concept of contextualization as a relativizing of the Bible that deprives it of its authority. It may well be that the concept has been abused in specific instances, but biblical authority can just as easily be undermined by minimizing the reality of historical variation. The divine authority of Scripture comes to human beings in their concrete situations, which of course are susceptible to change. The absoluteness of God's commands thus would not be preserved but rather compromised if those commands were so general and vague that they were equally applicable to all situations.
The Legitimacy of Reader
Involvement. Our discussion so far may be viewed as an acknowledgment of the
intense involvement of the reader in the process of interpreting Scripture. We
should not be misled by the apparent novelty, or even avant-garde quality, of
reader-response theory. While it is true that the current preoccupation with the
reader is very much a modern phenomenon, the newness in question has to do
mainly with the self-conscious and explicit character of the descriptions. But
there is unquestionably a reality to which those descriptions point, and that
reality has always been there.
Whether we like it or not, readers can - and routinely do - create meanings out of the texts they read. That being so, several options are available to us. At one extreme, we could legitimize all reader responses, or at least the ones that have the authority of some community behind them; it is doubtful, however, whether the integrity of Christianity can be preserved within such a framework. At the other extreme, we could attempt to suppress the reader's prejudice. In effect, this is what historical exegesis has had as its goal: total objectivity on the part of the interpreter. But such objectivity does not exist. And if it did exist, it would be of little use, because then we would simply be involved in a bare repetition  of the text that takes no account of its abiding value. Paradoxically, the success of modern biblical criticism was obtained at the great cost of losing biblical relevance.
The historical method was not necessarily wrong in distinguishing what the Bible originally meant from what it means today. In practice, however, it also separated the two. The new approach teaches us, or rather reminds us, that if we do not know what the Bible means today, it is doubtful that we know what it meant then. At all stages of interpretation some human need is being met. None of those activities presents us with a "purely objective" truth that is removed from all human questions and concerns. Every request for "meaning" is a request for an application because whenever we ask for the "meaning" of a passage we are expressing a lack in ourselves, an ignorance, an inability to use the passage. Asking for "meaning" is asking for an application of Scripture to a need; we are asking Scripture to remedy that lack, that ignorance, that inability. Similarly, every request for an "application" is a request for meaning; the one who asks doesn't understand the passage well enough to use it (31).
In short, it is not necessary to suppress our present context to understand the text. On the contrary, at times we need to approach Scripture with our problems and questions if we would truly appreciate what it says. And that is to recognize that in order to value the text, the reader must have a commitment to it. Commitment, however, entails pre-understanding, and such a "prejudice" is not only permissible - it is required.
Users of The New Interpreter's Bible will note, in the very format for the commentaries, a deliberate attempt to avoid a false dichotomy between "what it meant" and "what it means." Although individual contributors reflect a variety of viewpoints with regard to reader-response theory, the project as a whole acknowledges, in contrast to the older method, the legitimacy of the interpreter's self-involvement.
Respect for the Author.
One could argue that this is the only honest way of proceeding before further
considerations are brought to bear on the text. Our social interaction with one
another is anchored on this principle. We all recognize that it is utterly
unjust to take a conversation we have just heard and interpret the words of one
of the speakers in a sense different from-let alone contradictory to-the sense
meant by that speaker. Indeed, we routinely denounce that sort of thing as
morally unacceptable behavior. The notion that such a principle can simply be
suspended in the case of written documents cannot be justified.
Consider, for example, liberation theologian Croatto's claims (summarized early in this article) that interpreters should read into the text their own meaning. One suspects that Croatto would be deeply offended (and rightly so) if we were to interpret his book to mean that the best kind of hermeneutics is the fundamentalist approach, or that his book sets forth a capitalist ethics on the basis of which the United States is justified in exerting imperialist pressures on Latin America. Such an interpretation of Croatto's work would be deplorable.
In response, some may suggest that he was only referring to works that have become classics, whether religious or otherwise. There is no doubt a measure of truth in this argument: A classic work becomes part of a given community, whose members, by their very use of the work, put their own imprint on it. But to admit that much is a far cry from what some moderns are suggesting. Can it reasonably be argued that the more important a work is the greater liberties we may take with it? That the more we respect a text, the more justified we are to disregard its author? Whatever other functions a classic may have, it continues to be a historical document, requiring historical interpretation. It should be kept in mind, incidentally, that Bultmann's own emphasis on preunderstanding, far from removing the need for historical interpretation, was intended to do real justice to serious texts (34).
Part of the difficulty arises from the role played by poetry in most societies. It is, of course, true that if someone composes a poem or produces a painting - that is, a purely artistic product - the creator is inviting us to "interpret" that work in a variety of ways. But the biblical texts are not art in this sense. Even the Hebrew poetry of the OT cannot be reduced to pure art. Whatever literary and artistic features we may find in Scripture, its primary purpose is to communicate an intelligible message that requires a response.
The Character of
Scripture. Here, however, once again we come across a theological issue that
has a history of vigorous controversy. Is God's revelation really
propositional in character (that is, conveying information) or is it
personal (establishing a relationship)? The so-called dialectical
approach associated  with the theology of Karl Barth, concerned that orthodox
Christianity downgraded the Bible to the level of a static document, emphasized
the relational quality of the Word of God (this view, with some modifications,
became the dominant position and continues to be widely held). Evangelical
theology, on the other hand, concerned about the subjectivity implied in Barth's
approach, has insisted that the biblical revelation is
While I am committed to the latter perspective, one must be careful not to fall into indefensible disjunctions. The whole of the biblical text can hardly be reduced to a sourcebook of information - there is much more to Scripture than that (35). But neither can we suggest that God's revelation consists of a personal encounter void of content. Indeed, nothing is more basic to Scripture than the fact that it communicates to us God's good news. The question is, then, whether, by an appeal to the autonomy of the text or the role of the reader, we have the liberty to subvert that message.
Semantic Theories. In
any case, the careful empirical work of modern linguistics should provide a
solid foundation for discussions about meaning (and, therefore, about the
interpretation of texts). A variety of theories have been propounded; we need
not identify them all, but several emphases deserve mention. One long-standing
explanation - more or less discredited among professionals but unconsciously
assumed by most speakers even today - is the reference or denotation theory of
meaning. According to this view, words function like names - that is, labels
attached to extralinguistic objects. As a comprehensive explanation, this theory
is most inadequate. Even when applied to "names," the concept of reference is
only part of the picture; both "New York City" and "The Big Apple" refer to, or
stand for, the same extralinguistic entity, but it would be misleading to say
that their meaning is identical. The problem is even more serious when we take
into account words for which it is difficult to identify a referent (e.g.,
A competing approach is the functional view of meaning, which stresses the contextual use of language. This explanation has been proposed in various forms by such philosophers as Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and J. L. Austin (42). The emphasis on context is congenial to scholars in the field of general linguistics. This approach can be easily integrated, for example, into a view of language as a structured system, in which value arises from the relationship that holds among the diverse linguistic elements. Thus the potential meaning of the word good depends on its relationship to words of similar meaning that could occupy the same context, such as nice and excellent, the actual meaning of the word in an utterance is determined by its relationship with the other words in that specific sentence (43).
Although much more satisfying than the reference theory of meaning - at least when discussing the meaning of vocabulary items - the contextual approach cannot account for every semantic problem in language. Other perspectives and emphases can and should be used to shed greater light on the question of linguistic meaning. In particular, it is worth pointing out that to recognize the strong connection between meaning and usage does not do away with the concept of reference, especially in the case of whole utterances or propositions. Take the sentence Abraham Lincoln delivered a powerful speech at Gettysburg. The two proper names in that sentence certainly denote (that is, have a one-to-one correspondence with) extralinguistic realities. The terms delivered and speech are not totally devoid of reference, but their meaning is to a large extent determined by linguistic relationships. This is even more true of the adjective powerful, for its semantic value depends almost entirely on both the presence of other adjectives that could occupy that spot in the sentence and the specific combination of the adjective with the noun speech.
Note, however, that the recognition of these facts does not in any way undermine the denotative character of the sentence as a whole. As a historical proposition, the meaning of that statement is inextricably tied to the referent to which it points. (Moreover, the referential character in view is independent of its truthfulness. If we replace Abraham Lincoln with Plato, the sentence, though false, would still denote something outside of language itself.) In sum, it is important to keep in mind that competing theories of meaning need not be mutually exclusive of each other. More important, one must not conclude that an emphasis on inner-linguistic semantics results in the destruction of objective meaning.