Interpretation and “Objectivity”

James KA Smith, in his new book, with this piece that sticks out in my mind tonight, since there is a heavy dose of “objectivity” that seems to be getting claimed by today’s brand of Southern Baptist theologian (Mr. Mohler comes to mind). They’re so certain that they have it right (for me, their nasty behaviour and smug self-certainty betrays their “doctrinal purity”, effectively rendering their “purity” as meaningless drivel.


Wherever there is interpretation, there will be conflict of interpretation or at least differences of interpretation. However, it is important to consider two levels, or modes, of this hermeneutic pluralism. On the one hand, a kind of pluralism and interpretive difference is inscribed into the very fabric of created finitude, such that we all see the same things but from different angles and locations. We all bump into the same stuff; it’s just that some see it as a dinglehopper, others as a fork. In both Eden and the eschaton, we find interpretive pluralism that is rooted in this plurality of perspectives. As a factor of the conditions of a good creation, this kind of pluralism is something we must embrace as good (Gen. 1:31 ). And such interpretive pluralism remains a reality within the church. On the other hand, a kind of deep “directional” pluralism is endemic to our postlapsarian (postfall) condition; that is, there is a level of interpretive difference that concerns fundamental issues such as what it means to be authentically human and how we fit into the cosmos. In this respect, for instance, Christianity and Buddhism have very different interpretations about the nature of reality. However, we need to consider these as deep differences in interpretation rather than glibly supposing that the Christian account is objectively true and then castigating the Buddhist account for being merely an interpretation. In fact, both are interpretations; neither is objectively true. And so, to a certain extent, we must also embrace this postlapsarian or directional pluralism as the given situation in which we find ourselves. To assert that our interpretation is not an interpretation but objectively true often translates into the worst kinds of imperial and colonial agendas, even within a pluralist culture. Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however, translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modem desire for objective certainty. But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective); the loss of objectivity, then, does not entail a loss of kerygmatic boldness about the truth of the gospel.

p. 50 Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism by JKA Smith

Beautiful stuff. There does indeed seem to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of revelation. The fundamentalist expects to “recognize” truth with the the rational faculties. But without the acting upon the subject by the Spirit, there is no recognition of truth; and thus we get the “Biblical posturing” that is designed to buttress what is assumed to be “reality”; “the way it is”.

Lest I be tempted to point simply to the fundamentalist’s captivity to modernistic thinking, I must ever be aware and on the lookout for ways in which I let prior assumptions and preferences cuase me to see a Biblical truth that is waiting to be revealed to me as a “dinglehopper” instead of a fork (or whatever is the “true nature” or use of such a device).

I belive the point is : that I can easily miss something in the gospels or elsewhere that has been obscured by how I have received some such in the past. Further, as Smith writes in this next section, there is much work to be done, in community, to “re-shape” our thinking and presuppositions to fall more in line with the purposes of God

this should push us to ask ourselves whether the biblical text is what truly governs our seeing of the world. if all the world is a text to be interpreted, then for the church the narrative of the Scriptures is what should govern our very perception of the world. We should see the world through the Word. In this sense, then, Derrida’s claim could be resonant with the Reformers claim of sola scriptura, which simply emphasizes the priority of God’s special revelation for our understanding of the world and making our way in it. There is nothing outside the Text, we might say. And to say that there is nothing outside the Text, then, is to emphasize that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by the revelation of God in the Scriptures. To say that there is nothing outside the Text is to say that there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak. But do we really let the Text govern our seeing of the world? Or have we become more captivated by the stories and texts of a consumerist culture? Is our worldview shaped by the narratives of a hip hop culture more than the stories of God’s covenantal relationship with his people? One of the challenges of Christian discipleship is to make the text of the Scripture the Text outside which nothing stands. As U2s song “When You Look at the World” attests, this is not always easy; sometimes I “can’t see what You see, when I look at the world.” But the sanctification of the Spirit is aimed at enabling us to see the world through this lens.

p. 55-56 Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism


Leave a Reply