Saturday, May 19, 2012

The death of the author

I'm going to post some comments that a commenter left at TFan's blog:

  • Hebrew Student
    I would like to see what the claim of the various Orthodox Churches is based on so that its validity can be assessed.
    What the other churches seem to be doing is doubting Christ’s words to Peter – rather than having a genuine problem with the fact that the authority of Peter has to be interpreted. It is more an historical problem too – suspicions and political mistrust. I guess you have yet to read what I wrote in my blog – my series on Peter. If you take a look you will see how Scripture itself affirms what the Petrine ministry means.
    Not seeing it cannot be justified by saying that there are different interpretations. The Roman Catholic interpretation is most definitely NOT just one among many as if all such interpretations are equal. The question is which interpretation is more truthful to Scripture, to history in the Early Church and did Christ mean what he said? It is easy to discount any other interpretation that is very far removed from Christ such as the Mormon one – Christ said he would be with the Church guiding the Church ALWAYS and not just in a thousand years time. It is Christ’s own integrity that is being called into question.
    It most certainly does not mean that no accurate interpretation can be determined – that is if what you are seeking is really the truth and not just what is convenient or fitting in with an individual’s version of history.
    But what you don't see is that you just contradicted the premise upon which your initial question was based. You asked:
    How do you know your interpretation of Scripture is according to God's will and more infallible than someone else's?
    The question I now have to ask you is how you know that your conclusion with regards to history, Peter and the Rock, etc. are more infallible than the Syrian Orthodox or the Mormons? There simply is no way to answer that if you have already said that multiple interpretations mean that we cannot decide which is correct, unless we somehow claim infallibility. Well, now you have to claim that you are infallible in your interpretation of which group has the proper claim to Petrine primacy. If not, then to parallel your question, how do you know that your interpretation is more infallible?
    BTW, I agree with you that we can recover the original intent of these historical figures, even though there are many different interpretations, and we are fallible interpreters. The problem is, I am also consistent in that I also argue that we can recover the intent of the Biblical authors, even though there are many different interpretations and we are fallible interpreters. How do we do that? By, as you have said with the issue of Peter and the rock and the history of the church, going and assessing the validity of the arguments on the basis of the author's intent.
    The point I was raising is that, when you reject this, and you pull out the argument that there are many interpretations, and we are fallible, and thus we cannot know which one is correct, you are pulling out an argument that leads to postmodernism, because postmodernism is the logical conclusion of that argument. The fact that folks like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida are making the same argument should tell you something. Now, you can contradict yourself as you have done above, and that is fine; it just means that you haven't followed the argument all the way to its logical conclusion yet. My concern for you, and all Roman Catholics who have bought into this line of thinking, is that you don't realize how deep this pit of multiple interpretations and fallibility is. It is something that destroys traditionalist Roman Catholicism because it destroys all truth in interpretation of any text, and leads directly to liberalism and postmodernism, as the Catholic church has done.
    You are not correct to state that the Catholic Church has made no infallible statement regarding the inerrancy of Scripture but it is clear that it would make no difference quoting it to you since you would interpret that as well and not trust it.
    I hope you can see that what you truly have difficulty with is an acceptance of Peter the Rock because of the postmodern problem with authority. Fortunately Christ was pre-postmodern – what he stated we can trust. Peter is the Rock upon which the Church is built and did not leave us orphans or in a quagmire of doubt and confusion.
    No, actually I think it is the Roman Catholic who has difficulty with the acceptance of the Scriptures as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church because of a postmodern attitude towards its sole infallible authority which they cannot carry out consistently to other areas. [BTW, when we follow the intention of the text, I would actually say that the interpretation of all of these groups is wrong-Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Syrian Orthodoxy, and Mormonism. However, I argue it on the basis of the text, and the intention of the author.] I also don't believe that God left us as orphans or in a quagmire of doubt and confusion. However, I believe he left us that which is God-breathed, and that, in the scriptures, he gives us his intention. It is through the intention of this text that we hear the voice of God. Of course, the question of whether or not you will submit to it is another story.
    So to answer your question finally I would never be content to follow a Church that does not seek to find the intent of the author because the Catholic Church does already do that always and has done so for 2000 years.
    You do realize that the Catholic church has added its tradition to scripture, don't you? Do you understand that the addition of something to a text affects its intention? Let us say that I describe a scene having a park bench, a giant oak tree, and a serene lake. That sounds like my intent is to describe a nice rustic setting. However, what happens if I add a whole mess of skyscrapers behind it, a bunch of large businesses in front of it, and an eight lane highway running on either side. Now it sounds more like Central Park in New York City. The problem is that the church has not followed the intent of the author, because it has added its traditions, either in addition to scripture, or as the lens through which scripture must be interpreted. When you do that, it radically alters the intent of the text. The Marian dogmas are the most striking examples of things that are nowhere even close to the intent of the author, and some [such as the perpetual virginity] that are actually contradicted by the text. So, no, the proof that the traditional Roman Catholic church is not about authorial intent is in their traditions that have absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever to do with the Biblical text.
    I do sincerely wish you God’s blessing Adam. I would like you to prove from Scripture itself and from history and a keen knowledge of the Early Church why the Catholic Church is not the true Church that Christ left us, warts and all. It is indeed an ethical issue – we should be united and stop this nonsensical fighting between brothers regardless of how charitable it can be – and just get on with the job of being slat of the earth and light to the world as one voice. I hope that day will come one day.
    I think we should be united too, but not at the expense of truth. An "infallible" church is merely a quick fix to this problem. Sometimes that truth takes a while to work through, but we should it. However, I don't believe that the Bible teaches that Christians must agree doctrinally [especially on the issue of what happened to Mary after she died!] in order to have true unity. The unity that we have which is the basis of our working for unity in doctrine, is the fact that Christ has purchased us on the cross, regenerated us, and is constantly getting rid of the sin in our lives. It is on this basis that we can work for more and more doctrinal purity. However, blindly submitting your authority to an alleged infallible church because of false pretenses of humility based on your own fallibility is not any way to settle issues of truth. We have to acknowledge that God did not stutter when he wrote the scriptures, and, while we cannot be certain that everyone is going to seek the intent of the author, we need to do so if we are truly seeking to understand what the truth is.
    God Bless,
  • Hebrew Student
    I don't think you are understanding the argument I am making. Let me take your points one by one:
    1. The problem is that there are different interpretations of this 2000 years of church history. The Eastern Orthodox claim you are going against 2000 years of church history. The Mormons say you have completely misunderstood what happened in those first 2000 years. Not only that, but if the author's intent is still there in the text, as is his context, then doesn't it follow that we can arrive at the meaning of the text without an infallible interpreter, because we have the author's intent to correct us where we are wrong?
    2. While this is true [and I acknowledged as much in my post], it does point out the fallacy of simply pointing out that two people have different interpretations. You have to allow for the possibility that the non-contradictory interpretations are both true.
    3. The Syrian Orthodox claim their church goes back to Peter. In fact, they say that their claim to Petrine primacy is far stronger than Rome, since the scriptures actually say that Peter went to Antioch. The Eastern Orthodox say that Petrine primacy includes all of the Bishops, and hence, it is their Bishops that have the final authority. Again, even the authority of Peter has to be interpreted, and different groups interpret the authority of Peter differently. The Roman Catholic interpretation is one amongst many. If there are so many different interpretations of the authority of Peter, does that not mean it is impossible to decide what exactly Matthew 16 is talking about?
    4. However, the Eastern Orthodox have a different authoritative interpretation of Matthew 16, as I mentioned above. How do you know that your interpretation of Peter and the rock is correct, and not the Syrian Orthodox or the Eastern Orthodox? How do you know that the Mormon interpretation of that passage as dealing with revelation is not correct? With so many different interpretations of that text, it must mean it is impossible to come to the correct meaning, right? Why is the authoritative interpretation of Rome better than the authoritative interpretation of Eastern Orthodoxy, Syrian Orthodoxy, or Mormonism?
    Finally, you have not understood the infinite regress of the argument of infallible interpreter. The problem is that the infallible interpretations of the Roman Catholic church still need to be interpreted. For example, Eric Svendsen points out this authoritative pronouncement:
    107. The inspired books teach the truth. "Since therefore ALL that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures." [Vatican II DV 11]
    There are some Roman Catholics, such as Raymond Brown and R.A.F. McKenzie, who take the phrase "for the sake of our salvation" to mean that the scriptures are only inerrant in matters of salvation. Interestingly enough, Rome has never made an infallible pronouncement on this matter, and, even if they did, one would have to interpret that pronouncement as well.
    The point is, once you go down this road, it all depends on which community you are a part of-not just which church community you are a part of, but even which community within the Roman Catholic church you are a part of! The point is that you are proving Stanley Fish right, namely, that interpretation is merely a matter of your community. You are a traditionalist Roman Catholic, and that affects how you interpret, not only the scriptures, but also the pronouncements of Rome. The problem is, once you take this position which destroys the author, and puts, in his place, some authoritative community, there is no way to know which authoritative community is right on anything. The liberal Roman Catholics cannot be proven wrong, nor can the Syrian Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox, or the Mormons. It is just simply a matter of the community, nothing more.
    Again, the simple solution is to return to the notion that the correct interpretation of scripture deals with beginning with the fact that we are created in the image of God, and thus, we reflect his nature and his character as a personal, relational being who can intend and understand intention. If that is the case, then, not only does the human author intend things, but we can understand the human author, since, although we are fallible and fallen, we are still created in the image of God, and thus can recognize where we are wrong. That is why I said the key here is really an ethical issue. Are you going to continue to follow a church that does not seek to find the intent of the author, and thus, bears false witness against God himself?
    God Bless,
  • Hebrew Student
    How do you know your interpretation of Scripture is according to God's will and more infallible than someone else's?
    That assumes that interpretation of scripture only involves the interpreter, and in that sense, the very question, as I have pointed out many times, presupposes the "death of the author" position of deconstruction. If we allow that the text preserves an artifact of the authors intention, then the way we can test our interpretations is by holding them up to the intention and world of the author. More specifically, if we presuppose that God is triune, and thus relational, and that he has created us in his image, then we will allow that we as human beings can therefore intend things in our language and interpret those intentions just like the Triune God in whose image we are created. The fact that we are created in the image of God means that we will be able to recognize intention in human language, and recognize when we get it wrong, because it is a part of who we are as created in the image of God.
    Secondly, who ever said that two different interpretations cannot be right? Is the bed I am sitting on right now soft, or is it about six feet long? Both. Hence, just because there are two different interpretations does not mean that the two interpretations are mutually exclusive.
    Thirdly, if you take this "death of the author" position, can you please explain how your position does not reduce down to postmodernism? For example, you said that you have an infallible pope, and that allows you to know that your interpretations are correct. The problem is that there are many churches that claim that same infallibility. Eastern Orthodoxy, Syrian Orthodoxy, Coptic Orthodoxy Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and numerous cultic groups all claim that they have infallible authority to interpret scripture. Also, before you run off to history, remember that these groups all have different ways in which they interpret history. Hence, one would have to ask you know your interpretation of history is correct, and more infallible than their interpretation of history?
    In other words, how do you avoid the conclusion of Stanley Fish:
    What I finally came to see was that the identification of what was real and normative occurred within interpretive communities [Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Harvard Univ. Press. London and Cambridge Massachusetts. 1980. p.15.]
    As Kevin Vanhoozer points out:
    Postmodernity does not mean the end of all authority, however, only universal norms; local norms remain in force. Interpretation is always “from below,” shaped by the readers contextually conditioned context and regulated by the authority of community based norms [Vanhoozer, Kevin. Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Zondervan Publishing House. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1998. p.168].
    If you look carefully, that is exactly what you are saying, namely, that the interpretive community [the Roman Church] must decide what is normative for the believer in terms of interpretation. The problem is that there are other groups that claim the exact same thing that Rome does. Hence, the only thing that provides meaning to a text is the interpretive community. That is why most Roman Catholic priests around the world are universalists, because they have taken your arguments to their logical conclusion. If the meaning of a text must be determined by the authority of an interpretive community, then it all depends on which community you are a part of, and there is no way to tell which community is right.
    Finally, it seems like you think that every person who interprets the text actually seeks to understand what the author has said. This is where the ethical dimension of interpretation lies. There are some people who could care less about the intent of the author, and would rather simply defend what their interpretive communities have said. Yes, there are many Protestants who, I am afraid, behave much more like Roman Catholics when interpreting scripture. There are also some people who seek to insert their own ideas into the text without any regard for what the author has said, and there are some who seek to simply follow what one or another teacher has said, again brushing aside the author. As I Kevin Vanhoozer has said, and I have said many times, when people do these things, they are breaking the ninth commandment, not just against a human neighbor, but against God himself. The thing that concerns me the most about Rome is that Rome does this blatantly, killing the author, and replacing him with the community and authority of the Roman Catholic church. That, for me anyway, raises enough of an ethical issue that I could never even consider becoming Roman Catholic.
    God Bless,


  1. John Bugay, TurretinFan, move over and make room for another pro-Reformation Protestant apologist: Hebrew Student.

    I should hope that Renato at least respects the position and arguments that Hebrew Student Adam presented to him.

  2. I'm always grateful when someone who's smarter and better educated than I am turns his sights on Rome.