Book Review: M. Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

cover photoMerold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009. 160pp. Softcover, $13.59 (Amazon).

At a church function a few years ago, I met a young woman who had graduated from my alma mater several years before I did, and at the time she was working on a graduate degree in New Testament textual criticism. I confessed that while I had taken a class in my undergraduate degree in textual criticism, I had come to find the discipline tedious at best.

“But how can you ignore textual criticism as a theologian?” she asked me with a hurt look. “Christianity is a text-based religion!”

Every Barthian tendency in my soul wanted to cry out “Nein!” and mutter some sharp-witted reply about God being fully revealed in Jesus, but I went back to working the room and eating my cheese and crackers with a pained smile on my face instead.

The question of how meaning is derived from what he terms “classic texts” is the central concern of Merold Westphal’s recent book Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. While Westphal does address the question of revelation at the end of his work – and tantalizingly so – his primary concern is to construct a way of reading texts such that meaning is derived from the collision of the text and the reader. Meaning is not found solely in the text; meaning is constructed by the way that a text strikes a reader in their particular location. This construction of meaning is described using a number of images – performance, application, conversation, but that this construction is still tied in various ways to the text itself. It is possible, for instance, to tell the difference between a good and a bad performance of Beethoven. “If I am playing Hamlet, I am not free to say ‘to fish or not to fish’ instead of ‘to be or not to be’” (104). Gadamer thus speaks of performance of texts as being “obligatory” and “bound” rather than “arbitrary” (104).

Astute readers will here echoes of Westphal’s primary sparring partner: namely, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., whose 1975 book Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press) argued that the goal of reading texts was to arrive at a “universally valid” interpretation (quoted on 47). This interpretation is provided by the author, so that the text says what the author means to convey (48). Thus, while the application of a text’s meaning will vary from one context to another, the meaning of the text is fixed and the audience’s location plays no part in determining it. For Hirsch, to allow for the meaning of the text to be shaped in any way by the context of the reader is to bow towards absolute relativism, such that any text can mean anything.

With Hirsch’s proposal, we come to issues that are particularly relevant to Pentecostals today. Recently I have been reflecting on the dismissal of a former professor from his teaching post at a Pentecostal institution, and, as another former professor is so fond of pointing out, it appears that the disagreements between the dismissed professor and his institution were mostly hermeneutical in scope. Does the Bible come to us as a book with one, sole universal interpretation (“Truth”) which is to then be “applied” to our various situations? Or rather, does the Bible come to us as a book which makes claims upon us, a book which places question marks behind truths that had long since been established in our own minds, a book whose meaning is discovered as believers present themselves to it again and again in a spirit of humility and openness?

It seems to me that most Pentecostals gravitate towards the former, seeing their interpretation of the Scripture as a position to be defended. But those who identify with this characterization must take great care to remain open to the text and to the God who speaks through it – for it is easy for Christians to make God into a mere object of their own desires (Rom. 1.18) and cease to be open to God or to anyone who thinks differently than them about how to interpret the Bible. Westphal closes his book with an excellent discussion of the Joint Declaration on Justification published in 1999 by the World Federation of Lutherans and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The discussion which took place around this declaration, says Westphal, embodied such Aristotelian virtues as humility, listening and friendship, virtues which Westphal believes are necessary for the Church to embody as it reads Scripture.

Pentecostals would do well to heed Westphal’s call to embody these virtues in their theological conversations with those who believe differently, both inside and outside of their movement. In so doing, Pentecostals would not be descending into slippery-slope relativism or liberalism, but would open their reflection to the prodding questions and answers of those from other traditions and communities. As the thirty-year conversation between the WFL and the Catholic Church demonstrates, these questions and answers between friends can often lead us to a common and more united testimony to the Gospel. Westphal’s book gives Pentecostals both an impetus and a framework to begin having such conversations, and as such is an important work for pastors and thoughtful laypersons to consider.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: M. Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

  1. Tim S 27 May 2010 at 8:31 am Reply

    Great review and insight. Does Westphal make any suggestions for avoiding the relativism that Pentecostals (and others!) are so worried about or is his point that relativism is the way things are and we all need to simply accept this?

  2. Dave Mowers 27 May 2010 at 4:49 pm Reply

    He doesn’t like the idea of relativism to describe the state of hermeneutical affairs that we find ourselves in. Interpretation is bound to the text, so it’s not relativism in that there are better readings of texts and poorer readings of texts. The question is, of course, how one goes about determining what constitutes a good reading vs. a bad one. In that question, the goal is to become something like a seasoned art critic; you are able to help people see what claims a work of art/classic text makes upon them and respond accordingly.

    Westphal actually makes a number of suggestions in his last chapter on how the Church at-large can become better readers of Scripture (because that’s obviously the specific hermeneutical task that most of his audience is concerned with). It’s relatively brief, but definitely worth reading in its own right. One of the suggestions I found most provocative was his suggestion that parents should help their children learn how to read Scripture well, by asking them things like “What does God say to us in this text?” after reading the Bible together.

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