D.A. Carson on the Pros and Cons of the Postmodern Hermeneutic

I was finishing up D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies this afternoon (I’m writing this on 2.1.16); and I came across a section in which Carson evaluates what he calls “The New Hermeneutic.” It reminded me of another place in Carson’s writings where he tackles the same issue. And I decided these were worth sharing here.

I appreciate Carson’s even-handed approach, noting both the cons as well as the pros. I find this refreshing because, while there are obvious issues with the postmodern hermeneutic (or “The New Hermeneutic,” or deconstructionism, or whatever else you want to call it) that we, as evangelical Christians, should find troublesome when taken to an extreme, postmodernity is not all bad. (I mean, we’re a bit naive if we want to reject all that postmodernity has brought to our attention in favor of clinging to modernity as if its ideas were pristinely Christian!)

But I digress. Let me share the two excerpts.

None of us interprets anything from an entirely neutral stance. One would have to enjoy the attribute of omniscience to be entirely objective. Insofar as it reminds us that we are finite, and that our findings, at some level, must always be qualified by our limitations, postmodernism has been a salutary advance. It has been especially useful in checking the arrogance of modernist claims. The problem is that in the hands of many interpreters, postmodernism demands a nasty antithesis: either we claim we can know objective truth exhaustively, or we insist that our finitude means we cannot know objective truth and therefore cannot truly “know” reality. Since finite human beings can never know anything omnisciently, only the second alternative is defensible. In that case, all our “knowledge” is a social or a personal construct; the only “reality” we can know is the one we construct.

There is a sense, of course, in which this latter claim is transparently obvious: the only “reality” we can know is the one we construct. But the crucial issue is this: Can this “reality” that we ourselves “know” be tightly aligned with objective reality? In other words, even though we finite human beings can never enjoy omniscient knowledge, can we not legitimately claim to know some objective things truly, even if we do not know them perfectly, exhaustively?

D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 63–64.

Until a few decades ago, hermeneutics was largely understood to be the art or science of interpretation—as far as theology was concerned, of biblical interpretation. The interpreter is the subject, the text is the object, and the aim in this view is for the subject to develop techniques and “feel” to enable him or her to interpret the object aright. There is much that is laudable in this enterprise; but it does not focus adequately on the barriers to understanding that the interpreter himself brings to the task. At this point the new hermeneutic brings some conceptual light to bear.

The new hermeneutic breaks down the strong subject/object disjunction characteristic of older hermeneutical theory. The interpreter who approaches a text, it is argued, already brings along a certain amount of cultural, linguistic, and ethical baggage. Even the questions the interpreter tries to ask (or fails to ask) of the text reflect the limitations imposed by that baggage; they will in some measure shape the kind of “responses” that can come back from the text and the interpreter’s understanding of them. But these responses thereby shape the mental baggage the interpreter is carrying, so that in the next round the kinds of questions addressed to the text will be slightly different, and will therefore generate a fresh series of responses—and so on, and so on. Thus, a “hermeneutical circle” is set up.

. . .

More sophisticated writers understand that the hermeneutical circle is not vicious: ideally, it is more of a hermeneutical spiral. The interpreter can get closer and closer to the meaning of the text (as the writer of that text intended it), until he or she really has grasped it truly, even if not exhaustively. Such writers   p 127  deny that a text is cut free from its author as soon as it is written or published: it is always right and valid to ask what the author of the text intended as judged by the indications in the text itself.

Whatever the problems raised by the new hermeneutic, we have learned much from these developments. In particular, we have been forced to recognize that distanciation is an important part of coming to grips with any text: the interpreter must “distance” his or her own horizon of understanding from that of the text. When the differences are more clearly perceived, then it becomes possible to approach the text with greater sensitivity than would otherwise be the case.

. . .

If it is true that the new hermeneutic can teach us to be careful and self–conscious about our limitations and prejudices when we approach the Word of God, we will profit greatly; but   p 128  it will harm us if it serves as a ground for the relativizing of all opinion about what Scripture is saying. I do not know what biblical authority means, nor even what submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ means, if we are unprepared to bend our opinions, values, and mental structures to what the Bible says, to what Jesus teaches. There may be differences of opinion about what the Bible is in fact saying, differences that can sometimes be resolved with humble interaction and much time; but among Christians there should be little excuse for ignoring or avoiding what the Bible has to say, on the false grounds that knowledge of objective truth is impossible.

D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 126-128