“There’s Truth In That Thar Text”

May 7, 2010 at 8:21 am Leave a comment

This past Wednesday, I had the pleasure of leading our terrific Concordia youth in a discussion on Philosophical Relativism using Focus on the Family’s “The Truth Project.”  Philosophical Relativism is the skeptical stance that the truth of a proposition lies only in that proposition’s interpreter.  In other words, “Truth,” with its offensively bombastic capital “T,” is not and cannot be external to an interpreter.  It resides only within the individual.

The ascendency of philosophical relativism has birthed many a methodological cousin, one of which is the unfortunate “Reader Response Criticism,” still practiced in English classes across this country and trumpeted by some teachers and professors as if it’s the Holy Grail of hermeneutics.  Reader Response Criticism focuses on the reader of a text and his or her response to that text rather than the text itself, stridently eschewing any notion that the text itself could contain or, in its more radical forms, would even bother to try to communicate, meaning to its reader.

Sadly, this kind of methodology has been used not just on standard fare English class texts like Moby Dick or Catcher in the Rye, it has also been used on the Holy Scriptures.  Indeed, the proliferation of downright weird readings and interpretations of Biblical texts which have long since drifted away from their socio-historical and theological moorings find their moorings, at least in part, in the Reader Response methodology.  This is dangerous both because it fails to take God’s Word seriously as divinely revealed Truth and because it leads us astray from the Gospel, the very message our salvation.  That is, such a methodology not only leads us down the path to interpretive idiosyncrasy and “weirdness,” it leads us down a path to damnation because it makes us, rather than God, Truth’s creator and arbitrator.  This is serious business.

It is with this in mind that I wanted to share with you a quote from Francis Watson.  In his book Text and Truth:  Redefining Biblical Theology, he offers a trenchant rebuke of Philosophical Relativism in general and Reader Response Criticism in specific:

A Christian faith concerned to retain its own coherence cannot for a moment accept that the biblical texts (individually and as a whole) lack a single determinant meaning, that their meanings are created by their readers, or that theological interpretations must see themselves as non-privileged participants in an open-ended, pluralistic conversation.  Such a hermeneutic assumes that those texts are like any other “classic” texts:  self-contained artifacts, handed down to us through the somewhat haphazard process of tradition, bearing with them a cultural authority that has now lost much of its normative force, yet challenging the interpreter to help ensure that they will at least remain readable, and continue to be read. (97)

According to Watson, the problem with Reader Response Criticism is that it calls us to “save the Bible,” as it were, making it relevant by means of our own responses to it, lest it quickly fade into the recesses of history as some antiquated and rotting curious cultural artifact.  The difficulty with such a stance is that the Bible is in no need of saving.  Rather, the Bible is inspired of God so that we might be saved.

In the 1840’s, M.F. Stevenson, then the assayer of the Dahlonega Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia, was working hard to keep his boom town from going bust as more and more people were moving west to join in the California Gold Rush of 1849.  He sought to persuade his town’s residents that Georgia still had its own share of gold to be mined.  “There’s gold in them thar hills,” he told his miners.

Like in the hills of Georgia, we, as Christians, ought to believe, “There’s Truth in that thar text.”  The Bible contains and reveals its Truth apart from any single reader, though it must be believed by its readers to be efficacious for their salvation.  The Truth of Scripture is not dependent on its readers.  As readers of Scripture, then, it is our calling to responsibly and carefully mine Scripture’s Truth and rejoice that God has pleasured to reveal to us His Truth.

“There’s Truth in that thar text.”  I hope you’ll read and believe that Truth today.  After all, it’s God’s Truth of eternal life for you.

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