Book Review

"Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church" by Merold Westphal

John D. Koch, Jr.
Merold Westphal
Tuesday, November 1st 2011
Nov/Dec 2011

Merold Westphal writes in Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: "It is sometimes said, that one is not prepared to read any serious philosophical text until one has already read it at least once, and there is a lot of truth in this reminder that philosophy, like physics, takes serious, disciplined preparation. There are no cheap seats where the love of wisdom reigns" (69). This book, the latest in a series entitled "The Church and Postmodern Culture," is written, in part, to highlight (and embody) the aforementioned necessary disciplined work involved not only in philosophy and physics but also in theology. Although Westphal admits, "It is dangerous for Jerusalem (theology) to turn to Athens (philosophy) for guidance [because] the word of the cross does not conform to the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1:18-2:13)," this book is nevertheless one sustained argument that it is a necessary danger, because only through philosophical and theological reflection can we become aware of our own presuppositional biases and be brought to a more critical place of self-understanding. As a prolific author and distinguished professor, Westphal capably leads the reader into the intimidating world of twentieth-century philosophy with a reassuring confidence in its helpfulness for the church that is both refreshing and inspiring. He explains:

We need not think that hermeneutical despair ("anything goes") and hermeneutical arrogance (we have "the" interpretation) are the only alternatives. We can acknowledge that we see and interpret "in a glass, darkly," or "in a mirror, dimly" and that we know "only in part" (1 Cor. 13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all to the Holy Spirit. (15)

After reading this book, one cannot escape the feeling that Westphal has, indeed, shown us "a more beautiful (if not more difficult!) way."

Written to "Christian theologians of three kinds: academic, pastoral, and lay"’in other words, all Christians’whose commonality lies in the fact that they "interpret the Bible and might do well to think about what is involved in such interpretation" (13), this book is the fruit of just this sort of rumination. Owing no doubt to his many years as a professor, in twelve relatively short chapters he skillfully leads the reader from a general introduction to the problems and theories associated with the science of philosophical hermeneutics (chapters 1-5), through an extended study of the work and thought of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (chapters 6-9), and to some constructive, if not wholly convincing, ideas on a way forward for contemporary biblical interpretation in light of the preceding philosophical developments (chapters 10-12). Particularly throughout the first nine chapters, Westphal succeeds in offering what was promised in the introduction, as this book is "essentially a 'course in a box.'"

Crammed into this little book is a veritable curriculum on philosophical hermeneutics that gives us a peek into the background of figures such as Schleiermacher and Dilthey, introduces us to critiques from Hirsch and Wolterstorff, and provides a core exposition of the great hermeneutic philosopher Gadamer (10-11). These three chapters on Gadamer's dense (and notoriously difficult) Truth and Method are worth the price of the book alone. For anyone who doubts the importance of philosophical hermeneutics on the biblical interpretative process, Westphal's masterful touch will allay many, but not all, of their fears.

Of the myriad reasons to commend this book, this relationship between philosophical reflection and theological humility is by far the most compelling. If postmodern thought has done anything, it has shaken the confidence we have in ourselves’certainly a misguided confidence from a biblical perspective!’and forced us back to a place where assumptions and assertions must be, once again, established, articulated, and defended. Because of either our finitude (meaning our limited perspectives) or our fallenness, or both, argues Westphal, "we 'suppress the truth' (Romans 1:18). It is important to the church not to read this passage from Romans as if it applied only to nonbelievers" (140). Indeed, his highly engaging book is not merely a critique but a constructive construal of how postmodern thought has brought the church back to a reliance on meditation, prayer, and contemplationMediatitio, Oratio, Contemplatio‘in which every believer "should be in regular conversation with the text…listening for God's voice and responding to what we hear in praise, thanksgiving, repentance, and obedient action" (143).

With this renewed humbling of the reader comes a corresponding warning: This book is not for the faint of heart, because one will be hard-pressed to put it down and not be confronted (and possibly overwhelmed) by the immense complexity of interpretation and its associated philosophical, not to mention theological, problems. These are the sorts of questions that can and do bring many Christians a measure of doubt and fear, but also can result in a renewed sense of urgency to the entire interpretative enterprise.

As people who are given assurance by faith of the truthfulness, reliability, and steadfast love of God, Christians are those who can face the questions raised by contemporary philosophy and complexity of the hermeneutic task without fear. God has gifted the world with both his Word and Spirit whose work, writes Westphal, "is to continually break through our complacent prejudices and shortages of wisdom in and through the words of the Bible…Word and Spirit. As this slogan becomes practice and not just theory, the divinely transcendent voice of Scripture will become incarnate in human language, and we will hear the very voice of God in our finite and fallen interpretations" (156). "The point is not to be uncritical of some philosophical tradition (a genuine danger) but to be willing to be self-critical as theologians" (14).

It is in this critical light that through philosophical hermeneutics we can regain (or reinforce) the belief that "Scripture itself is supposed to be an outsider that can 'challenge and correct our character,' both individually and collectively" (140). If this is the result of postmodern religious philosophy, then we can all affirm with gladness the assertion of the series editor in the preface when he says, "In some ways we're all postmodernists now" (9).

Tuesday, November 1st 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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