on over interpreting the Bible….

Kevin Vanhoozer wrote:

Literary theorists are divided, however, as to the role of the reader with regard to interpretation. Umberto Eco recently gave a series of lectures at Cambridge University on “overinterpretation” in which he suggested that the right of readers have recently eclipsed the right of texts, to the point where the text cannot “talk back” but must meekly submit to whatever interpretation is foisted upon it by the enthusiastic interpreter. What are the limits to what readers should be doing with texts? The following typology distinguishes various approaches to interpretation on the basis of the degree, and nature, of the reader’s interpretive activity.

In other words, we can’t just make the Bible say whatever we want it to.  There are limits and boundaries that need to be imposed when we interpret the Bible – there aren’t hundreds of levels of meaning or hundreds of ways to understand the Bible.  There are only a few at the most.  Coming up with lots of different meanings and interpretations is what happens when we “overinterpret” the Bible.  Remember, some interpretations can be false.

Instead, he suggests we need to both understand the text, and overstand the text:

Our responsibility to the text is two-fold: we are to seek its meaning (=understanding) and ascertain its significance (=overstanding). Understanding means grasping the sense-potential of the text as opposed to our readerly interests. The initial aim of understanding is to recover the text’s primary communicative intention, its implied meaning….. Secondly, “overstanding.” Because readers inhabit their own contexts, their questions and interests may not always coincide with those of the text. Now it is only proper that readers inquire about the continued ability of a text to speak to new situations. When I impose my questions on a text, I am trying to “overstand” it. But, and this is crucial, readers can only ascertain the continuing significance of a text (i.e., its ability to respond to our aims and interests and to address our world), after the preliminary act of justice and understanding that we have just described.

The purpose of overstanding is to allow the world of the text to penetrate our world. Ascertaining a text’s significance and applying its meaning to our context is a way of honoring the text. Overstanding remains at the service of understanding, for the reason that we seek answers to our questions is so that we can follow the text into our context. Understanding occurs when we succeed in grasping the intentions of another mind. The Bible is overinterpreted only when one overstands without having first understood.

You overinterpret the text when you impose your own questions and ideas on the text without first understanding the text on its own terms.  Make sense now?

So to conclude he asserts:

Biblical interpretation is not over when we have grasped with our minds the implied and applied meaning of the text. Interpretation remains incomplete until we respond to the text, until we allow the meaning to move from page to practice. “To follow” something means not only to understand it but to go along with it. We must put feet on our hermeneutics; the good reader walks differently after conversing with the text. As W. Beardslee observed, a literary style generates a style of life. It is not enough to hear or even to understand God’s Word; it must be done. We do or “perform” God’s Word when we grasp its implied meaning and appropriate or apply it in our present contexts. The reader is indeed active, but interpretive activity must be governed by the ethical virtues of justice and respect and by the theological virtues of humility and love. Is the Bible being overinterpreted? If biblical interpretation excludes this performative dimension, we may well decide that the Bible is not being interpreted enough.

So I think I understood what he was saying.  Do you?

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3 responses to “on over interpreting the Bible….

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