The Redemption of Interpretation: An Interlocution on Sin and Hermeneutics

What is “interpretation”?  James K. A. Smith has issued a second edition of his first book on its “fall.”  Clarifying what exactly interpretation is for Smith is a priority for those who might benefit from reading it, and his later work.  We can clearly identify two dimensions to interpretation: first, the ontological conditions for interpretation and, second, the act of interpretation.

The primary point of Smith’s petard in TFI relates to the first.  He clearly highlights an important theme common to both the Christian theological tradition and to phenomenology which identifies the finite conditions of humanity with sin or violence, respectively.  Smith ably defends the theological claim that the timed and spaced limits of the human person are originally “good,” named as such in the creation narratives in Genesis, and that the subsequent fall into sin in Genesis 3 does not negate that original goodness.  He rightly criticizes commonplace evangelical instincts to link the limits of human knowing and interpretation as well as interpretive pluralism with sin—instincts which most often manifest in forecasting a future state of affairs in which our ultimate redemption will involve the eclipsing of our embodied state, in which we would no longer wrestle with the corrupt influences of time and space.  Phenomenology mirrors this in one respect, insofar as orthodox phenomenologists will be committed to the idea that interpretation, “naming,” is inherently violent.[1]  They do not entertain, however, any substantive notion of our ever being redeemed or relieved from this state of affairs.

Smith examines several evangelical thinkers and phenomenologists, in turn, in order to demonstrate this.  His exposition of the latter is impeccable; in reading this second edition I was again reminded of the unique skills he possesses in explaining accurately and clearly the oftentimes opaque writings of these primarily German and French philosophers.  Smith’s discussion of evangelical theologians is not nearly as detailed or convincing (reasons for which we will discuss below).  However, this does nothing to diminish the truth of his point:  The tendency to identify sin with human finitude, with our bodies and with the limitations of living in time and space, is strong in evangelicalism.[2]  Indeed it is a much longer and larger problem that is perennially present throughout the history of Christian and Jewish thought and throughout the history of recorded human philosophy and religion.

In the end, the primary punch of Smith’s book, then, is not about interpretation per se.  It is about theological anthropology.  It is a defense of the idea that the conditions of human finitude are originally and perennially “good.”  These conditions do not only frame the act of interpreting texts or experience, they frame each and every activity and practice in which human beings engage.  In this regard his arguments about the conditions for interpretation actually have much larger and longer significance and importance.  His is a defense of the integrity and worthiness of all practices of human culture-making against a longstanding and currently quite fashionable bias which sees them as destructive and distortive.  For that reason alone this book deserves to be reissued and read widely.

In TFI Smith chooses to focus on the ways that we frame the ontological conditions of interpretation to mount this argument.  And he does move beyond a defense of the conditions of interpretation to a discussion and defense of its enactment.  This is where the situation, and his exposition, get a bit messy.  The distinction between the conditions of interpretation and their enactment is described famously in the reformational tradition by Al Wolters as creational “structure” and cultural “direction.”  The former, as he says, are and remain good; the latter are, however, collectively a mixed bag of faithfulness and sinfulness.  Indeed, according to the prevailing stance of the Christian theological tradition, and more significantly for the Reformed tradition, the notion of the sinful depravity of the direction of human culture (apart from God’s gracious preservation and redemption) is held consistently.  Smith, in TFI, sometimes loses track of this distinction, reading forward the inviolable goodness of the conditions of interpretation into their cultural practices.  This causes him also to overread the problems in, for example, Richard Lints and, in turn, causes him to overlook and underappreciate the significance of sin for the acts of interpretation.  Let’s follow the breadcrumbs.

On page 48 through 57 we find Smith’s summary discussion of Lints.  The crux of his criticism of Lints is with his claim that scripture should be given a position of authority in which it stands in judgment over the “filters” of tradition, culture and reason.  In the book to which Smith refers, The Fabric of Theology, it is clear that Lints is focused on theology as the enactment and direction of interpretation.  Lints writes:

Theology is not simply a list of dogmas…Theology must be lived in the life of the church, in the lives of those whom God has called out from a rebellious world.  It must be lived in the midst of the world, not in isolation from it.[3]

Lints affirms the mixed character of the direction of culture and tradition and their positive role in relation to theology, and, more pointedly, to interpretation, writing:

What role should we accord to tradition in the construction of a theological framework, then?  The validity of any particular theological conviction ought finally and ultimately to be judged by its fidelity to the Scriptures rather than its fidelity to any given tradition.  And yet, entering into a conversation with the past as well and the present communities of interpretation can help us to make a determination of what constitutes fidelity to Scripture.[4]

Now read Smith’s assessment of Lints.  He begins with a summary:

Lints takes up a more extended discussion of the filters of tradition, culture and reason in “The Trajectory of Theology,” chapter 4 of The Fabric of Theology.  Evangelical theology, he urges, needs to take into account how these filters influence interpretation and the reception of an authority. ‘The goal of theology,’ then, ‘is to bring the biblical revelation into a position of judgment on all of life, including the filters, and thereby bring the cleansing power of God’s redemption into all of life’ (Fabric 82, emphasis Smith’s).[5]

Smith then summarizes the problem.  He asserts that for Lints:

We stand in need of redemption—from history, tradition, and culture—says Lints; we must be cleansed of these filters.[6]

Smith overreads the problems he perceives in Lints, largely by not maintaining the distinction between structure and direction and recognizing that Lints is primarily concerned with the latter.[7]  We see this come out more clearly in his response to Lints.  Smith objects:

But are not culture, traditionality, and personal history constitutive aspects of simply being human, of being a creature?  Is not the finitude of creaturehood inextricably linked to conditionality and situationality?  Am I not, as a human being, limited to this space where I stand, with these horizons?  Are not the “filters” or “presuppositions” that I inherit from a muiltitude of traditions (religious, sociolinguistic, familial) an inescapable aspect of human experience as created by God?  And if so, is not Lints in fact devaluating creation by linking such conditions of finitude to the Fall and sin?  If being human necessarily entails our having expectations and presuppositions and if being human means being God’s creatures, they why should such expectations and filters be described as “distortions” that “color” our understanding?  Is that not to make being human a sin?[8]

Smith moves without distinction back and forth between the creational structure and the cultural direction, insisting that Lints’ attribution of the sinfulness of the latter implies the corruption of the former.  This also, in turn, causes Smith to project the goodness of the structure of creation without qualification forward into cultural and historical practices.  An easy way to highlight the problem is to ask if there is anyone who would claim their personal history, their traditions and cultures, as pure and good influences on their own practices of interpretation?

Don’t misread me.  I am not reviewing Smith’s reading of Lints just to defend Lints or simply to show Smith’s misstep; there is something more vital at stake which is illustrated here.  A lacuna in TFI which remains even with the important and significant improvements which Smith has produced in the revisions and an additional chapter.  That problem is sin, and what is the status of sin’s impact and influence on interpretation.  The structure-direction distinction begins to help us sort that out but more needs to be said.

We can get even more clearly to the heart of things by asking “what is the act of interpretation?” generally speaking and specifically for Smith.

Let’s get another small problem out of the way at this point.  Smith’s discussion of the act of interpretation in TFI tends to employ a cognitivist leaning model.  In other words it reads often and largely as if interpretation is something that we do primarily in our minds.[9]  He is fully aware of this tendency, noting in a caveat in a footnote on page 181 that he would no longer be comfortable employing now the kind of “representationalist” model of knowing that he employed then.  However, there is more to tease out here than his footnote allows.[10]

The first thing to be said in response is that interpretation is a practice.  This has two important qualifying implications:  first, the cognitivist dimensions that interpretation will employ are always embedded in multiple and complex families of embodied practices.  “Interpretation” only “make sense” within those practices; second, that each, every, and all of our practices can be, to varying degrees, aided by cognitivist acts which accompany their description, examination and evaluation.  In other words, interpretation is practically embedded even as it is accompanied by, aided by, cognitive supports.  We can, appropriately, make this informal distinction between the cognitivist and non-cognitivist dimensions of interpretation, as long as we recognize that it is awkward and inexact.  Similarly, we can distinguish organs of the body, such as the heart, in order to describe and understand their function while simultaneously recognizing the fatal implications of practically divorcing the heart from the body.  For Smith, I am presently preaching to the choir; his recent work is essential reading on these very points.

Saying that interpretation is a practice shifts our understanding in important ways.  It expands it, for one.  Interpretation is something that we see manifested in all cultural practices.  It brings interpretation more clearly into line with what Wolters calls “direction.”  Interpretation is expressed in art, literature, science, architecture, construction, etc., etc…  Many aspects of our culture making, by God’s grace, are harmonious with the goodness of the structure of creation.  Many are not; many of our practices contain dimensions which are dissonant with that goodness.  We commit sins of omission and commission perennially, knowingly and unknowingly.  The sinful and violent dimensions of cultural direction are what ultimately compel Smith to supplement his second edition of this book with an account of interpretive policing.  There have to be limits to the plurality of interpretive practices.  Those limits are moral and ethical.  In that last chapter he gestures toward the role of communities of interpretation in fostering, promoting, preserving and teaching faithful interpretation.  This is a very valuable supplement to his original argument.  The gap which remains to be fully addressed is the thing which prompts the need for interpretive police in the first place.  Smith gestures to this in a somewhat innocuous footnote on page 216 where he writes, regarding the plurality of interpretations:

When, for instance, we are told to ‘love our enemies,’ some take this statement to nevertheless permit bombing campaigns intended to ‘shock and awe’; I take it to mean that violence is a sin.  Both of these interpretations depend on a context determined by a community. Of course, what remains to be asked is how we judge between communities.[11]

“Judging between communities” is a small suitcase that carries an incredible amount of baggage.  If you recall at the beginning of this account, we saw Lints raise the same point, that the point of interpreting Scripture, as Christians, is judging betwixt and between the various communal practices which we inherit, learn, and participate.  The hermeneutical gravity of this is profoundly amplified when we consider that the very raison d’etre of Scripture itself is to issue practical and interpretive guidance on the sinful practices of human beings.  The Genesis creation accounts challenge human idolatrous practices of interpretation. Genesis 1 is a judgment and correction to the practices of interpretation in which the Jewish people were engaged:  This, not that, is what the true God is like; This, not that, is the true character of creation; These, not those, are the types of practices in which you should be engaged.   At the other end of the canon John’s Revelation describes the culmination and final judgment and redemption of those practices.  Scripture, from beginning to end, assumes and expects to encounter sinful practices in its hearers and readers.  It also fully expects that many of those who hear and read will depart and continue in those sinful practices.  There is an essential hermeneutical dissonance between our practices in the present dispensation and the practices of human beings both in the original goodness of the prefallen creational state and the fully redeemed eschatological future.  That essential dissonance is sin.

Smith’s defense of the goodness of the created conditions of the practices of interpretation are an important correction to a strong temptation to hermeneutical and ontological distortion.  However, without a corresponding account of the phenomenology and hermeneutics of sin, the picture of interpretation, especially the picture as it relates uniquely to scripture, is incomplete.

Where does sin fit in Smith’s understanding of the practices of interpretation—both with regard to the generic practices of culture and texts and with the unique hermeneutics of scripture?  Does he see the structure/direction distinction as having continued usefulness in sorting that out?  How do we name sin in our practices of interpretation?  These may not have been questions on the mind of the young Smith, and it may be a bit unfair to expect this book to have those answers, but it is vital to complete a fuller picture of the redemption of interpretation.

Mark Bowald is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology a Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada. His primary area of publishing and research relate to theological method and scriptural hermeneutics. His first book, Rending the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency, was published by Ashgate. His present writing projects include a book for Eerdmans titled “Divine Rhetoric: The Character of Scriptural Hermeneutics” and a final collection of works by the late Hans Frei co-edited with Mike Higdon.


[1] There is, in fact, a larger lacuna here between Christian theology and phenomenology which needs to be explored further, but for which we cannot indulge here.  That is, the profound differences between violence according to the phenomenological and postmodern traditions and sin according to the Christian.  We can gesture to this by asking whether all violence is sin, or whether all sin is violence; what sin indicates about our relationships to God and others as compared to violence, etc…

[2] A neglected but important book which makes a sympathetic argument is Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

[3] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) p. 81.

[4] Lints, fabric, p. 86.

[5] Smith, TFI, p. 51.

[6] Smith, TFI, p. 51.

[7] This is the point at which Smith’s discussion of Lints, Koivisto and Pannenberg could show more nuance.  For Lints and Pannenberg (I am not familiar with the writings of Koivisto) the differences between the original conditions of finitude as framing our acts of interpretation and the act of interpretation is a distinction of which they are both aware.  What is not clear is the whether the contexts of the texts to which Smith refers are concerned with that distinction of whether they are simply discussing in a more generic manner the present acts of interpretation in light of the complications of ever-present human sinfulness.  In other words, these thinkers may not be individually as guilty of the interpretive sins which Smith attributes to them.  Nevertheless, the larger manifestation of the problem Smith is using them to illustrate is certainly there.

[8] Smith, TFI, p. 51.

[9] Whether he intended this or not, or came to embrace another model more clearly later is beside the point.  It is ambiguous at best in TFI and is surely a byproduct of Smith not having yet sorted out some of those questions at the time of its writing.

[10] It is no small irony that my sensitivity to this issue had been greatly sharpened by Smith’s later writings.  It would be appropriate to read what follows as my using his more recent work to further correct and expand his earlier.

[11] Smith, TFI, p. 216. Emphasis his.

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  • Zauber

    I don’t understand why Wolter’s (actually Dooyeweerd’s) structure/direction distinction is being applied to criticize Smith. Does Smith accept or use it? Barth famously rejected this distinction as being arbitrary in nature and liable to be used to shore up some type of personal political or religious ideology, calling it a “Christian worldview” and placing it beyond critique. This was directed at Kuyperianism, with its German Romantic volksnationalist origins, and similar theo-political appropriations of Christianity which Barth opposed and foresaw for the damage they would do in Europe and abroad. He personally made this point in South Africa to Kuyperian-Reformational defenders of Apartheid who held to ideas like racial separatism as a “creational structure” or “ordinance of creation.” I know Smith works within this tradition, but I wonder if he might agree with Barth on this point. Barth at any rate seems to be on the right side of history and hermeneutics.