Objectivity and Interpretation

The charge has often been leveled that a faith position on the part of the bible interpreter removes his activities from the realm of objectivity, a realm which – it is claimed – can only be inhabited by the neutral observer. I have questioned this notion for quite some time, and have only recently begun to understand such a position for what it truly is – fanciful illusion. While there are many reasons to question the idea, Sailhamer has some insightful remarks based in communication theory. With regard to biblical, theological method he writes:

“[The] descriptive approach often assumes an unrealistic objectivity in reconstructing the “original” meaning of the text. In reality, such objectivity is rare or nonexistent. It is inevitable that when reading the biblical text we bring something of ourselves to the text and that this will influence how we understand the text. We cannot read the text from a neutral corner. Furthermore, understanding the biblical text, like understanding any other text, involves what E. D. Hirsch called a “genre-guess” along with its validation. In reading a text one makes an educated guess about what the text is saying. The guess must then be validated by the text itself. Does the normative strategy of a text, for example, support the guess or suggest that some other guess should be made? The capacity for making good genre-guesses is dependent on a certain kind of affinity between the author and the reader. The reader must have some initial idea of what the writer is talking about before understanding can take place. Since it can reasonably be argued that ‘faith’ understands ‘faith’ better than ‘unbelief’ understands ‘faith,’ it stands to reason that the believer, not the disinterested observer, is in a better position to understand the biblical text.”

John H. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 168.

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