Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A thought

I've listened to a few lectures recently which critique aspects of the New Perspective. And in each case the speaker was careful (either consciously or unconsciously I am not sure) to generate a strong hermeneutic of suspicion with regards the arguments proffered by NP proponents. This was done by starting with either ad hominem, misrepresentation or the employment of (unfair) scare tactics.

The thought: I wondered if these speakers felt they had to do this, i.e. start with spin, because they are deep down unsure that the evidence speaks for their own case?

So, when you hear a speaker try to manage the way data will be heard by enforcing not a hermeneutic of love or generosity, but one of suspicion, perhaps they do this precisely because they realise their opponent's argument makes sense.


At 4/29/2009 2:22 AM, Anonymous Judy Redman said...

I think that it's quite appropriate to employ a hermeneutic of suspicion about any new approach (and many old approaches as well), but I'm not sure that this is what ad hominem, misrepresentation or scare tactics does. Hermeneutic of suspicion is a legitimate academic methodology for analysing an argument which takes into account the underlying assumptions of the argument and questions them. Ad hominem, misrepresentation and scare tactics are what you do when you don't like what someone else is saying but you don't have any legitimate academic grounds for refuting it.

I would suggest that what the speakers you have been listening were doing was being manipulative.

At 4/29/2009 3:42 AM, Anonymous Mike Koke said...

Hey Chris, I agree that it is regrettable when scholars build a straw-man of their opponents instead of trying to represent other views as fairly and accurately as possible before challenging it. It seems that in debates on the NPP or the "Jesus Wars" some do not like the implications of another scholar's research so they try to discredit that scholar instead of engaging their work.
The only question I have is what did you think of Stephen Westerholm's "The Lutheran Paul and his Critics"? From what I remember it was a pretty fair critique, trying to take the best of the NPP (the social context) but challenging it at key points too?

At 4/29/2009 3:58 AM, Anonymous Greg Carey said...

I've seen that too. And from people who are supposedly all about grace, it's odd.

At 4/29/2009 5:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great blog you have

At 4/29/2009 6:44 AM, Anonymous Mark Stevens said...

I have found that is Carson's usual approach! ;-)

At 4/29/2009 3:32 PM, Anonymous dan said...

Alternatively, scholars can start with a gentle touch (even complimenting their opposition) in order to try to disguise spin, ad hominem, and weak arguments later on. (This is what Seyoon Kim does in Christ and Caesar.)

Also, Mike, compared to a lot of what's out there, I thought Westerholm's book was quite good (even though I'm not convinced by the position he takes).

At 4/29/2009 6:56 PM, Anonymous One of Freedom said...

I wonder if some of it isn't just cultural (not that this would make it right by any stretch), the Evangelical world is used to setting up polemics and using a rhetoric of fear, so much so that it is often practiced simply without thinking. I know that I have found it easy to get caught up in such rhetorical tactics, it takes real effort to go against the grain. Perhaps a dialogue on dialogue is needed at this moment.

At 4/30/2009 11:43 PM, Anonymous N T Wrong said...

As Judy noted, while the substance of your point may be correct, your use of the terminology "hermeneutic of suspicion" is quite incorrect.

You are confusing a dubious rhetorical strategy (mud-slinging; ad hominem; poisoning the well, etc) with a legitimate method of interpretation. Your intended target is a fallacious method of argumentation which attacks the man, and which should be avoided; but your stated target is a robust and logical method of interpreting texts.

Even though Judy has already pointed out this mispresentation of the 'hermeneutic of suspicion' in your post, it is well worth doing so again, if not only for the fact that the hermeneutic of suspicion is regularly misrepresented and misunderstood by more conservative interpreters.

A hermeneutic of suspicion, unlike 'ad hominem' (which you conflated it with) simply refers to the adoption of a critical or even adversarial attitude to a text's ideology, exposing its biases, whether nationalistic, racist, patriarchal, or heteronormative, etc. In so doing, a hermeneutic of suspicion does not simply take the opposite stance from the text - it is not mere nay-saying - but it involves a critical assessment of presuppositions, ideas, and their practical implications. It is biblical criticism extended to the Bible's own ideology.

I don't usually go on at such length, but it is a shame to see such a misleading 'muddying of the waters'(!) concerning a legitimate and often critically necessary hermeneutical method - on a blog which is widely read by conservative evangelical interpreters of the Bible, many of whom don't need much encouragement to offer a knee-jerk dismissal to the more critical approaches to the Bible.

At 5/01/2009 12:49 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Judy and Wrong,
Thanks, good points. I may not be using the language as it should be used - granted.

But indulge me my explanation of what was actually meant as I suspect I was misunderstood.

First, I am not suggesting that a hermeneutic of love is non-critical. Rather, it has a crucial critical moment within it as part of a process. It has nothing to do with not a "knee-jerk dismissal to the more critical approaches to the Bible". In fact, it has everything to do with listening to precisely such voices. I have spoken of a hermeneutic of love, to conservative students, as a way to get them to listen to "other" voices.

I know, it doesn't help that I am speaking of a "hermeneutic of love" as Ricoeur spoke of a "hermeneutic of suspicion"! By hermeneutic of suspicion I mean a stance of fundamental mistrust towards a person/text.

Personally I think such lanugage makes more sense usee in this way. But your legitimate points make me wonder if I will confuse some.

At 5/02/2009 5:26 AM, Anonymous N T Wrong said...

Thanks for your response, Chris. Again, I don't think you can use the term "hermeneutic of suspicion" in such an idiosyncratic and indeed pejorative sense, without sounding confused.

Moreover, I don't think it's just your idiosyncratic use of the term which is the problem. That is, it is not just a matter of creating potential 'misunderstandings' of your intended meaning. The problem goes deeper than that.

Take your following comment:

By hermeneutic of suspicion I mean a stance of fundamental mistrust towards a person/text.In the first place, there is a problem (which you acknowledge as a possiblity) with your conflation of "person" and "text" here. This inevitably confuses two separate things. A hermeneutical approach to a text is a matter of interpretation. But an attitude to a person involves an assessment of their whole character and reputation, so is not limited to a matter of interpretation of their words. As you are attempting to include both interpretation and potential ad hominem under the same descriptor, this is idiosyncratic and deeply confusing. As it happens, both Judy and I recognized that you were intending something different from the normal sense of the term "hermeneutic of suspicion", so we didn't "misunderstand" you. Rather, the problem here is in a confused manner of writing.

But a deeper problem arises because you use the term "mistrust" equally of the objects of person and text. By talking about both interpretation and mud-slinging under the rubric of 'trust', it gives the impression that an interpreter must form a relationship with a text she is interpreting. Now, 'trust' makes perfect sense between persons, but not (in any literal sense) when it comes to interpreting a text. When it comes to interpreting a text, one can approach it in a more or less critical/discerning manner. A "hermeneutic of suspicion" is a more discerning method of interpretation than one that fails to detect a text's underlying structure and ideology. This has nothing to do with "trust", but with the degree of interpretational discernment.

So, for these reasons, I think "hermeneutic of suspicion" should be restricted to matters of interpretation, as in its normal and proper usage. And there is no problem with also loving the speaker while employing a "hermeneutic of suspicion": a version of 'love the sinner, hate the sin," perhaps?

At 5/02/2009 11:27 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Wrong,

Thanks for your comments. I am finding this conversation very helpful. And I readily concede your point – I realised soon after I posted my reply that the person/text issue was a problem (I don’t think there is a ‘deeper problem’ – I was simply being lazy).

If you find time to answer, which language you would prefer to use. Here is the scenario:

I have (generally conservative) students who listen to an unorthodox guest speaker and read his/her books, and due to suspicion about the soundness of their ‘theology’ cannot listen to what that speaker and his/her books argue. The speakers/texts are put into a box called ‘dubious’ or ‘dangerous’ or ‘suspect’, and the ability to hear/read, with insight, the person/text beyond dismissive reactions is rendered impossible (you see why I was inaccurate in my previous comment – the situation involves visiting persons and their texts which we circulate!).

Now as I want them to approach the texts and the speakers with a stance of humility, a stance of ‘hoping to learn something’, a stance of openness to dialogue, yet also a stance of discernment, critically reflecting on what they read/hear, I have used language that opens them up, not closes them. I want to find expressions that express clearly an undesirable approach (closed) with a desirable (able to dialogue, to listen). And as the matter involves how they are interpreting texts and speakers, I felt the language of hermeneutics of love and suspicion hit the nail on the head. With your points in mind, what language would you suggest? Thanks for your thoughts.

At 5/03/2009 1:48 AM, Anonymous N T Wrong said...

Hi Chris,

I guess you could say that I am operating with a hermeneutic of charity towards the real 'hermeneutic of suspicion'.

...but anyway...

I think the distinction we should impress on people is between thinking about ideas and thinking about people who have them. Or, if you like, it is between logical reasoning through arguments and issues and fallacious argument via ad hominem.

Of course, this is easier said than impressed on those who have knee-jerk reactions to certain people. Maybe one practical approach -- bearing in mind the dualistic and usually Reformed theology behind such a prejudice -- would be to point out that if we really take seriously the fact that everybody is both made in God's image and fallen at the same time, then we can expect to find both penetrating insights as well as mistakes in everybody's writings. So, to completely ignore God's gift in the form of an 'unregenerate' person would be to reject the divine along with the fallen. Or, more simply, to wholly ignore what certain people write is necessarily to reject God, while to carefully discern the true from the false is to accept what God has provided.

After all, if God can talk through an ass (Num 22), or through a priest of another god (Gen 14), and if he can include and adapt the proverbs of an Egyptian who worshiped other gods in the Bible(Amenemope; Prov 22.17ff) - then what might we be missing if we refuse to consider biblical interpretations merely because they were written by certain people?

That is probably the way I'd go about it. What do you say?

At 5/03/2009 5:40 AM, Anonymous Mike Koke said...

I found this discussion helpful and has really helped clarify what is meant by the term "hermeneutic of suspicion". I have tried to further engage this discussion on my blog.

At 5/05/2009 7:25 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...


I found Westerholm's book frustrating... he outlines a lot of evidence in support of the NPP, but then simply states that phil 3:9 proves such a view wrong. He seems to take it for granted that no other interpretation of phil 3:9 is possible other than his own implausible misinterpretation. I found it shocking the amount of evidence he tried to dismiss using only that one verse, and he used this tactic repeatedly. Horrific proof-texting aside, I would totally agree that he did a good job of being fair and engaging without rancor.


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