Postmodern Challenges To Fundamentalist Scripture Interpretations Religion Essay
Fundamentalism is a wide ranging term which has imbibed a broad spectrum of understanding in the present context. Fundamentalism in general holds on to certain foundational aspects which are considered as fundamentals to the given community. Fundamentalism is exhibited in several ways in the form of different kinds of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism also exists in varied levels such as aggressive or mild fundamentalism. They are characterized by an aggressive and militant attitude in upholding their fundamentals. Despite the complexity and the compactness in the identity of the fundamentalists, this paper focuses in biblical fundamentalism and its interpretation in the light of the postmodern challenges; and its impact on the task of Old Testament theology. By looking at the fundamentalist interpretation of the scripture from a postmodern perspective, an attempt is also made to bring some suggestions in the task of Old Testament theology.
DEFINITION AND ITS CHARACTERISTIC FEATURE
Biblical Fundamentalism “represents a biblicistic militancy intent on uprooting apostasy within the church and countering secularism without,” in the context and modernism. George Marsden, Cohen, and Jerry Falwell also characterize fundamentalism as a militant movement opposing the onslaught of modernity on traditional Christian faith. Scaria Kuthirakkattel observes this militancy as even exhibiting “strong aggressive tendencies against people of other faiths.” Isaac Padinjarekuttu defines fundamentalism as involving “the reclamation of authority over a sacred tradition.” Donald G. Bloesch observes the distinguishing marks of biblical fundamentalism as: biblical literalism; total inerrancy, perfect factual accuracy, a profound distrust of biblical criticism, premillennial eschatology, and the call to separate from apostate churches. Vern S. Poythress reviewing the history of interpretation during the wake of modernity and historical criticism observes two trends; one following the critical method and the other adhering to the church tradition. He states the fundamentalist held to the “full authority of the bible” but “denied the profitability of scholarly reflection.” J. I. Packer identifies the fundamentalist as the defenders of Christian faith against liberalism in biblical interpretation. Relating to its impact on biblical theology, B. S. Childs observes that, as historical critical school was dominating biblical theology, “a minority voice began to speak for a theological exegesis that would do justice to Bible’s confessional content.”
A .K. M. Adam citing the lecture of Cornel West on “Post Modernism” brings three important characteristics of Postmodernism viz. “antifoundational; antitotalizing; and demystifying.” He states,
“Postmodernism is antifoundational in that it resolutely refuses to posit any one premise as the privileged and unassailable starting point for establishing claims to truth. It is antitotalizing because postmodern discourse suspects that any theory that claims to account for everything is suppressing counter examples, or is applying warped criteria so that it can include recalcitrant cases. Postmodernism is also demystifying: it attends to claims that certain assumptions are ‘natural’ and tries to show that these are in fact ideological projections.”
Postmodernism challenges the “traditional interpretations that claim universality, completeness, and supremacy over other interpretations.” “Postmodern criticism cannot accept any system of knowledge as absolute or foundational; it cannot accept the premise that some body of knowledge, or subject of knowledge, constitutes a unified totality; and it cannot accept mystifying claims that any intellectual discourse is disinterested and pure. Post-modernity acknowledges “diversity of beliefs, theories, ethics and ethnicity” and enumerates a subjective thinking over against objectivism. Postmodernism emphasize on relativism and Perspectivalism which is a development of subjective thinking.
FUNDAMENTALIST INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
Joseph A. Fitzmyer states, “Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details.” Conrad Hyers says, “biblical literalism shares so largely in the reductionist and literalist spirit of the age.” Bloesch critiques it “to be a kind of reductionism,” by reducing the “truth to facticity and revelation to conceptuality or logic.” John Shelby Spong states, “If Bible continues to be viewed literally, the Bible, in my opinion, is doomed to be cast aside as both dated and irrelevant.” The emphasis on biblical literalism also prevented the scientific study of the text.
Confessional Biblical Interpretation
Fundamentalist reading of the Scripture is “glossed by creedal, confessional, and catechetical beliefs.” Binz states, “…, fundamentalism is characterized by a rigid, dogmatic, uncompromising, and often uneducated adherence to outdated perspectives in biblical interpretation.” Froehlich talks of a “hermeneutics of agreement,” which is conditioned to the exegetical tradition of the church. David H. Wenkel characterizes the fundamentalist interpretation as authoritarian on the ground that it propagates “the authority of a human leader or leaders who so identify themselves with a polity that they justify from the sacred text that any challenge to their authority can be treated as a challenge to the authority of the text.” Hence Greg Clark comments, “the Protestant biblical hermeneutic was at fault” as it portrayed the priests “parading their own opinions as God's commands.” Sponge restricts “any person or school or institution from claiming exclusive authority or finality for its interpretation of Scripture and the ordering of society implied in that interpretation.”
Bible and Biblical Interpretation as Ahistorical
The fundamentalist approach to biblical interpretation rejects the “use of historical-critical method” or “any other scientific method for the interpretation of Scripture.” The fundamentalists critiqued the modern critical approaches to the Bible as having treated the bible as any other literature and for ignoring its supernatural aspect. The scripture is regarded as timeless and ahistorical. In fundamentalist hermeneutics “the readers are viewed as ahistorical and contextless… subjects.” W. Taylor Stevenson while reviewing John Shelby Spong agrees with him stating, “Fundamentalism in its strict or ‘hard’ form believes that there are facts which exist independently of any observer.” Kevin Vanhoozer criticizes the fundamentalist for limiting the text to “historical reference.” But for a postmodernist any reading of the Scripture is historical and is conditional to the context of the reader. Richard Lints, “asserts that fundamentalists reject the idea that the reader's horizon is different from the horizon of the original hearers or the original context.”
David H. Wenkel characterizes fundamentalist interpretation “by an unfounded epistemological certainty and naiveté.” The fundamentalists profess for an unconditional certainty for the interpretation of the scripture that is defined by the traditions of the Church. U. Fick comments fundamentalism to be “blind to the historical origins and the specific kerygma of the many parts of the Bible and claim that there is no difference in accentuation, no reference to and dependence on various historical contexts and cultural patterns, no shifts of emphasis, no difference in importance, no tension between various theologies in the Bible.”
POSTMODERNISM AND THE FUNDAMENTALIST INTERPRETATION: OVERTURES TO OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY
The postmodern reading of the Bible gives rise to certain issues and methodological concerns as it encounters the challenges of fundamentalism towards biblical interpretation and biblical theology. Regarding any theological formulation of the biblical text Elmer A. Martens comments that they are a “construct, or a model,” which is subject to change...” and this change owe to the transition and shift in the culture and the context in the last few centuries or decades over the interpretation of the text. This is evident in the transition from the dogmatic approach towards theology to a biblical theology proposed by Philip Gabler under the influence of Enlightenment and rationalism. After his period, another shift emerged with the developments of Ollenburger, J. C. K. von Hoffmann, who emphasised on history or Heilsgeschichte in formulating Old Testament theology. Later starting with W. Eichrodt, a new approach began in Old Testament theology which focused on a focal point or a central theme in the text. Later with the rise of sociological approaches, even social location had influenced biblical hermeneutics and theological formulations. Hence biblical theology can be understood as not of being static but rather as dynamic and transforming. Rolf Rendtorff observing the growing fragmentation and diversity in Old Testament studies propose pluralism in methodology in doing Old Testament studies.
Method or Method(s)
In postmodern biblical theology, there is an absence of any arbitrary methods. “Methods... exercise power in the interpretive process, shaping what is possible in interpretation, both in terms of what the texts are allowed to mean and over the routes interpreters may take through the material.” The fundamentalists being driven by the dogmatic restrains in the task of theological formulation are controlled and conditioned by the rules of biblical interpretation entailed by the church traditions and the dogmatic foundations. The task of Old Testament theology from a postmodern perspective acknowledges a methodological pluralism instead of any methodology dominating or competing the other.
The Demise of Metanarratives
Postmodernism rejects all metanarratives. Adam cites Francois Lyotard who defined postmodernism “as incredulity toward metanarratives.” The incredulity owes to the difference in the context of the interpreters of the metanarratives. A grand narrative developed in ones’ context cannot be universally applied. The postmodern hermeneutics transform the biblical text “in the local ways we understand ourselves in relation to modernity and to contemporary culture and history, the social and personal dimensions of that awareness, and the ethical and political responses that it generates.” Postmodernism emphasizes the “socially constructed character of knowledge and the various means of its production.” The absolutizing and totalizing attitude is challenged by the postmodern reader who derives and gives new meaning to the text. In Old Testament theology there was also a trend to look at the centre or the focal point of the Old Testament, mostly influenced by the confessional theology which characterize as the metanarrative. The rise of varied centre by different Old Testament theologians by itself expresses the fluidity of metanarratives.
The Precedence of the Reader
The modernist “emphasize the reader’s direct engagement with the text and the autonomy of the text” while the “postmodern critics are inclined to recognise much more complexity in the interaction of text and reader.” Regarding postmodern biblical hermeneutics Adam states, “the text would not be an autonomous object of contemplation, but would be shown with representatives of sundry interpretive interests….” In postmodern hermeneutics “there is neither a unified, totalized reader, nor a unified, autonomous text,” and so there is no more an “author.” Therefore Adams characterizes postmodern interpretation as an unauthorized hermeneutics. The postmodern reading characterized by its subjectivity allows the reader to understand the text in his/her own cultural milieu, provided “any meaning proposed… would be always provisional, limited, and contextual.”
Theology as Pluralistic and Relative
Craig Bartholomew states, “The Bible is a common cultural object and biblical interpretation must make room for the religious and ideological plurality of our societies.” Moreover, in the context of a methodological pluralism or the multiple possibilities of approaches, an objective reading of the text would be impossible. The pluralist approach recognizes that all interpretation is contextual and cultural. D. J. A. Clines accepts the realities of the pluralist context of the biblical text by pointing to the indeterminacy of the meaning of the biblical texts and by recognizing the various interpretative communities. The fundamentalist insistence on the determinacy of the meaning of the biblical text proposes for an objective reading than a subjective reading which values the contextual difference in the reader. The task of Old Testament theology cannot be restricted to such objectivity since that would curb the meaning of the text to the reader. Rolf P. Knierim observing the diversity in the Old Testament text acknowledge a “plurality of theologies” in the Old Testament.
Deconstruction is one of the significant methodologies of postmodern biblical hermeneutics which explores the multiple facets of the biblical text and its interpretation. Clines states, “Deconstruction is an especially powerful tool in biblical study, in that it relativizes the authority attributed to biblical texts, and makes it evident that much of the power that is felt to lie in the texts is really the power of the community that supports them and sanctions them.” Deconstruction is a closer reading of the text which “reveals ways in which the text always undoes the arguments it is ostensibly making.” The fundamentalists approach to biblical text is characterized by anti-modernity and apologetic concerns for the church dogmas which challenge the postmodern reader for a deconstructive reading of the confessional theological trends in the task of Old Testament theology. Despite that, deconstruction brings new light in sociological and liberation perspectives in Old Testament theology.
Epistemology is the “process by which the knower and the known are together involved in human understanding.” Perdue states, “the attack of postmodernism launched against modernism is essentially an epistemological one.” This is even similar with the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Postmodernism recognizes “that individuals exist contemporaneously in a variety of localities (social realities, cultures, geographical settings, etc.) so that no single explanation or ‘lesson’ may be transferred from one locality to another. All things, affirmations, institutions, and facts are demystified, i.e., removed from the pedestal of unassailability.” Hence the postmodern reading of the Bible “places the source of understanding within the interaction of the mind of the interpreter, his or her multiple locations, networks of identifies, and the linguistic-cultural expressions of the texts.” This beyond questioning the unassailability of the fundamentalist interpretation acknowledges local ways of understanding the biblical message.
The fundamentalist interpretation which absolutize and restricts biblical interpretation is challenged by the postmodern approach and understanding of the Scripture. Fundamentalism confines biblical interpretation to the ecclesiastical authority and confine the task of theological formulations to the confessions and the creeds of the church. This was evident in the protestant scholastic method in doing biblical theology. This confessional approach to Old Testament theology was also undertaken by Ollenburger and Hoffmann. The rise of historical criticism despite being a modernist approach to Bible liberated biblical theology from the rubrics of dogmatic theology. The task of Old Testament theology began to recognise the historical character of the text. The transition in method here exemplifies the cultural and epistemological impact in biblical exegesis and biblical theology. But postmodernism goes beyond historical criticism which acknowledges other ways of understanding the texts. B. S. Childs initiates a newer way to look at Old Testament by insisting for an Old Testament theology in the canonical context. Postmodernism also reacted to the practices of identifying a metanarrative in the Old Testament as the centre to the task of elucidating an Old Testament theology. Rolf P. Knierim being influenced by the postmodern thinking rightly observes a pluralism of centres among the Old Testament theologies. The most significant contribution of postmodernism to Old Testament theology is its recognition of the precedence of the reader over the text. This explored the contextual interpretation of the biblical text which incarnated institutionalised theology to a personal level. The postmodern hermeneutics helps the reader to deconstruct the text and biblical theology from the domains of the fundamentalist’s interpretation of the scripture.
PM not only helps me to read into the text from the perspective of my story line, but it also enables me doubt the authors point of view and thus even doubt the authenticity of the text in itself-so at the end of the day my bible would have pages that best appeal to my story and there would be hardly any!
a hermeneutic of trust rather than suspicion;
is there an anxiety that makes me fear if the world is really true!
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