“Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation.” By Moisés Silva. In The New Interpreters Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, 107-24. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Silva’s article provides an overview of the various theories that have shaped biblical interpretation. In the first few sections, Silva offers a layout of the developments of as seen in the context of world and church history. These developments are organized through what appears to be a non-exhaustive list of various approaches to biblical interpretation: (1) traditional, (2) historical method, (3) theological interpretation, (4) general or philosophical hermeneutics, (5) modern linguistics, (6) linguistic analysis, and (7) literary criticism. Noticeable in each of these approaches is the impact that certain intellectual movements in history had on the view of the Bible—movements like the Enlightenment, philosophy, and the rise of linguistic sciences. The cross-breeding of disciplines has become inevitable, and Silva has further shown that biblical interpretation cannot exist in an ecclesial vacuum.

Silva highlights the key figures of the twentieth century: Karl Barth offered the neo-orthodox approach for the sake of the church’s relevance in response to the rising tides of liberalism in Europe. Rudolf Bultmann emphasized the effects of myth in view of scripture, and thus, demythologized the contents of the biblical text, and Martin Heidegger’s existential philosophy became the source of Bultmann’s need to see the text on its own terms.

Hans-George Gadamer opened up a new channel for literary theory to make its way into biblical interpretation, raising the question of whether the past is really knowable within the text. Gadamer has suggested that shifts in meaning take place in the process of interpretation. Following Gadamer were other thinkers developing the understanding of variant meanings in the text: Thomas Kuhn, Paul Ricoeur, and later J.S. Croatto. Croatto jeopardized the ultimate meaning of the Bible with the claim that the message of the Bible is not fixed. Therefore, Croatto claimed that readers must draw from the text (exegesis) as well as read into the text (eisegesis).

The defenders of the “authorial intention” arose soon after: E.D. Hirsch attempted to recognize that meaning was different from significance. Others have attempted to recognize the historical aspect to the text—in both the meaning and overall message.

This is where Silva begins to put together a case for the historical-critical method. First, Silva recognizes the vast range of responses towards historical criticism, noticing especially those from the conservative side expressing disapproval for certain aspects and associations of historical criticism, but in the end, Silva offers the fruitful aspect of the method: “Committed to the priority of authorial intent, both sides assumed the need for an objective, unbiased, scientific approach, which was to be distinguished from the task of the application” (114). The aim of the historical-critical method ultimately is the historical, objective meaning of the text.

Silva, however, further recognizes that the meaning is a multivalent issue for biblical interpretation, which can occur at the level of the author, text, and reader. As an approach to dealing with the text, French structuralism is mentioned with key figures like Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist, and Jacques Derrida, a philosopher of deconstruction. In order to redeem the validity of the text, some interpreters have ignored linguistic and historical theories altogether in order to examine the text for its own literary value.

In dealing with the reader, Silva offers some factors that are assessed: theological orientation, commitments, and any historical knowledge of the reader. Interestingly enough, Silva recognizes the value of the historical-critical method in its intent to separate the historical meaning and the meaning in the present day context, but clearly, Silva makes a break from this method to recognize once again and reappropriate the value of the readers’ dispositions toward biblical interpretation; Silva attempts to bring back the literary theories as well as the psychological aspect of interpreting the biblical text: “In short, we may concede, on both literary and theological grounds, that the meaning of a biblical passage need not be identified completely with the author’s intention” (121).

So, if the reader ever has a bad day of interpreting the biblical text, is the reader is left to his merely own faculties? Good luck, buddy.

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