Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World. By A. K. M. Adam
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 173–174, January 2009
How to Cite
Taylor, N. H. (2009), Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World. By A. K. M. Adam. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 173–174. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_61.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp. x, 193 , Minneapolis , Fortress , 2006 , $20.00.
This collection of essays explores a range of issues to do with the interpretation of Scripture in what the author describes as a postmodern world. Adam is a Priest of the Episcopal Church of the United States, and teaches in one of its Seminaries. He brings to these studies a broad range of experience and expertise in pastoral ministry as well as in the academic study of the Bible and hermeneutics. A presupposition of his approach is that the Bible is read in a particular community, which for him in this book would be the Church rather than the academy, hence faithful interpretation. Some discussion of the connection between these two contexts might have been beyond Adam's immediate purpose, but would nonetheless have been helpful, given that it is patterns of interpretation developed in academic philosophy and theology with which he is concerned in much of this study.
A major issue underlying this book, addressed directly in a number of places, is the historical critical method which has for well over a century dominated the academic study of the Bible in Protestant circles. Adam identifies a number of concerns, at least some of which proponents of this approach would themselves recognise. Few would still maintain that their method ensures doctrinal orthodoxy; on the contrary, the majority would regard the articulation of doctrine as entirely distinct from their essentially historical discipline. Adam of course recognises the bifuraction of theological disciplines, and its implications for the processes of interpretation. Further discussion of this, with attention to the role of scholars from outside the faith community in the historical study of Christian origins, would have been helpful.
Adam's principle concern with the historical critical method, which he describes also as “technical biblical interpretation”, is that it acquired and maintained something of an hegemony in the academic study of the Bible, at least among Protestant scholars in western Europe and North America. This is of course also a reflection of just how useful historical approaches have proved, at least within circles in which modern western concepts of history are valued. That historical studies of the biblical tradition have not realised certainties, but rather speculative reconstructions with varying degrees of plausibility, logical coherence, and popularity in an academic market driven as much by celebrity as by scholarship, is of course not unique to such approaches. All academic methodologies have an internal logic which can generate circularity in argument, and all can prove inadequate or irrelevant in contexts where their premises are not shared. Literary critical and other alternative approaches, whether theologically driven or not, have challenged the hegemony of historical approaches in recent decades, but nearly all hermeneutical methods remain to some degree dependent on the historical critical method. In this study Adam himself uses such technical skills, and the reconstructed original contexts in which biblical texts were written and first received, to substantiate his own interpretation of key texts. This is an inherently political process, in which certain interpretations of passages, e.g. those proscribing homosexual acts, are challenged or excluded in favour of readings more palatable; by identifying their original historical context, or the inherent uncertainty thereof, statements and injunctions are shown to be less clear than was assumed, their meaning is modified, or their universal application challenged on the basis of values deemed to be of higher order. The essential merit of the historical critical method, whatever its shortcomings and however uncertain its conclusions, is that it compels interpreters to be aware of the gulf between their context and presuppositions and those which shaped the text. Even if not an absolute standard against which alternative readings can be measured, this is surely some protection against the more flagrant abuses of the biblical texts.
It is Adam's conviction that the richness of meaning to be found in the Bible cannot be discovered and expounded through any single hermeneutical approach. He has demonstrated this quite forcefully, and addressed with considerable skill some of the issues this raises for the exposition of Scripture in the Church. However, semiotics and the intellectual quest for truth and meaning are subordinated to the life of the Body of Christ. This is a somewhat brief but very readable book, and the appreciative and discerning reader will want more. A more systematic monograph, addressing the ecclesiological as well as the hermeneutical issues of biblical interpretation, is much needed, and Adam has demonstrated here the potential and the commitment to make further and significant contributions in this area.