The Story Behind Postmodern Biblical Interpretation

 Biblical and theological scholarship is now as fragmented as the political landscape. Concepts such as

“liberation, process, hope, creation, feminism, metaphor, story, imagination, power, ideology, oppression/justice, experiences of ethnic and social groups, social location, and the role of the reader in shaping meaning have emerged to reconceive the strategies and questions of theology.”[1]

Systematic theology is being reconfigured in terms of queer theory. Feminists are reading divine abusiveness into the text. Liberation, womanist, process and other group-named theologies construe themes in the Bible along a certain axis with a certain interest. These readings expend with the notion that grammatical-historical exegesis could be performed in a neutral way without somehow reflecting the personal interests of the theologian.

Power and knowledge directly imply one another.
— Michel Foucault

This perspective was codified by the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, who explains:

“Power and knowledge directly imply one another. … There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”[2]

Consequently, for some postmodernists,

“history and existence in space and time have lost all meaning, because knowledge in any objective, commonly agreed upon sense of the term cannot be obtained.”[3]

How did this happen? How did the Bible become a toybox for politically interested ideologies? Or, perhaps a deeper question postmodernists would have us ask is: Hasn’t it always been a toybox for such ideologies? To understand how the Bible has come to be transformed from a document that bears ultimate religious authority to a playing field of sociological and literary criticism, it’s necessary to understand the philosophical currents which brought us to these postmodern shores.

The Birth of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that sought to break free from the religious pre-commitments of medieval science, and establish methods of acquiring knowledge which were pure, objective, disinterested, and therefore credible. These methods came to dominate the sciences in the forms of rationalism and empiricism—and these methods were adopted into theological and biblical studies to propel unbounded, heuristic investigation of the Bible and God. This produced a materialistic disenchantment with metaphysics, and a disinterest in the so-called “theology” of Christianity.

Consequently, the constituent parts of Christianity were disassembled and sold to the academy—the Biblical texts became the domain of historical studies (J. P. Gabler), doctrine became a branch of ethics (Troeltsch), belief became a topic within anthropology and psychology (Freud, Jung, and James), and the church was reduced to an institution for philanthropic humanism (Schweitzer).

The Enlightenment failed to provide satisfying answers to questions which Christian interpretation of the Bible had answered for millennia.

There were several reasons that the Enlightenment failed to sustain itself in the disciplines of biblical interpretation. First, its disenchantment with the theological—that is, with the existential encounter with meaning, God, human existence, and the purpose of life—failed to satisfy those who were preoccupied with problems in these spiritual territories. The Enlightenment failed to provide satisfying answers to questions which Christian interpretation of the Bible had answered for millennia.

This led the philosopher Lessing to articulate what he called “the ugly ditch” between the realities of the world and the realities of the spiritual. This “ditch” became a metaphor for the chasm that existed between the world of the Bible and the present day. People wanted to utilize the Bible for existential purposes, but were unable shake the suspicions articulated in the Enlightenment that God and the Bible were human constructs.

The Birth of Enlightenment Biblical Criticism

A scholar named J. P. Gabler formally proposed in the late 18th century that the academy should adopt this ditch as a departmental distinction in the academy—that biblical studies should concern itself with historiography, textual reconstruction, philology, etc., while theological studies ought to concern itself with philosophical arguments for the existence of God, ethical quagmires, religious ideas, and the duties of the pastor. Biblical studies would concern itself with the human aspects of theology, and theological studies would concern itself with the so-called eternal truths of divine revelation.[4]

 Postmodern approaches arrived after the Bible was allowed to saturate for 150 years in a version of biblical studies that no longer played nicely with dogmatic theology. These approaches were gradually cultivated in the climate of Enlightenment approaches to the Bible (the Geist der Aufklärung, “spirit of the Enlightenment”). This new discipline of biblical studies was no longer obligated to play by the rules of Christian doctrine, and pushed this new liberty as far as it could go. The historical credibility of the documents, the authenticity of its authorship, and the truthfulness of its claims were assumed to be false. This gave birth to three movements—first, to secularism, which saw the contradictions between the suggestions of Enlightenment biblical studies and classical Christianity as grounds to reject Christianity, second, to liberal Christianity, which sought to retain the eternal truths of Christianity, while abandoning its historical credibility; and third, to apologetic Christianity, which sought to defend the coherence of theological studies with biblical studies.

How Postmodernism Earned Authority in Biblical Criticism

The discipline called hermeneutics—that is, the science of interpretation—was asked to carry the weight of this war between biblical and theological studies. If historical understanding of the Bible and conceptual understanding of God were both dependent on interpreting the same texts, then these two disciplines with the same object of study had conflicting interests.  But as the war between biblical studies and theological studies played out on the hermeneutical field, the discipline of hermeneutics was itself changing. Commonsense models for language were being disrupted.[5]

Structuralism, which saw language as a closed set of symbols which reliably and accurately  referred to the real world, was threatened by poststructuralism, which suggested that the signs which constitute language are creations of a system of power, and that each set of signs is an operation of an ideology, rather than a neutral arbiter of reality. For the structuralist, every semantic entity—that is to say, every meaningful articulation of speech—is a construction of concepts which are made possible by their opposites. For example—the concept of “life” exists because the concept of “death” also exists. Likewise for Enlightenment and Romantic, male and female, white and black. The impulse to configure the possibility of meaning on this binary conception of language has as its precondition the existence of an objective, external world.

Poststructuralists argued that to conceive the world in this objectivist sense was to naively accept binaries imposed by a system which privileged with value one side of the binary over the other. In other words, the binary construal of the world guaranteed the enforcement of a power imbalance between the binary. Poststructuralists sought to deconstruct this binary conception of language first by removing the impetus for its necessity—that is, the notion of the objective, external world. Once language’s referential function was negated, then the signs which constituted language could become objects of play rather than tools of hegemony.

By rejecting a binary system of interpretation, interpreters were no longer obligated to use biblical texts to produce absolutist systems.

This is where postmodern approaches to the Bible became the natural conclusion of the conflict between biblical and theological studies on the hermeneutical battlefield. The result was an amalgamation of the two Gablerian disciplines. Biblical interpreters would hunt for ideological power plays within the text of the Bible, and would likewise provide readings of theological concepts and figures in a way that highlighted the way in which their personal or systemic interests infected their objectivity and manifested itself in their system. At the same time, poststructuralism licensed biblical interpreters to interpret texts in a way that supported their own questions and interests without requiring others to accept those interpretations—by rejecting a binary system of interpretation, interpreters were no longer obligated to use biblical texts to produce absolutist systems, but could use the texts for specific interests relative and subjective to a particular group.

For the postmodern, proposing any objective center to a text such as the Bible will inevitably produce violent consequences for some marginalized group, intentionally or not.

This transformed the discipline of biblical theology from one in which the Bible spoke authoritatively to one in which the Bible was a storehouse of sacred metaphors, concepts, and stories that could be appropriated to rectify power imbalances dependent on these metaphors, concepts, and stories in the modern world.

After this shift occurred, there arose a suspicion toward those who wanted to retain absolutist and objectivist agendas concerning the Bible—that is, those who wanted to speak about the Bible’s objectivity, historically or philosophically. There was at first the older historicism, which sought to ground its scientific credibility in its reduction of all textual details to their historical value, and a continual openness to the falsifiability of a historical account in light of new data.

New Historicism arose as a Marxist construal of historicism, which performed historiography by reconstructing the political interests which shaped the system of signs that constituted the literary discourse of its day.[6] We see a clear parallel here between historicism and New Historicism, and objectivist interpretations of Scripture and postmodern interpretations of Scripture. Objectivists readings operate under the structuralist presumption that correct interpretation is accurate interpretation, whereas postmodernists see such a presumption as a violence against the binary against which the interpretation’s center is cast. For the postmodern, proposing any objective center to a text such as the Bible will inevitably produce violent consequences for some marginalized group, intentionally or not.

Application to Theological Discourse

 Therefore, the most relevant question before every biblical interpreter is this: Are you a structuralist or a poststructuralist? And in theological disagreement, before you approach the text, you must first discern whether the two interlocutors share this common philosophical ground or not. If a structuralist and poststructuralist begin to interpret the Bible together, they will soon be debating the nature of ultimate reality rather than the meaning of the text, since both take meaning to mean something different entirely.

Most theological disagreements about Christian ethics today can be solved by clarifying first of all who are structuralists and who are poststructuralists. Once this elucidation has occurred, then each theologian’s operating assumption about the relationship of the Bible to modern culture will be made plain, and the seriousness with which the original author’s intent will be taken as having significance for the 21st century will be settled.


[1] Leo G. Perdue, Reconstructing Old Testament Theology: After the Collapse of History (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 10.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1991; orig., 1877), 27.

[3] Perdue, Reconstructing Old Testament Theology: After the Collapse of History, 3.

[4] The address was titled De justo discrimine theologiae biblicae et dogmaticae regundisque recteutriusque Jinibus (“The Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the SpecificObjectives of Each”) and was originally delivered on March 30, 17 87, republished in 1797. An English translation of the address can be found in John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, “J P Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 33, no. 2 (1980): 133 - 158. For an essay on the effects of this essay upon systematic theology today, see in Jeffrey Stout, Ethics after Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001; orig., Beacon Press, 1988), ch. 8, “The Voice of Theology,” 163-189.

[5] See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (Peru, IL: 1983; orig., 1972); Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (New York: Routledge, 2003; orig., 1977).

[6] See Harold Aram Veeser, The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989), xi, who proposes that New Historicism has five distinguishing features: (1) every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices; (2) every act of unmasking, critique, and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes; (3) literary and non-literary ‘texts’ circulate inseparably; (2) no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths, nor expresses inalterable human nature; (3) a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.


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