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Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church

series: Church and Postmodern Culture, The

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"Masterfully appropriating the insights of postmodern hermeneuticists, Westphal brings greater honesty to the interpretive practice of Christians. . . . This book . . . should be disseminated at the threshold of every church and seminary."--Christopher Benson, Christian Scholar's Review
In this volume, renowned philosopher Merold Westphal introduces current philosophical thinking related to interpreting the Bible. Recognizing that no theology is completely free of philosophical "contamination," he engages and mines contemporary hermeneutical theory in service of the church. After providing a historical overview of contemporary theories of interpretation, Westphal addresses postmodern hermeneutical theory, arguing that the relativity embraced there is not the same as the relativism in which "anything goes." Rather, Westphal encourages us to embrace the proliferation of interpretations based on different perspectives as a way to get at the richness of the biblical text.

About the series: The Church and Postmodern Culture series features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church.


"In this beautiful little book, Merold Westphal brings to bear on the interpretation of Scripture his life-long interest in hermeneutics. With his customary clarity of analysis and style, the author debunks the common equation of interpretation with relativism, showing theologians, pastors, and laypeople what the church can learn from philosophical hermeneutics about reading and performing God's word. Besides showing how 'Athens can be helpful to Jerusalem,' this book provides an excellent introduction to Gadamer's hermeneutics and to the most-central issues and thinkers surrounding interpretation theory, including the important aspects of community and politics. This book is a gift not only to the church but also to anyone looking for a clear and thoughtful introduction to contemporary interpretation theory."--Jens Zimmermann, professor of English and Canada Research Chair for Interpretation, Religion, and Culture, Trinity Western University

"Westphal deftly navigates between hermeneutical despair and hermeneutical arrogance to arrive at a hermeneutic that affirms the vital importance of interpretation and yet insists that Scripture itself truly speaks. The result is not only a judicious and correct theory of interpretation but also a striking demonstration of what such a humble and respectful hermeneutic looks like in practice."--Bruce Ellis Benson, professor and chair of the philosophy department, Wheaton College

"Merold Westphal is a clear, insightful, and astute interpreter of philosophers for Christian understanding and of Christianity for philosophical understanding. A faithful and learned churchman, Westphal here mines his deep philosophical learning but wears it lightly, enabling beginners to access important insights while inviting others to probe significant issues. This book deserves a wide readership."--L. Gregory Jones, dean of the divinity school and professor of theology, Duke University

Praise for the series:
"The proposed series is not just a good idea; it is actually essential. If mission, liturgy, and pastoral care are to be effective today, then churches need a better understanding of so-called postmodern culture as something to be reckoned with and sometimes resisted. Increasingly, there is an educated interest in religion, but there is also a need to be well-informed about postmodern thought and its very complex relation both to postmodern culture (to which it is often actually hostile) and to religion. Again the need is for a critical appreciation--not dismissal and not empty adulation. This new series aims to provide this in an accessible manner. I am convinced that the main ideas of postmodernism are actually not as 'difficult' as people suppose and that a clear and simple presentation of them actually assists wider cultural discussion. An additional purpose of the series is to introduce to a wider audience theologies that are already trying critically to assimilate the postmodern turn. Since some of these, for example Radical Orthodoxy, are intensely focused on the importance of 'church,' it is crucial that this occur. Although it is already happening, it needs to crystallize. This new series may be just the thing to bring it about."--John Milbank, University of Nottingham

The Author

  1. Merold Westphal

    Merold Westphal

    Merold Westphal (PhD, Yale University) is distinguished professor of philosophy at Fordham University in Bronx, New York, where he has taught for more than twenty years. His many publications include Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought and...

    Continue reading about Merold Westphal


"Aimed at academic, pastoral, and lay theologians, [this] book fights against the hermeneutics of violence in the church, proposing instead a hermeneutics of peace. . . . Masterfully appropriating the insights of postmodern hermeneuticists, Westphal brings greater honesty to the interpretive practice of Christians. . . . This book . . . should be disseminated at the threshold of every church and seminary because the reader is not likely to read in the same way again."--Christopher Benson, Christian Scholar's Review

"In clear, accessible prose, Westphal orients the reader to major voices in hermeneutical theory, most centrally that of Gadamer. He argues that the relativity and dependence intrinsic to our creaturehood must be acknowledged in all our efforts to interpret scripture, but that this 'relativist hermeneutics' does not imply an 'anything goes' relativism."--Christian Century

"Even though the authors who write in the [Church and Postmodern Culture] series are specialists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology, their aim is to communicate to nonspecialists, especially pastors and lay people. This work admirably accomplishes this goal by introducing its readers to the study of philosophical hermeneutics. Over the space of twelve chapters, Westphal nicely traverses basic hermeneutical issues . . . [and] various hermeneutical thinkers . . . while constructively arfguing a middle viewpoint between the extremes of an 'anything goes' and a 'we have the interpretation' attitude. . . . The book provides some helpful insights for the church on how to read and perform scripture better."--Stephen J. Wellum, Religious Studies Review

"Westphal's superb little treatise is . . . intended for everyone in the Church and delivers on that intention by careful tailoring for a wider readership. That the book retains theoretical sophistication while avoiding specialized jargon and sweeping generalization that so frequently tarnish books for 'wide audiences' only further evinces the author's proven literary talent. The general flow and order of the book is sensible and easily understood. . . . . When the material takes a more technical turn, Westphal organizes central concepts and questions into lists that are then elaborated on and made to fit within the broader function and work of interpretation itself. Charts, diagrams, and lucid examples are employed regularly throughout the text, bringing concrete shape to otherwise wholly abstract and perhaps unsettling philosophical ideas. As a review of philosophical hermeneutics for the Church, there are perhaps no better introductions so easily accessible to ministers or interested lay people. . . . The book is warmly recommended for those interested in the twentieth-century crisis of textual authority."--Matthew Arbo, Expository Times

"The Church and Postmodern Culture series continues asking the right questions. . . . Whose Community? Which Interpretation? aims to help academics, pastors, and lay people to think philosophically about what is involved in interpreting the Bible. . . . Westphal's ambition is displayed in his book's accessibility. He clearly wants an array of readers (who may be) leery of (what they believe is) postmodern hermeneutics to read, challenge, and be challenged by this book. . . . Whose Community? Which Interpretation? is beneficial to the local church in a few ways. First, Westphal has given his fellow academics an example by writing for the sake for the church. Second, this book is accessible for lay readers with a beginning interest in hermeneutics. It is an appropriate introductory text, not least because it has good flow and is not dry. . . .Westphal's model of conversation helps guard against purely private and individual readings of Scripture."--Aaron Perry, Asbury Journal

"While Whose Community? deals with complicated philosophical issues, it is not overly technical and should be accessible to the average reader. . . . Westphal rightly addresses his work to the individual Christians who make up the church, and keeps this individual/ecclesiastical dynamic in mind throughout. . . . A helpful read for any Christian interested in the essential practice of biblical interpretation."--John B. Howell III, Southwestern Journal of Theology

"There are so many ways the theologian as writer, the ordained as homilist, and the lay person in personal devotions have interpreted the Bible. This book would guide each reader into a more uniform methodology of interpretation. . . . The arguments for what may or may not be acceptable are well-crafted and well-grounded. . . . This book is a well composed treatise on the interpretation of scripture. . . . This book in scriptural hermeneutics could be used as a primary text for a college course or as a means to give insight to the more advanced layperson in a parish Bible study."--Curtis Scholl, Catholic Books Review

"An accessible book that introduces current philosophical thinking regarding biblical interpretation for a diverse audience. . . . While this is most certainly not a comprehensive engagement of the contemporary conversation, it is most importantly an accessible and helpful attending of the complex and enormous task of both explaining and providing a forward argument for philosophical hermeneutics within the church. I recommend this text to academic theologians, pastors, and laypersons. . . . It would be a helpful supplement for any biblical interpretation course."--Andrew S. Hamilton, Brethren Life & Thought