Hermeneutical Occasionalism

In Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective, ed. Roger Lundin, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1997, pp. 167-172. (Proceedings from the 11/94 Wheaton College conference on "Hermeneutics and a Christian Worldview.") Also published in 2016 as Chapter 35 in Renewing The Christian Mind (HarperOne Publishers). 

In his intriguing paper on "The Spirit of Understanding," Kevin Vanhoozer takes the position that general hermeneutics, or the principles which govern the study of literary meaning as such, are not sufficient as a basis for the understanding of the biblical texts. Rather, a special kind of guidance, generally accessible to individuals within the faithful community, is required. This is the guidance of the triune God through the offices of the Holy Spirit. Guidance from the believing community is, for him, valid only insofar as it is an expression of the action of the Spirit: "There is a danger in tying the fate of the literal sense too closely to community consensus." (p. 16) And: "I see no reason why cognitive malfunction could not be corporate as well as individual." (17) And: "The Bible will only be heard as God's Word...if we are enabled to hear it as such by the Holy Spirit." (21) Further, the understanding of the Word is not something separable from the application of it in action. Application completes understanding. "The Christian understanding...is one that follows the Word....Understanding is our ability to follow the Word....The role of the Spirit is to enable us to take the biblical texts in the sense that they were intended, and to apply or follow that sense in the way we live." (22f)

I am largely, if not completely, in agreement (or at least in close sympathy) with the position that emerges from Vanhoozer's discussion. I hope that this will be kept in mind in what follows, for my intent is to raise some of the most difficult issues his type of position faces. To sharpen these issues quickly I shall use the phrase "hermeneutical occasionalism" as suggestive of both the content and difficulties of the position.

Occasionalism, we recall, was a post-Cartesian interpretation of mind/body interaction, most strongly associated with the name of Nicolas Malebrance (1638-1715). Under Descartes' descriptions of the mind or soul and the body, they were of distinct and separable essences. But being of such radically different kinds, how could they possibly interact? Of numerous positions that developed in response to this question, some held that they did not interact but only ran parallel, while Malebranche and some others thought that they did interact, but only indirectly. Without divine assistance they could not influence one another, but God could interact with each side in turn and thereby allow what happens in one realm to determine what happened in the other. For example, when the flesh in your foot is separated by a tack you step on, God takes note and produces a pain and other relevant phenomena in your mind. Or when you resolve to lift your arm, God notes this mental event and (through whatever mechanism) brings it about that your arm rises.

My hope is that the application to the hemeneutical situation will be immediately and intuitively clear. The problem is to get the (or a) right interpretation or understanding of the 'text'--here, for simplicity sake, a biblical text. Vanhoozer seems to make authorial intent or use authoritative: "The witness of the Spirit is connected with the effectual use of the Scripture. But - whose use? Not the community of readers, but the author's. The Creed says, after all, that it was God the Father who spoke by the prophets." (p. 21) So getting the right interpretation or understanding of the text will be a matter of capturing for ourselves God's thought in expressing Himself through the text in question. (Here many hairs need to be split, but I hope not for present purposes.)

Now, is it possible for us to achieve this if we are limited to the resources (i) of unbelievers operating from within the relevant social/historical contexts, or even (ii) of all that plus the Christian community within which we live, however that is to be spelled out? I believe that Vanhoozer holds this to be impossible. Of course we must live in (i) and may also live in (ii). But that will not be enough to allow us to achieve a right understanding of God's thought in expressing Himself through a given biblical text, any more than, under the Occasionalist view, the intent to raise my arm is enough to make it go up.

I suspect that in adopting this position Vanhoozer is accepting the view--fundamental to the entire discussion and far beyond--that the 'cultural context' (most importantly the language, rituals and cosmic assumptions of the respective group or groups) makes it impossible to determine 'how things are in themselves'. True, he states, and I applaud it, that "Language does not bar us from reality..." But he adds as a part of the same sentence, "...though reality comes mediated by language." (24)

The problem is: How to spell out this latter clause in such a way that the former can be true. How to have mediation without modification. If in his clauses we replace the word "language" with the word "experience" or "consciousness" or even "thought," we find our location in the problematic of modern thought, persisting ever since Descartes 'discovered' consciousness. Once you 'discover' it you get out only by a miracle. (Descartes of course 'got out' by discovering within his own consciousness an idea, that of a perfect being, of such grandeur that only its object [God] could have caused it. But only his rationalism allowed him to escape the toils of representationalism--a way out no longer available to us, I dare say.)

Quite true to the occasionalist pattern, now, we find him saying that "The Spirit does not alter biblical meaning." Just as God's mind can move my arm though my mind can't, so His spirit can bring the true meaning of the text to my mind though my (embodied, culture-bound) mind and body can't. He is able, as it were, to bypass the serpentine routings which my mind on its own must take and which, apparently, do invariably alter the biblical meaning if left to themselves.

In language which I like very much Vanhoozer states: "The Spirit progressively disabuses us of those ideological or idolatrous prejudices that prevent us from receiving the message. (Again, this aspect of the Spirit's work too aids understanding in general.) In so doing, the Spirit renders the Word effective. To read in the Spirit does not mean to import some new sense to the text, but rather to let the letter be, or better, to apply the letter rightly to one's life. The Spirit of understanding is the efficacy of the Word, it perlocutionary power. According to John Owen, the Spirit is 'the primary efficient cause' of our understanding of Scripture. Yet the Spirit's illumining work is not independent of our own efforts to understand. {I must try to raise my arm or it won't go up!} 'It is the Spirit's activity, effected through our own labor in exegesis, analysis, and application, of showing us what the text means for us'." (28-29)

Difficulties for Occasionalism begin to emerge when we ask the question: Why is it that God's mind can make my arm go up but my mind can't, since they are both minds? The answer seems at bottom to be nothing other than that God can do anything, and hence He can make my arm go up. Cannot He Who spoke worlds (including my arm) into existence make my arm go up? And cannot this Same One cause me to get the right interpretation of a text that He has produced? On pain of blasphemy we can only say: "Yes, surely He can!" But then we must acknowledge that from the fact that He can do it it does not follow that He does do it. And we also must wonder, occasionally, what exactly it is that He does in overriding our culture-bound condition to get the message to us. Or: How does He do it?

And, finally, the frightening question: How do we know when (or that) He is doing it? If we say in answer to this last question--with Vanhoozer in his section on "Unsolved Questions"--that we recognize the presence of the spirit in people by their confession that Jesus has come in the flesh, is that not circular, in that it is a criterion derived from the New Testament text itself, which we--it is said--can get right only by the aid of the spirit? Or if we say (as he continues on p. 29) that the mark of the spirit in people is their obedience to the commands, promises, warnings and narratives in the text, is that not also circular, in that it presupposes that we have got the right understanding of the commands, promises, etc.?

The basic idea seems right, and it is not a wholly new one. In his De Magistro St. Augustine argued that the understanding of words period required the presence of the Inward Teacher, Christ the Logos, to lead us along; for words as sounds and marks are inherently dumb things at best. But saying exactly how it works, and how we know when it is working, is a daunting task.

One might say, utilizing the language of John Owen quoted above, that God just causes us to have the right understanding of the text. No doubt He could do this. But if that is all there is to it, we still might not know we had the right understanding, for we might not know whether in a given case He is causing the interpretation that we have. Also, that would simply dispense with hermeneutical activity as a human undertaking. We are reminded here of preachers who say (usually shout): "I'm not telling you what I think! I'm telling you what God says! The operant idea here is that of altogether circumventing human consciousness with its deadly contaminations. But then of course we lose the personal nature of God's relationship to us. We are simply--at least in the moment of inspration--a keyboard on which God plays, without even our knowledge that it is He that is doing the playing. We could only guess.

The only alternative to this model of manipulation from behind the scenes is one where the Spirit "guides" us into the right interpretation through what He places before our minds, whether it be burning bushes, angels, audible words, inner images feelings or thoughts, or the non-physical 'presence' of pure spirits. But of course this means that we will have to be capable of and responsible for the interpretation of what is thus placed before us, and we are back in the fire. Either we can get this right on our own or we can't. If we can't, the Spirit must help us. But then.....etc.

A way out might be along the following lines. -- We could abandon representationalism as a general theory of human consciousness, and defend a realism in the light of which it does not follow from the fact that I am conscious of something that it appears to me to be what it is not in itself. (Does Vanhoozer have something like this in mind with his "realism principle" of p. 24?) This is, of course, basic philosophical work, and the conclusion is contrary to nearly every prominent writer in the philosophy of mind and language, as well as in epistemology, today.

Then we might do painstaking phenomenological work on putative experiences of the Divine word and presence, moving toward a systematic description and analysis of the various kinds of experiences involved and of how the cases of the actual presence of God to us and with us are to be distinguished from cases of absence as well as cases of false presence and false absence. An astonishing amount of this type of work has already been done in the spiritual literature that has been produced by the church through the ages. I have tried to be helpful at a popular, non-scholarly level on these matters with my book, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. (2nd edition, Harper and Row, 1993) We need not achieve infallibility on whether or not the Spirit is moving with a particular interpretation or event or tendency, but only sound judgment, practiced in historical/community contexts. Note that the phenomenology of the Spirit's presence would have to be done in such a way that it did not presuppose we have got the right intepretation of texts. Some would say this will be impossible, but we should be willing to see whether or not it is so in fact. And I want heartily to second Vanhoozer's stress on practice. The presence of the Spirit will, I think, mainly be known as we act on the biblical texts, especially those assigned to Jesus himself. It is by action that we enter the reality of the world which the Bible is about. It is residing in Jesus's word that permits us to enter the reality of God's rule and become free from domination by other realities. (John 8:31-32:cf. 14:15-16) Just as by acting on knowledge of electricity we become agents in a world where it has play.

Armed with this knowledge of the experience of God, it may be that we can find a way around the impass that gives rise to hermeneutical occasionalism. Perhaps we can learn the presence of God in such a way that what He places before our minds, in certain cases, as well as the construal given it, can be known to be from Him. Stephen Stell's idea, which Vanhoozer seems to adopt, "that the present reality of Jesus Christ is defined not only by the narrative framework 'but also by particular experiences in our current existence'," might be given a workable form. But there will always be a battle over such possibilities so long as intellectual culture is dominated by the view of consciousness (language) as necessarily distortive of what comes before it as an object.

Professor Vanhoozer makes many excellent points which I must leave untouched. His thesis of the primacy of the theological for all understanding is, I think, precisely right, and is of tremendous importance not only in the academic/scholarly context, but in today's political, social and personal context as well. It is a major part of the redemptive message which the people of Jesus must bring to the current world. But I must leave off with that.


One of the background problems that makes the philosophical elucidation of interpretation so difficult is that there is no agreed upon picture of what constitutes understanding of a text or action. I am going to proceed from the assumption that understanding involves the attainment of a certain commonality between the 'author' of a certain 'text'--where text is taken in a broad sense, but paradigmatically includes written language such as we find in the Bible--and the 'reader'. Certainly the commonality in question cannot be sameness of experience. This is not required even of two 'readers' who correctly understand the same 'text'. Their experiences may differ strongly, and may again differ strongly, and in characteristic ways, from that of the author, while the understanding of the relevant text is accurate and complete. Or so I shall say, and say because it seems to me all of this actually does happen, and happens as a rule in human affairs. Misunderstands do occur, in various dimensions and degrees. But everything considered they are by far the exceptions, which we often seem to forget when we engage in professional discussions of "hermeneutics."

At least a core part of the commonality can be specified in the familiar Fregian terms of sense and reference, or Mill's concepts of denotation (extension) and connotation (intension). Looser ordinary language might speak of what was mentioned and what was said about it. Someone who, in general, is unable to tell what is being mentioned or what is being said about it in a given context either does not know the language, is lacking in relevant experience or information, or worse. But given relevant qualifications one is able in general to share with the author and other readers what is being referred to and what is being said about it. Within that framework there always arise special cases where the two dimensions of this core part of understanding have to be worked out. This is the work of inquiry, inference and recourse to relevant principles, which is not a component of the usual situation where understanding occurs. If my wife had to have recourse to inquiry, inference and special principles of interpretation to understand me when I say "I'll be home for dinner tonight," something would certainly be amiss.

I would like to speak of the core part of the understanding that makes up the commonality to be achieved in communication as a unit of information. I agree that information is not everything, but it is something, and something very important-- something without which, it seems to me, nothing in the way of communication can occur. (Betti)

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