Tucked away in a little passage in the pastorals, Titus 1.15 is a statement that has big time significance packed in just a few words (11 on the Greek, to be exact). They read:
To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. (NRSV)
To provide commentary on the meaning of this phrase from Paul (or ‘Paul’ if you are skeptical of the authenticity of the Pastorals), I cite Hans-George
Similarly, a person who “understands” a text (or even a law) has not only projected himself understandingly toward a meaning—in the effort of understanding—but the accomplished understanding constitutes a state of new intellectual freedom. It implies the general possibility of interpreting, of seeing connections, of drawing conclusions, which constitutes being well versed in textual interpretation. Someone who knows his way around a machine, who understands how to use it, or who knows a trade—granted that there are different norms for purpose-oriented rationality and for understanding the expressions of life or of texts—it still remains true that all such understanding is ultimately self-understanding (Sichverstehen: knowing one’s way around). Even understanding an expression means, ultimately, not only immediately grasping what lies in the expression, but disclosing what is enclosed in it, so that one now knows this hidden part also. But this means that one knows one’s way around in it (sich
auskennt). Thus it is true in every case that a person who understands, understands himself (sich versteht), projecting himself upon his possibilities.1
In brief, the act of interpretation of a text, or I would say almost anything in the world, starts from and begins in a projecting of the self onto the interpretans (the thing being interpreted) to arrive at an interpretation. However, it needs to be clear here that the language of project is not necessarily used in the strict, psychoanalytic/Freudian sense where what one interprets in something is is really what one feels or wants. While often true, even in the act of textual interpretation, that is a too narrow understanding of projection when it comes to hermeneutics. Allow me to explain.
When I hear or read a word like “dog,” many things happen in my mind. First, one might say I come up with some mental representation of a dog, such as my pet Sheltie Scotia when I was in high school and college. But whatever that representation is, something else occurs: my own
But for a little more of a twist, here is another example. Imagine you are hungry, and I mention the word “steak” to you. Assuming you are not a vegetarian or vegan, you will not just imagine some generic slab of cow meat, but you might imagine a steak you want to consume, like a juicy, tender filet mignon. You imagine not just what something is and how it has been significant to you in the past, but also how it might fit within present physiological, biology, emotional, and spiritual needs.
If you think about this, it makes sense. Due to our embodied nature, all human thinking is ultimatly derived by the sense of seeking. Perhaps the connection isn’t immediately apparent, such as the person who wants to become a physician may not immediately thinking about this desire as they study biochemistry. But the drive is impacted how they think, impacted how much they pay attention to the material, and how they interpret it.
In projecting ourselves onto a text, then, we are bringing a whole self of ours in act of interpretation. We are not merely representing the words we read in some “objective” manner, but we bring our past experiences of the concepts the words point to and our future seekings to the act of reading. Reading engages us in an entire manner, not simply a piece-meal way. Even the lack of an emotional response is itself engaging us in a whole way, as the lack of
To be sure, when reading this may not always happen in an intensive way that we are conscious of. It mostly happens largely outside of our awareness, only bubbling up what is most relevant for the specific act of reading. But whether we are conscious of it or not, reading engages us as a whole person.
However, while we bring ourselves to the text, our readings are never reduced to simply our person. The very act of reading brings in thoughts that I would not otherwise have. If I read about Einstein’s theory of relativity in an advanced manner, I am taking in information that I am not familiar with at all. I have to bring in concepts and ideas that I do have a personal familiarity with and through the combination of those concepts as directed by the reading, a novel idea or thought may emerge that I had never considered. Then, as a consequence, that idea becomes encoded into my memory (whether very weakly and likely to be forgotten or strongly and to be accessed again in the future).
The point is that interpretation is simultaneously an act of projection and an event of emerging novelty. But, here is the thing: the novelty that emerges in our minds emerges from who we are as people. If we are reading a text, there is no immediately clear reference of what it is referring to that we can look at. The raw materials of interpretation emerge from ourselves, not anything or anywhere else.
Consequently, if we are bringing a whole self to our interpretation, and not just a partial self, then the novel idea that emerges from us will cohere with the emotional and desirious self we bring to it. The way we interpret will be determined by what it is we are looking for.
However, this is not necessarily
Now, imagine as I am driving down the road looking for something to eat and I get a phone call from a colleague who has some questions they need to ask me. I am perfectly capable of switching my attention away from trying to find a restaurant (as I hopefully pull over!) and redirect my attention to what my colleague is asking me. I am able to shift perspective and what I am seeking to do.
Likewise, with reading. I can read something that as I read it, I realize there is something off about my interpretation. Maybe I missed an important word that renders my first interpretation problematic. Or, maybe I realize that I am very prone to read myself into the text and take a step back to see if I should look at it from another perspective. I am not fatalistically restraining to interpreting from one specific self, but I can switch the significance I attach to my reading and the way I frame it.
So, to summarize: we bring ourselves to the text, which can lead to the emergence of new meanings we were previously unfamiliar with that are influenced by our own affective being, but our reading is not fatalistically determined by any specific desire and goal we have.
The brings me to the value and importance of exegesis in the act of interpreting, particularly Biblical texts. It is often imagined that exegesis allows us to get to the actual meaning of the text. While I certainly embrace that pursuit, I think this is an overly narrow view of what exegesis does. Exegesis is the act of bringing our bests selves to the reading of the text so that we can move towards the best readings of the text. There is a sense of normativity built into this as if there are certain interpretations that are better than
To bring this to bear on Paul’s statement in Titus 1.15, he is addressing a circumstance where there a litany of people who are causing great conflict within the community, including specific Jewish persons who are presenting certain “myth” and commandments that they use to teach others. This does not appear to be simply a matter of people simply bringing forth teaching, but employing the resource of Jewish traditions and canon, particularly the Torah, to bring to bear on their teaching. Thus, they appear to be interpreting these traditions and the canon in line with the type of person they are. The problem is that they reject the truth, thereby impacting the way they read and interpret. While we can’t be sure exactly what is happening, if 1 Timothy 4.1-5 brings any insight, they may be restricting so many things that they consider bad and evil. Thus, they reflect the problem with their own heart as being one who is constantly tempted, constantly struggling with things themselves. They project their own problems, in this sense closer to a Freudian sense, onto the text that they read.
In this type of context, then, exegesis is a way of bringing forth our better selves in the act of reading. It is a way of pushing back against the worst part of ourselves, the part of ourselves that can impact what we interpret, and bring forth a better self. However, this means something: there has to be
This sense may be conveyed by Paul in Titus 2.1: “Now you should speak what is fitting of healthy doctrine.”2 Here, Paul contrasts the “unhealthy” style of interpretation, which perhaps sees everything as bad or dangerous, with the healthy form of instruction that Titus should provide. In order to contend with the bad forms of teaching from the impure, Titus is charged with teaching people what is healthy. Why?
Perhaps the answer is conveyed in Titus 2.11-13. There seems to be a three-stage movement in the lives of people that resembles what I have found in 1 Corinthians. Firstly, there is the stage of faith and salvation, as in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 where one
Consequently, exegesis alone will not bring out the best self that does not exist, but it must exist in us through 1) an encounter with the living God that brings forth faith within us and 2) a life lived in accordance to the type of attitudes and behaviors that the Scriptures themselves speak about. From the memory of our past actions can emerge the raw materials for understanding passages well. For instance, if you have never really loved sacrificially then it would be hard to understand the gravity of Jesus’ words: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15.13; NRSV) To be clear, we don’t have to have actually died to truly comprehend these words, but the memory of the experience of sacrificial giving can give us the raw materials to imagine what it is Jesus is really referring to in love. As a consequence, when we as good exegetes read Jesus’ discourse about love in
My point is this: exegesis brings forth our best selves to the interpretation of the text, but it can only bring what comes with us in the act of interpreting. It’s value in
- Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method (Bloomsbury Revelations) (p. 261). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- While many translations render this as “sound doctrine,” as if it is a doctrine that is true or reliable, I render it as ‘healthy doctrine’ to emphasize the type of lifestyle the teaching conveys. That healthy behavior seems to be in view can be seen in the type of instruction Paul provides to the people.