AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 62, 2014
PETER A. SUTCLIFFE, Is There an Author in This Text? Discovering the Otherness of the Text (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014). Pp. x + 430. Paperback. ISBN 9781620328231. $US48.00 RRP.
The title of this work alludes to Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? and Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text? In other words, this book joins the discussion of author’s intention as a factor in hermeneutics and the possibility of stable meaning. Sutcliffe’s motivation, like Vanhoozer’s, is to rescue authorial intention as a factor in biblical interpretation in particular; Sutcliffe is especially interested in the conundrum of dual authorship posed by attributing scripture to human authors and divine inspiration (Chapter 1). Again like Vanhoozer, who is one of his main discussion partners, Sutcliffe addresses these issues not by positing a ‘special hermeneutics’ for scripture but by engaging with some key figures in philosophical hermeneutics in order to construct a model that works for all texts, including the Bible.
Sutcliffe engages with not only Vanhoozer but also Gadamer, Derrida, Barthes, Thiselton, Heidegger, Wolterstorff, Walter Ong, Hegel, Krister Stendahl and Wittgenstein (among others). However, his primary discussion partner is Paul Ricoeur, whose views Sutcliffe finds stimulating but whose attempts to resolve the hermeneutical problems arising from the separation of written texts from their authors by making the interpreter responsible for reconstructing meaning are seen by Sutcliffe as ultimately inadequate.
Sutcliffe’s long argument largely seems to be attempting to restore a sense of personal communication between the author and the reader/interpreter of a written text. In order to do this, he takes his readers through extensive discussions of such topics as Romantic notions of entering the psyche or consciousness of the author (a fallacy rightly to be avoided), rational, arational and nonrational (or pistological) knowledge, the difference between authorial intent and authorial meaning, debates over metaphysics, issues of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ of authors in their texts, epistemological versus ontological approaches to hermeneutics, semiotics versus semantics, adverbial and adjectival uses of intent, the difference between understanding, knowledge and meaning, the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung (which Sutcliffe uses in a creative way), the role of language in hermeneutics, phenomenology and Heidegger’s concept of Dasein in relation to hermeneutics.
Sutcliffe’s thesis is that authors are successfully able to communicate their thoughts and be understood somewhat accurately by creating a composition that enters space and time in the form of a written text. The text retains something of the author’s mark as an intentioned creation (analogous to a work of art) and is thus able to speak to readers, touch their minds like a person and help them ‘see’ what the author ‘saw.’ Readers have the ability to understand (imperfectly) what the author’s discourse is about through use of imagination as well as reason, and their ability to enter into other presuppositions than their own without necessarily adopting them. Readers thus bring the text to life as composition and interpret it by applying this understanding in their own personal context, thus extending and creating meaning. Strangely enough, while Sutcliffe illustrates his ideas with vignettes of interpretation of biblical passages, he never specifically explains how his thesis resolves his original conundrum of scripture’s dual authorship.
Sutcliffe invents his own terms and even formulae to explain his point. Some of these inventions are more helpful to the reader than others; for example, ‘pistology’ was a useful explanatory concept but I found the logical/mathematical formulae near the end of the book more confusing than helpful. He also defines or uses terms in his own way, for example labouring the distinction between meaning and meant, which sometimes was quite insightful and other times seemed irrelevant or meaningless. His discussion of ‘ontic consciousness’ very useful as a way of expressing the reader’s ability to make contact with an author’s meaning, but it was not until repeated exposure that I felt I had understood what Sutcliffe was getting at. In ways like this, this text somewhat belies its thesis. However, Sutcliffe frequently recaps his argument and summarises main points, which was very helpful to this reader.
Sutcliffe explicitly comes from a perspective of ‘Protestant evangelical thought’ and ‘the Pentecostal community’ (13). This perspective comes out in discussions of sample biblical passages (such as Genesis 1 and John 1) and discussion of theological issues raised by the hermeneutical views considered. However, Sutcliffe is not uncritical of evangelical theorists like Thiselton and Vanhoozer or of the (few) Pentecostal writers he engages with. And while authors have the right to choose their own discussion partners, I was disappointed that Sutcliffe didn’t engage with other Christian philosophers who have written on philosophical hermeneutics such as Merold Westphal or the neo-Pentecostal James K.A. Smith, whose book The Fall of Interpretation addressed some similar topics ground as Sutcliffe’s book.
Biblical interpreters who are not interested in philosophical explorations of hermeneutics, or unfamiliar with the issues raised in this field, may find this book less relevant. But as a contribution to major questions of philosophical hermeneutics which have engaged some of the modern and postmodern world’s best thinkers, it has much to offer.
Harvest Bible College