Dale Martin uses texts dealing with gender and sexuality as examples to illustrate a “nonfoundationalist” perspective on Biblical interpretation. Comprising eleven chapters, the book includes six essays previously published (in the decade between 1995–2005) and ranges across such topics as homosexuality, heterosexism, Paul’s view of desire (which Martin construes as “Paul’s Rejection of Desire in Sex and Marriage”), marriage, family, and divorce, as well others more explicitly methodological. Throughout, Martin stridently opposes what he calls “the sin of Christian textual foundationalism” where “the text of the Bible is taken to be a relatively firm basis from which we can drive all sorts of knowledge, about doctrine or ethics, by simply reading the text and passively ‘hearing’ its message” (2). Instead, Martin proffers what he identifies as a “reader-response” approach (6), since—à la Stanley Fish—texts have no agency in conveying meaning, nor do they constrain interpretation in any way (4). The result of Martin's deconstruction is to demonstrate, perhaps inadvertently, the bankruptcy of the Reformation claim of sola Scriptura—since there can be no such thing as an un-interpreted text.
Chapter One is occupied with making Martin’s case against the fallacies of textual agency and authorial intention, and against the hegemony of the historical-critical method as traditionally understood, i.e., as the reconstruction of the ancient meaning of the language of a text—the original human author’s intention or the original readers’ understanding (9). An author’s intended meaning cannot legitimately be invoked to guide textual interpretation, since the construction of that authorial intention already is part of the interpretive process (7–8). [Ditto, presumably, the audience’s understanding, although Martin does not so state.] This does not mean that historical-critical methods ought never to be employed, for in fact they can be “often quite valuable,” but “… any insistence that historical criticism is necessary or provides the ruling or controlling meaning of the text offends the theological notion of the communion of the saints and is therefore not theologically defensible” (10; original emphasis). Even for a reader sympathetic to Martin’s post-modernist concerns, such high-flown rhetoric inspires a certain amount of suspicion concerning his argument. This chronic stylistic feature is particularly curious given that Martin spends an entire chapter describing various rhetorical strategies used by interpreters and warning his readers against them.
Martin’s brief survey of the historical use of the sensus literalis in ecclesial interpretation of the Scriptures includes only what evidence will support his case that it was not conterminous with the original human author’s intention. It is difficult to reconcile his insistence that an historical-critical reading of the text ought not be “a necessary foundation for theological use of Scripture” (14; original emphasis) with the implication in Dei Verbum 12 that indeed it ought to be just such a starting point. His one-sentence synopsis of the Roman Catholic rationale for the authority of the Magisterium to make definitive interpretations of Scripture—“Since the author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, and since the mind of the Spirit is not readily and easily accessible to all people…” (9; my emphasis)— is peculiar, at best, and in fact undercuts the very grounding for this doctrine in the sensus fidelium.
Martin’s analysis is stronger once he turns from primarily methodological concerns to more specific details of the text. His discussion of the term arsenokoites, for example, is a fine linguistic study, and provides solid grounding for a different translation of the term than has become common in recent decades. His discussions of the Pauline view of desire and the implications of Jesus’ teaching on divorce are interesting and provocative. Yet the presentation is marred by an undercurrent of antagonism toward those who draw different conclusions from the same texts.
Martin’s ultimate argument against Biblical foundationalism is that it is “ethically dangerous … because it masks the very real interpretive agency of the human interpreter and thus allows the interpreter to avoid responsibility for the … social effect of her or his interpretation” (16; original emphasis). Many hermeneuts would share Martin’s concern with the ethics of Scriptural interpretation, even those he would account “foundationalists,” which suggests that Martin has either mis-defined his category or created a “straw man” argument.