Merold Westphal needs no introduction as an important mediating voice between continental philosophy, particularly French postmodernism, and American Christian theology. The present work, subtitled “Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church,” is an installment in Baker’s “The Church and Postmodern Culture” series, edited by James K.A. Smith. The series, and indeed this book, are aimed at showing Christians, particularly Evangelicals, that postmodernism, rather than being the enemy of theology and faith, should be embraced as a resource. In particular, Westphal centers on the hermeneutical tradition as elaborated in the work of Hans-Georg Gadadmer and others.
Westphal’s driving apologetic is against the idea that because the hermeneutical tradition posits a relativity of interpretation, it inevitably falls into the trap of relativism (14-15). This charge, central to Evangelical suspicions of hermeneutics, is, in Westphal’s view, unfounded, and it is the purpose of the book to explain why. Here, his main thesis is that interpretation cannot be avoided, and that “the possibility of necessary multiplicity does not open the door to just anything” (26).
The body of Westphal’s text is dedicated to a history and analysis of various kinds of hermeneutical theory. Here, Westphal privileges what he calls the “relativist” hermeneutics espoused by Gadamer and Riceour over and against the “objectivist” approach of Romantic hermeneutics, especially in the work of E.D. Hirsch (35-36). Westphal is concerned to defend, contra Hirsch, the idea that “the death of the absolute author is the absolute death of the author” (62). This clarification is important, dispelling as it does another important possible objection and clearing the way for Westphal’s own appropriation of Gadamer’s hermeneutics.
The latter part of the book consists of a further exposition of Gadamer in particular, along with Westphal’s own argument for how this approach should be embodied in contemporary Christian theology and practice. In particular he applies it to the liberal-communitarian debate as characterized by John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre (from whose work Whose Justice? Which Rationality? this one, of course, derives its title). Here, Westphal argues that political liberalism can be useful in its own way, but communitarianism is a more valid theological approach (132-33). Westphal’s final chapters are dedicated to showing how the hermeneutical traditions can aid individual believers and church communities in interpreting Scripture for the present day (143).
Westphal has written an excellent introduction to the hermeneutical tradition that can be quite useful as a background text for graduate or undergraduate courses on hermeneutics and theology. It sets up the issues and the authors very well, clearly showing what is at stake in different schools of interpretation. The pointing of the text towards Evangelicals may require some translation and interpretation of its own for some groups, e.g. Catholics, for whom the pressing questions are not quite the same (especially the focus on interpretation vis-à-vis the Bible in particular), but this is a fairly simple task of expanding and redirecting the arguments Westphal has provided.