Authority: Text Or Reader? -- By: Mark W. Hoffman

Journal: Michigan Theological Journal
Volume: MTJ 04:2 (Fall 1993)
Article: Authority: Text Or Reader?
Author: Mark W. Hoffman

Authority: Text Or Reader?

Mark W. Hoffman

A Look at Reader-Response Criticism

The past century of biblical scholarship has seen many changes, from minor adjustments in emphasis to major shifts in direction. The crown of popularity has seemed to pass from one new method to the next as regularly as one fashion fad changes to another. A current rising star of biblical study methodology is the approach to the text generally termed literary criticism.1 During the past 15 years the use of literary approaches to secular writings have been applied with increasing frequency to biblical texts.2 It is important to

note that literary criticism is not a monolithic field, for under the term fall several diverse methodologies, all of which can be considered “literary.”3

This article is intended as an investigation of the potential benefits of these methods, as well as the possible negative developments which could arise from an unrestrained, uncritical adoption of the approaches. Reader-response criticism will be examined in detail because of its current popularity and the significance of the issues raised by adherents to that method.

Literary Criticism And The Bible

A literary approach to biblical texts involves several distinctions from traditional biblical criticism. Biblical criticism’s concern with matters of authorship, date, place of origin, and efforts to discern the original sitz im leben of a text, have been eliminated in most current literary studies.4

The development of reader-response criticism of biblical texts, as well as the other literary methods, has been by adoption of methods first explored in secular literary criticism. This introduction of methodology from one discipline to another has resulted in a not unexpected amount of misunderstanding, misapplication, and mistrust of the approach. Some scholars have tended to reject

the methods outright, while others have used them in a manner which, though trendy, may not contribute substantially to an understanding of text. This is in line with the late C. S. Lewis’ observation that “those who talk of reading the Bible ‘as literature’ sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about.”5 Lewis, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, certainly did not deval...

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