Hearing Out the Text: A Hermeneutic of Suspicion and Openness to the Voice of the Other

Bryan Bibb posted recently on Ben Witherington’s review article of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus, Interrupted. I have not closely followed Ehrman or conversations about his work, but Witherington’s review gripped my imagination, because he brought the “Ehrman conversation” into the context of some of the essential critical questions that animate biblical studies. I am interested in his words on the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a mode of reading in which the reader remains warily alert to the text’s worldview with its peculiar heirarchies and how the text at hand will 1) reflect and reinforce that worldview, silencing and marginalizing other voices with their concerns, and also 2) seek through its rhetorical devices to reproduce in the reader that worldview and its heirarchies. (The phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” is Ricoeur’s but the definition mine, expressed in terms of ideological criticism). Witherington writes in part:

to actually understand an ancient author you must start by giving them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into their own world and thought processes before understanding can come to pass. To approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion is to poison the well of inquiry before one even samples the water in the old well.

Reading this, I remember once hearing a biblical scholar argue that we should read without a hermeneutic of suspicion, equating a hermeneutic of suspicion with being “suspicious of God.” In that instance, my sense was that the lecturer was calling for us to move beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion, to stop reading in that vein. I do not know Witherington’s work as well as I would like, but I do not want to read him here as calling for an end to a hermeneutic of suspicion. Rather, I want to read him more literally: that a hermeneutic of suspicion is not a productive starting place in the reading process, that its right time is simply later in the game than one’s “approach to the text.”

I see a parallel claim in an essay by Norman R. Petersen, “Literary Criticism in Biblical Studies,” 25–50 in Orientation by Disorientation (ed. Richard A. Spencer; Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1980). His question is how the critic can most productively use both historical-critical and literary-critical methods when reading biblical texts. He concludes that questions intrinsic to the text (“what is its form,” “what devices does it deploy,” “how is it structured”) allow us to keep reading to the end, to “let the narrator have his say,” whereas questions extrinsic to the text (“who wrote it,” “where/when/why,” “to whom did he write”) force our attention away from the details of the text at hand. Therefore, he proposed that after having established one’s text textual-critically, one should first approach the text with literary questions, and then only after completing uninterrupted readings of the whole approach it again with historical critical questions.

It is in the same spirit that I would agree with Witherington’s admonishment that we not “approach the text” with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Taking Hosea 2 as an example: if a hermeneutic of suspicion is my initial mode of reading, I may jump straight into a moral critique of the metaphor and reject precipitously the text’s ability to speak an appropriate word to modern listeners. I would then have failed to “giv[e the text] the benefit of the doubt and hear [it] out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into [its] own world and thought processes,” as Witherington puts it. By postponing (not indefinitely) a hermeneutic of suspicion, then I have the opportunity to let the metaphor work on me to convince me of its underlying claims about God’s ways with the people Israel and with creation, before I go on to consider rejection of the metaphoric vehicle Hosea has chosen.

I do not mean to say that such an exercise of mental division can really be accomplished in strict terms; Petersen, too, certainly acknowledges that we’re talking more about mutually-infectious cycles of reading than a linear “step program.” Also, I have reservations about seeking even to postpone a hermeneutic of suspicion: once you let your guard down to a text’s attempts to persuade you of its worldview, well, there’s little point in trying to bar the door when the intruder is already in the house.

What are your thoughts on a hermeneutic of suspicion? Is it more pressing than ever, given that the marginalized are with us always, or are there reasons to think that we are “beyond” it? If we hold to a hermeneutic of suspicion, how do you describe its right relation to a vulnerable openness to be changed by the “other” whom we meet in a text?