Volume 33 - Issue 1

Truthfulness in Usefulness: Stanley Fish and American Literary Pragmatism

By Dane C. Ortlund


"For to freedom you yourselves were called, brothers; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another."—Gal 5:131 This paper explores the contemporary hermeneutical2 approach of literary pragmatism, analyzing both the benefits and the potential dangers therein, particularly with regard to interpreting the text of Scripture.

“For to freedom you yourselves were called, brothers; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”—Gal 5:131

This paper explores the contemporary hermeneutical2 approach of literary pragmatism, analyzing both the benefits and the potential dangers therein, particularly with regard to interpreting the text of Scripture. To this end, I will examine the pragmatism of Stanley Fish and use (no pun intended) his position as an entry point into this discussion. I will suggest that literary pragmatism does to texts what Paul calls Christians to avoid: the use of a good gift from God—in Galatians, freedom; in pragmatism, a text—for self-directed, parasitic purposes. The antidote, in both cases, is to “through love serve one another.”

Two initial points of clarification are in order. First, in what follows I am interacting primarily with American literary pragmatism. This is not to say features here discussed do not exist in other cultures. It is rather to set pragmatism off from other poststructuralist approaches more pervasive on the Continent, the main example of which has been deconstruction, set forth in the twentieth century preponderantly by the French writer Jacques Derrida.3 Deconstruction and pragmatism are agreed that determinate textual meaning is a myth, yet while the former seeks to pull the text apart to discern the power struggles at work in the words, the latter employs the text for its own purposes. More to follow on this distinction. For now we simply recognize that we are dealing in this paper not with “undoers”but “users.”4

Second, the object of our study is American literary pragmatism. We are dealing with pragmatism as an attitude toward neither business ethics nor automobile mechanics nor grocery shopping strategies, but texts. The object in view is not objects but words. How does pragmatism affect reading?

I. What is Literary Pragmatism?

Three pillars of thought form the edifice of the literary pragmatism of Stanley Fish. These will form the skeleton of Part I. All three serve to answer the question, How does one find textual meaning? Is there such a thing as “meaning”in a text? These pillars are: (1) textual meaning is determined by the reader; (2) textual meaning is determined by its usefulness to the reader; and (3) textual meaning is determined by its usefulness to the reader in the context of communal consensus. Our progression through these three assertions will increasingly sharpen our understanding of pragmatism, each point serving as a foundation for the next. What starts more broadly will gradually become more clearly defined.

Pillar #1: Textual meaning is determined by the reader

Pragmatism proceeds on the understanding that whatever meaning may emerge from the act of reading resides not in the sender of the communication but in the receiver. With this pillar we are not yet divorced from other postmodern5 approaches to texts; deconstruction dwells in complete harmony with the contention that the reader ultimately determines “meaning.”Though deconstruction dismantles the text while pragmatism employs it, both view the reader as the primary semantic authority in these tasks.

By referring to the reader’sinterpretive authority, we are identifying pragmatism (and deconstruction) as lying squarely in the flow of postmodern thought, since we are setting forth the reader as the determiner of meaning in distinction from either the author or the text itself. Set in the context of the stages of intellectual thought that have come into view since the Enlightenment burst onto the scene in the late eighteenth century (and to shamelessly oversimplify), Pre-Modernism can be seen as the age of the author, Modernism as the age of the text, and Postmodernism as the age of the reader. Authorial intent was once generally agreed to be the key factor in determining an objective meaning. This was the interpretive rubric under which, for example, the Reformers of sixteenth-century Europe operated. With Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the rationalism born out of the Enlightenment, the text came to be seen as definitive in discovering the (still objective) meaning. The Postmodernism of the late stages of the twentieth century has completed the interpretive orbit: neither the author nor the text but the reader establishes meaning.

It is not hard to see the connection between postmodernism’s subjectivism and the authority of the reader in determining meaning. If the author or text establishes meaning, that meaning is impenetrably fixed. Though ambiguity is still inevitable to some degree, meaning cannot change. In Pre-Modern and Modern reading, interpreters may disagree as to what that meaning is, but everyone will agree that they cannot all be correct. Someone is right and someone is wrong. Postmodern readers, however, generally have little difficulty ascribing validity to various interpretations. This is consonant with the kind of pluralism currently en vogue which affirms any truth as legitimate so long as it is sincerely held, and held in a way that is tolerant of the views of others—of which some postmodern interpreters are quite intolerant.

How, according to Fish, does the reader determine the meaning of a text? “The reader’s response,”he writes, “is not to the meaning; it is the meaning.”6 “Meaning”is not something I come to a text to discover but to create. Until I read, no meaning exists. As Fish looks back on his early days, he sees that he had been falling into the same trap into which others now fall: “I did what my critics always do: I’saw’ what my interpretive principles permitted or directed me to see, and then I turned around and attributed what I had ‘seen’ to a text and an intention. What my principles direct me to ‘see’ are readers performing acts.”7

What a mirror is to a window, then, indeterminacy is to determinacy. Reading a text, according to poststructuralism, is ultimately reading oneself, insofar as one only apprehends the text in the context of one’s own environment, experiences, limitations, and pre-understandings. Reading is therefore like looking in a mirror: one sees merely a reflection—albeit a sophisticated or even indiscernible reflection—of oneself. Determinate textual approaches, on the other hand, trust in an objective “other”to which the text points. One looks not into a mirror and thus back at oneself but through a translucent window at reality. Just as some windows, moreover, may be more stained than others, some texts are closer to truth than others. It is precisely to this, of course, that the poststructuralist objects: there is no such thing as “closer to truth.”Such language is blind to its own pre-conditioning and experiential influence of one’s interpretation. The following chart illustrates the fundamental difference between determinate approaches to texts and poststructural, indeterminate approaches. Determinacy reads with the understanding that it is possible for the text to speak of transcendent, objective reality. Indeterminacy reads with the understanding that whatever one gleans from a text is, in the end, only a reflection of the reader’s own personal history and environment. There are therefore as many potential interpretations as there are readers. A correspondence to external reality is exchanged for a cul-de-sac of self-generated reality.

Determinate Reading

Indeterminate Reading

Pillar #2: Textual meaning is determined by its usefulness to the reader

Here we narrow down our understanding from that which is generically reader-oriented to the common criterion by which specifically pragmatic readers come to textual meaning: usefulness.8 And we are now in a position to propose a general definition of literary pragmatism: it is a textual approach in which “cost-benefit analysis”trumps all other criteria of meaning such that the locus of textual meaning lies not in fixed objectivity (external to oneself) but in self-directed “problem-solving capability”9 (internal to oneself).

The motto of such an approach is “as long as it works.”One asks not, Is it objectively true? Do Ihave a responsibility to it? Rather the questions are, Is there personal usefulness in this text? Does it work? If so, need anything else really factor in to identify meaning? According to Anthony Thiselton, Fish believes it is “operationally justifiable, and even necessary if confusion is to be avoided, to replace the question ‘What does this mean?’ by the question ‘What does this do?'”10 One asks not if a text possesses truth-correspondence but if it is effective. “Pragmatic theories of truth operate simply in terms of supposed instrumental success.”11

Richard Rorty, another pragmatist, further elucidates the distinctiveness of literary pragmatism. Reading, says Rorty,

may be something too weird and idiosyncratic to bother with. . . . Or it may be exciting and convincing. . . . It may be so exciting and convincing that one has the illusion that one now sees what a certain text is really about. But what excites and convinces is a function of the needs and purposes of those who are being excited and convinced. So it seems to me simpler to scrap the distinction between using and interpreting, and just distinguish between uses by different people for different purposes.12

Thus this essay is entitled “Truthfulness in Usefulness”rather than “Truthfulness or Usefulness.”The Pragmatist does not negate meaning in a text. Truthfulness does, in a manner of speaking, exist—but it is discovered not before the utilization of a text but in it.

With Rorty stands Fish. The attempt to distinguish between interpreting a text and using it is in vain. Meaning is established in the reader’s practical employment of the text rather than in a truth value external to the reader. “The text as an entity independent of interpretation drops out,”writes Fish, “and is replaced by the texts that emerge as the consequence of our interpretive activities.”13

The purchase of a computer supplies a helpful analogy both of the goal of pragmatism and its distinction from deconstruction. One may buy a new computer in order to take it apart to better understand how it was assembled and by what biases. For example, how is the hard drive laid out? What types of disk drives exist? How much storage space is there? What is the screen resolution? Once such questions have been investigated, one understands that the computer is actually a series of technical decisions based on predispositions that are a result of the technicians or computer company’s environment.

A computer may also be purchased, however, to be used. One needs a device by which one can check email, compose documents, and schedule activities. It is of little interest what decisions went into the assembly of the computer so long as it serves its purpose and helps daily living in a practical way.

The former computer-purchasing method represents deconstruction and the latter pragmatism. Both see interpretation as finally dependent on one’s own ingrained tradition. Yet while the aggressive pessimism of deconstruction halts at this point and seeks to disassemble such ideological motives, the benign optimism of pragmatism lets sleeping dogs lie and goes on to employ the text anyhow. The suspicious scowl of deconstruction is replaced with a contented shrug as the reader simply employs an otherwise meaningless text. Thiselton defines the pragmatic approach this way: “Truth claims rest on socio-pragmatic hermeneutical criteria internal to the persuasive techniques of given communities.”14 To use a text is to interpret it; to interpret it is to use it.

Yet what does Thiselton mean by referring to “the persuasive techniques of given communities”? Clarification of this lies in Fish’s third assertion.

Pillar #3: Textual meaning is determined by its usefulnessto the reader in the context of communal consensus

With this assertion Stanley Fish offers a contribution distinct from his fellow pragmatists. With the first assertion—that textual meaning lies in the experience of the reader—Fish finds himself not only with other pragmatists but also with deconstructionists. With assertion number two, the erection of usefulness as the ultimate criterion of meaning, deconstructionists drop out. Here in our third assertion we further narrow down literary pragmatism and come to the main point of contribution in the work of Fish which sets him off from other pragmatists such as Rorty.


What is this assertion, and what might prompt Fish to make it? The two questions are closely connected.


Fish holds that not only is interpretation reader-centered and governed by practical usefulness, but also that what provides an overarching framework by which one can avoid interpretive anarchy is the consensus of the community. That is, while usefulness determines meaning, the corporate body determines usefulness. Yet how can we apply the verb “determines”to someone like Fish who argues that meaning is indeterminate? “Meaning for Fish,”explains Vanhoozer, “is determinate only in the sense that readers always read within particular contexts with specific interpretative rules. In short, while texts may be indeterminate, social contexts are surely not.”15 No interpreter is a hermeneutical island. Interpretive isolation is a myth. Rather, says Fish, one is always reading, always understanding, always interpreting, always using, in “social and institutional circumstances”16 that not only fuel but govern interpretation. Fish’s pragmatism is not totally stricture-free.

These two criteria—that community both determines and delimits interpretation—comprise the two hands of Fish’s pragmatism. On the one hand, he retains reader-oriented interpretation with reader-generated meaning. Yet on the other hand, he prevents interpretive chaos with communal delimiting of meaning. In this way Fish strives to walk the narrow ledge between the twin precipices of literary absolutism and literary anarchy. Vanhoozer perceives the same difficulty, but while he provides as a third alternative adequacy as a middle road between absolutism and anarchy (maintaining author-centered, determinate meaning),17 Fish maintains his reader-centered, pragmatic stance by postulating communal consensus as that which prevents frenetic interpretive free-for-all.

Herein one smells the motivation for such a significant addendum to pillars one and two. With his focus on social context Fish is able to have his interpretive cake and eat it too. Meaning cannot make a claim on one, so long as one can find corporate support for one’s understanding. The search for textual meaning has become the search not for a prescriptive standard to which I conform but a potential source we may or may not choose to heed, depending on its benefit to us.

II. Where Has Literary Pragmatism Come From?

The literary pragmatism of Stanley Fish views interpretation, then, as reader-centered, governed by usefulness, and communally delimited. Before assessing this view, is it possible to suggest possible roots from which it has grown? I believe it is, and I will do so by briefly commenting on pragmatism’s rise in the wake of the Enlightenment. The relationship of literary pragmatism to the Enlightenment is one of both continuity and discontinuity, with an emphasis on the latter.

Pragmatism has shown brief glimpses of life throughout the last three centuries. While it has always been part of human nature to a degree, it has surfaced in conspicuous manner at a few points along the way. The suspicious attitude with which G. E. Lessing and Ernst Troeltsch approached the text was certainly mirrored more recently by such literary pessimists as Derrida, Rorty, and Fish. Indeed, the way in which the Enlightenment encouraged readers to place themselves over the text has been carried down to us today. We might also see interesting connections between Fish’s communal consensus and Catholicism’s Tradition Criticism, in which community determines meaning.18

In short, the autonomy and normativity of human reason which ascended academia’s throne two hundred years ago—with Kant, Semler and Lessing tending to the train of its royal robe and heralding its new sovereign decree—is cousin to contemporary literary pragmatism, in which “there has been a powerful desire in American pragmatic philosophy to cede to the self an autonomy, an ability to produce its own personal truth regardless and even in spite of its environment.”19 The Enlightenment erected Self as sovereign. Pragmatism continues this race and, though it may run in a slightly different direction, carries the same baton.

Yet the central way in which postmodern pragmatism has been birthed is not in continuity with but as a reaction to Enlightenment thinking. European rationalism is preponderantly concerned with understanding; pragmatism is concerned with usefulness. Both want to figure it out on their own, but whereas children of the Enlightenment seek to find an external meaning on their own, pragmatism’s offspring use the text and that is the meaning. Both place Self at the center. But pragmatic reading not only cedes to Self final determinate power, but Self becomes the only one in whom such meaning can truly be said to reside. The reader is authoritative not only in finding meaning but in creating it. We do not come to meaning; we produce it.

III. What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Literary Pragmatism?

While aspects of literary pragmatism demand our attention and even agreement, other elements—and, I will assert, the interpretive system as a whole—ought to be rejected.


Two strengths in Fish’s pragmatism stand out. First, the world of academia, which I love and of which I am a part, could doubtless benefit from a good shot of pragmatism. It is easy to fail to have one’s study of Scripture and theology percolate down through the finer academic questions into everyday living. The crucial task of doing something with what we read must not be neglected. So Iapplaud pragmatism’s engaged reading. Casting one’s eyes over pages of words—especially those of Scripture—is always unto something. The pragmatist, quite rightly, reads with a purpose. We might even note a correlation between pragmatism and the New Testament epistle of James. Here we learn of the crucial relationship between faith and works: faith never stands alone but is always accompanied by righteous deeds (2:14-26). Similarly, pragmatism is concerned to see something happen: fruit, effects, benefit. Mere understanding is not enough. For James, even the demons believe; for Fish, even the unsophisticated and naÃ?¯ve read. Both see action as the appointed consummation of faith/reading.

Yet even here we must note the crucial difference between James’ active faith and Fish’s active pragmatism. While the former sees fruit as the natural product of an objective, determinate reality (God’s Word: 2:10-11; 4:11; truth: 3:14; 5:19), the latter sees fruit as the product of subjective, indeterminate (albeit communal) reading of the text. I part ways with Fish by observing that pragmatism operates on the basis of essentially self-directed goals. Yet James is after other-directedness. The very meaning of faith, for him, is that it does not stay at the level of what benefits oneself. Rather it seeks the good of others (1:27).

The communal focus of Fish’s pragmatism is a second strength. Th is is particularly helpful in distinguishing the reader-centered approach of Fish from that of deconstructionism. While it may appear that Fish emphasizes this communal focus merely to salvage his literary approach from utter anarchy, the point stands that his advocacy of corporate agreement takes a huge step toward meaningful interpretation. With his corporate focus Fish admits to the fallibility of human understanding executed in isolation.


What, then, are literary pragmatism’s weaknesses?

First—to use a previous metaphor—there is such a thing as a computer. One can deconstruct or one can use, but the fact remains that computers exist independent of how any particular consumer—or community of consumers—implement them. One does not create a computer by walking into Best Buy; one comes to Best Buy to see what computers are there. One does not create meaning by opening a book; one comes to the book to see what meaning is there. Reading does not construct textual meaning but contemplates it.

Second, pragmatism corrupts the text by making it a means instead of an end. Texts are vehicles for pragmatic travels in which the destination is dictated by the reader rather than allowing the author to determine the destination. Fish mutinies against the text rather than humbly letting the text lead where it will. To put it most bluntly, reader-determined interpretation is, by definition, prideful; author- or text-determined interpretation is, by definition, humble. For the former proceeds on the conviction that Self is best suited to exercise power as evaluative agent; the latter proceeds on the conviction that one must stand under something outside oneself in order for responsible understanding to occur. Exegesis must not become exploitation.


Third, it is to be questioned whether Fish has successfully avoided interpretive anarchy. While he has put some limit on interpretive polyvalency by employing the authority of the community, this does not ultimately solve the dilemma, for even communal consensus is free to fill the text with whatever meaning is useful in its own social context. Is Fish not trading individual anarchy for group anarchy?

Indeed, if group consensus consists of agreed upon evil, this will be even more difficult to overcome than individual evil, bringing us to pragmatism’s fourth weakness. It is a small step to take pragmatism from the world of literary interpretation to that of ethical discernment. The disastrous result is that the group is not able to be corrected from outside their own communal agreement. There is room for neither personal nor group transformation from an “other.””There can be no prophetic address ‘from beyond.'”20 Evil comes not only through individuals but through groups—which ought not to surprise us due to sin’s universality. World history is littered with examples of corporate evil that was unwilling to be corrected from the outside. We must therefore be careful, as Vanhoozer pithily puts it, not to “reduce the apostolic confession in Acts 15, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ to Fish’s abbreviated, User-friendly formula: ‘It seemed good to us.'”21

Fifth, Fish fails to see the impact texts can make on people, whether as individuals or as groups. If the community establishes meaning, ever standing over the text to use it and never under the text to receive it, how did a smattering of first-century Jews come to equate a nomadic teacher with Yahweh? How did Augustine, Luther and the Wesleys have their lives turned upside-down on the reading of an ancient letter (Romans)?22 How did Jonathan Edwards approach life in a wholly (and permanently) new way after a single reading of 1 Timothy 1:17? Such textual intrusion into one’s native community go unaccounted for by Fish.

IV. Literary Pragmatism in Action: Romans 11:6 As a Test Case

But if it is by grace, it is no longer from works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. —Rom 11:6

What does literary pragmatism look like in action, specifically in approaching a biblical text? For this brief concluding exercise we consider Romans 11:6. Speaking of the remnant of Israel that is to be saved, Paul appeals to the crucial importance of retaining verbal significance in words. Grace is only grace if it is not from works. How might pragmatists treat such a verse?

The answer to this question may best be seen in distinguishing a pragmatic approach to this verse from that of a deconstructionist. Applied to Romans 11:6, the deconstructionist asks what Paul was striving to do with these words, then seeks to lay bare the hidden motivation driving the verse. What was the latent agenda? What in Paul’s experience made him so afraid of “works”? Why is he so adamant that works be excluded? What can I learn about him and the atmosphere in which he wrote, undressing all the ideological cover-up of the statement?

The pragmatist queries the verse differently, not asking how the writer was attempting to use the words but how we might profitably use them. Does Romans 11:6 help me in my day-to-day existence? Do I feel more at ease with myself knowing that this salvation Paul speaks of is not by works but by grace? Do I sense as I read it that I do not need to try as hard as I thought to feel accepted? If so, I have created the meaning of the text. The text has not approached me as a separate, meaningful entity, but as an empty vessel with potential for meaning. I fill the vessel as I use it, and the end product is “meaning.”The text is not living; it comes to life when I read it and use it.

Fish would, moreover, delimit the impression of Romans 11:6 upon the reader with the criterion of communal consensus. I cannot give “grace”any meaning I want: the community in which I operate must be recognized as that which informs my understanding and thus stands behind even my own experience of reading the text. In this way the community establishes certain limits on the meaning of grace—limits which, according to Fish, can never quite be nailed down.

V. Conclusion

In the final analysis, literary pragmatism’s approach to Romans 11:6 must be rejected for the reason C. K. Barrett gives in his comment on this verse: “If you confuse such opposites as faith and works, then words will simply lose their meaning.”23 Barrett’s unforeseen prophecy has come true in the latter decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Meaning has indeed been largely abandoned, replaced by the impregnated authority of the reader himself.

Yet God’s Word stands, to be emptied of meaning to one’s everlasting destruction or received to one’s everlasting joy. “It is refreshing,”writes John Stott of Romans 11:6, “in our era of relativistic fog, to see Paul’s resolve to maintain the purity of verbal meanings.”24 With the humble quest for objective meaning, this fog begins to lift and Truth stands forth on the pages of the text, as once he did on the waves of Galilee, not beckoning for seekers to fill his words with meaning but revealing a meaning already there, freely offered to all who receive it: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”No one comes to meaning but by him.25

  1. All Scripture quotations are the author’s translation.
  2. For the purposes of this paper I am operating on the definition of hermeneutics suggested by Kevin J. Vanhoozer: “the reflection on the principles that undergird correct textual interpretation”(Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998], 19).
  3. See, e.g., “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,”in Richard Macksey and Eugene Donato, eds., The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 247-265; Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); “Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism,”in Chantal Moufe, ed., Deconstruction and Pragmatism (London: Routledge, 1996), 77-88.
  4. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 20, 158, respectively.
  5. On the use of this term, I agree with David Clark: “Postmodernism is a broad and nebulous concept. Part of the problem is that diverse fields like literature, politics, architecture, philosophy, economics, theology, and photography exhibit trends that some call postmodern. How could an architectural style and theological theme both count as postmodern in one tight sense of that word?”(To Know and Love God: Method For Theology [Wheaton: Crossway, 2003], 141-142). In spite of this admitted difficulty, by postmodernism I here refer to “fragmentation, indeterminacy, and intense distrust of all universal or ‘totalizing’ discourses”(David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity [Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990], 9).
  6. Stanley Fish, Is Th ere a Text in This Class? Th e Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 3. “Meaning is a product of the way it is read”(Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Spirit of Understanding: Special Revelation and General Hermeneutics,”in Roger Lundin, ed., Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997], 146). “Meaning is located not in some inert objective entity (the text), but in the dynamic experience of reading”(Vanhoozer, Meaning? 56). See also Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 127-129.
  7. Fish, Text? 12.
  8. I thus disagree with Mark Allan Powell, who states, “Reader-response criticism is a pragmatic approach to literature that emphasizes the role of the reader in determining meaning”(What is Narrative Criticism? [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990], 16). The reverse is more accurate: rather than reader-response being “a pragmatic approach,”pragmatism is a breed of reader-response criticism (along with, for example, deconstructionism).
  9. Jeffrey Stout, “A Lexicon of Modern Philosophy,”RelSRev 13 (1987): 20.
  10. Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 538. Emphasis original.
  11. Roger Lundin, Clarence Walhout, and Anthony C. Thiselton, The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 200. Charles Peirce describes pragmatism thus: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object”(Andrew McMurry, “The Possibility of Literary Meaning: A Peircean Suggestion for Derrida and Rorty,”Sound 79 [1996]: 484).
  12. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), 144. Emphasis original.
  13. Fish, Text? 13.
  14. Thiselton, New Horizons, 474.
  15. Vanhoozer, Meaning? 168. See pp. 168-174 for a full delineation of Fish’s position. See also Hart, Faith Thinking,128.
  16. Fish, Text? 371.
  17. The terms “absolutism”and “anarchy”are Vanhoozer’s (Meaning? 139). Anthony Thiselton similarly refers to this middle way as “the need to steer between the Scylla of Cartesianism and the Charybdis of radical postmodern polyvalency”(Lundin, Walhout, and Thiselton, Promise of Hermeneutics, 156; see also Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 541).
  18. Th e significant difference between the two, however, is that Catholicism looks to the history of tradition for guidance, whereas this is just what Fish seeks to avoid: he is concerned with contemporary communal consensus. Indeed, for Fish, unlike for Catholicism, if a community today sees a textual meaning that a community of yesterday rejected, it is the present community whose validity trumps all others.
  19. McMurry, “Possibility of Literary Meaning,”478.
  20. Thiselton, New Horizons, 531. “If all the weight in reader-oriented hermeneutics is placed on prior expectations, codes, conventions, horizons, out of which meaning is determined and constructed it is difficult to see how the text can transform or correct the horizons of reading communities ‘from outside'”(537; emphasis original).
  21. Vanhoozer, Meaning? 412.
  22. Vanhoozer mentions Augustine and Luther in this regard (ibid., 170-171).
  23. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London: Black, 1962), 209. 24 The Message of Romans (Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 293. 25 I am grateful to Dr. Hans Bayer for his comments on an early draft of this paper.

Dane C. Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is executive vice president for Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, USA.

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