Monday, September 5, 2011

Words and "The Word": Derrida vs. Luther.

There is one guest on Issues, etc. (whom I will not name) who keeps on using the term "deconstruct" and "deconstructionism" incorrectly.  So I thought I would write a short piece on it in order to explain its actual meaning and also to give a kind of preliminary Lutheran response to Derrida.

Deconstructionism is what Jacques Derrida (a now deceased French-Jewish postmodernist) uses to describe his method of studying literature.  According to Derrida, pieces of literary production is aimed at representing reality.  The problem with this is that representation cannot fully encompass the reality which it is aimed at representing.  Hence, it does and does not represent reality.  That means that all representation is a contradiction.  It is, a yes and a no.  The term that Derrida uses to describe this is "differance."

One example that the Derrida uses of this (which I read in a seminar in college) is the Book of Revelation.  The Greek title of the book is "Apocalypse"- which means to unveil.  But is it really an unveiling?  What Derrida points out is that it is meant to unveil the end.  But since the end hasn't really happened yet, it still remains somewhat veiled.  Therefore, claims Derrida, the work is a contradiction.  It claims to unveil and then it really doesn't.  What it does is unveil, and then defers the truth that it is supposed to represent until a later date.  Ultimately, all writing does this.  It may be a partially correct representation, but it is only partial.  Truth is in the whole (similar to Heidegger) and since the whole never arrives, truth is infinitely deferred.

How is one to respond to this as a Lutheran Christian?  One Reformed Christian, Kevin Vanhoozer has made some interesting observations.  Though Derrida was an Atheist during his life time (he obviously no longer is now that he has passed on), he was also Jewish.  There is, argues Vanhoozer, something distinctively Jewish about Deconstructionism.  The infinite interplay of signifiers mirrors the endless and contradictory results of Rabbinical hermeneutics.  Lacking the Messiah and his final interpretation of the Word, the Rabbis were free to defer meaning in their interpretations infinitely until the Yom Yahweh

I think this also brings out a point that Peter Leithart has made in his book on postmodernism.  Postmodernism is not relativism, the way that many conservative Christians often characterize it.  Really, it would be better to call it "provisionalism."  There is no truth that is final.  There may be truth in our representation, but the final representation is deferred forever and ever.

This brings me to the Lutheran response.  One keen observation that Oswald Bayer has made is that there is a connection between Luther's so-called "Reformation breakthrough" and his doctrine of the communication attributions.  Just as the humanity of Jesus possesses the fullness of divine glory (genus majestaticum), the Word of the gospel is the very presence of God.  It is also the final verdict of God on the sinner.  Hence, according to Bayer, Luther's great discover was that the words of the priest "I absolve you" are identical with God's own action.  
What this suggests is that for Luther and Lutheran Christians, there can be no infinite deferment in the manner of Derrida.  The man Jesus is in fact the very presence of God (genus majestaticum) and therefore his word (validated by his resurrection) is the final eschatological verdict on the sinner.  The signified is present in, under, and with the signifier.  This is why Jesus emphasized his role as the Son of Man.  For Second Temple Jews, the Son of Man was a cosmic judge that would come at the end of time.  Jesus revealed himself as the Son of Man who's verdict was already a present reality to sinners.  He gave this same Word of justification to the Church and thereby the proclamation of the Church lacks any deferment in its truth.  This is one of the reasons why the Trent's position that the sinner can only be certain of his final vindication in a provisional sense is so utterly wrong.  The Son of Man's verdict is already present and complete in Word and sacrament.  There can be no uncertainty about it.  


  1. Do you have thoughts on Foucault and his application of Deconstructionism, not so much to literature but to history, and how that might relate? I've always viewed the philosophical aspects of Post-modernism to be an arrogant and egotisitical cop-out that tries to be falsely humble... but I do find Foucault's approach to History (namely consider how they would perceive reality and how they would try to gain power) to be useful.

  2. I was under the impression that Derrida and deconstruction was about taking apart the different aspects of a text to examine what biases have influenced it as a whole.

    I suppose this is part of his concept that a piece of text can only represent reality because the biases skew it.

    I recently taught a class on the canon of Scripture and referred to questioning a book's existence in the canon as a deconstruction technique. I also used the game Jenga as an illustration of deconstructionism.

  3. What Foucault does is not really Deconstructionism per se. Nevertheless you are correct to lump him and Derrida, since they are are properly thought of as both being post-structuralists.

    Foucault is of course correct to see human discourse as used by sinful human nature as a form of power. Nevertheless, his ultimate difficulty is that following the structuralist theory of language as being based on binary opposition, he can only see the construction of otherness as a power-play. Therefore he not only destroys the link between word and world, like Derrida he destroys the idea the self and the other can harmoniously exist. For this reason, he is forced to see reality is in fact a grayness without differentiation.

    What's behind this? Foucault and all post-modernists what to protect the self in its autonomy. Any other reality that is not the self then must be rejected in order to protect personal autonomy. This ultimately means that even the self itself must be destroyed. Saying that I have a self means that I have to live up to that reality of my self that I have constructed. This impedes my autonomy.

    Bayer points that that this is all just a continuation of the sinful humanity's need for self-justification. The rejection of otherness and the insistence of the unreality of the world is in fact an attempt to silence the voice of the law (i.e. reality that isn't my divine self). If I acknowledge the other, then I place boundaries on myself and compromise my divine freedom.

    Another interesting critique comes from John Milbank. He notes that the Christian claim is ontologically the opposite of that of the Foucault and Derrida. Whereas for them, binary opposition is always a form of violence, the doctrine of the Trinity and the teaching creation ex nihilo states that otherness is at its very root harmonious. Now, sin may disrupt this harmony- but it can only detract from its original goodness. Ultimately western civilization can choose the Christian ontology of peace (based on unity and harmony in otherness) or the post-modern ontology that claims that otherness is inherently a threat- the "ontology of violence" as he calls it.

  4. Rev. Ehrbrand- breaking the text up is part of showing its internal contradictions and therefore the gap between reality and representation. Nevertheless, that's not entirely what deconstructionism is all about. It's really based on a theory about language not actually representing reality.

  5. This is brillant. You have decimated Rome and Post Modernism in one post. I have always had a little sympathy with postmoderns because they recognize the limits of reason and see the mystery and abiguity of life under the cross. But you have exposed the limit of their critique. Christ is both the end of the Law and the end of postmodernism.

  6. From a layman's point of view, I understand postmodernism, deconstructionism, provisionalism or any other "ism" as an outgrowth of the Pilate dilemma, "What is truth?" From my christian perspective, I find the question quite ironic when the essence of truth is the very object of the question. The problem is comprehending the nature of truth, in that, the way, the truth and the life can only be grasped through faith in the Son of God. Any and all attempts to answer the question through rational means are doomed to failure since their inception is flawed by sin, hence the multiplicity of answers, all insufficient or lacking, to the basic question.

  7. "Hence, according to Bayer, Luther's great discover was that the words of the priest 'I absolve you' are identical with God's own action."

    This is perhaps slightly unrelated, but I have a friend going through RCIA. She was talking about a recent class on Confession, and how the priest taught that priests don't really "forgive" sins: God does. He emphasized the point that he asked a class full of kids who forgives sins, and they all said "God."

    This confused me. I had no idea that Catholics would have any qualms about saying that the priest forgives sins. To me, it would be like a Lutheran making a Baptistic statement like: "Baptism doesn't forgive sins; only Jesus does!" I chalked up these comments to the typical practice of "Protestantizing" Catholicism for new Catholic converts, and putting words like the priest "forgiving" sins or the people "praying" to the saints in quotation marks. In other words, I thought that the real RC understanding of the priest forgiving sins by the stead and by the command of Christ was not particularly different than the Lutheran position, at least on THAT very specific point. Now your post has be feeling not so sure. Riddle this out for me?

  8. Kelly,

    What your friend was getting in RCIA was the strict Roman Catholic teaching, not some liberalized or Protestantized version thereof. Although few Protestants know it, the standard non-Lutheran Protestant position is essentially that of Rome: human beings don't have the power to forgive sins. In this way, both groups follow the thinking of our Lord's opponents in Mark 2:7. The Roman church insists that a priest or even the pope himself cannot forgive or withhold forgiveness. At most they can commute some of the temporal penalties (including those of purgatory), but they cannot forgive because that is God's purview alone.

    This attitude is paralleled by their understanding of the words in the Lord's Supper. Lutherans believe that the way bread and wine can become the body and blood of Christ is because Christ has spoken (and His Word continues to have force, just as God's words spoken at the dawn of creation such as "Let there be light" still causes light to exist). The Lutheran pastor speaks the words of institution because they are Christ's words and they alone have consecratory power. But in the Roman Catholic tradition there is not the same understanding of the power of God's Word. Christ's words just don't have that divine power. Instead the priest has to be given the special magical powers by virtue of his ordination in order to accomplish this task.

    Luther's understanding of the power of the Word is a revolutionary one, quite distinct from what had immediately preceded and what his contemporaries would teach. Even today it really stands out as unusual.

  9. But don't both communities say "I absolve you" or "I forgive you" regardless of where the power comes from (the Word vs. proper ordination)? I'm confused.

  10. Kelly,

    Do you Martin Chemnitz' Examination of the Council of Trent? If so look at volume 2, pages 620-625. (You can read the whole section on penance, but this section adddresses the topic of absolution in penance.) In short, Rome teaches that absolution is not a proclamation of the gospel or the free forgiveness of sins, but is rather a judicial act stating that the required satisfaction (a bit of contrition plus a few Hail Marys) has been met. Rome's absolution is always contingent upon the penitent's doing his or her homework. If the homework is done, the penitent will be off the hook. It's much as if a judge were to say, "When you've done your five years in the pen, you will be a free man." Thus, the priest doesn't bring about a new situation through his words; he is just saying that God will be satisfied with such and such.

    The Lutheran understanding is different. God creates ex nihilo (out of nothing). He takes sinners and creates them to be righteous in His sight. It isn't because the sinners have done enough (or have promised to do enough in the near future) so that they can be righteous before God. No, God takes filthy sinners and makes them righteous. I don't deny that this righteousness was brought about by Christ's sacrificial death on the cross and thus you might argue is not totally brought about by nothing. But there is nothing inherently righteous IN THE SINNER when he or she is presented as a righteous being before God.

  11. I meant to add that in the Lutheran understanding all this takes place through the Word. It is God's creative word making something out of nothing, just as He's being doing ever since He said "Let there be light."

  12. Awesome. Thank you.

    One quibble... the phrase "present in, with and under." I misgive that any attempt to explain just what those words mean must result in a mischaracterization of what Christ means when He says, for example, "this [bread] is [His] body." Or apropos your context, "I and the Father are one." Maybe the problem is unspoken--people are going to interpret Him as "only" present in, with, and under. I think this is a vulnerability orthodox Lutheranism been exposed to by its own dogmatics & polemics. Backed against a wall we have to be able to say the bread IS His body; only whether or not this implies it is no longer bread cannot be proven from God's revelation.

  13. I enjoy many of the good points made here. However, there are numerous grammatical and spelling errors throughout that you might want to clean up.