One of my all time favor books is Foucalt’s Pendulum by the great Italian author Umberto Eco. It’s a fantastic book about the problems of interpretation all wrapped up in a conspiracy theory. Despite having several famous books Eco’s greatest works are actually as a philosopher and semiotician. A constant theme of both his fiction and scholarly works are the limits of interpretation. He often explains this in terms of the “open text” and “closed text.” The closed text is a text (or any collection of signs like paintings or clothing) that has a very limited number of valid interpretations. The open text by contrast seems to have unlimited interpretations. Within his books his characters often face ambiguous texts out of which they attempt to gain understanding and meaning. The question always remains though: are all interpretations equally valid?
Back in 1990 he gave the O. C. Tanner Lectures on this very topic. It was reprinted in the book Interpretation and Overinterpretation. His goal was a way of explaining these issues in a fashion more accessible by the general public. His basic concern is the idea that while there may be an unlimited number of ways of reading at text, not all readings are equally defensible. He tries to walk a tightrope between the view that the meaning of a text is entailed by the intentions of the author and the view that all that matters are the responses to a text people form. He also is trying to avoid the idea that a text only means what the community to which it was addressed would interpret it as meaning.
Part of the problem in making clear the limits of interpretation is that the limits usually are seen as tied to reason in some way. But what is reason? When is a reading rational and when is it irrational? It’s harder to make that clear than it appears at first glance. Without going through all of Eco’s arguments and examples on the topic (read the book above which Tanner is hosting for free) I’ll jump to his model. He postulates a “model reader” who is able to carefully engage with the text and the varying ways of reading it.
…when a text is produced not for a single addressee but for a community of readers — the author knows that he or she will be interpreted not according to his or her intentions but according to a complex strategy of interactions which also involve the readers, along with their competence in language as a social treasury. I mean by social treasury not only a given language as a set of grammatical rules but also the whole encyclopedia that the performances of that language have implemented, namely, the cultural conventions that that language has produced and the very history of the previous interpretations of many texts, comprehending the text that the reader is in the course of reading.
The act of reading must take into account all these elements, even though it is improbable that a single reader can master all of them. Thus every act of reading is a difficult transaction between the competence of the reader (the reader’s world knowledge) and the kind of competence that a given text postulates in order to be read in an economic way. (Eco, 183)
I want to suggest that theology is an example of reading various texts in terms of these strategies. The conclusion of these readings are what we call theology. Doing theology is always making these same balances that Eco talks of. As with any reading, an infinite number of theological possibilities are entailed by a text. Yet not all these readings or conclusions are equally defensible.
I recognize that in certain ways this seems trivial. Of course we don’t want to say reading the Gospel of John could mean Jesus is the anti-Christ, for instance. Yet what makes theological readings into good theology is grappling with the texts, their contexts, the strategies of the authors (which are in turn themselves readings), along with all the contexts we bring to the text. Good theology engages with the text. We’re all familiar with what I’d call bad theology that arises from a-contextual proof texts or readings of scripture that ignore questions of context such as other scriptural texts, original settings, or engages with the text with just a surface reading.
Ultimately what counts for good theology is making an argument. We have to present the arguments for the reading we make. Bad theology as with all bad readings are readings that hide or obscure parts of the text that don’t fit our argument. We find it in all places ranging from classic works of theology such as Augustine up through bad apologetics that uncritically make use of superficial parallels. What count is the rigor of ones argument and most importantly by dealing with and including all the evidence one can. Logic is just a tiny part of this. The biggest part is simply is engaging with the texts that don’t fit your conclusions.
What happens far too often with theology in my view is that people intentionally leave out texts that undermine their views. It doesn’t mean their views are wrong. Just that they have to explain these other points. Sometimes they can’t. For instance, attempts to take the Book of Mormon as ocurring in mesoAmerica have a few huge problems. They can’t explain why metals are mentioned long before archaeology suggests they were in use. In my view any scholarship that denies or hides this problem isn’t doing good theology (or apologetics). Now I happen to think the Book of Mormon did transpire in mesoAmerica as real historic events. But I’d be the first to bring up the problems with this view. It’s just that while this is a big problem my personal view is that the other possibilities have even bigger problems they can’t explain. Not being able to explain every piece is evidence isn’t a problem. Pretending they aren’t there is.
The second problem I tend to see in theology is in projecting what we fear or hope as what theology ought be. While I’m sure Augustine was overall a reasonably good person it seems to me he projects his neoplatonism into his theology without taking up why that way of thinking is superior to others. In a similar way Orson Pratt makes a similar move, only projecting his views of Joseph Priestly’s atoms with his strong hope for an ontological property of free will. Both engage many texts but tend to avoid these central questions. Typically this is done innocently although that doesn’t mean the theology is any less problematic. A reading may be a possible reading but if it’s one of many readings one has to ask why pick this one?
An other way of putting this problem is that when there’s a range of possibilities we should be frank that we just don’t know. Picking one possibility because of our fears, hopes or other such reasons is problematic. My sense is that the Church recognizes this which is why it’s pushed back against many popular theologies that just aren’t well grounded in texts.
The final problem I often see in theology is in creating caricatures of the positions one is arguing against. Now this has a long strong history in philosophy. Often philosophers (especially figures like Plato or Descartes) are presented in a simplified view in order to highlight what one is opposing. However just as in politics, when you take up the weakest form of you opponent’s views your conclusions rarely are any good. It undermines the presentation of your own ideas as well as making your opponents apt to discount your views. Nothing is more frustrating than being told what your theology is when the presentation bears no resemblance to what you actually believe.
I don’t want to make it seem like I’m criticizing anyone in particular with this. Just that I think we have an awful lot of bad theology out there. I think we can all do better. There’s also an awful lot of good theology out there. Often it has problems of its own. However typically the authors absolutely acknowledge issues. They may still argue for why their readings are valid. For instance they might argue for why elements of Joseph Smith’s non-canonical sermons should have the weight scriptures do. They may argue for different ways of reading texts as a way of grounding their theology. They may make arguments of what is necessary for certain agreed upon facts to be true. But what’s common to them is making arguments and being willing to take on all data.
Ultimately our theology offers a lot of possibilities. In many ways our knowledge is far more vague than it may appear at first glance. Yet for all these possibilities we have to explain why any particular one reading is placed above others. Perhaps I’m being overly naive, but I think theology is most useful when it demonstrates that a range of possibilities is more open than it first appears yet acknowledges that we don’t know which is correct. It’s a way of preparing us for inquiry. Yet at the same time theology is at its best when showing how certain readings don’t make sense, aren’t likely, or are not grounded in the various texts that we need to account for. This double move of closed theology that shuts down possibilities and open theology that opens up possibilities must always be going on as we read. The question ultimately is whether we do it in a rigorous fashion.
 Yes, this is the Tanner with the famous jewelry store in Salt Lake City. Tanner was a reasonably well known philosopher and professor at the University of Utah as well as starting the the jewelry store. He started up this lecture series with fantastic works by many philosophers and scientists.
 This is what John Searle calls the corporate or community meaning of a text. Nailing down this concept is difficult since of course communities have a lot of variety within them. Typically what people mean is an average or typical meaning or how the majority of the community would read the text. Some would argue for various technical reasons that there is no corporate meaning. A wide range of people with very different backgrounds have taken this position against corporate meaning ranging from Karl Popper to Jacques Derrida.
 Pratt “appears” to take up this issue of his ontological premises with his famous tract “The Absurdities of Immaterialism” However he really doesn’t take up the question of the idea but spends most of his tract affirming his conclusions in ways that I suspect many of his readers didn’t pick up on. When an idea, perception or feeling is so foundational to how you interpret the world it’s often hard to see that it really is controlling our intepretations. Things either appear “obvious” or “self-evidence.”
 I think this change was partially due to Pres. Hinkley especially in reaction to the place of Bruce R. McConkie’s popular theological views. While I think McConkie’s writings get discounted too much by many today it’s also the case that they had an undue place for many in the 80’s and 90’s. Often taking the place of scripture and being treated as the representation of what really was doctrinal. Since then we just don’t see McConkie’s writings having the same place of prominence in the Church, perhaps to help distinguish one possible way of reading texts from many others.
 For whatever reason many interlocutors I’ve encountered do this. It’s fine when one is trying to understand an others position. You present a simplified view in the hope that the person you’re discussing things with will correct the view. It’s a way of coming to understand one an other. It’s when the view continues to be held after corrections are made that things get a bit frustrating. Of course to be fair I’m sure I’ve done it a few times too. Fortunately people call me out when I do.