I want to be delicate in my analysis of reader-response criticism because it has evidently been a sufficient criticism to merit legitimacy over the years within largely liberal Christian circles and the unbelieving community. However, as you will come to also see once this chapter is complete, I fail to connect with the legitimacy of this particular method of criticism of the Biblical texts. The thesis of this chapter is to communicate why the reader-response theory fails to present any credible objections to the historical reliability of the Biblical texts. Within my critical analysis of reader-response criticism, I want to unveil the fallacious reasoning that suggests the reader has the authority to unveil the true meaning of the text rather than the author. This form of reasoning allows for innumerable contradictions in the genuine understanding of the Biblical text itself.
What is Reader-Response Criticism?
The premise of reader-response criticism is revolved around how the reader responds to the Biblical text and therefore has a predominant role in creating the meaning of the text. The content of the text is taken from the literature by the individual reader for a singular interpretation that is specific to the reader. Meaning, the interpretation is likely going to be different for every reader under this theory. There are many aspects of this reader-response criticism that ultimately affect the outcome of the interpretation. These variants include prior literary or philosophical presuppositions of the reader.1
There are different schools of thought under reader-response criticism. Two prominent reader-response critics were named Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser. Their approaches generally represent the foundation in which reader-response criticism is based upon. Fish believed that “it is the reader who ‘makes’ literature”. He believed that the reader-response criticism should primarily revolve around the act of reading rather than on the history, biography, etc… of the text.1 Next, Iser held two positions that define his approach to reader-response criticism. He held that the meaning of a text is found in its content and that the meaning of the content is a conjecture of the reader. Iser maintained that the author’s intention should be considered but not without the intention of the reader being combined with it.1
After this brief summary of reader-response criticism, it must be acknowledged prior to reviewing the objections that the most important thing about criticism is that we assess whether the criticism effectively critiques the integrity of the language, texts, and the subject of the Biblical texts.1 The objections to this particular form of criticism should be understood in light of this fact. You may have already developed some objections of your own to this particular method of critiquing Biblical texts.
Objections to Reader-Response Criticism
The primary objection to reader-response criticism is grounded in the fact that the reader ultimately determines the meaning of the text and not the author. Given that being the case, the reader can ultimately undermine what the authorial intent of the literature in order to fit his self-proclaimed meaning into the text. While I can agree with the idea that text can be individually interpreted in a multitude of different fashions, it would seem rather farfetched to insist that the meaning actually derives from the readers’ perspective. To accurately critique the Biblical texts, the fact is that reader-response criticism is certainly not the most reliable method of doing so because it relies heavy upon the presuppositions of the reader doing the interpreting. There are five fundamental objections to reader-response criticism that highlight the drastic limitations of reader-response criticism and ultimately expose why it could never be effective at critiquing the Biblical texts.
The first argument that can be brought against reader-response criticism would be that the criticism brought against the Biblical text using this method are not comprehensive.1 Meaning that this method is not the holistic approach of the Biblical texts that is needed to come to an objective conclusion on the historicity of the Biblical texts and the meanings of them. This approach fails to provide the objective criticisms necessary to better understand where the Biblical texts are allegedly weak in terms of its historical reliability. Reader-response criticism cannot be a substitute for any conventional method of reliable historical research and analysis.1By the subjective nature of an individual response; this method cannot be taken as a serious objection to the Biblical text.
The second objection relates to the orientation of the Biblical scriptures and how reader-response critics generally approach Biblical texts improperly. Many of these critics fail to see that the Bible shouldn’t be classified as secular literature. Many reader-response critics don’t interpret the Bible as a historical source or a literary document. They are ultimately focused on what the meaning of the text is in a contemporary setting rather than focusing on the original circumstances and intent of the text at the time it was being authored.1 While it should never be denied that the circumstances between now and the time of Biblical authorship have greatly changed, we should never change the meaning of the text to suit our situation but rather interpret the text in its proper setting and understand the meaning as it relates to our own modern-day lives.
The third objection is closely related to the second objection as it relates to the orientation of the Biblical texts itself. The second objection highlights how the Biblical texts shouldn’t be classified as secular literature and how the Bible has been reduced to fictional literature in the eyes of many reader-response critics. That is why the third objection highlights the flaw in their literary study of the Biblical texts. The flaw is that it approaches the Biblical texts as if they were fictional literature.1 The nature of the Biblical texts are full of meaning and powerful messages that have the potential to dramatically affect our lives. We can even go so far as to say that each one of us is affected differently by the message of the Bible. However, the meaning of the text in our hearts doesn’t truly change the meaning of the text itself. The study of the meaning of the words in the text is different from the study of the historical reliability of the text. When critiquing a work of literary fiction, the reader isn’t considering whether or not what he is reading is absolute and is freer to speculate and conjecture. The reality is that the foundation for literary fiction is falsehood. Readers must never approach the Biblical texts in a manner that is freer to easily dismiss the authorial intent and conjure their own message because of an unwise assumption that the texts are fictional.
The fourth objection to reader-response criticism is that the authorial intention of the Biblical text is of minimal importance in the interpretation of the texts.1 While it is true that the authorial intent isn’t completely ignored from the criticism, it certainly is a peripheral priority of the reader-response critic. Without placing priority on what the authorial intent was, we submit that any possible interpretation of the text is equally valid despite what the authorial intent was. When discarding the authority of the author, it is meaningless to assign a definitive meaning over it. Meaning would be relative in reader-response theory because it is all contingent on how the reader responds.
The fifth objection to reader-response theory is that it fails to provide a secure foundation for readers who actually strive to understand the true meaning of the text.1 Reader-response criticism relies heavily upon the creativity of the reader. However, as highlighted earlier, if the reader is highly predisposed to have a preconceived agenda prior to interpreting the literature or has already established concrete presuppositions of the material he is critiquing, then the creativity can flow freely without the worry of having to abide by set guidelines constituting reliable and accurate scholarship of the texts.
Examples of Reader-Response Criticism
Given the five fundamental objections to reader-response criticism, it is fair to say that the critics who advocate for this theory are not grounding their method of critique in a critique that permits optimal understanding of the Biblical texts. The reliability of this form of criticism is non-existent if you take into consideration the very nature of the criticism itself. The criticism is founded upon how one truly responds to the texts rather than placing priority on the message that was being communicated at the time of authorship.
Now that we’ve established the meaning of reader-response criticism and laid out the basic objections of its reliability and effectiveness, it is important to see how silly reader-response criticism would be in other parts of our daily lives. This can be done by laying out illustrations of reader-response criticism in order to fully appreciate the absurdity of the claims to understanding and truth that it makes over the Biblical texts.
A good modern day example of the ineffectiveness of reader-response criticism would be how liberal scholars interpret the Constitution in a manner that wasn’t intended by the framers of the document. We see these types of misinterpretations done at the peril of the American population as well as the government which was designed to uphold the basic principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those in governmental power are sworn into office with the oath of upholding these documents. Those that consider the Constitution to be living document interpret the Constitution in a manner that suits their best interests at any point in time. This approach to the Constitution has failed to honorably validate the original intention and meaning of the Constitution. This is what we are seeing when we see the Bible approached in exactly the same way. We acknowledge that historical documents cannot be subject to reader-response theory because of the existence of an objective and meaningful message that was being communicated at the time of authorship and it would be completely unreliable to frivolously and irresponsibly interpret a document of this nature merely on a response to the text. Reader-response criticism doesn’t work for the Constitution nor does it work for the Bible.
The Bible has meaningful messages to convey. The written text was authored the way it was for an objective reason. When I verbally communicate with my friends or colleagues, I have a definitive message that I am trying to convey. When I proclaim to my wife that “I’m going to the store”, I don’t imagine she would interpret the meaning of my statement to mean that I’m taking a plane to the other side of the country. However, under the principles of reader-response criticism, the possibility wouldn’t necessary be invalid as it is primarily contingent on the reader’s (listener in this case) response to my declarative statement. This is clearly an extreme example of the insufficiency of reader-response criticism, but I think it is illustrative to how bizarre of a method it truly is. The idea that the reader is in control of the meaning of author’s message is delusional.
The merits of any document are to be found upon a thorough investigation of the document itself. We must evaluate the historical basis for the text, textual framework of the text, genre, audience, context, author, geographic location, etc… These are essential components of understanding the true meaning of the text as it was originally written. Once we can delve deep enough into the text to properly understand what the text was trying to convey, then it is possible to interpret the text in terms of its genuine meaning.
The reality is that we will never fully agree on the meaning of all texts. The many denominations of Christianity should give us an indication as to the complexity of these texts when it comes to its meaning. If every Christian thought the texts conveyed an identical meaning, there would be only one denomination. However, among all the denominations, the overall message of the New Testament literature is overwhelmingly clear; Jesus Christ died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day. This is the basis for our Christian faith and it must never be compromised by irresponsible methods of critique such as reader-response criticism.
Ultimately, the Christian message cannot be masked by those who seek to find an alternative meaning based upon naturalistic presuppositions. Those that try haven’t found a sound basis for their foundational presuppositions that guides them throughout their studies. Unfortunately, their naturalistic presuppositions will lead them to their demise if they fail to acknowledge the fault in their own reasoning and acknowledge the true message of Christ.
Some may say that Christians are doing the same thing towards these texts but with theistic presuppositions. I can wholeheartedly and proudly admit that I have theistic presuppositions, however Christians must answer the challenge posed in Peter 3:15 that states, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Our understanding of our own doctrines is an essential factor when communicating with those that feel that reader-response criticism is capable of exploiting the alleged fallacies in the Biblical texts.
In all honestly, I do not fully comprehend how this form of criticism is worthy of any credible merit in any realm of scholarship. Unfortunately, those that are convinced that our own cognitive devices are capable of performing such extreme feats of Biblical interpretation on the foundation of a mere response have made this article a necessary one. I would love to say that most people should know better but apparently it is easier to read and respond than to read, study, read, study, and then respond after a sufficient familiarity of the text has been adequately established.
In closing, I’d wish to fully provoke your curiosity in understanding what it truly means to assign relative meaning to the Biblical texts. Under reader-response criticism, any possible interpretation would be acceptable without argument. Now think about what it means to have a Bible that has communicated a definitive message that the Lord has divinely provided. I think I’m going to place my trust in God’s Word rather than allow my trust to be dismayed by those who claim authority over it and interpret it at their own will at their own peril.
John 14:6 – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”
 Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. To Each Its Own Meaning (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)
 Stanley Fish. Is There a Text in This Class?(Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
 Robert Stein. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group)