Postmodern literary theorists are favorite whipping boys in evangelical hermeneutics textbooks, and Stanley Fish is no exception (although Fish prefers the title “antifoundationalist”). This makes Winning Arguments, the latest book from the former New York Times columnist, an unlikely book for evangelicals to pick up. But as with all of Fish’s oeuvre, this new book might as well be titled Under the Sun; it’s a profound exploration of the vanity of life a la Ecclesiastes—and it clarifies biblical authority by deconstructing pretty much all others.
Finding an ally in Fish need not be a total surprise.
Fish made his name as a Milton scholar, and he’s quite at home with Christian theological categories (his analysis of the fall of Adam and Eve in Winning Arguments is superb). A noted writer of good sentences, one of his own favorites comes from none other than Pilgrim’s Progress:
Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying, ‘Life! Life! Eternal life!’ (link)
Fish is the kind of Bible-haunted critic who can cut us off from all access to God’s word in one line and tell us we are in a “fallen condition” in the next (of course, in my opinion the one rather explains the other):
We live in a world where God and Truth have receded, at least as active, perspicuous presences, and the form they take at any moment will be the result of a proposition successfully urged, of an argument: believe me, this is what God is like and what he wants, or, believe me, this is the truth of the matter. Rhetorically created authorities are all we have; absolute authority exists only in a heaven we may hope someday to see, but until that day we must make do with the epistemological resources available to us in our fallen condition; we must make do with argument. (loc. 253)
In other words, Fish looks at all our cultural Grand Poobahs and says,
There is no remembrance of those who came before;
and of those who will come after
there will also be no remembrance
by those who follow them. (Ecc 1:11 CSB)
There is no lasting remembrance of the wise. (Ecc 2:16 CSB)
Fish is often perilously close to sounding like a Christian. Or at least a particular ancient Jewish king and believer in Yahweh who wrote wisdom literature.
Deconstructing pretentious authorities
Fish deconstructs all human claims to authority, exposing them as mere rhetoric—which they no doubt are if there is no reality above the sun to put humans in their places. Fish pulls down the strongholds (2 Cor 10:5) of militant secularism, and of any other “interpretive community” which manages to crown itself king of the mountain and fly the banners of neutrality and objectivity. Fish is adroit (and entertaining) in pointing out that such mountains are mere human creations.
Although the argument from authority is always presented as being in need of no other support but itself—this is the way it is and there’s nothing else to say—its force is a function of arguments already in place. You can’t make an argument for authority unless the question of what is and is not an authority has been answered. (loc. 221)
I never missed Fish’s Times column, in part because I enjoyed seeing how readers responded as he pulled the epistemological foundation out from under them. Secularist progressivism has claimed the cultural and moral high ground in the West (though not without challenge). Its victories have given it a haughtiness to which Ecclesiastes speaks warnings:
I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong, or bread to the wise, or riches to the discerning, or favor to the skillful; rather, time and chance happen to all of them. (Ecc 9:11 CSB)
In other words, one’s power is not a faithful index of one’s goodness. Just because you’re winning doesn’t mean you’re on the right side of history.
Beware, the Preacher says:
The one who digs a pit may fall into it, and the one who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. (Ecc 10:8 CSB)
Our cultural elites are digging lots of pits right now; and they’re breaking through lots of walls that have stood a long time. (And if Christians some day [re]take the cultural high ground, we’d do well to be humble under the sun, too. We don’t have all knowledge, nor do we the best political track record.)
Truth, objectivity, and the Bible
Stanley Fish’s deconstructive talents can be turned on the Bible, of course, and that’s where his danger lies. I have not seen him overtly attack Scripture (though Winning Arguments does have an insightful section on creationism and Intelligent Design), and there’s some empirical truth to his statement that “God and Truth have receded” in our age—in part because people can’t agree on what the Bible means. He’s right that if there is objective truth out there (and Fish told Marvin Olasky that he thinks there is) we don’t have the kind of access to it that will end human disagreement:
I believe that truth is objective, but I believe that there is no recipe, no algorithm, which allows us to demonstrate to others that we have found it—no necessarily successful mechanism by which I can persuade others who hold the wrong view, but are as educated and credentialed as I am.
As an empirical comment about life under the sun, I think what Fish says is incontrovertible. There is no reliable way to get someone else to change his or her mind, no matter their level of education. The human will is Obstinate far more often than Pliable.
Christian hermeneutics books criticize Fish because he appears to delight in epistemological despair (although I don’t think that view of him is quite right). He’s cheery and a bit cheeky about it all: he finds it energizing to boil human life down to argument, because it explains so much. He prefers to see his view not as despairing but as realist, as pragmatic. He repeatedly insists that if we all adopted his viewpoint, it wouldn’t change our public arguments at all.
But in Fish himself you can find more than the seed of the answer to Fish. Listen to this profound comment from his conversation with Olasky:
I attempt to refute the argument leading atheists often make: that there is no independent proof, in the scientific, rational sense, of the existence of God. I respond, “Yeah, that’s why He is God! If you were to have a system of rational proof which validated His existence, that system would be God!”
Fish is right. And Ecclesiastes has a message for Fish, too: postmodern skepticism about human access to truth is not something new under the sun. “Skeptic” is, after all (as Peter Leithart points out in Solomon among the Postmoderns), a word from ancient Greece. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” (Ecc 1:9 CSB). And yet there are things that deserve to be called certainties in this world—despite the fallenness and limitation Fish sees so clearly and so rightly in us:
When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity. (Ecc 12:13 CSB)
Interpretive disagreement and resulting argument will never cease under the sun. And Fish has great wisdom to offer in his analyses of human rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean there’s no solid truth to be had, or any moral justification for suppressing the truths God has given us in nature (Rom 1:19–21) and in his word (2 Pet 1:19). Fish is simply wrong to say, “none of us has access to the God’s-eye view from which the ‘big picture’ might be seen at a glance.” (loc. 130)
The antidote to Fishian skepticism is the same I recommended in my recent series on the clarity of Scripture: an admission of our moral responsibility before God. The very last words of the book of Ecclesiastes constitute a certainty that underlies all the healthy, humbling questions the book asks:
God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc 12:14 CSB)
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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