It's been almost nine months since two significant but seemingly unrelated events happened, events symbolized by two separate hills in our nation's capital. The U.S. Senate in an overnight session failed to muster a supermajority of 60 votes to break a filibuster over presidential nominations for the federal court bench. As a result, the minority in the Senate stonewalled four seemingly qualified nominees because they were considered "outside the judicial mainstream."

About the same time, despite the pleas and threats of a large minority of its constituency, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America-whose symbolic "see" is the Washington National Cathedral in D.C.-invested a practicing homosexual with the title of bishop. Although the stories were covered in different sections of the newspapers-the politics and the religion sections-the two stories are closely linked-and much more so than appears on the surface.

The key to understanding the connection is found in the appendix of a new book on preaching. Dr. Walter Kaiser, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes: "In my judgment, the most dramatic moment in the entire 20th century came in 1946 when W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published their article 'The Intentional Fallacy' in The Sewanee Review" (Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, Baker 2003).

Wimsatt and Beardsley, according to Kaiser's summary, taught that "whatever an author may have meant or intended to say by his or her written words is now irrelevant to the meanings we have come to assign as the meaning we see in the author's text. On this basis, the reader is the one who sets the meaning for the text." Also called "formalist criticism," this school argued, in short, that paying attention to the author's intentions is a fallacy.

I first encountered the idea 30 years ago-not in a philosophy class but in a graduate class on literary interpretation. This idea came through a professor who had been "infected" by her doctoral committee chairperson, who in turn had been influenced by literary critic Kenneth Burke. Twenty-five years after it was first presented, formalist criticism's hostility toward an author's intention had spread to many of the colleges that would educate the baby-boomer generation.

Now, a half-century since it first was proclaimed, the Wimsatt-Beardsley doctrine, along with its children, is so widely accepted that it has tainted nearly all major social institutions-even the church.

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The Impact on Capitol Hill

One philosophical stalemate surfaced in the Senate over judicial nominations. Those who may never have heard of the "intentional fallacy" or the names of Wimsatt and Beardsley have nonetheless been indoctrinated in what has been called judicial activism. Judicial activism regards the Constitution of the United States as a "living document" that needs to be reinterpreted in each generation according to the zeitgeist—the milieu of needs, wishes, and politics of the day. Judicial activism was and is the vehicle for finding in the Constitution the rights of privacy and a woman's near-absolute right to abortion. It seeks continually to redefine the very words of our founding fathers, words that were chosen with the same care and precision with which they were written with quills by hand on parchment. We cannot, judicial activists argue, really know what the founding fathers meant, and even when we do know, that intent is secondary to our current situation.

As a result, otherwise qualified nominees for federal courts have been quashed on the grounds that they are "outside the judicial mainstream"-a cryptic phrase for describing, for example, people who do not believe that the Constitution provides the absolute right of abortion. The message is clear: If you don't believe that the Constitution protects a woman's absolute right to make reproductive choices, you are "out of the mainstream" because you oppose the "law of the land" (as expressed not by legislation but by case law determined by five of nine justices at a particular point in time).

Standing guard on this hill are the "strict constructionists." Viewed as dinosaurs by activists, they regard the Constitution as a sacred trust, continually asking the question dismissed by Wimsatt and Beardsley: What did the authors of the Constitution intend? They seek to interpret the document with a commitment to the truest meaning of integrity.

And on the Sacred Hill

A few miles northwest of Capitol Hill, the Washington National Cathedral is set on another hill overlooking the city. It is a symbolic center of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Here, a slightly different strain of the intentional fallacy has been manifested among a group of people who historically were established on the words of the Bible (and the Book of Common Prayer). The result is that Anglicans all over the world are at war over the elevation of an openly non-celibate gay man to bishop of New Hampshire.

Supporters of the new bishop downplay the matter, insisting that the rest of the church will get used to a gay bishop over time, just as it eventually became accustomed to female priests. But the issue is clearly different. This is not a debate over a high-profile, but otherwise secondary, theological point (secondary in that it does not deal with issues of the nature of God, the person of Christ, or salvation). Like the strict constitutional constructionists, Episcopal conservatives divide from the supporters of the gay bishop at deep fault lines.

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These Episcopal conservatives read the Bible and seek to interpret it by determining, as best they are able, the intended meaning of the text. They will not always agree about the intended meaning of particular passages, but they desire to know and be faithful to the original meaning of the biblical text.

But in the Episcopal Church, the effect of "The Intentional Fallacy" can clearly be seen. Those who have embraced this fallacious philosophy of interpretation apply their flawed hermeneutic to important biblical passages that speak of God's judgments over homosexuality (Gen. 19 Lev. 18 Rom. 1:24-32), and come away saying that homosexuality is good and even blessed by God. To do this, these church leaders must buy into the idea that it doesn't matter what the Bible writers meant. Gene Robinson, the newly ordained gay bishop, put it this way: "Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong."

This same disregard for the authorial intent of the church's authoritative words has been witnessed elsewhere. In March, a United Methodist court acquitted openly gay pastor Karen Dammann of charges that she was in violation of the denomination's laws regarding homosexual practice. The jury said the Methodist Book of Discipline was unclear in stating, "Homosexual practice is incompatible with church teaching." The jury doubted whether those words were intended to be a formal declaration of the church and whether they should be regarded as church law.

Among Presbyterians (PCUSA) it goes like this: Stephen Van Kuiken, former pastor of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, was convicted in 2003 of performing a same-sex marriage. A church court had warned him not to do so. The Presbytery of Cincinnati rebuked and removed Van Kuiken, who lost his ordination and membership in the PCUSA. When, in February of this year, a synod court restored his ordination, it cited a 2000 decision by the denomination's Permanent Judicial Commission: "While [saying] that same-sex marriages are impermissible," the ruling states, the 2000 decision "avoids an outright prohibition by using the words 'should' and 'should not.'" What part of impermissible do they not understand?

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Here we see steps taken beyond formalist criticism, an offspring of the intentional fallacy. Not only is an author's intention bypassed, but the clear meaning of the naked words is also ignored. Evangelicals of all denominations who stand firmly committed to the Word of God-and to the plain meaning of words in their churches' fundamental documents-are rightly alarmed at such cavalier disregard for truth. The hostility to authorial intention, born in academe, is a deadly virus that seems to be spreading.

Master of Words

Evangelicals are seeing the alarming results of this disease in two of the three institutions God ordained-the church and the government. The third institution, the family, is also being dismantled by both those in the church and those in the government who have embraced "The Intentional Fallacy" and extended it into postmodernism. The attempts to redefine marriage as something other than the union of a man and a woman for a lifetime are consistent with the implication that, in the end, words have no intrinsic meaning.

A skeptic once asked me: "If God is all powerful, can he make a square circle?" The question points to a categorical impossibility. Yet there are in our world those who would, for the sake of their agenda, seek to give us "gay marriage." Marriage by definition, however, has always involved a man and a woman. Stripped of conventional meaning or even the possibility of conventional denotations, words take on the value of junk bonds.

In its front-page story on the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which struck down the ban on same-sex marriage, The Washington Post noted: "Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall wrote the 4 to 3 majority opinion, which acknowledged that it was finding in the words of John Adams a meaning that he could hardly have foreseen when he wrote the Massachusetts Constitution 223 years ago."

One must wonder if those who embrace and apply the intentional fallacy and its children grasp the implications of reducing language-including their own-to a level of meaninglessness.

The professor who introduced me to this odious doctrine gave us a midterm examination. In order to express my disdain for the concept, I simply wrote an answer to a totally different question than she had asked. I got a zero on the question, of course, and used a follow-up visit to her office to challenge her doctrine of intentional fallacy. She told me I had not answered the question she wrote. I responded that once she had written the question, I had no need to determine what she-the author-originally intended. I had interpreted the question as I had wanted. Trying to determine what she intended by the question, I argued, was a fallacy.

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Nothing New

My professor was clearly angry because she was not yet, in 1973, a fully postmodern woman. A fully postmodern woman would have found a consistent worldview unnecessary. Today's postmoderns-from judicial activists to the friends of the gay Episcopal bishop-find in the writings of professor Richard Rorty of Stanford University the essence of the paradoxical postmodern perspective. Rorty argues that what is needed is "a repudiation of the very idea of anything … having an intrinsic nature to be expressed or represented"-except, of course, his own ideas. There can be no distinction between a true meaning of words and a false one, because "truth is not out there"-except his truth.

In one sense, we Christians ought not to be surprised by all this. We know the attack on authorial intent began in the Garden of Eden when the Tempter came to Eve and asked: "Has God really said?"

To be sure, Wimsatt and Beardsley's article may or may not be the most dramatic moment of the 20th century. But it was certainly one of a number of events that declared war on the idea that the articulation of truth depends on words having specific meaning and on knowing with some certainty what an author intended. This is not only a religious issue-the very fabric of our culture is at stake. In both government and church, the stakes could not be higher. These are two hills worth dying on.

Bob Wenz is vice president of national ministries for the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington D.C., and a professor at Nyack College in New York.

Related Elsewhere: has an article about Senate filibustering and judges "outside the judicial mainstream."

W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy" is available from Eastern Illinois University.

Walter Kaiser's Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament is available from and other book retailers.

On Wednesday, July 7, the Senate did confirm one judicial nominee. Reports on the story include:

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Senate narrowly okays Arkansas judge nominee | The Senate narrowly approved President Bush's nominee to a federal district court in Arkansas last night after six hours of sometimes-bitter debate (The Washington Times)
Senate confirms controversial nominee to federal court | The Senate voted 51 to 46 yesterday to confirm a nomination to the U.S. District Court in Little Rock after a sharp debate over his comments about abortion, women's rights and other topics (The Washington Post)
After fight, Senate agrees to Bush's choice for judge | The judicial nomination wars, dormant in recent months, re-emerged Tuesday as the Senate narrowly confirmed one of President Bush's nominees to the bench (The New York Times)
Senate okays Holmes for Arkansas judgeship | Arkansas lawyer Leon Holmes narrowly won Senate confirmation to be a federal judge Tuesday, overcoming concerns over his views on abortion and women (Associated Press)
Senate confirms Bush court pick | Democrats opposed J. Leon Holmes over his views on women's rights and abortion (Los Angeles Times)

Christianity Today's articles on the Episcopal homosexual bishop include:

A Slow Exodus | Disaffected orthodox Episcopalians start new ministries. (May 27, 2004)
An Anglican Rorschach Test | Conservatives and liberals fide hope in statement. (Dec. 02, 2003)
Canadian Anglicans Face Off | Bishops hold charges against dissenting clergy, but division and suspicion abound. (Dec. 09, 2003)
The Gay Bishop's Global Fallout | How each of the 39 provinces in the Anglican Communion have responded to Sunday's consecration. (Nov. 07, 2003)
Translating the Anglican Primates | Interpretations vary widely on what last week's statement means, how forceful it was, and what's next. (Oct. 21, 2003)
One-and-One-Half Cheers for the Anglican Primates' Statement | An interview with theologian—and longtime Anglican—J. I. Packer (Oct. 17, 2003)
Dispatch: Conservatives Just Got Clobbered | Last week's American Anglican Council meeting in Texas announced victory prematurely (Oct. 17, 2003)
Weblog: Early Responses to the Anglican Primates' Statement | Both sides seem happy as the Episcopal Church USA promises to go ahead with its gay bishop ordination (Oct. 17, 2003)
Anglican Leaders Criticize Episcopal Church, Canada's New Westminster Diocese on Homosexual Actions | Future of the Anglican unity "in jeopardy," they say, but don't break communion—yet (Oct. 16, 2003)
Anglicanism's Communion of Saints | Under the somber portraits of their predecessors, Anglican archbishops will discuss the fractious issues of the church and homosexuality (Oct. 15, 2003)
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Weblog: Where Else to Go for News and Analysis of the Anglican Primates' Meeting | The best (and worst) articles and sites monitoring the breakup of the world's third-largest Christian body (Oct. 15, 2003)
One-and-One-Half Cheers for the Anglican Primates' Statement | An interview with theologian—and longtime Anglican—J.I. Packer (Oct. 17, 2003)
Anglican Leaders Criticize Episcopal Church, Canada's New Westminster Diocese on Homosexual Actions | Future of the Anglican unity "in jeopardy," they say, but don't break communion—yet. (Oct. 16, 2003)
Florida Bishop Defies Episcopal Church Head | The consecration of a new bishop becomes the latest battleground between Frank Griswold and the American Anglican Council. (Oct. 10, 2003)
Reimagining Anglican Bonds of Affection | Orthodox American leaders begin describing what realignment of the Anglican Communion might look like. (Oct. 09, 2003)
Conservative Episcopalians Challenge Church Politics as Usual | "A Place to Stand" conference combines unofficial convention, pep rally, and communiqué to Anglican leaders. (Oct. 08, 2003)
Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it. (Oct. 03, 2003)
Orthodox Canadian Anglicans on Alert (Sept. 09, 2003)
To My Episcopal Family | Final thoughts from the Episcopal Church's General Convention. (Aug. 08, 2003)
Bishops Sanction 'Resources,' Not Rites | Having confirmed gay bishop, Episcopal leaders turn to discussing same-sex unions. (Aug. 7, 2003)
Darkness in the Afternoon | Openly homosexual Episcopal priest cleared of misconduct, confirmed as bishop (Aug. 6, 2003)
The Bitter Harvest of Sexual Ideology | No one wanted the Gene Robinson bishopric debate to take this sad turn (Aug. 5, 2003)
Deputies Slice into the Gordian Knot | The Episcopal Church's House of Deputies approves Gene Robinson as New Hampshire Bishop. The House of Bishops will vote today. (Aug. 4, 2003)
Praise the Lord and Pass the Condoms | Southern Hemisphere primates warned that approving Gene Robinson would place the church outside most of the world's 72 million Anglicans. "You'll get over it," responded about 60 percent of the House of Deputies. (Aug. 4, 2003)
Gene Robinson Takes Questions in a Church called Gethsemane | Speaks on reparative therapy, potential schism, and whether he really "/left" his wife for his male lover. (Aug. 4, 2003)
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What in the World Is God Doing? | For Episcopalians, the night may be darkest before the dawn. (Aug. 4, 2003)
Integrity Doles Out God's Not-So Inclusive Love | The Integrity Eucharist has become a triennial sort of mass pity party. (Aug. 1, 2003)
Gay Rites Would Not Bless Ecumenism | Could also impair Anglican work overseas. (Aug. 1, 2003)
Gene and Me | My history with the openly gay man elected bishop of Rochester. (July 31, 2003)

Christianity Today's articles following the trial of Karen Dammann include:

Lesbian Is Eligible for Reappointment, Bishop Says | Differing interpretations of Methodist court ruling prolong denomination's fight. (May 06, 2004)
Weblog: Methodist Council Says Homosexuality Is 'Incompatible' with Christian Teaching (May 03, 2004)
Flouting Church Law | Two gay controversies likely to dominate United Methodist General Conference this week. (May 2004)
A Methodist Mob Mugging | There are real victims in the farce that was the Methodist church trial of a lesbian minister. (March 25, 2004)
Weblog: Methodist Court Acquits Homosexual Minister (March 22, 2004)
Weblog: Methodist Trial Opens With Arrests, Comparison to Crucifixion (March 18, 2004)
Weblog: In the United Methodist Church, a Trial Comes After the Court's Decision (Dec. 18, 2001)

Christianity Today's articles following the trial of Stephen Van Kuiken include:

A Denomination's Odd Logic | Presbyterians face court's permitting 'impermissible' homosexual marriage. (June 21, 2004)
Weblog: Presbyterian Court Says Church Doesn't Ban Gay Marriages (May 4, 2004)
Weblog: Presbyterian Court Reinstates Minister Who 'Married' Same-Sex Couples | Stephen Van Kuiken is a Presbyterian minister again—albeit one without a church (Feb. 11, 2004)
Weblog: Stephen Van Kuiken ousted as Presbyterian minister | Pastor booted for same-sex ceremony (June 17, 2003)
Weblog: Presbyterian Court Says Pastors Must Officiate in Ordination of Unchaste Homosexuals | Pastor found guilty of performing gay marriage, but church lets him off the hook (Apr. 22, 2003)
Weblog: The Gathering Presbyterian Storm | Lawsuits, gay marriages precede Presbyterian meeting (May 22, 2003)

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