Sign, Text and Reader – Implications for Adventism

Umberto Eco,“In memoriam” (1932-2016)

“Jorge, I mean. In that face, deformed by hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist, who does not come from the tribe of Judas, as his heralds have it, or from a far country. The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, “Adso”, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them. Jorge (the blind monk responsible for the murders in the abbey) did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood.” - Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (p. 598)

Umberto Eco, the influential Italian semiotician, cultural critic, philosopher, essayist and novelist, died at age 84 on Friday, February 19th, 2016. He had been battling with cancer. And on that same day another literary giant also passed away – Harper Lee, whose fiction elucidated contemporary racial injustice in America. As many leading Italian intellectuals have done in past years[1] Eco also was, this fall, scheduled to visit our Italian Adventist Theological Seminary to present his book “Numero Zero”, a novel about the murky world of media politics, conspiracy and murder. But he left us too soon.

Eco had a Roman Catholic upbringing, being educated at one of the Salesian institution's schools, but became in time agnostic and relativistic about religion.He was appointed professor of semiotics at Bologna University in the 1970s, Europe’s oldest university, and from there elaborated a crossroad and multilayer cultural reflexion on our current modern and post-modern societies.

In this essay I will briefly comment on three possible indirect contributions of his work in relation to Adventism.

1. The Sign and the value of indirect Language

Eco began his professional career earning a degree in philosophy in 1954, writing a thesis on Thomas Aquinas. He developed, with his mentor Luigi Pareyson at the University of Turin, a philosophical reflexion on language and signification. What is the status and implications of a Sign in a general theory of communication and meaning-making? A Sign is, in general, something that refers through and beyond itself to something else. For medieval philosophers, that he diligently read and studied at that time, the condensed formula for this is: "aliquid stat pro aliquo" (something that stands for something else). Thus signification is understood as a relationship that links something physically present to something else absent (e.g. a red traffic light means to "stop"). But this link – from something at hand and known to something absent and unknown – is neither mechanical nor linear. Instead it opens a space of uncertainty and fluctuation. And it's in this fluid and fragile space between signifier and signified that conveyance of meaning takes place. In other words Eco considered that what is specific to human beings and culture is the complexity of indirect languages that are not characterized by precision or “univocity” (one meaning), but rather by “plurivocity” (multiple meanings) and interpretation. And his philosophical-cultural reflexion on signification and indirect language is not only academic and speculative but also concrete and linked to the main socio-political events of Italy's current history – through a weekly column ("La Bustinadi Minerva") Umberto Eco wrotefor L'Espresso, an Italian nation-wide magazine.

2. The Text as an open reality

In 1959 Eco published his second book, Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale (The Development of Medieval Aesthetics), on medieval philosophy, and since then his interest focused more specifically on Semiotics. But his semiotic reflexion is nearer to Charles Sanders Peirce than to Ferdinand the Saussure who overlooked the importance of extra-linguistic reality and the importance of the agent (speaker or reader) in the process of signification. Eco started developing what could be called an “interpretative Semiotics” – grounded in understanding the text as an "open" reality. That led him to publish, in 1962, his book “Opera aperta” (translated into English as "The Open Work"). In it, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged fields. Literature which limits one's potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line – the closed text – remains the least rewarding, while texts that are the most active between mind, society and life (open texts) are the liveliest and best. Eco came to these positions through study of language and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis, as Wolfgang Iser or Hans Robert Jauss did. The complexity present in the Signification process, as underlined in his first philosophical period is, in this semiotic period paradoxical, because here Eco embraced a typical contemporary understanding of Signification. Signification is not to be “unveiled” or “discovered” in a text as being already there but rather to be created by the reader during the process of reading. From a past specificity, Signification becomes a present experience.

3. The Reader as a non-removable component in the Signification process

Here is Eco's most important hermeneutic contribution. He is a strong defender of the whole “Hermeneutical circle”. Not only is the text central in reading or interpreting, but the reader is also – and the reader is understood as an active subject. “Traditional”, or “pre-modern” hermeneutics, was text-centered and dealt with a fixed meaning (what the text meant as written). Consequently it was obsessed in reaching the author’s intention. “Contemporary or modern hermeneutics” instead is reader-centered and presupposes a fluid and flexible meaning of the text (what the text means today) and the author’s intention is only one ingredient of the final process of interpretation. The distinction between what the text meant and what it means today marks the shift from traditional to contemporary hermeneutics. The goal of contemporary hermeneutics is to set in motion the so-called “extra linguistic world” – the projection of new worlds of meaning. That is, to take seriously into account the actual situation of the reader.

In this sense Eco's hermeneutical endeavor comes nearer to the “Reader-Response criticism” approach to text reading, which is a school of literary theory that focuses on the reader and his or her experience of a literary work, in contrast to other schools and theories that focus attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work. The difference resides in the fact that Eco's understanding of the reader is larger than that of reader-response-criticism and is characterized by a consistent dose of socio-politico-cultural analysis. In this sense texts are not only to be read but also to be written.

It is this cultural stance – in favor of the reader as a meaning-making subject – that defines his profile as novelist. And here, in 1980, came his breakthrough to a far wider audience with the success of his historical mystery novel “The Name of the Rose”. A Gothic murder mystery set in an Italian medieval monastery. The novel combines semiotics, Biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. It was adapted for the big screen by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1986, starring Sean Connery as Brother William of Baskerville as he investigates a series of suspicious deaths. The complexity, paradox and openness of interpreting that pushes the novel’s characters toward their conclusions (Aristotle second book of his Poetics, on laughing), shows that reading is not a technical aseptic act to get some new information, but a human experience that can transform our fears into joy or our apprehensions into despair and violence.

“Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle (Poetics) because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make the truth laugh, because the only true lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth” - Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (p. 598)

It is evident that a strong defense of the “Sola Scriptura” principle, in its various forms, as today's Adventist mantra to solve every problem – can be misleading if we naively adopt a mechanical, linear and tautological hermeneutics. Our major strength (Bible) can easily become our Waterloo if we are not humble, wise and relational. A balanced and healthy hermeneutics never excludes complexity, paradox and lightness (capacity to laugh). This is Umberto Eco's legacy we Adventists, particular European Adventists, should never forget.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

[1] Stefano Rodotà, Luciano Canfora, Elena Pulcini, Umberto Gallimberti, Giacomo Marramao, Eugenio Lecaldano, Carlo Ginzburg, Carlo Petrini, Stefano Zamagni, Enzo Pace, Massimo Recalcati, Adriana Cavarero, Luisa Battaglia, Bruno Forte, Salvatore Natoli etc.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I learned a new word, phrase.
Contemporary hermeneutics
Modern hermeneutics

What this brings to mind is this:
EVERY GENERATION however far back, at LEAST to the Rabbis in Babylon during the 70 years of exile, there was Contemporary Hermeneutics, Modern Hermeneutics.
Since attending Synagogue services on Friday evenings and sometimes on Sabbath, and reading the bulletin board Google comments on the Readings for the Weekend [Sabbath], it came to me some time back that Rabbis from the 1500s to 2100 write Comments based on THEIR contemporary hermeneutics and THEIR modern hermeneutics of Torah – The Five [5] Books of Moses.
And I would suspect that they did the same to all the other “Books” of the Old Testament canon. And this probably continued up until the time of Jesus.
This probably continued WHEN the Greek Old Testament came into being. Jesus was probably familiar with it. At least Joseph and Mary would be while they sojourned in Egypt with Greek speaking Jews in Egypt.
The Jews and Rabbis were doing this WAY before Christians.
The Jews and Rabbis were doing this WAY before the Seventh day Adventist theological schools were established at either Washington Missionary College, or at Andrews University.

Edit: Sirje
Hearing the Rabbi discuss the coming reading for Sabbath on Friday nites, it has been interesting to learn about Hebrew words. There is a word, but then sometimes for Key Words the syllables themselves have root meanings that expand on the word. And these Root Meanings are not always expressed in the English translation, because it is The Word that is translated for us to read in English. It has been fascinating to learn this.
So it is like looking at one of those fun pictures one sees of a line drawing and seeing both the Old Woman, AND the Young Women at the same time.
WHICH one does the Translator choose for us to read and for us to say – God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me?

I have 2 English copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book on Discipleship. One is titled The Cost of Discipleship, the other just Discipleship. Both are a little different because different persons translated.
The one, The Cost of Discipleship is a much easier read, at least for me.
Which is the “correct” one?


Umberto Eco was an Italian writer of fiction, essays, academic texts, and children’s books, and certainly one of the finest authors of the twentieth century. This is a great article and Eco’s death is a great loss. His planned visit to our seminary in Otaly would have been a historic and iconic event for all.
Umberto Eco’s contributions to Adventism and to my understanding of world events go a bit further than this excellent article by Dr. Gutierrez.
Umberto Eco’s Lessons on Ur-Fascism The late Italian philosopher and novelist can has helped me to understand the current politics of Trump and Bernie, which in turn help me to better cope with our own denominational authority figures.
See: Umberto Eco’s Lessons on Ur-Fascism The American Magazine ……
In the area of fundraising and understanding media and marketing,
Umberto Eco’s golden rule is simplicity: making complex ideas concrete. His legacy includes three intertwined PR techniques that are lacking in our modus operandi as a church
and humor.
I am working on all three in my life

RIP:Umberto Eco (Author of The Name of the Rose)


This well-written essay by Hanz Gutierrez evidences a remarkable expertise regarding the study of hermeneutics.

Ellen White anticipates Wolfgang Iser by incorporating into her writings about the biblical stories an extraordinary amount of extra-biblical detail. Her writings illustrate’s Iser’s contention that the meaning of the text exists not in the text but in a “virtual dimension” (Iser’s words) that lies between the text and reader. The meaning of the text is determined not only by what the author writes but by the imagination of the reader. Her directive that compilations be made of her writings also argues against an E.D. Hirsch approach to interpretation that is focused on authorial will. And she obviously gave tacit support to a devotional reading of Scripture in which the imagination of the reader runs free.

We can say that Ellen White is sui generis and that her hermeneutical approach to Scripture is not to be modeled. We can also oppose the “sacrilege” that would come to be if the meaning of the Word of God is determined in part by the mortal and fallible reader. But how can we credibly demand of Seventh-day Adventist readers that they not immerse themselves into the biblical text? Richard Davidson has an interesting essay online in which he argues that Scripture directs us to think that we were personally delivered out of Egypt. We were there. How can we imagine ourselves in such circumstances without imagining what those circumstances were?

I think the solution is the hermeneutical circle. Author-informed meaning and reader response should not be perceived as binary opposites but as necessary coherent parts of the hermeneutical circle. Scholarly distance and devotional closeness are also both necessary in order to effectuate interpretation. What the biblical author writes informs our imagination and our imagination and personal circumstances help inform what the biblical author (superintended by the Holy Spirit) chose to write. And as scholarly distance enhances our devotional reading, our communion with God during our devotional reading enhances our scholarship.


This reminds me of a little paperback we had to read for a poetry class in college - Poetry as Experience, that spoke to that fuzzy area between author and reader. It seems to me that there still remains a need to know, as much as possible, the author’s intent and experience before the message circles into ours. Without that grounding, anything can happen. It also helps to have experienced a working knowledge of another language and its cultural context to understand that there can be no direct transfer of author to reader. As they say, “something always gets lost in the translation” - but something may also be gained, perhaps, when lit comes to scripture.


T he Bible. is ecumenical. And also personal. what it is not is proprietary in either its sum or its parts. Tom Z


Again, an excellent piece from Hanz G., demonstrating deep insights and reflections on issues that must be very challenging for the traditionalists within Adventism, who tend to confuse ‘historic Adventism’ with evangelical fundamentalism of the twentieth century.

Philosophical reflections on hermeneutics beyond the straightjackets of pure technical methods are rare within the SDA scholarly community. Very few, if any, have paid serious attention to the ‘hard’ issues of phenomenology and hermeneutics, except for apologetic concerns. The SDA scholarly community, despite their abundance of well-educated people with advanced degrees from top universities around the world, has not made any (public) scholarly contributions to these philosophical fields. Attention has primarily been on apologetic concerns, defending the SDA tradition from perceived attacks from modern science and “higher criticism”.

So, it is refreshing to read Hanz’s essay reflecting on Umberto Eco’s legacy, echoing leading philosophical figures like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. Adventism has so much to learn from these thinkers, especially on its need for a reinterpretation of the cherished and historic theological concept of “present truth” - to free it from its historicist straightjacket.


Sorry, niteguy , Steve Mga

if you are not very experienced in your languages literature - lets say - of the last 200 years - you need new hermeneutiucs. People of my age in college had begun with reading German literature since 1000 p.Ch.
Not my sons, not my grandsons.

With having Bonhoeffers original text I would say : Translator number one, simply translating the tititle “Discipleship” ist the one meeting the very issue of the author : Just “Discipleship” - period.

Of course the author also names the “costs” : Chapter I : “Die teure Gnade” - (“The costly grace”)

Your second translationin the paraphrase of the precise title already places another tendency : “Cost” as i the headline already and therewith outlines HIS personal issue : " It is costly, remember !" In my understanding and my perception of Bonhoeffers style he deliberately just placed plain “Nachfolge” on the cover, his very issue.

I just wonder why Gutierrez in his last paragraph especially addresses Europeans : Of course I only know Luther in all the “revised” versions", for the NT I sufficiently can look up orginal Greek in Nestle - Alland. The fellow believers in my church during the last decades prefer Elberfelder - ok., but we can dicuss what the author of the original text meant and whom he addressed and what he addressed to this or that church or person in the very way. - -And what it has to say for us today. . - - I find quite more misinterpretations of English/American students of KJV, for example : Luke 22 : 31 - since English does no moire differ between singular and plural, the devotional is “correct, according to the Bible” , when the theologian ( ! ) only speaks as if only Peter was addressed by Jesus. ( Did `nt the original translation differ between “thee” and "“you” ?) - NT Nestle - Alland and Vulgata (and Luther) show the plural, therewith including others (all the disciples ?).

In German there are such nonsenses as the concordant translation, using the same very single word of German for the original Greek or Hebrew word for every text . This simply gives a wrong translation into German thinking and “viewing” the message. But it gives “precise hermeneutics”. (Really ?)

Te totum applica ad textum, rem totam apllica at te - (J. A: Bengel in the preface of his Greeek NT edition 1748 ) : Totally aply yourself to thge text, totally apply the matter to yourself.

This means : No hermeneutics of yesteryear, of yesterday, of here and there, but for YOU !

(And also read Umberto Ecco, not only the “Little Red Books” - this is a honest attitude towards those texts we Christians accept as holy words, ispired.))


An ocean could not explain the distance we have traveled.”
–Jonathan Safran Foer

Peirce held that the continuity of space, time, ideation, feeling, and perception is an irreducible deliverance of science, and that an adequate conception of such continua is an extremely important part of all the sciences.

The doctrine of the continuity of nature he called “synechism,” a word deriving from the Greek preposition that means “(together) with.”

Does a “humble, wise and relational” person prescribe for others what a “balanced and healthy hermeneutics” must, in all cases, be?

Might not hermeneutics, of necessity, exist on a continuum?

Might one avoid that “Waterloo” if one simply accepts that thought unavoidably exists on a continuum?

If this were humorous, what would we be laughing about?

It seems to me that a “balanced and healthy hermeneutics never excludes” other people’s current imagination, circumstances and level of understanding, for wouldn’t that do violence to them?

So therefore, I propose this as the whole hermeneutical circle:

Every person with their own outlook, but joined together, thus preserving individual gifts and unity of heart and purpose.

Anything less will truly be Adventism’s Waterloo, it seems to me.

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.

It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.

I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way.

Dante’s sense of the allegorical, that of a truth hidden beneath a beautiful falsehood might give us pause as we contemplate Adventism’ impending Waterloo.

The “whole hermeneutical circle” must pass throught the Dark Woods, where the Direct Way is lost, forever.

Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō means to devote our lives to and found them on (Nam[u]) the Utterness of the Dharma [entirety of existence, enlightenment and unenlightenment] (Myōhō) permeated by the underlying white lotus flower-like mechanism of the interdependence of cause, concomitancy and effect (Renge) in its whereabouts of the ten [psychological] realms of dharmas (Kyō).

Excerpt From: “The Dharma Flower Sutra (Lotus Sutra) Seen through the Oral Transmission of Nichiren: Translated by Martin Bradley” by Martin Bradley. Scribd.
This material may be protected by copyright.

Read this book on Scribd:


I’m always baffled by the attraction that assaults on “the truth” hold for people. The current degenerate crop of political actors in the U.S. seem to me the embodiment of those who laugh at the truth. I would hope I am not the only one who supposes that this does not bode well for “mankind” [sic]. Freeing one’s self from “insane passion for the truth” might be distinguished from a sane passion for the truth, but we may rest assured that what we have to fear is the false.

Is it either necessary or helpful to suppose that our choices are privileging the truth or privileging our sovereign solipsistic autonomy. Might it not be an act of both respect and humility to suppose that a text really is an other to which I as a reader am accountable, precisely to discover its “field of meaning” as opposed to treating the text as the mere occasion for one more self-portrait? Isn’t what is so toxic about mindless repetition of “sola scriptura” precisely its creation of meaning that is alien to both the scriptural authors and our current need for wisdom we do not possess?

Isn’t it possible to discern that in championing the truth we might be insisting on a refusal to equate the truth with our own partial, flawed understandings of it?

Surely there are more options than univocity and “texts say what I say they say.”

“Contemporary or modern hermeneutics” instead is reader-centered and presupposes a fluid and flexible meaning of the text (what the text means today) and the author’s intention is only one ingredient of the final process of interpretation." (Hans Gutierrez)

You could argue that this is what the New Testament writers did when they read the Hebrew scriptures after the death of Jesus. They focused on what spoke to them in the OT, not what the texts meant in their original context. They Christianized the Jewish canon by putting their own existential needs above the integrity of the text. That may work when you read novels: you as a reader become part of the narrative. It may also work for those who regard the Bible as a collection of texts divorced from history, much like the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But if you leave the magisterium of religion and read a text scientifically, with the mind-set of a historian, reading for personal meaning instead of textual clarity has no place. Sure, the reader’s own life experience and perspective on life will impact hermeneutics, but that is no real problem, given that any controversial reading will be revisited by equally skilled interpreters with different perspectives.I doubt I am the only one to appreciate the honesty of scholars who lay out the various ways certain texts have been read and ultimately leave it to you to decided or not what to think about it.

1 Like

We have our prjudices when reading / listening to a Bible text. A very simple example : I live in a little village - now part of City of Vienna - with once about onehundred winegrowers ( now only eight.). I remember those day laborers - mostly women - who with their hoes and a bent back cultivated the vineyards . just the way some milleniums ago. . The parable in Matth 21 : 33 with the hedge of skillfully piled up stones, the tower - - I experienced on every Sabbath aftrenoon walk.
Noody sells his vineyard, just like Naboth - I Kings 21 : 1 .ff - it is a property you have invested much of time, hard labor and great interest. All this I associate when reading or hearing “vineyard” out of the Bible. It is my experience, my compassion awakened with one term .

What feelings, what memories, what exoperiences are awakened in somebody spending all his life in Fargo, ND ?. .

Just now I m studying on tongues , speaking a tongue, blabbing tongue - - What really happened in Acts 19 : 6 ?
Am I right in my understanding of Psalm 73 ? - Really, just do I join Asaphs experience ? Or do I introduce my lifes problems into Asaphs words ? ( not speaking of the translation I am customed to.)

1 Like

I have much appreciation for this excellent piece on Eco.

Now for some fun.

There is a passage in the Talmud where rabbis come upon a stop sign.

Rabbi Meir says: He who does not stop shall not live long.
R. Hillel says: Cursed is he who does not count to three before proceeding.
R. ben Jakob asks, Why three?
R. ben Issac says: Because of the three patriarchs.
R. Simon ben Yudah says: Why six sides? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, gave us the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, in both oral and written form.^

R. Yehuda says: Why bless the Lord at a stop sign? Because it says, “Be still, or know that I am God”.

*Some manuscripts add: R.Hezekiel says: When Jephthah returned from defeating the Ammonites,the Holy One, blessed be He, knew that a donkey would run out of the house and overtake his daughter; but Jephthah did not stop at the stop sign, and the donkey did not have time to come out. For this reason he saw his daughter first and lost her. Thus he was judged for his transgression at the stop sign.

R. ben Nathan says: When were stop signs created? On the fourth day, for it is written: “let them serve as signs.”

R. Gamaliel says: R. Hillel, when he was a baby, never spoke a word, though his parents tried to teach him by speaking and showing him the words on a scroll. One day his father was driving through town and did not stop at the sign. Young Hillel called out: “Stop, father!” In this way, he began reading and speaking at the same time. Thus it is written: “Out of the mouth of babes.”

R. ben Jacob says: Where did the stop sign come from? Out of the sky, for it is written: “Forever, O Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens.”

Newer editions of the Talmud contain post-Judaic textual sources, including the following fragments . . .

R. Gutierrez asks, “But why red? Is it not because my seminary is closest SDA institution to the Vatican? Our professors may not to wear red hats, as Catholic cardinals do, but the public meaning of signage dictates that red be used despite the commanding language of the General Conference.”

R. Bachelor wondered if women could even read stop signs, as women were not ordained of God to be able to read in public.

R. Wilson refused to stop at Stop signs, as they were not printed by the Review & Herald.

And so on.

plagiarized and advent-ized from


I saw the switcheroo, Graeme–your secret is safe with me. Funny piece. lol


Just to be sure this is the right course of action, I would hope he consulted the White writings to be sure there was no counsel given that he overlooked.


Delicious! Thank you for this excellent addition to our understanding of this scholarly work. We will fail to understand sufficiently if we don’t have some good humor added to the mix, I’m sure!


I was shown that the meek and humbel followers of Christ did forget the inspired teachings of the Holy Scriptures and left the path of earnest believers by paying attention to a token with eight edges, yet even obeying to this sign of Satan, forgetting all the Holy Numbers revelated to us by Holy Scripture . Nowhere we find eight - - -

And rabbi Supremo said “Stop in the name of love before you break my heart. Think it over. Haven’t I been good to you? Haven’t I been sweet to you? Think it over”.