CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (Pt.2)

Part One

The Hermeneutical Landscape

The philosopher of religion Gregory Clark admits that, “[some] sources regularly describe the variety of hermeneutical approaches practiced today as ‘dizzying’.”[22]

In closing his article Clark writes:

“Hermeneutics as a discipline is as wild and woolly as it has ever been, and its future shape and even its existence are impossible to predict.”[23]

Reading the “movers and shakers” in evangelical hermeneutics today is a little foreboding. It might be well to start off then by reminding ourselves of a standard definition of hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics…is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure.[24]

It would be helpful to add to this Ramm’s observation that it “stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game.”[25]  In addition, Ramm added that what the interpreter is looking for is the single-meaning of any passage: “But here we must remember the old adage: ‘Interpretation is one; application is many.’ This means that there is only one meaning to a passage of Scripture, which is determined by careful study.”[26]

Contrast Ramm’s words with those of the prominent British Old Testament scholar David J. A. Clines who writes:

I have been impressed in this study [of Esther] by the value of as many strategies as possible for reading a text. As a critic of the text, I should hate to be restricted by a methodological purism. What I have noticed is that different strategies confirm, complement or comment on other strategies, and so help develop an integrated but polychromatic reading.[27]

Or again,

My experience with Psalm 23 was enough to convince me that ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are not categories to be applied to interpretations, that, as far as I could see, a text can mean anything at all, and that I myself was (oxymoronically) an absolute indeterminist.[28]

Clines exults that he can explore the text of the Bible with complete methodological abandon. This freedom has not come to him through the mere exercise of the imagination. It is a result of studying the philosophical hermeneutics of people like Roland Barthes and Richard Rorty, both of whom teach that subjectivity is desirable in reading a text.[29]  Objectivity is a mirage, a dream perpetuated by the sort of naiveté demonstrated only by intransigent ultra conservatives.

It behooves us then to briefly chart some of what has been going on in the world of mainline hermeneutics so that we might better access what conservative interpreters are being influenced by, not to mention what dispensationalists are increasingly likely to come up against.

Schleiermacher

Modern hermeneutics started with F. D. E. Schleiermacher (d. 1834). Operating from a background that mixed German Pietism and Kantian Idealism, Schleiermacher believed that to confine biblical hermeneutics to a set of previously drawn up “rules of interpretation” was to decide the outcome of ones exegesis before the text had been analyzed. He stated that for any interpretation to take place the interpreter must provisionally know something about text itself. This he referred to as “preunderstanding.”[30]  There must, he said, be some preliminary understanding of a subject, say, “love,” before that subject can be comprehended from the page. As R. E. Palmer puts it,

“Is it not vain to speak of love to one who has not known love, or of the joys of learning to those who reject it? One must already have, in some measure, a knowledge of the matter being discussed.”[31]

Schleiermacher, then, proceeded to divide hermeneutics into two components, the linguistic and the psychological.[32]  The linguistic or grammatical approach, with which we are all familiar, whereby, “the reader needs to use objective, grammatical methods to acquire an exhaustive knowledge of original languages and the historical and literary contexts of a text.”[33] This he believed in strongly, and, in fact, he made several important clarifications along this line.[34]  But this was not enough. For Schleiermacher, and for many mainline interpreters since his time, the reader has to become connected with the original author’s psyche at the time and place he wrote. This psychological aspect he called “divination.” As he himself said, “The divinatory is that in which one transforms oneself into the other person in order to grasp his individuality directly.”[35]

There must be an attentive acculturation of the reader to the personality of the writer. The reader must “reexperience the thoughts of the author”[36]  He must not only enter his world but, with imagination and empathy, read the author’s intellectual and emotional experience, even his sub-conscience.[37]  If there is any sympathy between subject and object there is an “inspiration” already in the reader which allows him to do this.[38]

Schleiermacher didn’t believe the interpretation ended at a certain point in the process. There would be constant interplay between the reader and the text and the world of understanding of both.[39]  Not only that, but the new understanding generated by the process teaches the reader’s understanding (that is, his “preunderstanding”) before he sits down to reread.

“The fuller (or more accurate) understanding “speaks back” to the preunderstanding to correct and to reshape it. This revision contributes to a better understanding. Hence, to reread a “difficult” book, or even to undertake successive readings, may bring about a deeper understanding of it”.[40]

There is no doubt about Schleiermacher’s influence upon hermeneutical theory. He prepared the ground for all the hermeneutics theorists down to the present day.[41]

Gadamer[42]

Hans-Georg Gadamer (d. 2002), was a student of both Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann. His work on hermeneutics, particularly his tome Truth and Method have been enormously influential. Gadamer is responsible, perhaps more than any other, for shifting the emphasis of interpretation away from authorial intention and on to the reader.[43]  He did this through the rhetorical device of the “two horizons” – the horizon of the biblical text and the horizon of the modern interpreter. The horizon of the reader (also called the “Horizon of Meaning”) involves not only the reader, but the methodological parameters set down, usually unconsciously, by the community of which he is a part. Possible meanings, then, are circumscribed by the interpretive community. As the complexion of the community changes, so do the parameters of viable interpretation and thus the range of possible meanings.[44]  By contrast the “Horizon of the Text” is that “set of assumptions that underlie a text and establish its point of view within its own historical circumstances.”[45]

The aim of hermeneutics is to seek “for the place where the horizons of the text and the interpreter intersect or engage.”[46]  This concept may at first seem innocent enough, since one cannot deny that because of the different historical, cultural and psychological life-situations of ancient author and modern reader one can never be certain that one has fully understood the author’s meaning, only that one has very probably understood it.[47]

But this isn’t what Gadamer means, for he goes on to say that each reader’s situation is different: One cannot affirm the existence (and importance) of one horizon and not others. When we – as twenty-first century American evangelicals – understand Scripture, we do so on the basis of our own horizon.[48]

Thus, one must take into consideration the cultural context of the reader, and, since we all have a cultural context, my interpretation of a biblical passage has no more right to validity than, say, a different interpretation by someone from India.[49] As one writer illustrates the matter,

A linguist asks a group made up of Africans and missionaries to tell him the main point of the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. The Europeans speak of Joseph as a man who remained faithful to God no matter what happened to him. The Africans, on the other hand, point to Joseph as a man who, no matter how far he traveled, never forgot his family.[50]

Where does this leave us as interpreters?  For many followers of modern hermeneutical theory it casts more or less doubt upon the idea of objectivity in Bible interpretation.[51]  For this reason Gadamer has been described as standing “on the boundary-line between modern and post-modern thought.”[52]

————————————————————————————

[22] Greg Clark, “Contemporary Hermeneutics,” in Scot McKnight & Grant Osbourne, editors, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Apollos, 2004), 115.
[23] Ibid, 117.
[24] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 20.
[25] Ramm, 11.
[26] Ibid, 113.
[27] Quoted by Craig G. Bartholomew, “Postmodernity and Biblical Interpretation,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 604.
[28] Ibid.
[29] See W. Randolph Tate, Interpreting the Bible: A Handbook of Terms and Methods, (Peabody, MT: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).
[30] Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons, (Exeter, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1980), 103. This book, more than any other, is responsible for much of the re-thinking about hermeneutics that has been going-on within evangelical scholarship. Thomas contends, “This… work radically altered the way that many evangelicals interpret the Bible.” – Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 18.
[31] Cited in Thiselton, 104.
[32] David K. Clark, To Know And Love God: Method For Theology, (Wheaton, Ill, Crossway Books, 2003), 104-105.
[33] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” in, eds., Scot McKnight & Grant R. Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 109.
[34] David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 163. Hirsch called Schleiermacher’s aphorisms, found in the first part of his lectures on Hermeneutik, “among the most profound contributions to hermeneutics.” – E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 263.
[35] Cited in Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 107.
[36] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” 109.
[37] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 163.
[38] Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 72-73.
[39] Thiselton, 104.
[40] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Circle,” in Gen. Ed., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 281.
Note. Schleiermacher spoke of a hermeneutical circle, but the idea of a “spiral” was seen as closer to the mark. A good definition of the hermeneutical spiral is found in Thiselton’s conception of it when he states that “the emphasis lies not only on the inter-action between the parts and the whole, but on a process of revision which modifies the interpreter’s exploratory understanding in the light of the text.” – Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, (London: Marshall Pickering, 1992), 222.
[41] Schleiermacher gave hermeneutics a much wider brief than it had enjoyed prior to his time. He basically made it a way of knowing, not just the text before the reader, but the reader’s world. He moved it into the realm of epistemology.
[42] I move straight from Schleiermacher to Gadamer to save time.A fuller study would have to take into account the work of Dilthey, Heidegger, and Bultmann.
[43] Gadamer emphasizes the text as a distinct voice independent of the author.In his hands this ends up handing interpretive authority to the reader.Hence, the radical form of “reader-response” theory.
[44] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 170.
[45] Ibid, emphasis added.
[46] Harvie M. Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” in ed., Harvie M. Conn, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 188.
[47] Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 17-18, 255, 263.
[48] Bruce Ellis Benson, ‘“Now I Would Not Have You Ignorant”: Derrida, Gadamer, Hirsch and Husserl on Authors’ Intentions,” in eds., Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez and Dennis L. Okholm, Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, (Downers Grove, Il: IVP, 2004), 189.
This is the text of a Symposium held at Wheaton College in 2001. The essays in the book clearly illustrate the kind of “downgrade” which is in process within at least some evangelical institutions.
[49] Thus, there arises the problem of “contextualization.” Upon which see, David K. Clark, To Know And Love God, 99-131. In my opinion Clark goes too far in his development of an “Evangelical” approach to contextualization by not sufficiently seeing the need to critique differing evangelical “cultures.” An even more surefooted appraisal of contextualization which takes the whole “Seeker-sensitive” phenomenon into consideration is David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
[50] Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” 188-189.
[51] One might think of postconservative theologians like F. LeRon Shults.
[52] Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 314.

Part Three

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