Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (Pt.3)

Part Two


Alongside Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur (d. 2005) stands as the most important philosopher of hermeneutics in the last hundred years. His work is often to be found discussed in evangelical circles today, and for that reason we shall devote a little more space to his work. Ricoeur is concerned with how language is used not with how it is structured.[53] As human existence is communicated through language, the study of the use of language is, therefore, the study of human existence. What is language but existence communicated in symbols or signs? Hence, the study of the way linguistic signs are used (semiotics) becomes a way to study the human being and his significance and self-understanding (semantics). It is hardly surprising to learn that for Ricoeur “man is language.”[54]

He believes that contemporary man has become desensitized to symbol and metaphor, and so he is missing in some measure, the hub of his own significance by his failure to experience life in its fullest terms.[55] Ricoeur is a phenomenologist – stressing the activity of the reader once he is impacted by a text.[56] But he utterly rejects man as the starting point in interpretation, preferring a transcendent beginning.[57]His influence is to be seen in several areas.

First, his overall philosophical outlook was hopeful (in contrast to that of the existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre). This meant that he tended to read texts “optimistically” – as, for example, the story of the Fall, which he said contained nothing like “Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.”[58]
Second, he ironically stressed “the hermeneutics of suspicion” whereby one recognizes that, “preunderstanding does indeed influence every interpretive conclusion drawn with reference to the biblical text. Because the baggage brought by an exegete to the reading of Scripture can potentially hinder the hermeneutical process, one must always question every exegetical perspective.”[59]

The third thing Ricoeur is known for is calling particular attention to creative language such as metaphor, narrative and parable.[60] Through careful examination and refection on these language forms he has produced some important thoughts on some important issues within philosophy of religion such as the sort of relationship that exists between God and time.[61] He believed that these ways of expression point us to a fuller appreciation of ourselves and our significance. “The manifesto of hermeneutic philosophy is “existence via semantics”: self-understanding via textual interpretation.”[62]

Lastly, Ricoeur is noted for his focus on genre (the world of the text) and the impact of the text upon the reader’s world (the world in front of the text). The interplay of these “worlds” means abandoning what he calls “the first naivete”: the literal sense, in order to make way for “the second naivete”: finding oneself in and through the world of the text.[63] In other words, the reader must go through a sifting of his faith from a position of fear and emotion to a more level-headed critical understanding of the text (and so the world) in order to have a rational faith.[64] The literal sense cannot supply the truth of existence!
Of course, to comprehend signs truly one must move beyond the signs themselves and concentrate on discourse, hence his focus upon semantics as the key to self-understanding.[65]  Ricoeur also finds himself on the “conservative” side in his rejection of the Kantian idealism of liberalism, which forced churchmen into vainly trying either to prove Christianity to be inductively scientific[66], or to show that Christianity’s “inwardness” made the effort to make it scientific an exercise in missing the point.[67]  And he strikes a chord when he insists that the text must always take precedence over the interpreter.[68]
But he does not believe in the possibility of discovering authorial intention. There is and always will be a “distance” between reader and author. Moreover, the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that he learned from Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, always makes interpretation a risky business, with “truth,” in a sense far less than certainty but above doubt, being the final goal.[69]

The Postmodern Critique: Derrida

It would be remiss indeed if in a treatise such as this the subject of postmodernism was not broached along the way. We have chosen to include it here because it is in the realm of interpretation that it is, perhaps, at its most menacing. Postmodernism, in fact, seeks to demolish much of the framework around which this present work is constructed. This includes an aversion to metanarratives, or grand narratives under which other (typically western) narratives and thought-forms are housed.[70] These metanarratives are seen as sustaining forms of oppression within society.[71]

Without a doubt the leading postmodernist thinker in the world of hermeneutics is Jacques Derrida (d. 2004). Influenced by the Structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, which saw language as bearing no necessary relation to anything outside of itself (therefore to understand one had to examine the structure of language), and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (who was critical of the history of Western philosophy all the way back to Plato and Aristotle), Derrida takes the further and more radical step of questioning the positions from which any metaphysical pronouncement is made.[72] Any such concept (called a “signified”), such as God, self, truth, reason, etc., is no more than an illegitimately and arbitrarily imposed external context upon which other ideas can rest (what Derrida named a “transcendental signified”).[73] The western preoccupation with these primary contexts he called logocentrism.[74]

What Derrida sought to expose is the underlying contradictions which are embedded into texts. He did this by showing up the dualisms or binary oppositions like God/Satan, man/woman, which, he thought, gave prominence to the former and undermined (oppressed) the latter. This is where his idea of deconstructing texts comes into view. Derrida concentrates not on what is said, but on what stays unsaid yet remains implicit in the communication.[75] A text is not to be taken at face value, but is to be suspected of promoting ethnocentric ideas.[76] In deconstructing texts the interpreter is getting behind the surface prejudices and retrieving those things that have been suppressed.
A major part of Derrida’s thought is his insistence that writing (by which he means all unspoken language signs) is actually prior to speech.[77] Apart from going against the intuition, not to mention the dictates of common sense[78], this seems to founder on the rocks of historical contingency, for no one prior to men like Nietzsche or de Saussure, not to mention Derrida or Roland Barthes, saw things their way. As Plantinga perceptively notes, “Had Einstein been born in the eighteenth century, he would not have believed special relativity…”[79]

Nobody should misconstrue Derrida as a second-rate philosopher; his thought is extremely complex, if not more than a little obtuse.[80] But the fact remains that his philosophy cannot escape the charge of contradiction any more than those he critiques. After all, he must himself assume some privileged starting-point or “transcendent signified” from where to launch his volleys against those with whom he disagrees. In the end he falls into the very same self-contradiction to which all immanence philosophies are fated.[81]

What all this work by these philosophers means is that the old Grammatical-Historical or literal sense hermeneutic is considered impossibly outmoded. And seeking the single-sense of Scripture (as advocated by, e.g. Walter Kaiser, along with many dispensationalists) is described by Stanley Porter and Lee Martin McDonald as “Simplistic exegesis for the simple minded.”[82]


[53] Harrisville and Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 281.
[54] Ibid, 298.
[55] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 264.
[56] In this he is indebted to the work of Wolfgang Iser.
[57] Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 33.
[58] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Ricoeur, Paul,” in, Idem., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 694. Much help has been gained from this fine article.
[59] B. Keith Putt, “Preunderstanding and the Hermeneutical Spiral,” in, eds., Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, Grant Lovejoy, Biblical Hermeneutics, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 209.
[60] Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, eds., After Philosophy: End or Transformation? (Cambridge, MS: The MIT Press, 1987), 352.
[61] Gregory J. Laughery, “Evangelicalism and Philosophy,” in Craig Bartholomew, Robin Parry, and Andrew West, eds., The Futures of Evangelicalism: Issues and Prospects, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), 266-267.
[62] Vanhoozer, “Ricoeur, Paul,” 692.“In his Gifford Lectures, Ricoeur completes his project by arguing that self-understanding comes precisely from appropriating a narrative identity.” – 693.
[63] Ibid.
[64] Tate, 330.
[65] Harrisville and Sundberg, 281-282.
[66] For an example of this in evangelical circles see, e.g., R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 122-123.
[67] This was the approach of men like Schleiermacher, Dilthey and the liberal theologians who followed them.
[68] Harrisville and Sundberg, 297.
[69] Ibid, 291.
[70] Millard J. Erickson, Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Perils of Postmodernism, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 15.
[71] Cf. Craig G. Bartholomew, “Deconstruction,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible.
[72] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, 109.
[73] Tate, 91.
[74] Ibid.
[75] Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, eds., After Philosophy, 121.
[76] James Breech, Jesus and Postmodernism, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989), 39.
[77] Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 104.
[78] As has been pointed out by any number of critics, e.g. Carson, 112-113.
[79] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 428.
[80] Some reasons for this have been set forth both by Derrida’s supporters and his critics. See Erickson, 216-217.
[81] Ibid, 131-132.
[82] Stanley E. Porter & Lee Martin McDonald, New Testament Introduction, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 19.

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