Theology’s Hermeneutic Interest

Photograph of H. G. GadamerH.-G. Gadamer concludes his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” by commenting on the importance of language, with an interestingly theological turn. Gadamer suggests,

The … building up of our own world in language persists whenever we want to say something to each other. The result is the actual relationship of men to each other…. Genuine speaking, which has something to say and hence does not give prearranged signals, but rather seeks words through which one reaches the other person, is the universal human task – but it is a special task for the theologian, to whom is commissioned the saying-further (Weitersagen) of a message that stands written. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 17)

To be sure, Christian Scripture and the broader Christian tradition can and do speak for themselves. But, it is doubtless specially incumbent upon those with vocations in theology, biblical studies, preaching, and other Christian education areas to see to the passing on of this testimony and to its interpretation in various contemporary milieux.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

The Hermeneutic Productivity of the Familiar

Photograph of H. G. GadamerIn his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” H.-G. Gadamer draws upon Aristotle’s analogy between an army halting its retreat and the experience of coming to understanding. The halt may be so gradual that an observer can say when individuals within the army stop fleeing, but it’s more difficulty to say when the army as a whole has stopped its flight (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

This situation Gadamer likens to the acquisition of language by children and comments,

In the utilization of the linguistic interpretation of the world that finally comes about [for adults], something of the productivity of our beginnings remains alive. We are all acquainted with this, for instance, in the attempt to translate … that is, we are familiar with the strange, uncomfortable, and tortuous feeling we have so long as we do not have the right word. When we have found the right expression … when we are certain that we have it … then something has come to a “stand” [as the army in Aristotle’s analogy]. Once again we have a halt in the midst of the rush of the foreign language…. What I am describing is the mode of the whole human experience of the world…. There is always a world already interpreted, already organized in its basic relations, into which experience steps as something new, upsetting what has led our expectations and undergoing reorganization itself in the upheaval. Misunderstanding and strangeness are not the first factors, so that avoiding misunderstanding can be regarded as the specific task of hermeneutics. Just the reverse is the case. Only the support of familiar and common understanding makes possible the venture into the alien, the lifting up of something out of the alien, and thus the broadening and enriching of our own experience in the world. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 15)

From the morass of the unfamiliar and strange, humans seem to acquire language or other forms of understanding—to the extent that we do—by means of what are or come to be known quantities, whether as a parent or caregiver, or based on other accumulated prior experience. Our efforts to cope with a “surging sea of stimuli” halt their flight, they come to a stand, once that sea finds its own place—and itself comes to stand—within our understanding of the world, which has quite possibly been broadened for the experience (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

Questions as the Core of Scholarship

Photograph of H. G. GadamerIn his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” H.-G. Gadamer reflects,

It is imagination … that is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutical function and serves the sense for what is questionable. It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions, something in which, generally speaking, only he who masters all the methods of his science achieves.

As a student of Plato, I particularly love scenes in which Socrates gets into a dispute with the Sophist virtuosi and drives them to despair by his questions. Eventually they can endure his questions no longer and claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner. And what happens? They can think of nothing at all to ask. Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.

I draw the following inference from this observation. The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 12–13).

Without the ability to “see what is questionable,” there is also little chance of breaking “the spell of our own fore-meanings” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 281), or the assumptions about the reality we encounter that, at first brush, seem as naturally indubitable as anything could be.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

“Explorations in interdisciplinary reading” is out

Recently released under Wipf and Stock’s Pickwick imprint is Explorations in Interdisciplinary Reading: Theological, Exegetical, and Reception-historical Perspectives, edited by Robbie Castleman, Darian Lockett, and Stephen Presley. The volume includes essays assembled from the Institute for Biblical Research’s recently concluded study group on Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, and Theological Disciplines. A key among the essays in the volume is the interplay between Scripture as situated in its own historical contexts and its continuing reception as a canonical whole.

The volume’s ten essays are:

  • Andrew J. Schmutzer, “The Suffering of God: Love in Willing Vulnerability”
  • J. Richard Middleton, “A Psalm against David? A Canonical Reading of Psalm 51 as a Critique of David’s Inadequate Repentance in 2 Samuel 12”
  • J. David Stark, “Rewriting Torah Obedience in Romans for the Church”
  • Darian Lockett, “‘Necessary but not Suffcient’: The Role of History in the Interpretation of James as Christian Scripture”
  • D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Against Historicism: The Rule of Faith, Scripture, and Baptismal Historiography in Second-Century Lyons”
  • Stephen O. Presley, “From Catechesis to Exegesis: The Hermeneutical
    Shaping of Catechetical Formation in Irenaeus of Lyons”
  • Lissa M. Wray Beal, “Land Entry and Possession in Origen’s Homilies on Joshua: Deep Reading for the Christian Life”
  • Craig Blaising, “Integrating Systematic and Biblical Theology: Creation as a Test Case”
  • Susan I. Bubbers, “A Guiding Principle and Question-based Strategy for Integrating Biblical Systematic and Practical Disciplines”
  • Gregory S. MaGee, “Biblical Theology in the Service of Ecumenism: Eschatology as a Case Study”

For more information or to order the volume, please see its product pages on Wipf and Stock’s website, Amazon, or other booksellers.

Rhetorical “small change”

In his 1963 essay on the “Phenomenological Movement.” H.-G. Gadamer discusses at length Edmund Husserl’s influence in founding the school. In so doing, he recounts an interesting habit of Husserl’s that

In his teaching, whenever he encountered the grand assertions and arguments typical of beginning philosophers, he used to say, “Not always the big bills, gentlemen; small change, small change!” (133)

Gadamer does not wholly underwrite Husserl’s program, but he does helpfully observe that—perhaps as much for theology as for philosophy:

This kind of work produced a peculiar fascination. It had the effect of a purgation, a return to honesty, a liberation from the opaqueness of the opinions, slogans, and battle cries that circulated. (133)

For the balance of Gadamer’s reflections in this essay, see its printing in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 130–81.

Watkin, “Derrida”

Forthcoming this fall in P&R’s “Great Thinkers” series is Christopher Watkin’s volume on Jacques Derrida. According to the book’s blurb,

Christian thinkers and writers who address Jacques Derrida’s philosophy face two potential pitfalls. One is to recast Christianity in an ill-fitting Derridean mold; the other is to ascribe to Derrida objectionable positions that bear little relation to his writing.

To avoid these hazards, Christopher Watkin, a scholar of French literature and philosophy, walks in Derrida’s shoes through the landscape of recent thought and culture, seeking to understand the rationale for Derrida’s philosophical moves in light of his assumptions and commitments in philosophy, literature, ethics, and politics. He then sets these assumptions in the wider context of God’s nature and purposes in history, providing biblical critique.

Learn why Derrida says what he does and how Christians can receive and respond to his writing in a balanced, biblical way that is truly beneficial.

The latest P&R catalog also sports an enthusiastic endorsement from Kevin Vanhoozer:

Chris Watkin has done what I thought was impossible. He has explained Derrida’s deconstruction with lucidity, brevity, and charity. Not only that: he has imagined what it would be like for Cornelius Van Til to go toe-to-toe with Derrida in a discussion about language, logic, and the logos made flesh, all of which figure prominently in John 1:1–14. And, if that were not enough, he has done it in less than a hundred pages. Readers who want to know what all the fuss over postmodernity is about would do well to consult this book. This is an excellent beginning to this new Great Thinker series.

The volume is due for release at the end of November. It is currently available for pre-order at Amazon and elsewhere.

Gadamer on time, tradition, and continuity

Photograph of H. G. GadamerStemming from a discussion of Martin Heidegger’s temporal explanation of Dasein, H.-G. Gadamer suggests,

Time is no longer primarily a gulf to be bridged because it separates; it is actually the supportive ground of the course of events in which the present is rooted. Hence temporal distance is not something that must be overcome. This was, rather, the naive assumption of historicism, namely that we must transpose ourselves into the spirit of the age, think with its ideas and its thoughts, and not with our own, and thus advance toward historical objectivity. In fact the important thing is to recognize temporal distance as a positive and productive condition enabling understanding. It is not a yawning abyss but is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which everything handed down presents itself to us. (Truth and Method, 308)

Thus, Gadamer’s suggestion seems to be that the past is, of course, not our own time, but perhaps neither is it the wholly alien thing that thoroughgoing historicism might represent it as being with respect to the present.

Aubrey on theological lexica

Mike Aubrey has provided an excerpt from an essay of his in Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis (Lexham, 2016). The excerpt strives carefully to work out a middle ground that is neither wholly on the side of theological lexica nor on that of James Barr’s critique of them.

Instead, Mike suggests,

If the failure of theological dictionaries was the assumption that words and concepts are identical, then the failure of the structuralist semantics that dominated the field when James Barr wrote his critique was the assumption that words and concepts are dramatically different. If words mean anything at all, then there must be a substantive relationship between them and the concepts (both associative and denotative) they evoke mentally.

Particularly if language is indeed the medium and horizon of human hermeneutic experience (e.g., H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 401–514), then the question of theological (or other conceptual) lexicography would still seem to be quite appropriate to ask, albeit perhaps in a chastened fashion in the continuing wake of Barr’s critique.

For the balance of Mike’s reflections, see his original post.

Cognitive bias in biblical interpretation

In the last 2016 issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, Aaron Chalmers has an interesting essay on “the influence of cognitive biases on biblical interpretation” (467–80). Chalmers approaches the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology and focuses on “five key cognitive biases”—namely, “confirmation bias, false consensus effect, in-group bias, functional fixedness, and the illusory truth effect” (467).

For Chalmers, bias is almost exclusively a roadblock to proper biblical interpretation that needs to be overcome. Consequently, the latter part of the essay provides five suggestions for “debiasing” oneself. These are understanding cognitive bias, considering opposite views, pausing for adequate reflection, engaging with other interpreters, and avoiding time pressure for completing interpretive tasks (477–80).

In at least one case that I noted, Chalmers explicitly recognizes the possibility of a positive element within the “functional fixedness” type of bias. If biases are not always detrimental but in some ways enabling for our engagement with the world (including, in some respects, its ability to push back on those biases), it might be interesting to consider whether there might be also positive applications for the other four bias types, how to identify these, and how to understand their relations to more negative applications. That being said, Chalmers’s essay certainly provides a concise, helpful rubric for the kind of awareness biblical interpreters should cultivate to avoid simply being “driven along from behind” to where it might not actually be that helpful to go.

Graves, ed., “Biblical interpretation in the early church”

Graves, ed., "Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church" coverAvailable in Fortress’s Ad fontes series is Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church, edited by Michael Graves. According to the volume’s blurb,

Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church is part of Ad Fontes: Early Christian Sources, a series designed to present ancient Christian texts essential to an understanding of Christian theology, ecclesiology, and practice. The books in the series will make the wealth of early Christian thought available to new generations of students of theology and provide a valuable resource for the Church. This volume focuses on how Scripture was interpreted and used for teaching by early Christian scholars and church leaders.

Developed in light of recent Patristic scholarship, Ad Fontes volumes will provide a representative sampling of theological contributions from both East and West. The series aims to provide volumes that are relevant for a variety of courses: from introduction to theology to classes on doctrine and the development of Christian thought. The goal of each volume is not to be exhaustive, but rather representative enough to denote for a non-specialist audience the multivalent character of early Christian thought, allowing readers to see how and why early Christian doctrine and practice developed the way it did.