Christianity at its core is structurally a hermeneutical religion, for two fundamental theological reasons. First, because Christianity follows a book – the Bible – for understanding of itself and its mission. The Christian God is not only historically incarnated but is also scripturally incarnated. And God has chosen to dialogue with humankind, not exclusively but particularly, through a text we Christians call “The Holy Scriptures”. Not all religions have a book as a foundation, and not all those who do necessarily understand their book to be as foundational as Christianity does. Christian communities may vary in adding “external” elements – explicitly (Catholicism) or implicitly (Protestantism) – which are intended to accompany their biblical understanding. And they also may differentiate themselves in privileging specific and sectarian “internal” parts of the Bible above others. But no Christian community really breaks from the shared presupposition that religious faith starts with the foundation in God through a divine written word. For this reason Interpretation in Christianity is not a usurpation, misuse, or prohibition, and even less a sin. On the contrary, it’s a necessity. It responds to a divine command. No faith can really emerge without Interpretation. Structurally then, Interpretation is not alien, but is deeply infused in a healthy process of spiritual growth, as understood in Christian terms.
Second, Christianity legitimates Interpretation, not as an external event but as an internal one. In a certain sense there is not an original, pure and un-interpreted founding word in Christianity, because the words of Jesus himself are in fact already an “Interpretation” of the preceding Old Testament text. It would be better then to say that Jesus’ founding Word is in reality a “founding Interpretation”. In other words, legitimate interpretation doesn’t only exist outside the Bible but within the Bible itself. The Bible already has an interpretation. Jesus himself is, ontologically speaking, the Interpretation of his Father, and linguistically he is the marvelous heir and interpreter of his Father’s word. This fact radicalizes the hermeneutical vocation of Christianity even more. Interpretation then in Christianity is not just “tolerated”. We really can’t do differently. And it is required as the distinctive sign of what it means to be genuinely Christian. A Christian believer, even before being a coherent and reliable applier, is essentially an Interpreter. His or her experience depends on a preceding founding Scripture which must be read and understood before being applied. The nature and destiny of this founding word of Christianity lies then, not in being kept pure or aseptic, but rather in being positively contaminated with countless new interpretations. The Christian Scripture, for these two theological reasons, is not and cannot be “Interpretation-phobic”. On the contrary, it’s structurally “Interpretation-philic”.
Let’s now briefly review how this hermeneutical vocation has been articulated in history, with a particular focus in two periods: pre-modern and modern Christianity.
I. Pre-modern Hermeneutics: a “text-centered” Hermeneutics
Pre-modern interpretation is heterogeneous and diversified, according to the different historic and human contexts where Christianity emerged. We have had, since the very beginning, a consistent hermeneutical difference between the Jewish-Christian church and the Gentile-Christian church. The first understood its hermeneutics more in continuity with the Old Testament while the second privileged some important breakups. This is similar to a subsequent difference between the Alexandrian school, which privileged an allegoric interpretation, while the Antiochene school went the opposite way in underlining the primordial importance of an historical interpretation. Such differences gave contrasting theological results concerning our understanding of the Church, Christ and Humankind. And the same could be said in contrasting Medieval Hermeneutics, based on the traditional fourfold sense of biblical reading (literal, moral, allegorical [spiritual], and anagogical) which privileged a more symbolic approach to the text, with the more historic and pragmatic approach introduced by the Reformers.
But despite all these important differences we could nevertheless say that pre-modern Hermeneutics was homogeneous in its implicit understanding of the nature of the text. For this reason I will describe it as being thoroughly a “text-centered Hermeneutics”. It may sound paradoxical because, at that time, there didn’t exist what we call today a “critical edition of the text” – i.e. a text of the Bible based on the scientific analysis of the Majuscule (Uncials) and Minuscule manuscripts. What then does a “text-centered” Hermeneutics mean? Fundamentally it means that the reader could be very active in application of the text but was rather passive in the creation of new meaning. This was because the main cultural presupposition understood that the meaning of the text was “already there”. It was just matter of disclosing it. People were just asked to discover what already existed. The Bible was perfect because it had already-made answers for everything. In this sense the reader was subordinated to an existing meaning and was not allowed to touch or deform it – as it was already perfect. They were only called to receive it. This way of understanding a text, in this case the Bible, was part of a deeper cultural paradigm, which we might call “Cosmo-centric”. A “Cosmo-centric” paradigm is characterized by the stability of identities, roles and meaning. For them what persons, things and events are – was evident and stable. The difficulty was to be coherent when enmeshed in all these pre-established meanings.
It could not have been different, because their way of reading and interpreting a text couldn’t be in contrast with the predominant cultural world-view. A Hermeneutic is always the daughter of its own historical time. A culture of stability and order could only correlate to a Hermeneutics with the same characteristics, one which conceived the Bible as already containing stable and predetermined meanings. Thus a reader only had to respect and obediently copy and apply them. Pre-modern Hermeneutics could differ in understanding of accents, specifications or applications, but not in the nature of the text.
II. Modern Hermeneutics: a “reader-centered” Hermeneutics
What changes with the arrival of modern Hermeneutics? Modern Hermeneutics is not just a chronological classification. In fact it represents a new foundation. There is large agreement in considering Friedrich Schleiermacher as the father of Modern Hermeneutics. And it is thought that his main contribution was in unifying the formerly diversified hermeneutics (biblical, classical, juridical), and giving it a common methodology. In this sense, Hermeneutics emerged with Schleiermacher as a modern discipline. As a discipline deeply committed to rationality and methodological order, as was modern sociology, psychology and all the other disciplines that might have maintained old names, but in fact meant something new. What changed was the orientation. Modern Hermeneutics is “reader-centered Hermeneutics”. This may also appear paradoxical because no earlier time paid so much attention to the Text. But behind this attention, accuracy and even obsession with the Text, is hidden the main presupposition. And this implicit presupposition is the new centrality given to the Reader.
This paradoxical fact is understandable only if we again analyze modern Hermeneutics in the context of modern culture. Modern culture introduces a radical shift from a “Cosmo-centric” view, based on stability, to an “Anthropo-centric” view of life, based on movement and change. In this new perspective of the world, life, identities, events and meanings don’t exist as finished and fixed realities. They are only ingredients that each individual is called to use in the construction of any particular chosen project. The world, the family, the State etc. are not homes to be inhabited, but rather materials to be used in new constructions. The modern, and its twin sister the post-modern world, are “Constructivist” in spirit and intention. The Hermeneutic could not escape this entanglement. In this sense when Schleiermacher makes, not the various texts, but the “Understanding” itself the center of the new Hermeneutics, he is just applying, in the field of Interpretation, what Kant himself had introduced in the theory of human knowledge. Kant's most original contribution to philosophy is his "Copernican Revolution" that, as he puts it, it is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible. By this he introduced the human mind as an active originator of experience rather than just a passive recipient of perception. But the new centrality given to the Reader automatically changes the understanding of the Text itself. Even if we physically read the same Bible, our Bible is actually different in nature to the Bible that the Apostles and even the Reformers read. Our constructivist understanding of reality and the Bible pushes us to see only the inspired ingredients of a “Cake” that is not given but we must make ourselves. And even those who refuse to adapt themselves to this current worldview in biblical interpretation, in fact already apply a Constructivist approach in all other levels of their lives.
And here is what I call the “Historical Imbalance” of Adventist Hermeneutics. We still have not accepted our own historical time. We try to live as we were in the apostolic times committing two raw mistakes: 1) excessively over-idealizing apostolic times; and 2) undervaluing our own time. Nobody can escape his/her own time. And it is not a sin to be born in and belong to a particular historical time. This is what Incarnation really means. To be modern or post-modern is just an historical fact and not an existential handicap. In this sense the Bible gives us the perspective and the ingredients, but certainly not all the answers. The nature, not just the application, of the Bible has changed in this “Reader-centered Hermeneutics” historical period.
What then should we to do with our bodies, with our personal identity? How should we respond to new situations and dilemmas such as homosexuality, women’s ordination, the age of the Earth or the ecological crisis? These can’t be answered unilaterally with an “It’s Written”. Together with the Bible we need to positively welcome and take care of our own individual and communal contributions. We must understand that we are living today in a religious subculture that is structurally fallible and unilateral, but these limitations don’t invalidate the dignity God gives us in this particular historical period, which has discovered the value of personal reflection and autonomy. Our Hermeneutics should take seriously into account the Bible, but also the important questions of the today’s Reader. Our questions, perplexities, disappointments, doubts, our critics as much as our aspirations, do matter today. And they are positive signs of a living faith nurtured by the Bible itself.
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.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez
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