The reading experience is always complex because it puts two complicated entities into relationship, the Text and the Reader. The Text and the Reader are not linear and homogeneous but rather multi-linear and heterogeneous realities. Herein lies the complexity. And consequently, structural complexity doesn’t disappear, but is only updated and re-articulated with each new Interpretation. This is what the “Hermeneutic Circle” is all about. Even though reading indirectly relates to Reality, through the mediation of the Text, the final result isn’t the actual description of the Text, but the Reality itself. The complexity of the Text is guaranteed by the complexity of Reality. So, in considering the Text, we are compelled to go beyond. The dialectical relationship between Text and Reader parallels the relation between the “Map” and the “Territory”. Without the Map we easily would get lost in the Territory. But the Map is not the Territory.
This hermeneutic principle is also applicable to reading the Bible. Biblical complexity does and should reflect the complexity of life itself. Those who fail to recognize this end up not understanding the Bible’s own complexity and even less the complexity of outside reality. For this reason the target of a healthy Christian experience is not and cannot only be the Reading of the Bible, as many pious Adventists strongly suggest in misusing the noble “Sola Scriptura” principle. Instead, it must be the Interpretation of the Bible. And anyone who affirms the necessity of Interpreting the Bible is automatically defending the necessity of honestly examining the Bible and the outside reality, i.e. the Text and the Reader’s world – together. The Interpretation of the Bible certainly introduces a risk of deforming it. But the opposite risk of only reading and immediately applying the Bible, without interpretation, is even worse. There is no real alternative to Reading and Interpreting.
But what does it really mean to interpret the Bible? Here a paradox emerges, and a resistance within Adventism. A paradox because officially and institutionally we have left behind the pervading biblical literalism which has always haunted us – especially in the first part of 20th century. But our current “Sola Scriptura” Adventist Hermeneutics, indirectly and paradoxically, still keeps such literalism alive. Metaphorically we could say that we have detached ourselves from our lover but continue to pay her rent. Then there is also a resistance because any naive and ideological defense of the Bible still hinders us in seriously considering the necessity of understanding the importance of integrating the Bible Reader and his/her world.
We have made a huge progress in passing from a classical and linear “Hermeneutics of the Fact” - the literal and immediate application of what we read, to a more complex and elaborated “Hermeneutics of the Principle” – attention beyond the circumstantial to the eternal principles underneath. This has been an important step, but not enough, because both hermeneutics are intra-biblical Hermeneutics. They are not fully Hermeneutics because, in the search for meaning, they don’t open up an honest dialogue with “extra-textual” reality. A fundamental interpretive principle to always keep in mind is that there is actual Hermeneutics only where we find the articulation and safeguard of the “Hermeneutic Circle” – the tension and co-existence of Text and Reader.
Now consider four Hermeneutical levels, focusing on their capacity to interact with this “extra-textual” element of the Reader and his/her world.
- “Hermeneutics of the Fact” (Literal interpretation):
intra-biblical – characterized by its immediacy and directness, which presupposes an indisputable continuity between the biblical times and our time, and understands both as homogeneous and transparent entities. The Bible is perceived as a unitary document and the Reader as a negligible component in the creation of meaning.
- “Hermeneutics of the Principle” (Ideal interpretation):
intra-biblical – characterized by the perception of an inevitable difference between biblical times and ours, but still keeps considering them both as homogeneous and transparent. The sense of Biblical unity prevails on the perception of its diversity and pluralism, and the Reader emerges only as the circumstantial keeper of universal and eternal Principles.
- “Hermeneutics of the Paradox” (Pluralistic interpretation):
intra-biblical – characterized by the perception of an inevitable difference between biblical times and ours and considers them both heterogeneous and opaque. The Bible is perceived in the tension of its diverse and heterogeneous models, categories and narratives. This belief in internal biblical complexity mirrors external reality’s main characteristic of complexity. The Reader becomes protagonist in deciphering the interaction and tension of the various biblical models, and deciding which is more meaningful.
- “Hermeneutics of the Reality” (Contextual interpretation):
Intra-extra-biblical – characterized by the tension created, not by internal but external diversity, and introduced by Reality itself, without which is impossible to understand the Bible. The serious consideration of external reality doesn’t work to diminish biblical meaning but amplifies and enhances it, because a crucial characteristic of the Bible is to better describe the external complexity of life and reality. The Bible here is amplified in its meaning and reach by that external reality, and the mediator of interaction between the Text and the Reality is the Reader – who has become an active Interpreter.
So, which of the various biblical paradigms are necessary and should be followed? The answer is not automatic because the focus is not necessarily on the best narrative but rather on the best fit within the context the Reader is living. The Bible shows here its rich nature, and the Reader becomes co-creator of meaning rather than a passive depository of it.
If there is Interpretation (Hermeneutics) only in the equal interaction between Text and Reader (Hermeneutic Circle), then only #3 and #4 deserve to be called Hermeneutics in the deepest sense. #1 and #2 still remain (even sophisticated) forms of Reading without configuring themselves as true Interpretations. #1 and #2 tend to overlook and thus undervalue the structural necessity of a true interaction between the Bible and the Believer’s true historicity. This is what I call the structural Adventist “Misconception of the Reader” because we have been able to upgrade our hermeneutics from a fact-centered (#1) to a principle-centered (#2) Hermeneutics, but we are still barely able to conceive of a paradox-centered (#3) and even less a reality-centered (#4) hermeneutics.
In other words, our official “Hermeneutics of the Principle” tends to affirm that the Bible is enough in itself for establishing what life, faith, experience, community, sexuality, leadership etc. really means. In this view the Readers do not have their own consistency and validity. The Reader is subordinated to what the Text “says” about him/herself. Only the Text can speak about the reader – not the other way around. The Reader can’t illuminate and enrich the Text from new perspectives. The “Hermeneutic Circle” is simply a unidirectional “Hermeneutic Line”. But reality tells us a different story. There is not a unique way of linking Text and Reader. The Reader is not always subordinated to the Text. In reality every Text is also preceded by the Reader through some natural “preconceptions” which are determined, not by the Text, but by being rooted in life. A “pre-conception” is not necessarily a “pre-judice”. While we are invited to give up our prejudices concerning the Text, contemporary Hermeneutic reflection has taught us to value our “pre-conceptions” (Heidegger and Gadamer’s Vor-verständnis) because they are the sign of a rooted life that the Text certainly expresses but without being able to exhaust it. The Map is never the Territory.
In this new perspective where the Reader is co-creator of meaning, the world, life, identities or events don’t exist as finished and fixed realities. They are only ingredients that each individual is called to use in the construction of particular chosen projects, based in the reading of the Text and our own world. The world, the family, the State etc. are not finished and definitive entities. They are not homes and places already waiting to be inhabited, but rather materials to be used in new constructions. The modern, and its twin the post-modern world, are “constructivist” in spirit and intention. The Hermeneutic could not escape this destiny. It is in this sense that, when Schleiermacher tells us to make “understanding” itself the center of the new Hermeneutics, he is just applying, in the field of Interpretation, what Kant introduced in the theory of human knowledge. The mind is an active originator of experience rather than just a passive recipient through perception of an already given world. Our constructivist understanding of reality and the Bible pushes us to see, in the Bible, only the inspired ingredients of a “cake” that is not merely given, but what we are asked to make ourselves. And even those who refuse to adapt themselves to this concept of biblical interpretation, in fact already apply a Constructivist approach in other levels of their lives.
The Reader really matters today. We can not ignore him/her. What to do with our bodies, with our personal identity? How to understand 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 Is Written”. Together with the Bible we need to positively welcome and take care of our own contribution as individuals and communities in perceiving and understanding our life today, in the awareness that we are structurally fallible and unilateral, but these limitations don’t invalidate the dignity God gives us in discovering the value of personal reflection and autonomy. Our Hermeneutics should seriously take into account the Bible, but also the important questions of today’s Reader. Our questions, perplexities, disappointments, doubts, our critics as much as our aspirations, do matter today, and 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
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.