Hans-George Gadamer

I have been taught the historical-grammatical approach to biblical hermeneutics both as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student. It has been useful, but it always left me wondering how this approach allows for the Scriptures to be the book of the church rather than merely an open source. It was not until this last semester when I encountered the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer that my paradigm was shaken. Gadamer was a faithful Lutheran is what I have heard, but he was not a biblical exegete, per se. As I read through his work Truth and Method it dawned on me that he did not necessarily have any immediate stock on how Christian Scripture is read. First and foremost he was concerned with hermeneutics as hermeneutics. He was concerned with interpretation as it functions inherently. In the aforementioned work he does not discriminate much between how people approach art, drama, literature, and biblical texts.

So when he criticized historicism (i.e. the idea that the meaning of a text is forever determined by the authorial intent, location of writing, time when it was written, audience toward which it was directed, et al.) it made me stop to think. Is the whole of modern biblical studies built on a foundation that is philosophically weak in and of itself. Is the pride of groups like the Society of Biblical Literature outdated—namely, understanding is a scientific program that unearths static meaning from biblical texts like an archeologist digging for an old piece of pottery from a bygone era? Maybe that is too strong, but it does not seem to be a stretch that reading a philosopher like Gadamer (and Ricoeur, or so I have heard) may awaken us to the reality that meaning and understanding cannot be limited to history even as we read ancient artifacts, or old stage dramas, or Christian Scripture. Meaning is understood through a much more complex series of events.

Christians have spoken of the Scriptures as being our own. Scripture is Christian Scripture. Others can read it and yes, to some extent, understand it, but not like Christians. Is this something mysterious? Is this something cultic? Or is it just reality?

Gadamer wrote,

“Every age has to understand a transmitted text in its own way, for the text belongs to the whole tradition whose context interest the age and in which is seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text, as it speaks to the interpreter, does not depend on the contingencies of the author and the original audience. It certainly is not identical with them, for it is always co-determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter and hence by the totality of the objective course of history….Not just occasionally but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author. That is why understanding is not merely a reproductive but always a productive activity as well.” (Truth and Method, p. 296)

For Gadamer if a text means anything it means what emerges from the text interacting with the reader. Does this result in pure relativity? No, because we must always remember that the process of communication between the reader and text has the intention of the author/text on the other side. Nevertheless, as long as there is a new reader that new reader will hear it in a new way from a new angle which will result in a new meaning. This is inevitable.

If an atheist becomes a biblical scholar there will be a condition on the receiving end that will prevent them from hearing the message of Scripture. If we assume the Holy Spirit is active in the process then we can further postulate that the atheistic reader cannot hear the message of the text as it was intended because that reader refuses to hear the text as saying anything of trans-historical value to him/her. Can an atheist read the Epistle to the Romans understanding that the Apostle declares Jesus to be the resurrected Lord who brings us to the Father by the Holy Spirit that dwells in God’s adopted children. Sure, s/he can understand those words and their dictionary definitions. S/he can understand the text from a historical-grammatical perspective. S/he cannot fully understand those words.

If I wrote a letter to my younger brother recalling what it was like to be raised in our family, with our parents, in the town where we spent our formative years, and some one other than my brother read it, that person could understand what I am saying but they could never understand the text like my brother. This is not mystical, per se. This is not magic. This is reality.

For Gadamer there is something about being part of the tradition within which a given text has been handed down through the centuries. Again, I will mentioned the Epistle to the Romans. We cannot go wrong to read this biblical text with an eye toward the historical context. We cannot waste our time asking why the Apostle wrote the letter, to whom he wrote the letter, and so forth. But a hermeneutic of belief places the Christian at the receiving end of a letter that s/he believes is part of her/his tradition. It is a letter that has spoken to her/his history. It is something that has shaped her/his people (the church in our situation). It is a document that has been debated by his/her forbearers.

So no, we are not determined by tradition, but this does not mean we are free from the tradition. We do not have to affirm all that Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or John Calvin have said about this text, but we cannot pretend as if this has not impacted our understanding of this text. We cannot escape the concerns of history or the meanings derived. We cannot ignore the decisions toward this or that doctrinal stance that derived from this or that reading of a biblical text because as long as we are part of the Christian community, and we are aware (sometimes even if we are not aware!) of the discussions that have surrounded this text, we cannot access a pristine, non-defiled letter from Paul of Tarsus, a first century Jew, writing to early Christians in the city of Rome. We cannot escape its reception history.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth writes something very similar in “The Preface to the First Edition” of his commentary on the Book of Romans (trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns. The Epistle to the Romans. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1968). He writes, “Paul, as a child of his age, addressed his contemporaries. It is, however, far more important that, as a Prophet and Apostle of the Kingdom of God, he veritably speaks to all men of every age.”  (p. 1) Throughout the various prefaces he continues to defend this position. There is a difference between reading from the historical-critical approach (which he does not deny as having value) and reading from the presupposition that Scripture is inspired.

In “The Preface to the Third Edition” he notes the criticism of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann thought Barth to be “too conservative”. He said that we must read the writings of the Apostle Paul seeking both the “Spirit of Christ” and “other spirits”. Barth said that Bultmann defined these “other spirits” as “Jewish or Popular Christian or Hellenistic or whatever else they may be.” (p. 16)

Barth thought this to be problematic. He did not see how one was qualified to sift through the biblical text finding Christ here and “other spirits” there. Rather, he said we either read the whole text in the Spirit of Christ or we read the whole text with “other spirits”. We cannot pick and pull the parts we think to be of Christ.

Barth proposed that we must trust the Apostle. He says of a reader,

“The question is whether or not he is to place himself in a relation to his author of utter loyalty. Is he to read him, determined to follow him to the very last word, wholly aware of what he is doing, and assuming that the author also knew what he was doing? Loyalty surely cannot end at a particular point, and certainly he cannot be exhausted by an exposure of the author’s literary affinities. Anything short of utter loyalty means a commentary ON Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, not a commentary so far as possible WITH him.” (p. 17)

In other words, for Barth, we either see the Spirit of Christ coming through all of Paul’s epistle because we affirm the doctrine of inspiration or none of it at all. If we minimize inspiration then we may say things about Paul, but not together with Paul.

Gadamer wrote something similar (void of the doctrine of inspiration, obviously) that shows that Barth was not saying something inherently absurd (one may not affirm the doctrine of inspiration, but if we consider his interaction with Bultmann where the question is whether or not to find inspiration here, but not there, this statement is more relevant). Gadamer writes,

“And just as we believe the news reported by a correspondent because he was present and better informed, so too are we fundamentally open to the possibility that the writer of a transmitted texts is better informed that we are, with our prior opinion. It is only when the attempt to accept what is said as true fails that we try to “understand” the text, psychologically or historically, as another’s opinion. The prejudice of completeness, then, implies not only this formal element—that the text should completely express its meaning—but also that what is says should be complete truth.” (Truth and Method, p. 294)

For Barth, and for the Christian who sees the Apostle as an inspired Apostle and Prophet of God, we do not do anything than what any good reader should do at first: read the other with the benefit of the doubt. When this becomes impossible we can seek to understand why the other believed what they believed under the assumption that they were wrong, but had a reason for this. If we have a prejudice in favor of Scripture we assume that we should not come across a statement that is wrong forcing us to find out why the Apostle was mislead, but rather we assume as Barth writes, regarding the reader, “when he fails to understand, the blame is his and not Paul’s.” (p. 17)

If we come with the presupposition of an inspired biblical text we are going to find meaning that others may not see (cannot see?) in the same text. If I, as a citizen of the United States, read the United States Constitution as an authoritative document, that shapes and guides the people of which I am part, I will reach different conclusions that a historian from France, regarding the meaning and the value and the authority of this document. Why? Because I presuppose the text still speaks and that it still guides even in the present. Even more so for the Christian whose Pneumatology allows for a text that informs the people of God as the Holy Spirit participates in the unfolding meaning of the text through history to its final, eschatological definition.

If I am an atheist (or even a “liberal” Protestant) this is not a possibility. This is their presupposition; therefore, it is not possible for there to be shared meaning between s/he and I. If the presupposition is shared that the words of the Apostle are no longer his own once released to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the people of God, we will note that Scripture is not just a historical document  but a living constitution for Christians. At times we may both do historical work affirming that this or that “historical” reading makes the most sense from a “historical” paradigm (maybe), but this does not finalize the meaning of a text because for those with a hermeneutic of belief the Scriptures still speak as they move us toward the return of Christ.

OK, I have rambled on long enough. Let me hear your thoughts on this matter!