bits from bob....

Old Hermeneutic? New Hermeneutic?--Is There Another Option?

by Robert J. Young
©, 2003, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

Any discussion of hermeneutics has at its root the question of how one reconciles text and interpretation. Interpreting and applying the biblical text in the contemporary setting is an ever present challenge. How do cultures remote with respect to time and place and customs communicate with each other? How does one reconcile the incongruity one feels when stepping into a foreign culture?
All cultures, remote or near, have limited viewpoints and perspectives. Interrelating or fusing (Gadamer) the extreme horizons (Thistleton) of distinct cultures so that communication and understanding can occur is no small task. Witness the turmoil of our modern world as cultures--political, religious, and national--clash!

The First "New Hermeneutic"
The question of epistemology, how we know what we know, is not new. Nor can its longer history be traced in a brief paper. The phrase "New Hermeneutic" was attached to Barth's interpretive method by J. M. Robinson. In this rendition of the "New Hermeneutic," the subject of the text was considered the basis for understanding. Thus Gadamer considers "subject matter" the key to understanding even as Schleiermacher said the spirit of the author is equally important as his words.
These approaches to the biblical text effectively redefined hermeneutics. Whereas hermeneutics formerly referred to the theory and practice of interpretation primarily through historical and literary analysis, the new approach was more explicitly philosophical. Therefore today one must carefully define how one is using the term "new hermeneutic." Whatever the new hermeneutic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century may be, it is not the "New Hermeneutic."
Fuchs and Ebeling are often considered chief representatives of the "New Hermeneutic." They sought to understand how the biblical text can be intelligible to modern man. Questions of language, intent, and historical and literary backgrounds were raised in the search for the present meaning of the biblical text as it speaks in the modern world. The original meaning of the text was often divorced from the present meaning. They rejected the possibility of human objectivity. They sought objectivity through making the Bible primary as "subject." Since words may mean one thing to one individual and something else to another person, which definition is the correct one? The effort to let the text be "subject" and set its own agenda was intended as a corrective against human subjectivity. However, since disagreement over the intent of the text frequently occurred, the result was an increased subjectivity which allowed the Bible to say whatever the listener wanted it to say.
A key in this search is the distinction between what the text meant and what the text means--the "then and there" meaning and the "here and now" meaning. If the distinction is at times artificial, it nonetheless serves to clarify two distinct approaches to the biblical text.

The Bible as Object
Ascertaining what the text meant most often treats the text as object. As object, the Bible is analyzed at human initiative. We dissect it in historical and literary analysis. This process requires a distancing from the text that honors Gadamer's "pastness of the past." Disengagement is essential prior to exegesis.
The text as object (making human beings the "subject" of the search) presents no small problem. The greatest problem is that our own culture is so ever present in our thinking that it defines normality and blinds, deafens, and deceives us as it provides the framework through which we view everything about us. Humans are inadequate as subject. We may take (unintentional) priority. The Bible may become our pawn. Subjectivity reigns.
No subjectivism is as blind as that which denies it is subjective. Treating the text as object allows us to set the agenda. Today that agenda often focuses on doctrine and forsakes application. It frequently sacrifices right living in favor of right thinking. Good preaching, as defined recently by a student in a hermeneutics class, is merely "saying what the word says."
Mark it down: if the text is object, subjectivity follows.

The Bible as Subject
When the Bible is subject, human listeners become "object." The Bible speaks to us. As subject the Bible speaks with God's initiative whether we seek it or not, whether we desire it or not. The Bible as subject is free and justified in answering questions no one is asking. The Bible as subject has no obligation to answer every question humans want answered. It sets its own agenda. It speaks, and in the phrasing of the Reformers, we are "under it." It requires submissive engagement, empathy, and active interaction. The Bible ask subject speaks objectively, and can reveal objective truth whether anyone subjectively receives it as truth.
Our hermeneutical task is not to bring our own presuppositions and agendas of problems and questions. The Bible may respond to these, but it may not. The Bible has its own agenda. The text applies its message. The challenge is to "say what the word means." But to think that the Bible can be only subject is absurd.
Mark it down: the text as subject is no guarantee of objectivity.

Who Is Who?
Against this background, one should ask in surveying church history, "Who espouses which hermeneutic?" Which is the hermeneutic of Tillich and his correlative method that finds a message in Scripture to match the human dilemma? Does the Bible or the human predicament have priority? Is the Bible object or subject? Which is the hermeneutic of the traditional Restorationist view which hears the Bible speaking through the human logic of command, example, and inference? Is text or interpreter primary? Is the Bible object or subject? Which is the hermeneutic of David Tracy, John Hall, or the liberation theologians? Is human experience or the biblical text primary?

An Alternative Approach
The intent of this essay is to suggest that given the customary meaning of the terms among churches of Christ, neither the 'new' hermeneutic nor the 'old' hermeneutic is solely adequate as a way of understanding the task of interpreting and communicating Scripture. Understanding Scripture not only requires that we stand back from it but also that we enter it. We analyze it as it analyzes us. Understanding requires both disengagement and active engagement. There must be active dialogue between text and interpreter. Even when we work hard to eliminate our own presuppositions and agendas, we are not totally successful. No one ever approaches the text with a "blank slate."
The Bible responding to our questions may answer them. More frequently it challenges us to formulate new questions or to reframe our questions. When we return to the text the dialogue of the hermeneutical circle continues, although if the dialogue is going anywhere, the progression suggested by a hermeneutical spiral may be a more apt description as the circle becomes ever narrower as it focuses on the truth God's Word communicates.

I abhor the uncontrolled subjectivity that comes when one denies the Bible an accessible, objective meaning. The Bible is truth, whether anyone recognizes it or not. Nevertheless there is a value in what the "New Hermeneutic" sought. A cultural gulf exists between the then and now, the there and here. If the old hermeneutic supplied a set of universal interpretive rules to be applied to the text, the new hermeneutic asks if and how the text can with priority speak its message to us. John Stott's summary is helpful:

The old hermeneutic concentrated on the text as object; we stood over it, studied it, scrutinized it, applied our rules to it, and almost took control of it. The new hermeneutic, however, concentrates on the text as subject; it stands over us, and we sit meekly 'under it'...It addresses, confronts, challenges, and changes us.

The polarization of 'old' and 'new' in our day is not helpful but is a great danger. Most of us who share a Restoration heritage coexist in a fairly narrow theological band far removed from Fuchs and Ebeling and the "New Hermeneutic." Both the 'old' and the 'new' as we generally discuss them are lopsided. I see no valid option other than to recognize that the text is both subject and object. We (subject) seek it (object) as it (subject) seeks us (object). Whether it is object or subject, it is the same word of God. Whether I am a scholar seeking to understand its message through modern logic and study tools, or the "man in the mall" reading it uncritically before I pillow my head at night without the help of historical and literary tools, it is the same word of God. It speaks, I must hear and answer.

I am asked at times, "Are you a 'new' or an 'old' hermeneutiker? My answer is "yes!"

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Last updated November 1, 2003.