Thursday, March 17, 2005

Clarifying the Hermeneutical Challenge

This is a response to Roland Fulmer that is part of a discussion going on on the listserv,

I think you are making good points, which engage with this situation and help us to explore the challenge of the hermeneutic within the context of a wider forum. There are, in fact, a multiplicity of hermeneutics out there, as has been pointed our consistently by Prof. Anthony Thistleton (and others) in the various works on the topic he has produced over the last 30-40 years. (Thistleton's most recent book, New Horizons in Hermeneutics was published in 1997 and is available through

It is true, I think, that living as we do in the wake of the Enlightenment, much of our scholarship and comprehension (whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or secular) has been shaped and formed within this "bubble." One of the tasks before us is to be reviewing what has happened, and to be asking some fundamental questions of it. For example, I believe that mainstream evangelical Christianity is a legitimate development from pre-Reformation approaches as the church attempted to understand its faith within an Enlightenment-shaped culture. I am also sure that as we move into the post-Enlightenment period we will inevitably be able to see blind spots that were not an appropriate development of catholic faith within faithful evangelicalism -- and these need to be corrected if we are to be disciples of truth.

However, if we think of church tradition as the environment within which the faith was legitimately "contained," and I use this word cautiously, we will see that there are a variety of understandings functioning within that environment, but though history there were always others that appeared attractive, but ultimately led off into cul-de-sacs and no through roads. Meanwhile, as the Gospel encountered different cultures, societies, and the particularities of succeeding eras, etc., and as the churches sought to interpret the faith into those settings, a series of hermeneutical traditions each dependent upon past faithfulness developed. Also, the on going life of the church developed healthy mechanisms which filtered out hermeneutical approaches that were inappropriate for to what broadly might be called orthodoxy. This happened over time and under the sovereignty of God, for orthodoxy by its very nature is self-correcting (This is something Thomas Oden explored in his most recent book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy).

If I were to talk about hermeneutical approaches that are "traditional," it is to this stable of traditions that I would be referring. This stable of approaches stands, I believe, in contradistinction to the variety of emergent approaches that have emerged since World War Two. These are, directly or indirectly, related to the recent phenomenon of deconstructionism. Deconstructionism is understood to be a challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a particular text.

"Basing itself in language analysis, it seeks to "deconstruct" the ideological biases (gender, racial, economic, political, cultural) and traditional assumptions that infect all histories, as well as philosophical and religious 'truths.' Deconstructionism is based on the premise that much of human history, in trying to understand, and then define, reality has led to various forms of domination - of nature, of people of color, of the poor, of homosexuals, etc. Like postmodernism, deconstructionism finds concrete experience more valid than abstract ideas and, therefore, refutes any attempts to produce a history, or a truth. In other words, the multiplicities and contingencies of human experience necessarily bring knowledge down to the local and specific level, and challenge the tendency to centralize power through the claims of an ultimate truth which must be accepted or obeyed by all" (

The academic study of literature (in which my wife is involved as a professor of French), has begun to recognize flaws in the essence of deconstruction, even if there are some helpful things that might be gained by what it brings to the table. However, while there is some continuity in this approach, overwehelmingly there is a great deal more discontinuity. It is this discontinuity that has been upsetting the apple cart in the churches and beyond, particularly in its opposition to any notion that there is such a thing as universal truth - notice that the word "truths" in the definition above is put in parentheses.

If we are to be people of truth, devoted to follow in the footsteps of the One who is the "way, truth, and life, then the hermeneutical challenge before us is huge, and we side-step it at our own peril.

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