Modes of Appropriating the Bible

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Modes of Appropriating the Bible:The Problem of Distance in Theological Hermeneutics*

Waldemar Janzen§


→178# When we begin to reflect about the possibility of understanding a written text--or for that matter, the living speech of our contemporaries--we have entered the realm of concern technically called “hermeneutics.” While such reflection goes on in all disciplines that deal with texts or with people, its primary focus in theology is, of course, the Bible. How can this collection of writings from a different age and culture speak across the centuries and cultural barriers to us in a meaningful and relevant way?

The believer may, perhaps, confront the attempt to reflect consciously and intellectually on the possibility and the nature of bridging those gaps with an impatient assertion of fact: “The Bible has spoken meaningfully to generations of Christians, and it still speaks to me! Why intellectualize the process?!” To this, one needs to point out that one who is ready to be satisfied with unreflecting acceptance should not be surprised if s/he meets in others unreflecting rejection. If it is not necessary to give account for the claim that the Bible “still speaks to us today,” it seems equally justified to assert without reflection that it “has no meaning for our time.”

If we stress the need for conscious reflection here, however, it is not meant to imply that the Bible speaks to us only after we have arrived at an adequate hermeneutical theory. An analogy may illustrate the place of conscious hermeneutical reflection: In order to understand a person in the totality of his or her →179 being we might do best to live with that person for a while and to absorb intuitively the impression of his or her personality on us. However, if a particular question should arise, like the person’s ability to drive a truck, a conscious inquiry about his or her chauffeur’s license and driving record may reveal what a month of living together might never have shown. Hermeneutical theory is no substitute for persistent and expectant Bible reading, but it serves some functions not performed by intuition and it is--unlike intuition--communicable. For the latter reason teachers and preachers will, sooner or later, with greater or lesser persistency, ask some of the hermeneutical questions overtly.

While these questions have been asked continuously since the time of the early Rabbis and the first Christian exegetes, the rise of historicist thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries gave the task of hermeneutics a new, prominence. As the dispassionate modern historian came to see the past in all its strangeness and distance, the consciousness of a gap between the ancient Scriptures and their contemporary reader demanded ever greater bridge-building. But when, in our own century, the apparently detached and dispassionate historian was recognized as being himself a part of the flux of history, i.e. when historicism was seen to be itself a time-bound Western mental stance, the task of hermeneutics widened out even more so as to embrace the comprehensive question as to who we are; it became synonymous with ontology.

I. A Survey of Hermeneutical Approaches

Our brief survey can neither catalogue the variety of hermeneutical approaches fully nor nuance their distinctiveness sufficiently.[1] It will consist, therefore, of a sampling selected to set forth certain distinctive attempts of interpreters to bridge the temporal and cultural distance between the Bible and their own time. Our primary organizing principle shall be the question whether an interpreter or movement faced this distance seriously as having to be traversed, or whether such an interpreter or school employed some device to collapse the distance so as to make past and present essentially contemporaneous.

In analogy to modern means of transportation we shall speak of “ground routes” and “air routes” →180 between the Bible and our time. While every hermeneutical approach contains, no doubt, some valuable insights, and while no comprehensive judgment is intended, certain preferences on the part of the writer will appear as we proceed. If our groupings should result in unexpected or even seemingly incompatible associations, it should be kept in mind that we suggest such similarity in one respect only, namely with respect to the treatment of “distance.”[2]

A. “Air Routes”

1. Abiding Law: Rabbinic Judaism...Christian Moralism Rabbinic Judaism of New Testament times and later understood the Old Testament as a guide for life, valid in detailed application to subsequent ages. The words spoken to the Israelites at Moses’ or Jeremiah’s time were to be heard by Jews living centuries later as a demand upon them. As this resulted in obvious incongruities of situation, the science of adapting the biblical statements to later needs had to be developed, a process which can be seen in3 the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other Rabbinic literature.[3]

The critique leveled against the Rabbis cannot be aimed at their desire to make Scripture relevant; it must be aimed at the fragmentation of Scripture in the process. The complex and profound revelation of God’s grace during the exodus from Egypt and the resultant covenant relationship between God and Israel could no longer be appreciated in their coherence and in their significant order of God’s grace followed by human response of obedience. Instead, small segments were asked to yield self-contained meanings to be carried over to limited areas of later life. Out of the Law came laws.

In the history of the church this approach has appeared again and again, often at those points where great reverence for the words of the biblical text led to a preoccupation with short excerpts from Scripture, to the neglect of its major themes. The Reformation’s concern for the Word placed the Bible into the center of Protestant life, but this very attempt to make it “food for every day” led to its fragmented distribution and consumption: detailed exegesis of a →181 short sermon text; meditation on a brief passage for daily devotions; concentration on one short story during Sunday school hour, a story expected to carry its message within its short self. Unless the teacher or preacher is very skillful in placing the story or text into a broader context by preserving the main themes from Sunday to Sunday, each short unit will become a “hero-villain” story leaving the hearer with the command to do as good Abraham and not as bad Lot, or as good David and not as bad Saul. In other words, a “do-don’t” application, a legalism or moralism, has resulted.

2. Abstracted Truth: Philo...Medieval Allegorizing...Liberal Theology

A different avenue toward relevance had its origin in Judaism also, but became prominent in the Christian Church during its first several centuries and dominated Bible interpretation during the Middle Ages. When Philo and others found it necessary to interpret Judaism to the Greek world, they attempted to present it to the philosophical Greek mind as a different, though legitimate philosophy. As the Bible consists of very tangible and concrete stories very dissimilar from philosophical speculations, this could only be achieved by attributing to the biblical stories hidden “spiritual” meanings. Job’s camels and sheep now became his good and evil thoughts, etc. This is allegorizing, and its product an allegory, a story that appears to say one thing but means another.

It is important to note here that the “truth” contained in a biblical text is thought to be detachable from the concrete features of the text. In the Protestant Liberalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century we find a similar assumption, and again it is prompted by the desire to make the Bible palatable to a different mental climate. Truths such as the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of men, and, the infinite value and immortality of the soul were not seen as the abstracted gains of Bible interpretation. These were congruent, it was held, with the “mind of Jesus,” as contrasted with the details of the records or the accretions of churchly interpretation, much as liberal interpreters were interested in technical historical data from a purely scholarly perspective.

→182 It is tempting to see Bultmann’s “demythologizing” as a further instance of abstracting general truths from the more vivid and concrete - according to him, mythological--accounts of the New Testament. To do so would be justified, in part, and yet it seems more proper to consider Bultmann in our next section, for reasons to be discussed there.

If Rabbinic Judaism and its legalistic-moralistic counterparts treasured the biblical detail but lost sight of the wider perspective, the “detachable truth” approach of Philo, Medieval allegorizing, and modern Liberalism cannot be criticized on this count. Its strength is its striving for comprehensiveness of horizon. Its vulnerability arises from the fact that it needs to depart from the biblical medium. It abandons the confessional recital of the acts of God in the history of Israel, of Jesus Christ and of the church, in favor of philosophically formulated truths, even if supposedly distilled from Scripture. To the extent that the medium is the message, the loss of the medium must mean a loss of the message. But even if we admit that the message can be translated to some extent from one medium to another, the attempts at such translation have proved to be open gates for the prevailing philosophies, whether they were Neo-Platonism, idealism, or Existentialism.

3. Common Humanity: Schleiermacher... Dilthey...Bultmann...Barth(?) Schleiermacher, more than anyone else, deserves to be called the father of modern philosophical as well as theological hermeneutics.[4] From the multiplicity of specialized and methodical rules for interpretation devised over the centuries he turned to the deeper question: How is it possible to understand another human being?

That such a question was necessary, however, was the result of the spreading historicist sense of estrangement from the past, an estrangement which had given up the hope of agreement with the past on subject matter and could only hope to “understand” bygone ages “historically,” i.e. on their own terms, in their strangeness from modern man. Schleiermacher found a common denominator between a speaker or writer on the one hand, and his hearer or reader on the other, in their common psychological →183 constitution. Behind each text stands an author who shares with the interpreter the same basic human personality structure, and it becomes the interpreter’s task to read in the words of the text the clues to that personality, a personality most closely tied up with and therefore revealed by language. If the text provides only sparing clues, the interpreter must draw on his knowledge of human nature to provide what is lacking for an empathetic recreation of the author’s intention. Such psychological divining of the mind of another—more an art than a method--must be controlled by comparing the author with others of significant similarity to him, so as to ascertain his individuality in comparison with them. While it is a misrepresentation, therefore, to ascribe to Schleiermacher utter subjectivity of feeling without any controls arising from history, it is important for our purpose here to note that the assumption of a common personality structure allows for a psychological leap across historical distances and cultural differences. Bible interpretation, which provided the impetus for Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical concern, proceeds according to the same dynamics of understanding that characterize interpretation generally.

It becomes necessary here to mention Wilhelm Dilthey, [5] even though his efforts were philosophical and not chiefly concerned with Bible interpretation: first, because he has been the interpreter of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical thought for later times and, second, because he extended the meaning of hermeneutics to embrace the totality of understanding.

Steeped in the historicism of von Ranke, Droysen, and others, and under the impact of the methodology of the natural sciences, though bracing himself against their domination of the humanities, Dilthey set out to produce a critique of historical reason, as Kant before him had undertaken a critique of natural reason. While Schleiermacher had been concerned with the understanding of texts from the past, notably the biblical text, Dilthey asked more comprehensively how it can be possible to think historically, i.e. to understand life as shown forth in all its verbal and non-verbal documents. The answer lay, for Dilthey, in the historical nature of human experience.

→184 The one who makes history and the one who interprets history share as a common denominator their capacity for historical experience (Erlebnis), a capacity which Dilthey understood in analogy to biographical experience. As one recognizes his or her individual human life as forming an organically interrelated whole, organized around certain experiences of outstanding significance, so the totality of human life, or history, can be understood from within, as it were. While no one individual experiences the cohesion or organic wholeness of the larger segments of life in the same way as one experiences autobiographical existence, Dilthey believes that logical subjects, such as the generation or the nation, can be postulated as the subjects of such historical experience of the organic cohesion of the whole, in analogy to the biographical experience of the individual. To what extent he was successful in establishing a philosophical basis for the historical thinking of the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) is not our concern here. For our purposes we note the introduction again of a universally shared quality of humanity—the very capacity for historical experience—to collapse the distances of time and culture and to effect the contemporaneity of all of history for historically reflective man/woman.

Like Schleiermacher and Dilthey, Rudolf Bultmann sets out prom a strong awareness of the otherness of the past.[6] The New Testament--not to mention the Old, which he considers a history of failure--speaks in mythological language, while the modern mind accepts a view of history understood to be a closed causal continuum as axiomatic. To make the New Testament understandable to this modern person, it must be divested of its mythological expression--”demythologized.” But would that not destroy its meaning also? No, says Bultmann, for beneath the mythological language lies the question concerning God or, which is the same for Bultmann, concerning the meaning of existence, a question which is basic to every person and which, therefore, forms a common denominator between the past and the present. Therefore it is possible to penetrate beneath the mythological language in which the New Testament speaks to this question, and to receive its claims as claims upon us today also. But in what language or thought forms can this message now be clothed? →185 Of course, in those which give most adequate modern formulation to the nature of human existence, and these were provided, for Bultmann, by Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of being, as presented in his Sein and Zeit. The philosophical categories of Heideggerian existentialism, then, supply the structure, and perhaps--against Bultmann’s protestations--the straight jacket, within which the New Testament is to be heard today.

Whether Karl Barth should be mentioned at this point is a question. In the 1921 preface to his commentary on Romans he makes a statement that reminds one of Schleiermacher: “Intelligent comment means that I am driven on till the document seems hardly to exist as a document; till I have almost forgotten that I am not its author; till I know the author so well that I allow him to speak in my game and am even able to speak in his name myself.”[7] His existentialist immediacy of encounter with the Word of God and the secondary role ascribed thy him to church history as a theological discipline[8] would certainly justify us in characterizing his hermeneutics as an “air route,” but his demand for a theological understanding of the Bible from within faith forbids any recourse to some common aspect of humanity as the device to bridge the gap between past and present. The only possible hermeneutic appropriate to Barth’s position would have to be a revealed hermeneutic.[9] Consequently, he has never undertaken a systematization of his hermeneutics, though his writings have provided perhaps the most basic impetus in our century for a reconsideration of the meaning of the Bible for today.[10] Hans-Georg Gadamer puts it well when he says: “The grand and monumental work of Karl Barth, his Church Dogmatics, contributes to the hermeneutical problem nowhere in particular and indirectly everywhere.”[11]

Our critique of this last group of thinkers can certainly not be directed at their search for some aspect of common humanity as that which makes understanding across the centuries possible. If ancient writers had been beings essentially different from us, understanding would be as inconceivable as it is now between animals and people. Without embracing Heidegger’s philosophy as such, one can appreciate his famous “hermeneutical circle” with its insistence on the need for a pre-understanding (Vor-Struktur), if understanding is to result.[12] Our critique must, →186 instead, be directed against the manner in which these thinkers short-circuit the historical process, understood as theological movement through time towards an eschatological goal. This is so in spite of their (variously understood) affirmations of the historical nature of man and woman and the eschatological orientation of their existence, for these terms have themselves become in their mouths quasi-mythical and timeless categories.

B. “Ground Routes”

The avenues to relevant appropriation of the Bible for our time outlined so far, could be compared to sweeping arcs that span, in grand manner, the distance between the Bible and the present. They largely ignore, or attribute little significance to, the intervening ages. Mosaic law becomes law for today; biblical stories yield “truths” to be accepted today; a common humanity allows the present to tune in on the past. We turn now to those approaches that move “by ground route” from biblical history through church history to the present.

1. Progress: Leasing….Herder...Hegel[13]

A first thrust in this direction begins in the period of Enlightenment and--significantly, as we shall see--grows on the fringes of mainline Christianity. The thinkers of that period were concerned with history, though they took a rather detached and critical stance towards it. They were concerned to preserve distance between benighted bygone ages and their enlightened present in which universal reason had come to a fruition not known before and was about to free itself from the shackles of the particulars of history. Gotthold Ephraim Leasing, great German man of letters, might be taken as a worthy representative. The thought that God, conceived as universal Reason, should have manifested himself through the time-bound and often repulsive events told in the Old Testament, was quite unacceptable to him. Nevertheless, he could not shake off the problem of the origins of Christianity, bitter as his attacks on the Christian theologians became at times, until he found a →187 solution: In his Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780)[14] he developed the argument that God had condescended to manifest himself to crude times in crude ways, appropriate to the “childhood of the race,” in order to educate humanity to ever greater maturity and refinement, when it would have left behind it the cruder stages and would arrive at a universal and rational religion.

While the Enlightenment saw such an educative process as a means to dissociate its own age, as the higher level, from the less advanced preceding stages, romanticism embraced a similar model of maturation of humanity, but with differently placed value accents. If Leasing saw in the childhood of the race the lowly starting point from which divine pedagogy could lead to ever greater enlightenment, Johann Gottfried Herder dwelt upon that childhood lovingly with intuitive and aesthetic appreciation.[15] Not the enlightened end product, but the innocence of childhood deserved admiration, and each stage of development should be accorded its own justification and appreciation.

Much greater has been the impact of Hegel’s view of history on the understanding of the significance of biblical history for modern man.[16] Like Leasing, he saw the past, including the biblical past, as linked to the present through a continuous process of historical movement, a movement in the course of which the Spirit comprehended and transcended more and more of the specifics of nature, so as to emerge from the time-bound specifics of history to ever greater universality. As Leasing, Hegel also accorded biblical history and its subsequent unfolding in Christianity a place of special prominence unsurpassed by any other religion, yet penultimate to the final self-manifestation of absolute Spirit, the pinnacle of Hegel’s pyramidal structure of reality. While this penultimate stage still requires, and rightly so, a metaphysical other comprehended in faith, the final transfiguration as absolute Spirit, apprehended in speculative philosophical thought, is monistic.

Hermeneutics is, for Hegel, not a subsidiary discipline , but in substance—if not in terminology— his total concern. For as Gadamer puts it: Hegel’s philosophy of the Spirit claims to effect a total mediation between history and the present.[17] And it was not the externally restituted past--whether restituted to present awareness psychologically or in any other way--but the recognition of the past as →188 present and as comprehensively and continuously effective in and constitutive of the present. That such a teleological movement can be understood speculatively only in reverse, i.e. from the standpoint of the achieved goal--for Hegel, the completed self-transformation of history into absolute Spirit--is a logical necessity that, as Gamer has shown, seems speculatively unassailable.[18] If it is, nevertheless, not fully satisfying, a fact to which a persistent stream of criticism--to wit, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and others - testifies, a new and wider basis than speculative thought must be found to supersede Hegel. It is at this point where most recent philosophical hermeneutics has its “Anknüpfungspunkt.” We shall have to return to it below.

In contrast to the “air route” approaches outlined earlier, such a “ground route” connection between the Bible and the present ties biblical history and the history within which we stand into one coherent movement, thus making us a part of the process proclaimed in the Bible. The problem created for us, however, lies in the fact that biblical history is swallowed up into world history as the lines between biblical history, ancient world history, church history and modern history fade in favor of one grand movement of history, frequently with pantheistic overtones. It is not accidental that these approaches often grew on the fringes of historic Christianity and that Christians among their advocates had to strain their understanding of “Christian” to the utmost. Nevertheless, these attempts raise the extremely acute question of the relation between sacred history and universal history, between the particularity of biblical revelation and the universality of truth.

2. “Heilsgeschichte”: von Hofmann...Cullmann

A second “ground route” approach to Scripture is associated with the term Heilsgeschichte, “salvation history,” and is generally traced to the German Lutheran theologian Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann and the so-called “Erlangen School” of the nineteenth century.[19] Von Hofmann distinguishes between the world history on the one hand and the →189 history of Israel, of Jesus and of the church on the other. The latter is a “sacred history,” a special strand of history through which God manifests himself to a select group, though for the purpose of showing the way to salvation for the whole world.

In the tradition of Schleiermacher, von Hofmann holds that biblical hermeneutics stands within the laws of general hermeneutics, and that the latter must presuppose a certain degree of psychological community between author and interpreter which makes an empathetic understanding possible across time. “After all, he who interprets retraces Oro thoughts which another has thought before him.”[20] However, the specific task of the Christian interpreter arises from the question with which s/he approaches the Bible, namely the question concerning its meaning in its totality. S/he confronts the Bible as a unity and asks concerning the meaning of this unity, while general hermeneutics normally directs itself to smaller units and constructs them as evidence for more comprehensive life manifestations.

Von Hofmann, then, explicitly posits a pre-judgment (Vorurteil) on the basis of faith, concerning the nature and unity of Scripture, a pre-judgment which is expected to authenticate itself. This faith, on the basis of an experienced reality of salvation (Heilsgegenwart), pre-judges the history that led up to it as a history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte), a process of the realization of the essential will of God (“Verwirklichung des wesentlichen Willens Goddes”).[21] It is in this characterization of Scripture (and in a sense church history) as salvation history, that its unity consists. In its specifics no conformity is superimposed on it, however, and the unity can be observed only in a--cautiously applied—typological relationship between events that may lie far apart in time and circumstances.

Certain affinities to Lessing’s and Hegel’s developmental philosophies of history are evident here, particularly the teleological movement from particularity toward increasing universality or, theologically, from promise to ever greater fulfillment. However, this movement for von Hofmann, has not reached as yet its goal of universal comprehension, so that salvation history remains for now a narrow current within the broad stream of universal history.

→190 The relationship between salvation history and general world history has been treated in some detail by Oscar Cullmann, in his Christ and Time (1946). Cullmann, one of the more prominent exponents of Heilsgeschichte in our century, insists that this salvation history is by no means irrelevant for world history. On the contrary, it represents the theological goal of the latter, and as such it is from the vantage point of Heilsgeschichte alone that universal history gains ultimate meaning. But this “Christian absolute norm is itself also history and is not, as is the philosophical norm [of the philosophies of history], a transcendent datum that lies beyond all history.”[22]

In spite of such attempts to interrelate salvation history and world history, Heilsgeschichte theology is perceived by many as asserting a dichotomy between God’s general government of the world and special leading of the elect. In a climate of thought pervaded by the almost axiomatic assumption of a monistic world such an apparent duality is rejected in many quarters as offensive. The theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, to be considered shortly, is again addressing itself to this problem.

II. The Present Situation

1. Beyond the “Earlier” Heidegger and Bultman: The New Hermeneutic

By “present situation” I mean here the development of hermeneutics beyond the “earlier” Heidegger and Bultmann, in philosophy and theology, respectively. The impetus for much that follows was the identification, on Heidegger’s part, of existence with the linguistic. Language was to be seen as the all-embracing reality. Language is not the expression of an underlying reality, but itself that which creates reality. Man/woman is characterized most adequately when seen in their “linguisticality.”[23]

While Bultmann himself, indebted to the earlier Heidegger though he was, did not move into this new philosophical phase, certain of his students saw in it new possibilities. The church historian Gerhard Ebeling characterized church history as “the history of the interpretation of Holy Scripture,” [24] while →191 the New Testament scholar Ernst Fuchs came to see in Jesus a language event (Sprachereignis; cf. Ebeling: Wortgeschehen).[25] In this formulation Fuchs attempted to break through the impasse between event and interpretation which had characterized Bible interpretation since Martin Kähler and had led Bultmann to reject every search for the “historical Jesus.” If, for Bultmann, the New Testament in demythologized form confronted modern man/woman existentially with a call to authentic existence, it lays claim now, according to the New Hermeneutic of Fuchs, Ebeling, and others, on modern man/woman as a language event giving to us authentic language as a gift and a claim. We cannot really invent language; we find it or, perhaps better, it finds us, for it precedes us, addresses us and calls us toward authentic linguisticality. To understand the word event means to accept it; Verständnis means Einverständnis, or nothing at all. A fatalistic subjection to the--linguistically mediated--past confronts us here, and at the same time a new existentialism, an “air route,” certainly, in our metaphorical classification. Certain intentions of the New Hermeneutic become immediately apparent. First, in continuity with Heidegger and Bultmann these efforts seek to escape the tyranny of Positivism by opposing the Cartesian subject-object dichotomy through a phenomenologically based ontology. Acknowledging that neither a mythological nor a scientific world view answers our deepest existential questions, Fuchs regards authenticity-in-linguisticality as a saving alternative to the threat of succumbing in both spirit and language to an ever more tyrannicizing Positivism.[26] Second, the New Hermeneutic tries to advance beyond the Bultmannian dichotomy between history (Historie) and kerygma.

The liabilities of the New Hermeneutic have been hit most centrally and devastatingly by Hans Jonas’ brilliant critique of the usefulness of Heideggerian philosophy for theology.[27] He sees in Heidegger’s philosophy a paganized Christian theology which is now, deferentially(!) re-imported again by its theological devotees as the ultimate in philosophical →192 insight to undergird theology. Jonas pleads passionately, as a Jew with Christians(!), to see through the fatalistic paganism of Heidegger and to learn from him only about the world, a world dominated by the fallen powers, a world in need of salvation. But what we cannot learn from him--but is ever so important to maintain—is God’s transcendence over this world. We must guard jealously God’s sovereign claim over this immanental system. One should notice, in particular, the inability of Heideggerian philosophy to provide (1) a criterion for morally assessing the calls from being or linguisticality--for distinguishing between Jesus Christ and Hitler, to be blunt—and its inability (2) to deal with the phenomenon of non-human nature. In addition to these basic criticisms, which include Bultmann in their aim as well, one might register—in a much lower key, but deeply felt—a strong protest against the scandalous gymnastics with language in which these protagonists of linguisticality indulge!

2. Hans-Georg Gadamer

Parallel to the concerns for a language-based ontology which occupied the later Heidegger—and Fuchs and Ebeling as well--moves the thought of Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose philosophical hermeneutic Wahrheit and Methode (1960)[28] is undoubtedly the most impressive recent publication in the field. Gadamer has recognized that Heidegger’s renewed quest for an ontology of being, though immediately directed against Cartesian objectivism and of Positivism, was in the end a confrontation with speculative Idealism, i.e., with Hegel. Heidegger and Hegel are the starting points for Gadamer.

Hegel’s philosophy of the ever more comprehensive movement of the spirit towards its absolute self-comprehension elicits both Gadamer’s affirmation and critique. Speculative attacks upon it have, in Gadamer’s judgment, proven self-defeating. Various attempts to assert, over against Hegel’s affirmation of the comprehensive ultimacy of the spirit, the claims of the immediacy of bodily nature, of the “thou” that lays a claim upon me, of unfathomable chance, or of the realisms of economics, if made speculatively, have already been anticipated by Hegel.[29] Nevertheless, their claims need not be untrue, even if they lose the argument. Truth is →193 wider than speculation. Aspects of our being assert themselves against the reign, not only of positivistic scientism and historicism--i.e. against the tyranny of method--but slim against the sovereignty of speculative thought.[30]

Understanding of the past cannot be commandeered from the elevated vantage point of absolute Spirit, or from that of an objectifying scientific or historical method. Understanding happens rather on the lower level of experience (Erfahrung), and this is phenomenologically evident. But when we gather experience, understanding happens as the acquisition of a negative insight against a prior assumption which is now corrected. It has the structure of: Aha, I thought it was such and so, but now I see that it is different.[31]

Thus he who understands the past does so from a vantage point within the movement of history, a vantage point with a circumscribed horizon. If he can understand a document from the past, it is not because a common psychological structure or anything within himself subjectively or existentially experienced forms a bridge to the ancient author’s similar constitution (Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Bultmann), but because he shares in a subject matter with the text, a subject matter which has come down to him historically and which provided him with the pre-judgment needed to direct the right questions at the ancient document. The past has a continuous effectiveness (Wirkungsgeschichte) which precedes me as an individual and gives to me the contents which determine my presuppositions for understanding it, and it precedes me in this way as language, for it is as language that the past becomes effective for me and determines my horizon of understanding. A common language makes it possible also that my horizon expands through my encounter with an ancient text so as to merge with the horizon of the document (Horizontverschmelzung) in a material agreement upon a common subject matter. In this way a new horizon is formed which embraces my horizon and that of the text, but goes beyond them, for such an understanding is creative of a new reality, and yet a new reality which itself is finite and open towards further movement into the future.[32]

Hermeneutics here, of course, becomes a full ontology. The question concerning the possibility of understanding becomes--with Heidegger--the question →194 concerning the nature of reality, of being, for life has the character of gaining experience (Erfahrung), and all this happens in the medium of language. While the interpreter’s own historically circumscribed vantage point is fully realized as such, and while no psychological or existential leap foreshortens historical distance, the past is shown, nevertheless, as continuously effective upon the present in a manner consonant with observed life.[33] While the dynamic of the ongoing mediation of the past to the present shows the Hegelian basis of Gadamer’s philosophy, the finite and open character of this movement stands in contrast to the Hegelian, or any other, philosophy of history. These are gains indeed.

Nevertheless, old problems show themselves again. First, those which Jonas pointed up in Heidegger, seem to remain; there emerges no clear criterion for value judgments,[34] and no clear place for non-human nature. Second, the ontological freight placed upon language may be greater than it can carry. Does not language become again a metaphysical constant, like Hegel’s Spirit or Heidegger’s Being?[35] And if this is to be avoided--and Gadamer consciously wants to avoid it--must one not grant that reality exceeds the bounds of language? Gadamer remains a philosopher, and that in the very best sense. Theologians are just beginning to become enamored with his thought. As they continue to do so, Hans Jonas’ instruction in the proper use of philosophy by the theologian should, wishfully, never be forgotten!

3. Eschatological Theologies of History: Pannenberg...Moltmann The last point raised against Gadamer, i.e., his overburdening of language with ontology, is argued forcefully by Wolfhart Pannenberg, who sees the past mediated to the present within the course of historical movement--agreeing extensively here with Gadamer’s analysis of Wirkungsgeschichte and Horizontverschmelzung—but conceives of this hermeneutical process as standing within the wider context of universal history.[36]

The distance between an ancient text, says Pannenberg, and its present interpreter demands that the new and comprehensive horizon which results in the course of interpretation must embrace a large segment →195 of the world in all its aspects, and it is inconceivable not to think of ever more comprehensive horizons as emerging from the task of understanding, until the widest horizon would embrace all of history, including its not yet realized future possibilities. He claims that Gadamer himself is hard-pressed not to move in this direction:

It is a peculiar spectacle to see how an incisive and penetrating author has his hands full trying to keep his thoughts from going in the direction they inherently want to go. Gadamer’s book offers this kind of spectacle when he strives to avoid the Hegelian total mediation of the truth of the present by means of history.[37]

Linguisticality is too narrow a thread to bridge the distance from past to present; such a mediation must

occur within the realm of the stated content itself as this becomes visible in its historicness, so that art, religion, law, and even such an apparently nonhistorical matter as mathematics, are to be understood as contents. . .[38]

Pannenberg himself, consequently, asserts the need of linking past and present within a concept of universal history:

Only the unity of the totality of tradition provides the horizon--this is what is to be concluded, beyond the points Gadamer has made--for an assessment of the results of applications may in working with the transmitted texts.[39]

Now Pannenberg is equally concerned to preserve that “irreducible finitude of experience” and that “openness of the future” which Gadamer also is trying to preserve against the Hegelian attempt to grasp the whole. But these can be preserved, according to Pannenberg, if in the manner of biblical history, one thinks of the end and completion of history as that from which the process gets its meaning, and as being known in a provisional and anticipatory way. The eschatological nature of the message of Jesus, understandably not recognized by Hegel due to the state of biblical studies at his time, makes this possible and demands it.[40]

Pannenberg’s whole theological program moves →196 within a universal history frame of reference, within which the present can be understood only in retrospect from the ultimate goal. But since that ultimate goal is known in an anticipatory way only—through the biblical history culminating in Jesus Christ—i.e. in the form of promise towards the fulfillment of which the process of history is moving in anticipation, the understanding of the future is mediated to the present through the promises from the past, i.e. through the Wirkungsgeschichte of promise which provides the center for which world history is the horizon.[41]

That a universal history defined in this way has little resemblance to the history of a positivist historian is clear. It becomes a theology of history. Yet Pannenberg is anxious not to narrow his discussion into one about Heilsgeschichte, though the latter, especially as explicated for the Old Testament by Gerhard von Rad, provides both the impetus and much of the promise-fulfillment structure of his universal history. From a strongly christological orientation he wants to move out to embrace actually all of history, not only one strand of history (Heilsgeschichte) nor merely the inner history of faith (Bultmann), but history in its earthy and concrete features, though interpreted from the standpoint of its divine goal as anticipated in Christ.

A vast program indeed! The relation of particularity and universality--of Heilsgeschichte and Weltgeschichte—has here again been opened up with new enthusiasm and fresh perspectives, not the least of which is Gadamer’s contribution, corrected towards a broader base for ontology than language can offer. If the New Hermeneutic of Fuchs and Ebeling employed linguisticality as a new means to collapse the distance between past and present--in line with our “air route” tradition in hermeneutics, Pannenberg presents a “ground route” again. But by such re-application of these metaphorical categories we do not want to minimize the advances that have been made.

Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope shares with Pannenberg the search for “an alternative to the modern, post-Kantian concept of science, to the critical concept of reason, and to the historicism of a critical historical treatment of reality.”[42] It shares, further, Pannenberg’s understanding of history as a movement between promise and fulfillment. But →197 when this movement is, according to Pannenberg, in progress only because of the yet unfinished state of world history, so that it will stop when the universal goal of history is reached, Moltmann objects. This is, for him, a falling back into Greek cosmos-thinking, which sees the world as an ultimately static, self-contained entity, only that the “epiphany of the eternal present” lies still in the future.

Over against such an undue emphasis by Pannenberg on the end of history, and the resurrection as the anticipatory revelation that makes it available for contemplation already, Moltmann sees the crucial biblical claim in the fact that the Risen Lord is recognized as being identical with the Crucified One. This gives hope that the present world in its “crucified state,” its godforsakenness, shares in the promise of the resurrection. But it gives this not only as insight, but also as mission.

The theologian is not concerned merely to supply a different interpretation of the world, of history and of human nature, but to transform them in expectation of a divine transformation.[43]

The bridging of the gap between the Bible and the present is accomplished in the mission of the church, set off by the promise generated from the identity of the Crucified and the Risen Lord and infused as, not only contemplative, but also active hope into history.

The missionary direction is the only constant in history. For in the front-line of present mission new possibilities for history are grasped and inadequate realities in history left behind.[44]

No doubt, Moltmann’s critique points up Pannenberg’s weakest, or better, least clarified area of thought, namely, his claim that universal history is God’s revelation accessible in its totality proleptically in the historically verifiable resurrection of Jesus. Whether Moltmann advances significantly beyond Pannenberg, however, in his attempt to emphasize promise, mission, movement, openness of the future, etc. without resorting to such universal constants as cosmos, being, universal goal of history, etc., is doubtful. Does not his own terminology beg the question precisely on these points? Can one think of promise and fulfillment →198 without positing an ultimate fulfillment or of mission without a “mission accomplished”? Here we seem to stand at a human limit which apparently can be recognized, as Moltmann ably does, but not transcended.


So the discussion goes on, with also many names and publications that I have not mentioned, and with openness towards the future. But essays must end. Any rounding off can only take the form of a completely personal assessment of one’s own preferences. Mine will have emerged, no doubt, in the course of the essay. On a long-range view across the ages, I prefer the “ground route” tradition to the “air route” tradition, without denying to the latter fruitful insights. In the present situation I see the “ground route” traditions as showing their most fruitful points in a philosophy that takes seriously Hegel’s mediation of past and present through an historical process which embraces both the sacred and the secular and seeks to see them in their interrelation. But it must be a philosophy more reserved than Hegel’s in its assessment of speculative possibility; it must forego the attempt to reach the peak of the Hegelian pyramid and be satisfied to remain on his penultimate level, the level where man confronts God as a transcendent God, a transcendence that cannot be grasped even philosophically, as Heidegger tried. I see much promise in this direction in the philosophy of Gadamer, but more so in his continuity with Hegel than in his continuity with Heidegger.

In theology--which must remain distinct from philosophy and not be collapsed with it or subsumed under it, as wants to happen in the case of the relationship both of Bultmann and the New Hermeneutic to Heidegger--the mediation of the past to the present, of the Bible to modern men and women, the “ground route” of the Heilsgeschichte tradition, from von Hofmann to von Rad, is the most adequate hermeneutic, in my judgment. Yet I realize the need for a more adequate relationship between Heilsgeschichte and Weltgeschichte, a problem to which Pannenberg and Moltmann have addressed themselves helpfully by resorting to the biblical dynamic of promise and fulfillment, understood not →199 only as operative between the Old and the New Covenant, but also between the whole biblical and church historical past and the eschatological future. But this reach for the totality needs to remain humble; Emil Fackenheim’s concluding paragraph to his book The Religious Dimension of Hegel’s Thought expresses this for philosophy in a way that covers theology as well:

. . . philosophic thought must. . . grope for what may be called a fragmented middle. This is not to suggest a revival of the Hegelian philosophy. But it is to suggest that philosophic thought, however rooted in existential commitments, craves a comprehensiveness which transcends them. To be sure, this craving can no longer expect, or even seek, more than fragmentary satisfaction. Yet it is not doomed to total frustration, and it is unvanquishable. Currently, the metaphysical urge is widely mocked, denied and obscured by a flight into piecemeal philosophizing. But, as Kant wrote, “that the spirit of man should ever wholly abandon metaphysical investigations is as little to be expected as that men, in order not always to breathe impure air should ever prefer not to breathe at all.”[45]



* Readers with limited background in philosophy may want to read a shortened, simplified version of the essay, ch. 4 in the collection of Waldemar Janzen’s essays, Still In The Image: Essays in Biblical Theology and Anthropology; IMS Series No. 6 (Newton, Ks.: Faith and Life Press, 1982), pp. 27-38.

§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 178-202. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.

  1. A comprehensive and well organized survey of literature on the subject of hermeneutics is offered in Norbert Henrichs’ Bibliographie der Hermeneutik und ihrer Anwendungsbereiche seit Schleiermacher (Düsseldorf: Philosophic Verlag, 1968). Etymology and history of the concept hermeneutic(s) are presented by Gerhard Ebeling in his article “Hermeneutik” RGG, third edition, III (1959), 243-262. The more recent theological developments are sketched by James M. Robinson in “Hermeneutic Since Barth” The New Hermeneutic, edited by James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr.; New Frontiers in Theology II (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 1-77; and in Carl E. Braaten, History and Hermeneutics; New Directions in Theology Today II (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966). The “New Hermeneutic” and its background are introduced by Paul J. Achtemeier, An Introduction to the New Hermeneutic (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969). The development of philosophical hermeneutics, with reference to Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, is presented by Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics (Northwestern University Press, 1969).
  2. Our concern is the manner of coping with historical distance, not the assumption of such distance; the latter forms the basic, explicitly or implicitly held presupposition which leads to the hermeneutic endeavor.
  3. As our study moves through history with a view always towards elucidating the more recent developments, no more than passing and very general treatment can be given to selected trends and movements before Schleiermacher. To characterize Rabbinic interpretation as a system of prescriptions for every situation of life is obviously a simplification. A fuller discussion would need to point out that Rabbinic Judaism at its beet is an ongoing dialogue between the Bible and later times. Valid cautions against popular caricatures of it have been given by two eminent authorities: Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to Talmud and Midrash (Meridian Books and Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959; first German edition 1887), pp. 87-98; and W. D. Davies, Introduction to Pharisaism; Facet Books, Biblical Series 16 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967).
  4. See Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), pp. 72-134; and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (2. Auflage, durch einen Nachtrag erweitert; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1965), pp. 162-185.
  5. Ibid., pp. 205-228.
  6. The bridging of historical and cultural distance is perhaps the central concern throughout Bultmann’s life work. Specific reference should be made here to his essay “The Problem of Hermeneutics” Essays Philosophical and Theological (London: SCM Press, n.d.), pp. 234-261. First published in ZTK 47(1950) 47-69.
  7. Quoted by Achtemeier, p. 21.
  8. J. H. Robinson, p. 65, n 191, quotes the following statement from Church Dogmatics, I, 1, translated by G. T. Thomson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), p. 3: “Church history so-called answers, from the point of view of Christian language about God, to no questions that need to put independently, and is therefore not to be regarded as an independent theological discipline. It is the indispensable auxiliary science to exegetical, dogmatic, and practical theology.”
  9. Ebeling, RGG, III, 256.
  10. J.M. Robinson, p. 22f.
  11. Wahrheit und Methode, p. 492.
  12. Sein und Zeit, paragraph 32. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, pp. 250-256.
  13. In this section we are introducing certain philosophies of history, which represents a departure from the theme of hermeneutics understood as the endeavor to understand biblical texts. This departure seems necessary, however, in the case of Leasing and Herder, because their views of history were largely the result of their attempts to bridge the gap between the intellectual climate of their attempts to bridge the gap between the intellectual climate of their time and a past which, though experienced to some extent as a liability, could not be disowned, largely because of its religious significance. Conversely, their philosophies of history exerted major impacts on Scripture interpretation. While these statements pertain to Hegel also, in part, our reference to him here is prompted mainly by the fact that the most recent developments in hermeneutics are in many ways indebted to his thought, as we shall see when we consider Gadamer, Pannenberg, and Moltmann. By introducing wider philosophical and historical considerations here than Leasing, Herder, Hegel, and their times would have understood as hermeneutics, we are also foreshadowing the broadening and ever more widely comprehensive scope which hermeneutics has acquired through the last century and a half.
  14. See also Hans-Joachim Kraus, “Das Geschichtsverständnis Lessings und Herders” Geschichte der historisch-kritischen Erforschung des Alten Testaments (Neukirchen: Verlag der Buchhandlung des Erziehungsvereins Neukirchen, 1956), pp. 111-116.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Particularly pertinent to our discussion is Emil L. Fackenheim, The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1967).
  17. Wahrheit und Methode, p. 328.
  18. Ibid., pp.326ff.
  19. Von Hofmann’s main works in this connection are Weissagung und Erfüllung (1841-44); Der Schriftbeweis (1852-56); and above all, the post-humously published Biblische Hermeneutik, edited by W. Volck (Nördlingen: Verlag der C. H. Beck’schen Buchhandlung, 1880). See also Kraus, “Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann,” pp. 207-210; and Otto W. Heick, “Erlangen Theology” A History of Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), II, 203-216.
  20. Von Hofmann, Biblische Hermeneutik, p. 2. (Writer’s translation).
  21. Ibid., p.35.
  22. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time (revised edition; London: SCM Press, 1965), p. 21.
  23. See Achtemeier, “Heidegger-II,” pp. 41-54; and James M. Robinson, “The German Discussion of the Later Heidegger” The Later Heidegger and Theology; New Frontiers in Theology I, edited by James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1963), pp. 3-76, and the other essays in that volume. A glimpse into the inner circle of German theologians and philosophers around Heidegger and Bultmann is afforded by one of the major participants, Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Martin Heidegger und die Marburger Theologie” 'Zeit und Geschichte, edited by Erich Dinkler; Bultmann-Festschrift (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1964), pp. 479-490. For a devastating critique of the appropriation of Heideggerian thought, both “earlier” and “later”, for theology, see Hans Jonas, “Heidegger and Theology” The Phenomenon of Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 235-261.
  24. J. M. Robinson, p. 65. A summary of Ebeling’s position, as well as that of Ernst Fuchs, is given by Robert W. Funk, “Language as Event: Fuchs and Ebeling” Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 47-71. Also easily accessible to English readers is Gerhard Ebeling God and Word (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967); and the essays by Fuchs and Ebeling in J. M. Robinson, The New Hermeneutic together with a discussion by American theologians.
  25. Fuchs’ basic work is his Hermeneutik (1954), followed by several further volumes on the subject. For a discussion in English, see the works cited in notes 1 and 23 above.
  26. Ernst Fuchs, “Das hermeneutische Problem” Zeit und Geschichte, pp. 360.
  27. Jonas, “Heidegger and Theology,” pp. 235-261.
  28. See above, note 4. The second edition contains also the significant appendix “Hermeneutik und Historismus,”pp. 477-512.
  29. Ibid., p. 326.
  30. Ibid., p. 327.
  31. Ibid., p. 329-344.
  32. Ibid., p. 284-290; 361ff.
  33. Ibid., p. 361ff.
  34. Gadamer seems to accept, in part, the criticism that his hermeneutic lacks a critical principle by which it would become possible not only to accept and acknowledge one’s dependence on prior tradition, but could also judge, modify, or reject such tradition. He claims for his hermeneutic the truth of a corrective in a time where the optimistic belief in the possibility of shaping the future tends to lose sight of the frame of reference provided inescapably by the past, from within which alone the future can be appropriated (Ibid., XXIIIf.).
  35. A similar criticism seems to be intended by Herbert Braun, “Zum Verhältnis von Hermeneutik und Ontologie” Hermeneutik und Dialektik (Gadamer-Festschrift; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1970), 216-218.
  36. The main lines of Pannenberg’s theology are stated programmatically in Offenbarung als Geschichte, Kerygam und Dogma 1, edited by Wolfhart Pannenberg (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961). Of particular importance for our study is the essay “Hermeneutic and Universal History” Basic Questions in Theology; Collected Essays I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), pp. 96-136.
  37. Pannenberg, “Hermeneutic and Universal History,” p. 129.
  38. Ibid., p. 130. The flaw in Gadamer’s argumentation, according to Pannenberg, is his devaluation of the predicative structure of language. According to Gadamer, the language of understanding is a language event; it does not express a reality outside of itself. This event is not detachable from its context, including that in its context which remains unsaid. This language event cannot, therefore, be “repeated” elsewhere; its re-saying would become a new event; language is not transferable (Wahrheit und Methode, p. 444, and Excursus VI). Gadamer argues this in the interest of the openness of the future, and polemically against the formulation of the concept of a philosophy of history. Pannenberg asserts against this that Gadamer himself has to resort to “objectivizing” statements when recreating in words the context of a text from the past.
  39. Pannenberg, “Hermeneutic and Universal History,” pp. 133f.
  40. Ibid., p. 135.
  41. Cf. Helmut G. Harder and W. Taylor Stevenson, “The Continuity of History and Faith in the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg: Toward an Erotica of History,” JR 51(1971), 34-56, especially pp. 44-51.
  42. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 76.
  43. Ibid., p.84.
  44. Ibid., p.284.
  45. Fackenheim, pp. 241f.