Created for Hermeneutics–Part I

Over the next several posts, I will explore some dimensions of theological hermeneutics. I’m not sure where I will go with this or have sufficient time to devote to it, but I would like to lay some foundations as well as process some theological-biblical methodology. I begin with some insights from Christian postmodern philosophy/theology (see my previous post on postmodernism for some definition and characteristics). It might be a dangerous place to start, but I think it is a fruitful one.

One of the most helpful books I have read in the context of postmodern hermeneutical theory is that by James A. K. Smith entitled The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. Smith is one of the best interpreters of postmodernism among Christian philosophers, in my opinion. He is also an advocate of “NeoCalvinism” which also has insightful aspects (if you want to know what that is, read his description here–it is not the same as the “New Calvinists” upon which I commented in an earlier post). He has written what I regard as the best introduction to postmodernism for hermeneutics and theology in his book entitled Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?. These two books are not light reading, but they are wonderfully profitable.

This post is basically a summary of some of what I regard as the more salient and insightful aspects of Smith’s Fall of Interpretation. I confess my indebtedness to his analysis but my rendition is my own.  In other words, Smith should not be blamed for what comes below (though much credit for what is good belongs to him)–it is what I have taken away from his offering.  So, don’t blame him; blame me.  🙂

Our creatureliness means that it is “interpretation all the way down.”  We interpret everything–there are no “brute facts.” We are hermeneutical beings. Our finitude entails that we only see things in part–we never see the whole. We certainly do not see the world with God’s eyes or understanding. Our finite brains cannot contain the infinite depth of divine knowledge. To see things in part does not entail that we don’t see something real but that what we see is not the whole story and that what we see is funneled through our interpretative faculties.  God created this process within us; he values it.  It is important to the purpose for which he created us, but more on that point in another post.

Further, we find ourselves in a broken human (or fallen) condition. The hermeneutical task is distorted and we all wear colored glasses that see the world through our own agendas and interests.  Our sinfulness radically affects our interpretations. Through our own ego-centered vision, we distort the way the world really is and thus “violently” assault it to conform it to our own expectations. “Violence” here means warped, and this warping is driven by what we want and what we want is fundamentally selfish.

Consequently, the human hermeneutical task is characterized by (1) a hermeneutics of finitude–we are creatures who do not know everything, cannot know everything, and what we know is not equivalent to the Truth (God is Truth even though we do know some truths [limited, partial, situated apprehensions of the world]) since we cannot contain the infinite Truth within our little brains. And it is also characterized by (2) a hermeneutics of suspicion–a reflection of our fallenness whereby we have the tendency to distort everything we see for our own sakes (depraved humans are all fundamentally narcissistic).

These two considerations are critical because they demand hermeneutical humility on the part of every human interpreter.

Smith suggests that our hermeneutical finitude is actually a good; to be finite is not to be bad or evil or deficient. Actually, the act of interpreting drives us toward social interaction.  Finitude is simply creaturehood. God created us as interpreting agents. Hermeneutics is part of our creaturehood and it is “structurally good,” that is, God intended us to engage the world through interpretation.  Hermeneutics creates mutual engagement and bonding; it is a social enterprise of discovery as beings-in-relation. Through hermeneutics we explore the world and discover its diversity, goodness and–in the process–each other. Finite humans, though all connected to the same reality, have a plurality of interpretations about that reality.  This diversity is not necessarily an evil. Instead, it is a good as we see the same reality from different angles and every angle offers a unique insight that deepens our connection to the world and to each other. Humans always experience the world “as” something–mediated through their minds, always interpreted, but it is nevertheless truly connected to reality. This is the way God created us.  It is fundamentally good.

The problem is our hermeneutical fallenness. This means that our “angles” are not always good ones.  Humans distort and abuse the interpretative task for the sake of power and control. Or humans deny the interpretative task by claiming some immediacy as if they see the world “clearly” and “without interpretation” as God himself sees the world. For the latter hermeneutics is itself a fallen task–“the text (world, reality) needs no interpretation” (or, a more familiar form, “the text needs no interpretation; it says what it means and means what it says”). The former use interpretation to manipulate the world to their own advantage. Indeed, those who deny the hermeneutical task as if they have immediacy with reality in some kind of sterile objectivity ultimately distort it by default since their denial of interpretation is a distortion itself. It assumes that we got it right and we see it as it really is. The denial becomes a way to maintain power and control as in “don’t both me with other perspectives, I’ve already got it right and my task is to maintain the status quo.”

Sin, then, distorts or denies the hermeneutical task.  When it denies it, we deceive ourselves into thinking we can see the world just like God sees it in some kind of one-to-one correspondence. By this we build our own tower of Babel.  When it distorts it, our fallenness or depravity or sinfulness shapes the way we see the world.  By this we serve our own narcissism.

As a result, hermeneutics needs both the humility of finitude but also the sanctification of the heart. As we recognize that our interpretations are only one aspect of the reality we perceive, we will have the humility to listen to others and fully engage others-in-relation to see it from their angle. As we recognize that our interpretations are always tainted by our egos, we will recognize our deep need for spiritual transformation as interpreters. Theological hermeneutics, then, is foundationally a spiritual discipline–a mode of humbling ourselves before God and each other as we progress by the power of the Spirit in sanctification.  The present human condition demands humility and transformation in order to pursue the hermeneutical task for which God created us. Such a high demand means that we cannot do it ourselves but that we need the wisdom, power and presence of God in the hermeneutical process. Can anyone say “Pneumatology” at this point?

More to come….



9 Responses to “Created for Hermeneutics–Part I”

  1.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Here I am up and awake and you stop at this word.
    This is not right, just not right at all, John Mark.
    Quite honestly I’m not real sure that you wouldn’t throw this word out here, and for it to be a totally bogus word. From a warped sense of humor after this post, in that it might be some sort of irony. Which I will not even try to explain.
    your brother
    rich in California

  2.   Randall Says:

    Thanks John Mark, for an interesting and insightful post. I look forward to reading the rest of the story. Especially that part about the Spirit.

    On a not quite paralell vein, I have been reading Sam Storms blog in which he provides a five part book reveiw (three parts already there) of “Why We’re Not Emergent (by two guys who should be)”

    The subject matter focuses on the Emergents, but there is considerable overlap in the broad sense of how we deal with scripture, doctrine and theology and I think that is kind of like hermeneutics. I found it very interesting and I suspect you and your readers will too. It is way too long to copy it here but I copied the web site below in hopes that you will have the time to read it, and posssibly provide a comment.

    Sam Storms’ web site which includes the book review in his blog is:

    Grace and peace,

  3.   Philip III Says:

    Boy, if this topic doesn’t have application for our fellowship, I don’t know what does. I remember once hearing Randy Harris remarking something like, “Why is it that we believe that God can pour out his grace anywhere except in how people interpret the Bible?”

    Good post. I look forward to seeing where you go with this.

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks for the link, Randall. It looks like a good discussion that I will follow.

    Philip, when we get there, we’ll both know. 🙂

    Rich, would I tease you with a word like “pneumatology”? 🙂

    Thanks for reading and I hope we can have some substantial discussion of the points along the way especially as we get into the nature and problems of traditional Stone-Campbell hermeneutics (but that is way down the road at this point…much more basic and foundational principles to consider before we talk about that). But we will get there, I hope.

  5.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Rich, would I tease you with a word like “pneumatology”?

    John Mark I’m going to tell you just like I tell my kids, and I probably get it from my mom.
    It’s lucky for you.
    Which makes no sense at all and it’s not supposed to, just like that word I had to look up.
    Sorry about that.
    As agent Maxwell Smart would say.
    Bumbling through the world of secrets.
    enjoying every minute.
    rich in California

  6.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I am about to finish “The Peaeable Kingdom” by Stanley Hauerwas. Smith’s book is next on my list. As always, I will enjoy reading these posts on theological hermeneutics.

    …Is there a forthcoming book:-)?


  7.   preacherman Says:

    Wonderful post brother.
    I love your blog
    I have added it to my favs and read it as much as possible.
    You have great things to say and I am always blessed by it.
    Keep up the wonderful work.
    I hope you have a blessed weekend.
    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Rex, I can’t say a book is in the works at this point. Perhaps in the future–I think I need a bit more seasoning. learning and listening before I can write on this one (except blogging, of course!)

    Thanks, Kinney…I appreciate your kind words.

  9.   Dan Smith Says:

    You write:
    “And it is also characterized by (2) a hermeneutics of suspicion–a reflection of our fallenness whereby we have the tendency to distort everything we see for our own sakes (depraved humans are all fundamentally narcissistic).”

    Unfortunately, our past/present is littered with “set-in-concrete” minds that have NO doubts about their understanding of scripture. Worse still, they seek to impose their views on you and me. I’m fully capable of reaching wrong understanding without their help, thank you very much.


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