Saturday, September 8, 2007

Schleiermacher and Hermeneutics

I just finished Frederick Schleiermacher's Hermeneutics and Criticism and decided that it would be good to post a few of my observations.

Schleiermacher is a big name in the history of hermeneutics and is often cited as one of the frontrunners in what is sometimes referred to as scientific hermeneutics. Prior to scientific hermeneutics and the disciplines of higher and lower criticism the Christian Orthodox approach to interpreting Scripture (from Augustine through the Protestant Reformation and up to today) follows the principle of faith leading to understanding. That is, the fundamental presupposition of the interpreter in approaching the text is to assume its divine inspiration, including its unity of meaning and absence of contradictions. This has commonly been referred to as a hermeneutics of faith. Schleiermacher departs from this approach and follows what is called the hermeneutics of suspicion, which assumes a critical stance in approaching the act of interpretation. While critical approaches have made orthodoxy more sensitive to historical, textual and psychological considerations, on the whole the hermeneutics of suspicion has led to posit an authority that is prior to and therefore higher than the authority of Scripture.

One can clearly see the effects of a departure from the presupposition of faith to understanding in Schleiermacher's work. He makes an admirable effort at an exhaustive, comprehensive, and careful consideration of those principles and methods necessary for understanding the meaning of any text, and the Bible in particular. However, because he approaches with a critical assumption, several difficulties and inconsistencies arise in his approach.

One of his principles of interpretation is called divination, or divining, which attempts to put oneself in the thoughts of the original writer. This process is obviously subjective, psychological, and without a general principle of operation. He labels it an art rather than a technique, the former being approximate and probable at best whereas the latter is deductive and certain. It is, of course, vital for the interpreter to seek an understanding of the author's own thought in seeking to understand his meaning, but under this principle Schleiermacher would seek in include the whole of the writer's being in history--his general history and his internal emotion and will. He rightly recognizes the impossibility of unearthing these details, but he nonetheless emphasizes the effort.

This effort is partly caused by an insufficient understanding of the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Schleiermacher picks on certain views of inspirations that regard it as over and against the author's human intellect and will, but the orthodox doctrine of inspiration does not fit this characterization. Rather it recognizes the writer's full and unhindered use of his intellect, will, including any emotional states in the construction of his thought and the transmission of it into writing. God's meticulous Sovereignty includes the ordaining of secondary causes as means of orchestrating His Will in the individual lives and actions of human beings. Was it not God's Sovereign design that Moses be drawn from the water and educated by the best Egyptian teachers in language, history, etc.? Was it not God's Sovereignty that saw Joseph through every circumstance, including the false accusations of Potiphar's wife in order that he might find his way into the graces of Pharaoh? Certainly the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was accomplished by those external and internal circumstances that shapes Pharaoh's character into the resolute and stubborn quality it revealed itself to be. The Holy Spirit spoke through the personalities and intellectual capabilities of the authors of Scriptures so that God's own meaning was identical with their own, and that without what many have claimed as the "flaws" of being human. In my human frailty I may not recognize every implication of any proposition of Scripture, and it was not required of every writer that they know exhaustively each implication either. But that they would understand the meaning of their particular propositions to the extent to which they were true and non-contradictory with the larger whole does not require that we assume they would make mistakes, errors, or otherwise and we have the testimony of Scripture that the Holy Spirit provided the words where they were lacking.

The incomplete acceptance of inspiration leads Schleiermacher to delve into human psychology in order to unearth what is erroneous or accurate, or what was the particular meaning to the particular audience without acknowledgment (in my estimation) of the unity of Scripture. No one can deny the difficulty of rightly interpreting the logical connections between Old and New, or between Paul and Peter, for example. However, tracing these comparisons is possible by the use of logic when one assumes a unity of the whole of Scripture. This task is impossible when one seeks the subjective mind of the individual authors against each other. This is where criticism has sliced the Scriptures into various competing and contradictory pieces. Schleiermacher himself opposes the historical knowledge of Paul (in quoting a passage in Isaiah as Isaiah's own) to the modern higher criticism of his own age. Thus, the authority is shifted from Scripture to whatever standards of method (be they scientific, historiographic, philosophic, etc.) are presently acceptable to the sensibilities of men.

Though I am sure that they would disagree with me, those who dogmatically rely upon historical-grammatical interpretation alone without also consulting the overarching unity of Scripture fall prey to the same unpinning error that Schleiermacher is making, namely, the opposition of the human element of the writers and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures constitute a logical whole because God's mind is without contradiction. Application of a grammatical-historical approach without any acceptance of inspiration leads to the piecemeal derivations of liberal theology such as the documentary theories of the German higher critics. Those who retain inspiration but rely upon the grammatical-historical method alone seek to harmonize the unity of Scripture as God's Word while retaining the liberal assumption of fundamental dichotomies brought about by historical and cultural change. But this assumption is not warranted by Scripture itself, since the authors of the N.T. not only quote the O.T. for its prophetic validity, but appeal to it as the sole authority for those Jews and Gentiles whom they proclaimed the Gospel of Christ toward with conviction. Dispensational hermeneutics treat all N.T. use of the O.T. as prophetic fulfillment, prophetic promise, or applications of the moral law. But presuppositions of dichotomy drive this approach, just as the historical-critical presuppositions guided a figure like Schleiermacher.

Does it not seem more properly basic to recognize that God's message, like His mind, would be given as a pristine and comprehensible unity? How else could the N.T. writers appeal to the authority of the law and the prophets not only for daily living, but for the very doctrines that articulate the purpose of God in relating to humanity, what the Reformation theologians recognized as the overarching form of covenant. Covenant theology does not deny presuppositions in its approach to Scripture, for to do so would be to deny the possibility of rational thought. As creatures who have not been made with exhaustive knowledge, there is no other way to proceed to build a system of understanding without beginning with unprovable first principles. Methods of interpretation, like any system, require unprovable first principles. For instance, the principle assumption that meaning is transferable from one individual to another cannot be proven from epistemologically basic ground. If the orthodox Christian seeks to derive principles of interpretation for Scripture he must first ask how it is that Scripture understands itself to be? That requires one to treat the entire set of 66 books as a single unity, or otherwise find some principle, some starting point outside of Scripture. The coherence of the Old and New testaments (there was no division of old and new in terms of how the disciples of Jesus spoke about the writings and the authority of the written Scriptures. All distinctions of old and new were regarding the administration of God's grace--that is, the relationship of the believer (Jew or Gentile) to the Law in light of the revealed Christ) rests upon the principle that they are all the Word of God, which requires us to examine the nature of God to know in what way He communicates. Eternal decrees in the mind of God make little sense when we cut the continuity of Scripture into dichotomous portions. When the eternal nature of God and His message are subordinated to the limitations of created time we risk reading the human into the divine, rather than reading the human through the eternal Word of the Divine.

But I digress. :-D

1 comment:

Jacob Haynes said...

Good run down of this hermeneutical method. I do agree with you, when you take faith and inspiration out of the picture, you start defeating yourself.

By the way, what do you mean by second causes?

Also, are you and Hannah going to be in college station this weekend? Laura, myself, along with Randy and his wife will be visiting Brian and would love to hang out with y'all as well.