Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Hermeneutic Circle and asking better "why" questions

I have been making the newbie mistake of calling this circle a hermeneutical circle - sorry about that! The hermeneutic circle is a process of interpreting a text (or an author via his text) as developed in particular by Heidegger and Gadamer. In short, the disappointing news is that where the circle is operative, it is de facto going to bar your access to a text in any objective way.

The text is understood to have two important conditions. It must be terribly important to the reader, and it must be at least in part(s) difficult to comprehend. This difficulty is not necessarily readily apparent, I don't think, but is evidenced through the inevitable gap in "horizons" separating the author and the reader, differing worldviews affected by time in history, geographical location, culture, and so on.

Unfortunately, because hermeneutics was only developed in the last few hundred years, I am not sure how effectively it has been applied to our key question at hand: the emergence of the Triune God around the end of the fourth century, and indeed to other theological matters that "crystallised" in various directions. Even during the first century, I believe that we have the necessary ingredients to see the circle clearly in operation, and that is very significant if we are ever going to be able to move Christian apologetics away from frankly unconvincing anachronistic importations from a later time and yet still hold to some form of sensible first-to-fourth century continuity. If we are to achieve this goal, then hermeneutics is key. Not primarily in the sense of how we bridge the gap to today, our own contexts and our own lives, but to see how earlier gaps might have been bridged by Christians in the past, long before the word "hermeneutic" had ever been dreamed up. First century Judea was not fourth century Constantinople!

But what is this hermeneutic circle? Very simply put and as I understand it, it is the to and fro between the (Christian canonical) text and the reader's conceptual framework of meaning, out of which she is making sense of that text ("WHOLE", below). Each of these crisscrossing "trips" effects both elements (the whole and interpretation of the part), by which I mean the reader's general and multilayered understanding (right up to "their theology") and their interpretation of what the text is saying.

History of Christianity doesn't seem to embrace this concept enough, but perhaps it does attempt it under different guises.

One historian of Christian antiquity whose work I continue to respect is Bart Ehrman. His book How Jesus Became God arrived at a critical time in my deconstruction process in 2014 and the entire journey to which this blog bears witness. But it is his earlier and lesser known academic volume (and it is a sizeable book to be sure) The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, that I think carries a fantastic example of what I am trying to get at here. This book is of considerable note because it is really Ehrman's original field of expertise, textual criticism - since then it seems that he has strayed a bit into other areas in a (successful) bid to write for a wider audience. In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Ehrman carefully and correctly insists that not all the changes that Christian scribes copying the texts made were accidental. The evidence for that is pretty irrefutable, multifaceted and extensive. Although I felt at times the book development made for some hypothesis-supporting conjecture, i.e. a too-tight association of a deliberate scribal corruption according to a specific heresy, the fundamental point that the scribe is safeguarding against misconstrual (rather than, in the scribe's mind, "corrupting" the text) is vital and all that matters for my purposes here. Ehrman has stacks of examples, but one that is perhaps the most deeply inscribed into my memory is Jesus' added titles. At various points in the codexes, scribes would deliberately add "Christ" and "Lord" at points they considered significant in the new copies they were transcribing. Why? There are other points in Scripture that contain combinations of "Lord Jesus", "Jesus Christ" and even "Lord Jesus Christ", so why add it to the new transcription? Here's Ehrman's reasoning, and it makes sense: some branches away from "orthodox" Christianity would read the Christian texts according to a variant "whole" (see above diagram), which included a "separationist Christology" (incredibly, that is still affirmed by popular Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr: Jesus is sharply and explicitly differentiated from "the Christ", "the Cosmic Christ", etc). According to this "whole", the Holy Spirit scene at Jesus' baptism was construed as the moment when the cosmic Christ entered into Jesus, before leaving him at his death on the cross (by the way, I am not saying that this is the conclusion Rohr makes, I'm sure it isn't). Back in the early Christian centuries, by adding "Christ", scribes certainly did not think they were the ones doing the corrupting. Quite the opposite, actually. By emphasising the inseparability of Jesus Christ (or Jesus from Christ), the scribes would have seen themselves as safeguarding a better interpretation against corruption.

There is always meaning to be found.

So, why would the church perform some almighty U-turn by suddenly switching from a Unitarian God to a Triune God sometime around the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381? Put this way, as Biblical Unitarians sometimes infer, it seems impossible, random, unbiblical, and... meaningless. I follow Dale Tuggy's work quite closely on his blog trinities.org (definitely worth checking, loads of great material in there), and I even get to contribute in a couple of very small ways to his show. But the closest I have seen to an answer to this fundamental "why" question, is that Greek mythology was rife with divine triads, and the fourth century was very complicated theologically for the church. But even as Tuggy does an expert job (in my opinion) at unravelling some of that fourth-century complexity, the listener is left with a decidedly bleak impression that these were such chaotic and political times, that there must, therefore, be a degree of randomness there that subverted Orthodox belief away from the Truth, and that this has stuck for a really, really long time.

I no longer buy it. We need to mine these controversies afresh to see what the deeper meaning is behind these debates, from both sides as far as we can understand them. For me, and I have probably mentioned this before, but it does no harm in repeating, there is one particular treasure to be mined in this transitional period, that is the very creed orthodox tradition has since labelled "The Blasphemy", officially: The Second Creed of Sirmium (357). It states: And the whole faith is summed up and secured in this, that the Trinity must always be preserved, as we read in the Gospel, Go ye and baptize all nations in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Complete and perfect is the number of the Trinity.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: they were all Trinitarians, they all believed that since Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit, there was a new centre to the faith that emerged from Judaism. So here's the crazy thing: the very creed that is dubbed "The Blasphemy" contains the very goal that united everybody. The problem with Sirmium was the interpretation of Jesus' words: "The Father is greater than I". So if the "Whole" comprises the three in (roughly) equal measure, and you want to push for "greater greatness" in one of the Three, what might be the interpreted outcome? I'll tell you exactly what I think the worry really was. Greatness in religion corresponds, I would argue nearly perfectly, with centricity. And if you make Father, Son or Spirit more central, then it is precisely that preservation of the Trinity that is thrown out of whack.

Look, I am not saying that the Triune God is "biblical", but I am going to give it credit for this: it posed a stable platform and standard from which further theological reflection could be realised without messing about with this important centricity issue, which up until this time lacked vocabulary. Where it had beforehand lacked vocabulary, it had not lacked meaning. So what do I think about the Triune God? It's interpretative. I've been saying that for two years now, but now with the help of the hermeneutic circle, I think we can see the strength of that claim. The Triune God solution is not random - it has purpose and is in line with the perceived threats of that time. It also includes quite a lot of ambiguity, as Tuggy points out, which actually dotes the stability also with flexibility.

I'm really eager to take this discussion soon back to Ricoeur's work, whose ideas about "ontology" (and its pitfalls) speak profoundly to the debates around the Trinity doctrine. Ricoeur also has helped me realise that it is possible that despite their best intentions, Biblical Unitarians might actually be importing some of the fourth-century baggage into their first-century analysis in precisely the ways they lament sloppy Triune-God advocates do, everyone failing to integrate historical hermeneutics into their models. My Triune Hub model must not make that mistake!

As chaotic and turbulent a century as the fourth century was to Christianity, it is vital that we see continuity as well as discontinuity. Sometimes the discontinuity at the time that seems huge to us from our vantage point might have seemed like a minor point of a whole series of adjustments that, just like in Ehrman's textual example, avoided misconstrual of a historically preceding idea, and guess what: it is "terribly important" and "difficult to understand".

Hermeneutics, we welcome you to the first four centuries of Christianity!


  1. Great points.
    I arrived at a very similar conclusion in my own 'quest' a while ago.

    It seems that one of the positive things about the Trinity (capital T) is that it has functioned as a safeguard against any potential distortions of the thoroughly triadic shape of the NT religion.

    One question though:
    You seem to fault the authors of 2nd Sirmium for their interpretation of "the Father is greater than I", but for what reason exactly? According to you, is it false to say that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate? (let's forget about 4th-century ontology and just stick to the terms greater/subordinate in their 1st-century sense)

    Don't you think these legitimate concerns about protecting the religious 'centricity' should not go as far as to prevent us from using plain scriptural vocabulary/notions?

    Jonathan B.

    1. Hi Jonathan, super question! Je me permettrai donc de répondre dans mon article d'aujourd'hui. Comment est-ce qu'on dit "blog post" en français? Amitiés, J

  2. There isn't just one conception of the "hermeneutical circle." I know of at least one other outworking of that concept that was put forth as being non-vicious: that of Karl Barth. Not only was it not vicious, but it didn't include the idea that "where the circle is operative, it is de facto going to bar your access to a text in any objective way." At least necessarily. It is possible to dismiss Barth as completely on the subjectivist end of theological interpretation, but given that he more than most theologians of his time on the Continent undoubtedly affirmed the historicisty of Christ, one ought to give him a closer read. So traverse that landscape with intellectual sensitivity and big picture theology in mind.

    1. Thank you Richard, I will do that. Can you guide me to anything specific I should read on Barth please?

  3. As I recall, from my rather superficial, graduate student days of reading Barth in translation, but mostly as interpreted by his English language translator, the objective historical apprehension of the word of God through scripture did come by way of a rather convoluted subjective engagement in the hermeneutical circle. Not everyone thinks of his approach as achieving an objective status for the historical aspect of scripture, and the ongoing dialectical processes of his thought might not provide a clear cut easily understood perspective.
    On the other hand, what Barth does seem to make clear, is that one must approach the word of God as the Word of God expecting to hear God speak through it in order to understand it at all. And, as you may find useful in your Triune Hub way of thinking, the role of the Holy Spirit in making the meaning of scripture known to the reader is essential. Just about every reference I've been able to Google regarding Barth and the hermeneutical circle seems a rather off hand reference to his engagement with others who have used the term; not very helpful. Sorry I can't be more helpful.

    1. Thank you Richard. As a result of your and other's interest, I am going to develop this relevant topic. You may also find this Yale lecture by Paul Fry useful by the way; I certainly did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWnA7nZO4EY&t=1619s


Thanks very much for your feedback, really appreciate the interaction.