Posts Tagged ‘Hermeneutics’


February 27th 2013 marked Paul Ricoeur’s 100th Birthday.

“Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) is widely recognized as one of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of his long career he wrote on a broad range of issues” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

As Wikipedia writes:

Paul Ricœur (27 February 1913 – 20 May 2005) was a French philosopher best known for combining phenomenological description with hermeneutics. As such his thought is situated within the same tradition as other major hermeneutic phenomenologists, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In 2000 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for having “revolutionized the methods of hermeneutic phenomenology, expanding the study of textual interpretation to include the broad yet concrete domains of mythology, biblical exegesis, psychoanalysis, theory of metaphor, and narrative theory.”


Ricoeur was also from the French Reformed tradition and helped articulate phenomenology and hermeneutics in a way conducive to the Protestant emphasis on the primacy of the word in proclamation.  As Ricoeur wrote: “It is the text, with its universal power of world disclosure, which gives a self to the ego.”

Kevin_VanhoozerRicoeur has been influential on the thought of several Reformed theologians today; namely Michael Horton (People and Place; Pilgrim Theology) and Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Drama of Doctrine; Remythologizing Theology).

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Have you ever read a passage in the Bible and wondered how it applied to your own life? I have. All the time! But sometimes (many times) this can actually be a very harmful ‘first-principle’. The Scriptures are not a collection of moral stories which we can mine for ethical principles. If they were, what could we do with stories like Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, etc.?  Calvin helpfully comments on what he calls “thoughtless imitation”:

… a false, and ill-regulated, or thoughtless imitation; that is, when we, though not endued with the same spirit, or authorized by the same command, plead as our example what any of the Fathers did; as for instance, if any private individual resolved to revenge the injuries done to brethren, because Moses did this, (Exodus 2:12;) or if any one were to put fornicators to death, because this was done by Phinehas, (Numbers 25:7.) That savage fury in slaying their own children originated, as many think, in the wish of the Jews to be like their father Abraham, as if the command, Offer up thy son Isaac, (Genesis 22:2,) were a general command, and not rather a remarkable trial of a single man. Such a false imitation is generally produced by pride and excessive confidence, when men claim more for themselves than they have a right to do; and when each person does not measure himself by his own standard. Yet none of these are true imitators of the Fathers, most of them are apes. That a considerable portion of ancient monachism flowed from the same source will be acknowledged by those who shall carefully examine the writings of the ancients. And, therefore, unless we choose to err of our own accord, we ought always to see what spirit each person has received, what his calling requires, what is suitable to his condition, and what he is commanded to do. (Commentary on John 4:20).

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If you have not read anything on literary criticism, this little book, An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis will open your mind to a whole new world — the world of the text and it well-read.

Rather than judging the quality of a books by their composition or content, Lewis suggests one should judge them by the nature or way in which they are read. For example, some people read books only once to gratify some curiosity or lust, only to abandon them forever afterwards. Contrarily, those who truly love their books will read them countless times and cherish them as favored possessions. In other words, bad readers read books seeking only to find a world they already are comfortable with and understand; a world they already have categories for and can explain. A world that “makes sense” in their system of thought. By reading books in such a way, these readers are not challenged by what they read. And in the end, book after book, they meet only themselves. For Lewis, this explains the vast hoard of trashy novels which follow the same basic principle. In these case, the reader is never brought to a higher level of knowledge. There is no additive transfer. Such readers only get out what they already knew. This all takes very little effort on the part of the reader.

On the other hand, good readers begin by getting themselves “out of the way.” Good readers will first surrender their own preconceived notions and biases. They open themselves up to receive “instructions” (as it were) from the text itself. In effect, they surrender to the text. And now the text can actually begin to work on the reader. This is an entirely different kind of reading and leads to an additive gain in knowledge on the part of the reader. Rather than meeting only themselves in a text (and learning only what they already knew and had categories for), good readers open themselves up to a whole new world. By “receiving” the text a reader actually meets ‘someone else’ (as it were) and thus grow in the process.

All of this is written in Lewis’ classic and beloved, easy style. Taking things ordinarily complex, he makes them simple.  I could not recommend this little gem more highly!

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[I]t has often been observed that the Old Testament historical narratives are complementary to the prophetic writings known as the Latter Prophets, providing the necessary framework to understand them. The design of the history, however, went beyond the merely literary function of providing a background for the interpretation of the prophetic messages. The historical documents were suitable for legal service i the administration of the covenant. They constituted the official record witnessing to Yahweh’s fidelity and to the vassal people’s continual noncompliance with his commandments. In them the prophets had in hand documentary testimony substantiating their case in their mission as agents of Yehweh’s covenant lawsuit against Israel. – Meredith Kline Structure of Biblical Authority, 57.

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Calvin comments on how to read the OT Prophets:

Scripture shows that God’s promises are not established unless they are grasped with the full assurance of conscience. Wherever there is doubt or uncertainty, it pronounces them void. Again, it declares that these promises do nothing but vacillate and waver if they rest upon our own works. Therefore, righteousness must either depart from us or works must not be brought into account, but faith alone must have place, whose nature it is to prick up the ears and close the eyes—that is, to be intent upon the promise alone and to turn thought away from all worth or merit of man. Thus Zechariah’s famous prophecy is fulfilled: when the iniquity of this land will be removed, each man “will invite his friend under his vine and under his fig tree” [Zechariah 3:9-10].

There the prophet implies that believers will not enjoy true peace until they have obtained forgiveness of sins. For we must grasp this analogy in the prophets: when they discuss Christ’s Kingdom, they set forth God’s outward blessings as figures of spiritual goods. Hence Christ is called “King of peace” [Isaiah 9:6] and “our peace” [Ephesians 2:14] because he quiets all agitations of conscience. If we ask the means, we must come to the sacrifice by which God has been appeased. For anyone unconvinced that God is appeased by that one atonement in which Christ endured his wrath will never cease to tremble. In short, we must seek peace for ourselves solely in the anguish of Christ our Redeemer.

Institutes 3.13.4

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