Hermeneutics: Theoretical, Practical or ?

Over the past several months, I have listened to Hermeneutics courses – thanks iTunes U, edX, OpenEdX – from multiple universities with various religious affiliations or no affiliation. While each course presented a particular perspective, I found one constant – hermeneutics is taught either in theory or practice.

The theory of hermeneutics, commonly referred to as ‘the art of interpretation’, is usually more philosophical and approaches hermeneutics as a general theory of human understanding. A course will often discuss the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Jacques Derrida. In religious contexts, Anthony Thiselton and/or Stanley Porter regularly serve as guides.

The practice of hermeneutics, also known as ‘exegesis’, is usually a strategic approach that identifies the principles (or a model for) exegesis. In such a course, one would encounter different paradigms of interpretation, such as ‘the fourfold sense of scripture’, historical-critical method, literary criticism, rhetorical criticism, social-scientific criticism, canonical criticism, advocacy criticism, and theological interpretation. In religious contexts, Gordon Fee and/or Michael Gorman are common companions.

Yet, I am puzzled how each of these methods differs from the way earlier generations of Christians approached the issue (not trying to discredit them, each is informative and necessary in own right). For the past week, I have returned to Augustine (On Christian Doctrine), Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis), and Aquinas (Summa Theologiae) and have been constantly struck by their two-fold primary focus of hermeneutics – the centrality of God (the Holy Spirit) and the life of the exegete in understanding. As Clement aptly states, “Almost all of us…have ‘in power’ grasped through faith the teaching about God.” Or consider Augustine’s seven steps to understanding Scripture:

  1. Fear of God – humility
  2. Piety – what is written is better and more true than anything else
  3. Knowledge – begins with understanding sinfulness leading to repentance
  4. Fortitude – a hunger and thirst for justice
  5. Counsel of mercy – exercises love for neighbors
  6. Cleansing – death to the world
  7. Wisdom – “Therefore this holy one will be of such simple and clean heart that he will not turn away from the Truth either in desire to please men or for the sake of avoiding any kind of adversities to himself…From fear to wisdom the way extends through these steps.”

Wisdom is the result of a process, but it a process of transformation not information. The first step towards understanding (or six according to Augustine) is humbly submitting to the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. Then the Holy Spirit who is at work in our lives will also open our eyes to the truth contained in scripture.

I understand to some these are antiquated ideas that can’t be left behind fast enough, but to those in confessional Christian settings:

Do your hermeneutics courses teach about the power of God and the life of the exegete as well as about the philosophy and principles of hermeneutics? If so, what resources do you use? If not, what keeps you from approaching the subject this way?

6 thoughts on “Hermeneutics: Theoretical, Practical or ?

  1. An interesting and thoughtful post. Yes, “transformation not information.” Sacred Scripture is too valuable, too vital, to be merely a case study for literary critics. Through literary criticism one may perhaps obtain knowledge, but never wisdom. God bless!


    1. Paul Fry – Intro to Theory of Literature, Open Yale Courses – oyc.yale.edu/english/engl-300 (best overview of theory I found – especially first four lectures, but whole class is good).

      On practical there is lots of stuff out there just depends on your perspective (Strauss on BiblicalTraining.org gives solid intro but nothing groundbreaking).


  2. Hi Chad,
    Thanks for your helpful perspective. After a couple of months of reflecting on current hermeneutical trends as dispensed by Stanley Porter and Anthony Thiselton and others in the contemporary boat , feeling somewhat pushed towards a philosophical position, and trying to relate this to an M. Div paper on Paul’s hermeneutics in 1 Corinthians , you have crystallized what I have been struggling with. While Paul’s hermeneutic may not always be straight forward i suspect it is more practical than philosophical


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