Is the past real?

Another set of quotes from my PhD research. Last week I looked at Paul’s gospel, this week I’m going a different direction by looking at different views of the past.

Time is one of the key concepts in my thesis. In studying time, I have found just about every concept is debated so for the fun of it here is a sampling of different views of the past.*

Heideggerthe deep unity of time as future, past, and present…the backward move toward the past is retrieved in the anticipation of a present, therefore, in a being’s move toward death retrospection is reconnected to anticipation and anticipation is rooted in retrospection. (Ricoeur speaks of this view of Heidegger as he explains the becoming of being as the extension of life both backward and forward)

Richard Lehan – “…you cannot buy back the past, cannot realize ideals located in the past. The past is not a stable, solid block of meaning to which one can return at will. Present reality transforms the past. Because the past is constantly emptied of meaning – ‘you cannot go home again’…To seek meaning in the past is to seek it in a realm that will never be the same again.”

Aneesha Dharwadker – “The past dictates what we know, the very core of our existence…Menard defines history not as delving into reality but as the very fount of reality…The past changes the present as much as the present changes the past.”

Northrop Frye – “In our ordinary sense of time we have to grapple with 3 dimensions, all of the unreal: a past that is no longer, a future that is not yet, and a present that is never quite…but the centre of all time is ‘now.'”

Udo Schnelle – The past is available to us exclusively through present interpretations. In other words, history is not simply reconstructed but necessarily constructed as interpretation invents the past as we now see it by giving it a structure it did not previously have. Thus, the past exists only when it is brought into meaningful relationship with the present.

Augustine – “No time is wholly present…All past time is driven backwards by the future, all future time is the consequent of the past, and all past and future are created and set on their course by that which is always present.”


*Italics are summaries, “…” are quotes.




Blogging – Gadamer, Heidegger, Wittgenstein

I am currently moving back through the hermeneutics portion of my dissertation and so re-reading several influential works of the 20th Century (or in case of Heidegger reading the whole thing for first time). Currently reading:

I have entertained the thought of blogging through one of these books. It could help me as I would have to digest the material in a different way, and offer chance for others to tell me what I get wrong (these are not easy reads!). It could also be of interest, even useful, for others doing biblical studies because these works are so influential in the ways we read and understand.

Would anyone be interested in working through one of these books together in March and April? Which of these books would interest you the most?

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?