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Hermeneutics and Thiselton, part 2

Further thoughts from the first chapter of Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction.

Thiselton notes three things his students claim to gain from studying hermeneutics:

(1) A different method/approach to reading Biblical texts.  These differences often take the shape of greater listening to the text and a suspicion for the self-interest and agenda that accompanies any reader.

(2) Integration between theology and religion.  Because hermeneutics cannot be categorized simply as “systematic theology,” “philosophy,” or “biblical exegesis” it necessarily brings conversations from these fields into dialogue with one another.

(3) Respect and sympathy for opposing viewpoints.  When the many dimensions of a hermeneutics are analyzed, a reader will be more aware of the different factors that led to the particular interpretation they come to, but also the various interpretations that could also be legitimately arrived at were other choices or factors present along the journey of interpretation.

Thiselton goes on to suggest some differences (again, three) between philosophical hermeneutics (largely represented by the work of Gadamer and Ricoeur) and traditional philosophy (particularly rationalism and empiricism)

(1) Hermeneutics is a more creative discipline, relying on the openness and receptivity of “understanding” rather than a stricter scrutiny involved with “explaining.”

(2) Hermeneutics is (more) interested in exploring questions arising from concrete, on the ground issues, whereas traditional philosophy tends to be more interested in abstractions removed from everyday life.  Here he quotes Gadamer: “The identity of the problem is an empty abstraction…There is no such thing, in fact, as a point outside history from which the identity of a problem can be conceived” (11), and also cites the work of Wittgenstein’s concept of language games (where language can only operate within the established rules of the game, or context, in which they originated).

(3) Cartesian thought begins with doubt (I am thinking, therefore I exist) and “the principle of the empty head” (a phrase attributed to Bernard Lonergan) , where philosophical hermeneutics has instead suggested a starting point of “pre-understanding.”  Thus, there is no “blank slate” in which one can approach understanding and interpretation.

Thiselton closes the first chapter with a description of the hermeneutical spiral, the “process of moving from earlier pre-understanding to fuller understanding, and then returning back to check and to review the need for correction or change in this preliminary understanding….We cannot arrive at a picture of the whole without scrutinizing the parts of pieces, but we cannot tell what the individual pieces mean until we have some sense of the wider picture as a whole” (14).

That closes off chapter one.  More as I have time to keep on reading.


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