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The Hermeneutical Circle

18 Jan

[Part 4 in our series on Hermeneutics]

Previously we talked about the hermeneutical spiral — an inductive process for examining a passage, going from text to context.  Today, I want to talk about the hemeneutical circle — a deductive approach that helps keep the spiral in check.

Here is how David Jasper describes the hermeneutical circle in his book A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics:

The Bible is the origin and primary source of Christian doctrine and the belief of the church. At the same time, this very belief, known as the apostolic tradition, is the ‘canon of truth,’ which regulates our proper reading of Scripture. In other words, Scripture provides the rule by which the interpretation of Scripture is tested… But which comes first — text or interpretation? The answer is neither and both. The German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleirmacher, often known as the father of modern hermeneutics… described this circularity of the hermeneutic process in this way:  In order to gain an overview of the text in its completeness, we must give proper attention to the details and particulars. But we cannot appreciate the significance of these details and particulars without a sense of the whole work. We begin with the big idea, read the text clearly and in detail in light of this, and then use the text to substantiate the original idea.

Interpretation, therefore, is not a process along a linear trajectory from ignorance to understanding via the medium of the text…

The reading process, in its varied forms, does not provide us with any final conclusion (except, perhaps, when we finally come to rest at the end of all things in God) but an endless stimulation to further inquiry and conversation. And as German philosopher Martin Heidegger once remarked, what is important is not how we get out of the hermeneutic circle (which arguably, is impossible anyway), but how we initially get in.  In other words, what idea do you start with…?

There are a couple of really big and important concepts packed in there. The biggest is that scripture is internally consistent and can be used to interpret itself.  The Bible is not merely 66 different books combined in a canonic library, but rather a cohesive story and narrative with a dominant big idea.  Understanding the “big idea” or narrative is critical to proper interpretation and application of scripture.  Without it, we are mere academics — or worse, Pharisees.

Friday I will begin to explore what the “big idea” of the narrative is and what difference it makes.  In the meantime, what are your thoughts about “the circle”? 

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One response to “The Hermeneutical Circle

  1. Ben D.

    January 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    <p>Nancy… you are correct I think. Knowing many Orthodox Jews and having spent time living in an Orthodox community in Israel (where, as part of the lease agreement for the apartment, you had to agree to a whole list of sabbath rules) it is true that you can come up with the list… and keep it.</p><p>The problem is that in the obsession with the details and "what ifs", they miss the point of what real rest looks like. </p><p>In our day, with different issues (we generally don’t care about sabbath and rest anymore… even though it is in the Top 10 and is part of creation order, not just Torah law) we also make lists — and then miss the Big Idea.</p>

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