A Primer to Understanding – Theological Hermeneutics Part 2

Last week I began a series of posts to explore the question of Hermeneutics – the critical reflection on, and methodological practices for, interpretation and meaning. This was spurred on by a reflection on the usage of the term “context” as it is often used within Christian congregations, and in my observation, there are a series of underlying core presuppositions which are brought to the interpreter’s table when one engages in reading the Scriptures. These presuppositions were twofold and inextricable from one another: that the meaning of the Scriptures is best understood by considering the appropriate cultural, social, literary and temporal factors which conditioned the author of the relevant section of Scripture. In other words, one must understand the historical world of the author which is fundamentally responsible for conditioning both the author and the resultant text. In finding out these details as accurately as humanly possible, one appropriately discovers what the author is likely to have meant and thus the normative theological teaching of the text. In essence, the meaning of the Bible is found behind the Bible and is singular in its extent, as it cannot extend past the author’s purview.

The essential claims from my discussion were twofold:

Firstly, that this sort of thinking was rooted in fundamentally false premises, not because the historical investigation is unable to divulge the meaning of the Biblical text, but rather it is insufficient in doing it in and of itself. That is, we cannot limit context to simply be historical as this inevitably removes it in its place as a part of the unified witness of the Bible, and of the Church, to the risen Jesus Christ. The historical-critical method acts as an appropriate starting place, but cannot complete the theological task which is one to be performed by the Church for the Church.

Secondly I also claimed that Protestantism necessarily requires this sort of approach to the Bible in order to support itself, a tearing of the sacred text of the Church from the Church, and relegating it to the realm of history and to the individual. In doing so there are two sorts diverging streams of biblical (and therefore theological) approach to the Bible: the liberalising tendency which adds multi-tiered layers of abstraction upon the biblical text which progressively finds more and more to relegate into the past, and the opposing fundamentalising tendency which views the Bible itself as a clear and easily perceptible history which self-attests to its own truth such that it cannot be misunderstood. Neither of these approaches are necessarily wrong per se; the issue is the foundational guiding principle in each. The former suggests that the locus of meaning is only in the past (and therefore assumes total continuity with it and struggles to bring it into the present) and the latter suggests that the locus of meaning is in the documents themselves (and thus relies on the self-evidence of the attestation of the object itself).

In this post I wish to briefly build upon my argument by briefly elucidating basic hermeneutical principles which have been ubiquitous in Christianity since, at least, the Early Church. In doing so, I wish to build a foundation from which to work so as to eventually address the idea that the Church is the appropriate context for Scriptural interpretation and to critique the aforementioned over-fundamentalising approach to the Bible, which is prominent in many conservative Protestant circles. To do this, we do what many Christians have done over and over again – we turn to St. Augustine.


Augustine, Signs and Words

St. Augustine is considered by many to be perhaps the most influential Church Father, being a canonised saint in both Western and Eastern churches, and understood as the root and source of most Western theological thinking, with both Catholics and Protestants laying responsibility of the foundation (and subsequent development) of their thought upon him. [1] He was undoubtedly a thinker par excellence who has left a vast subsequent intellectual legacy, which has unfortunately been mired in controversy and disagreement between Catholics and Protestants, and between both East and West. [2]

Of relevance to our discussion, however, is Augustine’s hermeneutical theory as it pertains to semiotics – that is, his theorising regarding the notion of signs – and his conception of the internal and spoken word. As a very basic summary of Augustine’s thought, Augustine theorised that a sign

“is a thing, which over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself: as when we see a footprint , we conclude that an animal whose footprint this is has passed by; and when we see smoke, we know that there is a fire beneath; and when we hear the voice of a living man, we think of the feeling in his mind; and when the trumpet sounds, soldiers know that they are to advance or retreat, or do whatever else the state of the battle requires.”

St Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 2.1.1

In essence, a sign is a thing which points to a reality other than itself. To use a modern example, a green light at an intersection is a sign in that it points to the greater reality of allowing your car to pass through the intersection, rather than the reality being in the green light itself. It has meaning beyond that which is immediately there. These signs occur both in nature and by convention – as quoted above, in the case of seeing smoke it naturally signifies the presence of fire. It, in Augustine’s words, “apart from any intention or desire of using them as signs, do yet lead to the knowledge of something else”. Conventional signs, on the other hand, are agreed upon (as suggested in the name) by convention, and “are those which living beings mutually exchange for the purpose of showing, as well as they can, the feelings of their minds, or their perceptions or their thoughts.” In the case of the green traffic light, societies have agreed upon the convention that the green light communicates “go” or “keep going”.

By definition this extends over into language (both verbal and written), as language is inherently a socially determined conventional system of signs to communicate with one another, so that we may share in the life and thought of the communities we exist in. We use certain words and phrases as dictated by various rules, structures and pronunciations which has been, over time, agreed upon by by people prior to us, and by those we live with now, keeping the future in mind. Language is used as a referent, as a sign which points to these greater realities in the service of communication with one another – to convey the thoughts and emotions of one mind to one another. If we explore this further, we subsequently find that the process of communication and interpretation rather complex. At play are four interacting elements:

  1. We have the object we are referring to, say a horse. This is the res
  2. A communicator wishes to discuss a horse (or maybe even a specific horse) – the horse is comprehended by the mind and is reduced to a conceptualisation or thought of the horse contained in the mind. It is not the horse itself, but rather it is the communicator’s concept of the horse. This is the dicible
  3. The communicator then wishes to discuss the horse, and so utters the word “horse” in the sentence, which is the sign agreed upon by convention. This is the verbum.
  4. The listener, upon hearing the word “horse”, constructs in their mind, based upon recognition of their word, the mental image of the horse. This is the dictio.

Summarising this process, what is in effect happening is an attempt to reconstruct symbols in our mind based on symbols expressed to us that are pointing us to symbols that exist another’s mind – not necessarily external objects themselves. [3] To put it as Alexander S. Jensen puts it his textbook on Theological Hermeneutics,

“In simpler terms, language does not refer to things, but to our mental images of things. So when I tell a funny story that happened to me with a horse, the this story, this word, to use Augustine’s terminology, does not refer to the event itself, but to my mental image of the event. So the hearer does not gain knowledge about the event itself, but of my mental image of it. He or she will form a mental image, which is recovered from my narrative.” Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, pg 41

Focusing upon the communicative effort of the speaker/writer, in deploying signs to be interpreted, it must be understood that the dicible is an inner word, a verbum interius and the spoken word, the verbum, is an external word, a verbum exterius. The verbum interius, by nature of being an unspoken, internalised image, is pre-lingual and unarticulated, and by nature of becoming verbum exterius it is transformed into the form of language. It becomes, in a sense, incarnated, and in being incarnated it is limited. In expressing that which has no lingual expression, it becomes a referent to what was a “primordial ooze” of thought and image. Linguistic expression inherently requires limitation of the imagination such that

“our thought which we try to communicate, is contained in our utterance, yet not exhausted in it. The utterance is not the same as the thought, but it is the thought ‘in the manner in which it may be seen or heard through the medium of the body.'”

Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, pg 46 [4]

This means that human expression is inadequate, because we do not, and cannot, capture the entirety of thought, nor can we know all that is within our mind due to memory only recollecting and reconstructing impartial parts and pieces of the whole consciousness. Needless to say, this doctrine of signs and the verbum interius was hugely influential in Christianity for years to come, constituting the effective core of the hermeneutical process, yielding a wealth of insight into the very nature of reading, understanding and interpreting.


The Inner and Outer Word and Fundamentalism

What then, does this have to do with how we read Scripture, and how do my earlier comments regarding a “fundamentalising” approach to scripture relate?

In the wake of the various 17th and 18th century Enlightenment movements,  varying challenges to Christian orthodoxy antagonistically reared their heads, resulting in the uprooting of traditionally held beliefs. René Descartes  famously posited that we could only rely upon a pure rationalism to discern our beliefs – all things which couldn’t be reasoned from first principles couldn’t be trusted, for all things could be doubted except the existence of the mind and its activity (hence his dictum cogito ergo sum – “I think therefore I am”). The bible and all forms of supernaturalism were being discounted as unreliable, immoral, and untrue, whereas logic, reason, science and empiricism were crowned as the new world order.

This wave of anti-christian thought opened the door to fundamentalism, a reactionary movement which was predicated upon the same rationalism and empiricism. The Scottish Enlightenment paved the way to a particular philosophy which became incredibly prevalent with the USA in the 18th/19th centuries, the legacy of which modern Conservative Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism is an inheritor. This philosophy was called Scottish Common Sense Realism, created by Thomas Reid, and it posited that objects were readily accessible and understandable by the mind – that objects were inherently self attesting and self evident.

“He suggested that when we perceive an object, an apple, for instance, then it is not the mental concept that we perceive, but the apple itself. Thus we are aware of real objects directly and without mediation. So when I tell someone of the apple here on the table, then my speech (if I am not deceiving the hearer) refers directly to the apple, and not to my perception of the apple. And a reader who reads my description of the apple has the real situation straight before his or her mental eye.  Reid assumes that this theory of knowledge and the resulting hermeneutics are ‘common sense’ and immediately plausible to the ‘vulgar’, that is, common person… The hermeneutical implications of this philosophy are obvious. In understanding the world there is no problem whatsoever – we understand reality around us without mediation and directly.”

Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, pg 83 – 84

Historically this was combined with combined with a presuppositions of the scientific method, which became embedded into the intellectual life of Princeton University in the 19th century. This has obvious implications for reading the Bible: the Bible is a clear document in and of itself (provided one reads attentively), which refers to real events which are factually, historically and even scientifically correct, from which propositional statements can be derived in order to arrange a systematic theology as to the very nature of Christianity, Sin, Humanity, Angels, Demons and God himself.

Quoting Charles Hodge, Principal of  Princeton Theological Seminary in the 19th century, Jensen writes:

“The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not that of the Church.”

Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, pg 85

This totally undercuts the entire process of understanding which Augustine had insight into in the 4th Century.

“Augustine assumed that in the transition from the inner word to the external word something was lost. Moreover, we recall that Augustine taught that when we think of an object, such as an apple on the table, our thought does not refer to the physical apple, but to the mental concept of the apple. So language and thought on the one hand and reality on the other are, as it were, one removed and not directly linked.”

Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, pg 83


So what?

If we are to do justice to the genius of Augustine’s insights in the 4th century, we must realise that a fundamentalist approach to scripture is simply insufficient insofar as it simply misunderstands the nature of understanding. Whilst it might masquerade as being the truly historically Christian approach to reading the Scriptures, simply “reading the Bible as is”, avoiding all pretense of “interpretation” and attempting to systematise the “propositional truths therein”, it fails in that it forgets that reality is not unmediated by the mind – the mind does not directly perceive reality as is and instead conceptualises it within its own processes and ways of looking at the objects that it happens to behold. Doctrines like the perspicuity of scripture (the notion that Scripture is clear – or at least, in and of itself, sufficiently clear for salvation), upon which Protestantism (and particularly Evangelicalism) rest, are founded on an incorrect presupposition that reality is clear – that God’s words are totally clear, and are not mediated by the mind of the communicator, let alone the mind of the recipient of the communiqué. It misunderstands how we understand, oversimplifying what is a complex process. If it were true, it begs the question as to why the disparate groups who read the plainly clear Bible come to such differing conclusions as to what it says.

Furthermore, there is a another more insidious misunderstanding taking place in that it relies upon a very particular doctrine of inspiration more akin to that which is found in Islam. Islam confesses that its holy scripture is determined by a process of verbal dictation, wherein Mohammad was simply a conduit to be overridden, used, and dominated by Allah to write down the exact words of the Divine as transposed onto his mind. This is not the claim of Christianity in God is not interested in the submission (at any cost) of the human will to his, but the voluntary participation in his life and work. In the creation of the Bible, God is understood to be not interested in overriding human agency but rather in humans using their agency to be co-workers with him. The Bible is not just the word of God but the word of God in and through the words of people. It is simultaneously the product of both Divine and Human authorship where God has inspired humans to write the Scriptures in their uniqueness qua humans. Necessarily speaking, if it is a product of human work, humans being inherently limited and fallible, having the very limitations Augustine outlined in his theologising, it would be fallacious to claim that the Bible is sufficiently self-attesting, in that only a finite conceptual space has been signified with the textual elements on the page, and these textual elements, as we receive them, signify to us things which may not be concomitant with the original textual elements at all.

There are some interesting apologetic ramifications particularly with respect to reading the Bible. A reading of, say, Genesis, which insists upon a literal historicism, or one which requires all of the Bible to be factually correct, and internally consistent, is the product of a rather recent innovation as opposed to an ancient line of Christian thought. Insisting on literal and a self-evidently clear Scripture outside the community of the Church is no more genuinely Christian than insisting that “there is one God and Mohammad is His prophet”. Rather, it is a product of a modern Fundamentalism, which is found in the mindset of not just many Christians but also many non-Christians. In fact, many de-converts from the faith de-convert on the basis of this sort of a reading understanding that this is (apparently) the only legitimate way to correctly read the Bible, not knowing that there are methods, though more complicated, which are better. It consequently means that the insistence upon a “literal” and “non-cherry picked”, “propositional” reading of Scripture is therefore not a good litmus test as to one’s Christian orthodoxy,  let alone even being a good rubric to read Scripture with.

However, there are a few issues still at play here if my initial thesis is to be correct. Remember, the purpose for why I have discussed this present issue is to suggest that a certain type of context is insufficient. The astute reader, however, may notice that it appears that I have made the opposite case in this post. Consider this – if reality is mediated by the signs of the mind, which are communicated by the signs of language, surely shouldn’t we do the best we can to construct the world around the formation of these signs to seek to understand what the language signs themselves could mean, and what the signs within the mind could be pointing to?

That is a good question to which the Reformation and post-Enlightenment traditions have answered a resounding yes without qualification. Lest I undermine my thesis at this stage in the argument let me respond with also a “yes” but one which will need significant qualification. As I have said plenty of times previously, literary and historical context is needed, but we also need the context of the Church. Why is this?

We will continue this discussion part 3 where we will have a brief look at the historical-critical method, the Church’s methods of interpretation over history, and why we need not only and authoritative text, but also an authoritative Church.

[1] This is not to say which groups appropriately represents Augustine and and his thought, or that all of Augustine’s thought is necessarily correct and worth holding onto (my previous blog post re: Calvinism, which is heavily influenced by Augustine’s thought on predestination, reveals my sensitivities and allegiances). That having been said, it is still more than fair to say that Western Christendom in its intellectual heritage points to him as one of, if not the primary influence in their theological thought.

[2] It is not the purpose of this post to delve into the extent of the differences between Eastern and Western branches of the Church due to Augustine. Suffice it to say, it appears to this author that a significant number of the differences that have come about, as it is often the case with historical thinkers and their subsequent followers, appear to be due to Augustinian interpreters (in the sense of readers of Augustine, not the Order of St Augustine of the Catholic Church) rather than Augustine himself.

[3] Not to mention that people’s conceptions of the concepts, as they communicate from one to another, aren’t the same. That is, the same horse conceptualised in my head is not necessarily the same as the same horse that is conceptualised in yours. This is touched on by the existentialists in later philosophy, where they recognised that mental images are not merely images of events and experiences, but interpretations of events and experiences as they are lived in.

[4] As a side note, this is a significant revelation for Christian theology particularly as it pertains to the Trinity. Humans, being limited, find their inner and outer word as limited, not having full consciousness of their own memory, thought (there is that which is subconscious to them) – their internal word does not present their own mind before themselves, and thus they cannot fully express themselves. God, however, being omniscient, is fully and perfectly self-conscious, knowing all of his own thoughts, having his own mind ever present to himself. God’s own mind is contains his whole mind – his mind is that which is himself – and this inner self can be perfectly expressed in outer self. This is the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son – that God’s own self knowledge is an entire knowledge of himself such that it contains the mind of God. God’s mind is God – it is the Word of God, who then was perfectly expressed in outer word by becoming man in the incarnation. The God man, Jesus Christ.


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